By Rick Steves
While most travelers prefer to nail down room reservations long in advance, you can blow like the wind freely through Europe if you want, finding beds on the fly.
Your approach to room-finding will be determined by whether it's a "buyer's market" or a "seller's market" — based on the current demand. These trends can be obvious (a beach resort will be crowded in summer, empty in winter); in other cases, a guidebook or local tourist information office can tip you off. Sometimes you can arrive late, be selective, and even talk down the price. Other times you'll happily accept anything with a pillow and a blanket.
These tricks work for me:
Travel with a good list of hotels. Even the most footloose and fancy-free traveler shouldn't totally wing it. Bring along a good guidebook so you at least have a sense of your options (and the general price range in town) when you begin your search.
The early bird gets the room. If you anticipate crowds (weekends are worst), go to great lengths to arrive in the morning when the most — and best — rooms are available. For instance, I would leave Florence at 7 a.m. to arrive in popular, crowded Venice early enough to get a decent choice of rooms. If the rooms aren't ready until noon, take one anyway. Leave your luggage behind the desk; you can relax and enjoy the city, then move in later. Consider the advantage of overnight train rides — you'll arrive, if not bright, at least early.
Shop around. When going door-to-door, the first place you check is rarely the best. It's worth 20 minutes of shopping around to find the going rate before you accept a room. You'll be surprised how prices vary as you walk farther from the station or down a street strewn with B&Bs. Never judge a hotel by its exterior or lobby. Lavish interiors with shabby exteriors are a cultural trait of Europe (blame the landlord who's stuck with rent control and therefore doesn't invest in fixing it up, not the hotel). If you're traveling with a companion, one of you can watch the bags over a cup of coffee while the other runs around.
Ask to see the room before accepting. Then the receptionist knows the room must pass your inspection. He'll have to earn your business. Notice the bellhop is given two keys. You asked for only one room. He's instructed to show the room that's harder to rent first. It's only natural for the hotel receptionist to try to unload the most difficult-to-sell room on the easiest-to-please traveler. Somebody has to sleep in it. If you ask to see both rooms, you'll get the better one. When you check out a room, point out anything that deserves displeasure. The price may come down, or they may show you a better room. Think about heat and noise. Some towns never quiet down. I'll climb a few stairs to reach cheaper rooms higher off the noisy road. A room in back may lack a view, but at least you'll sleep in peace.
Consider hotel runners. As you step off the bus or train, you'll sometimes be met by hotel and B&B runners wielding pictures of their rooms for rent. My gut reaction is to steer clear, but these people are usually just hardworking entrepreneurs who lack the location or write-up in a popular guidebook that can make life easy for a small hotel or B&B owner. If you like the guy and what he promises, and his rooms aren't too far away, follow him to take a look. You are obliged only to inspect the room. If it's good, take it. If it's not, leave. You're probably near other budget accommodations anyway. Before setting out, establish the location very clearly, as some of these people have good places located miserably far out of town. Especially in Eastern Europe, room hawkers might not be affiliated with a hotel at all; they're simply renting out vacant rooms in their own homes. If nothing else, taking the room for a night is an easy way to buy more time to seek out an even better option for the remainder of your stay.
Use room-finding services only if necessary. Popular tourist cities usually have a room-finding service at the train station or tourist information office. They have a listing of that town's "acceptable" available accommodations. For a fee of a few dollars, they'll get you a room in the price range and neighborhood of your choice. Especially in a big city, the service can be worth the price to avoid the search on foot.
But I generally avoid room-finding services unless I have no listings or information of my own. Their hotel lists normally make no judgments about quality, so what you get is potluck. The stakes are too high for this to be acceptable. Remember the exception: In certain northern European cities — such as Brussels and some Scandinavian capitals — room-booking services can sometimes land you a deeply discounted room in an upscale business-class hotel.
Since most room-finding services profit from taking a "deposit" that they pocket, hotel managers may tell the room-finding service they're full when they aren't. These places know they'll fill up with travelers coming direct, allowing the hotelier to keep 100 percent of the room cost.
In recent years, many tourist information offices have lost their government funding and are now privately owned. This creates the absurdity of a profit-seeking tourist information "service." Their previously reliable advice is now colored with a need to make a kickback. Some room-finding services work for a group of supporting hotels. Only if you insist will you get information on cheap sleeping options such as dormitories or hostels. And beware: Many offices labeled "tourist information" are just travel agencies and room-booking services in disguise.
Follow taxi tips. A great way to find a place in a tough situation is to let a cabbie take you to his favorite hotel. They are experts.
Let hotel managers help. Have your current hotelier call ahead to make a reservation at your next destination. If you're in a town and having trouble finding a room, remember that nobody knows the hotel scene better than hotel managers do. If one place doesn't have a vacant room, the manager often has a list of neighborhood accommodations or will even telephone a friend's place around the corner. If the hotel is too expensive, there's nothing wrong with asking where you can find a budget place. The priciest hotels have the best city maps (free, often with other hotels listed) and an English-speaking staff who can give advice to the polite traveler in search of a cheap room. I find hotel receptionists to be understanding and helpful.
Leave the trouble zone. If the room situation is impossible, don't struggle — just leave. An hour by car, train, or bus from the most miserable hotel situation anywhere in Europe is a town — Dullsdorf or Nothingston — with the Dullsdorf Gasthaus or the Nothingston Inn just across the street from the station or right on the main square. It's not full — never has been, never will be. There's a guy sleeping behind the reception desk. Drop in at 11:00 p.m., ask for 14 beds, and he'll say, "Take the second and third floors — the keys are in the doors." It always works. Oktoberfest, Cannes Film Festival, St-Tropez Running of the Girls, Easter at Lourdes — your bed awaits in nearby Dullsdorf. If you anticipate trouble finding a room, consider staying at the last train stop before the crowded city.