By Rick Steves
Thinking back on my vagabonding days reminds me of the fun of tossing the schedule and living in the moment. There's nothing more liberating than stepping onto a platform, realizing the train on track 6 is going to Hamburg and the train on track 7 is Copenhagen-bound…and you're free to go where the spirit moves you. Or to be tired of the rain in Munich, hop on a train, and a couple of hours later be on the other side of the Alps in hot and sunny Italy.
To leave room for this kind of spontaneity, book your lodging as you go. This works best when there's relatively little demand for rooms (outside high season, or in less-crowded destinations).
To ease your entry into Europe, I advise booking in advance for the first few nights, as finding a room when jet-lagged can be stressful. After that, you can book your next hotel once you know where you're going and when you'll arrive. Nail down a place in the morning so you know where you'll sleep that night; you'll spend your day sightseeing and traveling relaxed, knowing a room is waiting for you. (One tactic that can work well for longer stays: Book just the first night or two before arriving, then use some of your first day to explore lodging options for the rest of your visit.)
Besides the usual channels for finding a room, some booking sites — such as HotelTonight — specialize in last-minute rooms. You can also ask your current hosts to recommend accommodations at your next destination. They may even be willing to call around to see what's available. A good time to contact the next hotel is around 9 or 10 a.m., when the receptionist knows who'll be checking out and which rooms will be available.
If you show up in a new town with no reservations, your approach to room-finding will be determined by whether it's a buyer's or seller's market. These trends can be obvious (a beach resort will be crowded in summer, empty in winter). 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.
I'll never forget struggling off the plane on my arrival on a Greek island. Fifteen women were begging me to spend the night. Thrilled, I made a snap decision and followed the most attractive offer to a very nice budget accommodation.
If you do find yourself in a new place without a reservation, keep the following advice in mind.
Shop around. It's worth 20 minutes of poking your head into a few different hotels to see which of your options feels like the best value. Never judge a hotel by its exterior or lobby: Lavish interiors with shabby exteriors are a cultural trait of Europe.
Consider hotel runners. As you step off the train (or bus, or ferry), you may be met by guesthouse runners wielding pictures of their rooms for rent. If you like the look of what they're promising, agree to see the room — you're under no obligation to take it. But establish the location very clearly (some otherwise-good options can be miserably far from the center).
View a room before accepting it. Think about heat, noise, and general comfort level. If you don't like what you see, ask to see another room. Or point out any negative attributes — the price may come down. If the room's no good, just leave.
Use room-finding services as a last resort. Popular tourist cities usually have a room-finding service at the train station or tourist information office. For a small fee, they can probably get you a room in the price range and neighborhood of your choice. These services normally make no judgments about hotel quality or value, so what you get is potluck. They'll recommend places that have paid for the service, but fail to mention cheaper options.
Ask hoteliers to help. Nobody knows the hotel scene better than hotel managers do. If one place doesn't have a vacant room, ask for tips on where else to look. They're usually happy to phone a friend's place for you. The priciest hotels have English-speaking staff willing to help out the polite traveler in search of a cheap room.
Follow taxi tips. One way to find a place in a tough situation is to let a cabbie take you to his favorite hotel.
If all else fails, leave the trouble zone. If you simply cannot find a vacancy, head away from the trouble zone. 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 off 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 p.m., ask for a bed, and he'll say, "Head to the third floor — the keys are in the doors." The rooms are dingy, and probably not a great value…but you've got a bed. It always works. Oktoberfest, Cannes Film Festival, St-Tropez Running of the Girls, Easter at Lourdes — your bed awaits in nearby Dullsdorf.