To Reserve or Not to Reserve?

Woman at reception desk in Coimbra, Portugal
By Rick Steves

Every Europe-bound traveler has to make a decision: Am I willing to sacrifice spontaneity for the comfort of knowing exactly where I'll sleep each night? Decide which of the following scenarios best suits your style.

Want maximum choice and peace of mind? Book far in advance. Most travelers find that it's worth booking ahead to get into the most popular, best-value hotels. In fact, lately I've been getting aced out by my own readers at my favorite accommodations. So when I want to be certain to get my first choice, I reserve several weeks (or even months) in advance. For peak-season travel, on national holidays and during big festivals, and when visiting big, popular cities (such as London, Paris, Madrid, Venice, and so on), I make my reservations as soon as I can pin down a date.

Happy with a mix of predictability and flexibility? Call ahead as you travel. If you don't want to book everything far in advance, but also don't want to simply show up without a room, calling a day or two ahead while on the road can be a good compromise. This works best when there's relatively little demand for rooms (in shoulder or off-season, or in less-crowded places). In these situations, my standard room-finding tactic is to telephone in the morning to reserve my room for that night. I travel relaxed, knowing a good place is holding a room for me.

Prefer maximum spontaneity? Find rooms as you travel. There's nothing more liberating than choosing which town to visit only when you step onto the rail platform, or veering off course from your itinerary just to get away from the clouds or crowds. But doing this makes it less likely you'll find a room that matches your budget and priorities. Even those who generally skip reservations should at least reserve their arrival night in Europe (as jet-lagged room-finding can be stressful).