It's my ultimate travel nightmare — arriving in a busy location at 2pm to discover that the hotel room booking never came through. What's the best way to deal with that issue?
Picture by Jeremy Brooks
I pride myself on being stupidly, even obsessively, organised when I travel, so showing up in a hotel and being told I've got no booking simultaneously makes me feel stupid, angry and frightened. But that's what happened last week when I got to Cheltenham, where I was covering the Times Cheltenham Literature Festival as part of our Book Week coverage. Despite having made a booking via an online service months ago, the receptionist apologetically explained that there was no record in the system. A bit of investigation showed that the booking had gone in for an entirely different date. And there were no vacancies — no big surprise given the huge crowds that show up each year for the festival.
While I'll follow up on trying to find out what happened with the booking, the immediate priority last week was to find room for myself (and the family and friends travelling with me — as a solo traveller, I'd probably have had more options, and certainly less requirements to meet). By what still seems to me like a minor miracle, I did manage to score a room within 30 minutes, which met most of my needs and didn't actually cost much more than the original deal (huge props to the Big Sleep Hotel). I don't want to claim that a huge dose of luck wasn't involved there, but there were some core principles I followed that are useful if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Don't get mad, get searching
While discovering that you're in a strange city with no roof over your head is disturbing to say the least, yelling at the person behind the desk is a really bad idea. For one thing, it's unlikely to be their fault directly. For another, getting them annoyed won't help you find a room. The receptionist where my booking wasn't took my phone number and promised to ring me if there were any cancellations or no-shows, which is more useful than the brief catharsis of screaming a lot.
Get online to find options
While my hotel staffer recommended hitting the local tourist information office to find vacancies, I elected to pass on that in favour of looking online in the first instance. The tourist office staff were very helpful, I discovered later in the week, but in practice online information tells you much more about a hotel in the first instance. If I hadn't had my laptop and a 3G dongle with me, I'd have gone hunting for a net cafe quick smart.
Last-minute booking takes on a different dimension when you're trying to book a room on the day of travel. Many sites actually won't let you search for the same day once you've passed a certain point in the afternoon. In that case, my strategy was to search for vacancies for the two following nights, figuring I'd then contact the relevant hotels directly to see if they could also do the immediate night. (In the end, I actually found a suitable hotel a block away, and went there on foot rather than confusing the staff on the phone.)
You also need to be flexible in your thoughts. I wanted a room in Cheltenham, but was prepared to consider Gloucester, the next town on the train line. And if need be, I was prepared to stay in a different venue each night, though that didn't prove necessary in the long run.
Don't let panic blind you to the details
When you need a room in a hurry, it's tempting to follow up on anything that sounds vaguely promising, without having proper regard for costs or facilities. As time flew by, I'm sure I'd have got less fussy, but I still figured it made sense to spend time searching until something that met my price and other requirements showed up.
Had your own nightmare booking scenario? Tell us how you resolved it in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is going to double-check his next few bookings like you wouldn't believe. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.