I am usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of traveller. Travel plans are frequently more travel actions that manifest once I’m on location.
However, in my recent trip to Bali and beyond, I booked virtually everything in advanced. It was a belated birthday present to myself and I wanted to do it all in the three weeks I had for the vacation.
So, what are my thoughts on the pros and cons of booking in advance versus seeking out opportunities once I’m there? I will illustrate it with an example from the trip that vividly brought out the benefits and disadvantages for me.
If “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” a quote usually attributed to the brilliant scientist Albert Einstein, I was going completely bonkers. I stomped back and forth the Labuan Bajo Airport waiting room, constantly looking outside through the large windows to the landing area with an intense gaze as if I could will a plane into existence.
We were on our way from Flores Island to Lombok Island, which a connection in Bali Island since there were no direct flights. When I booked the travel plan, I wondered what I would do with the 4-hour layover in Bali Airport. Then, they announced that the flight was delayed for two hours. Without further announcements, we kept learning that the flight was delayed later and later as the plane did not appear. Finally, it came but by then, we only had an hour to get to Bali when it was an hour and a half flight plus going through the airport. Even if we made it, would our bags and the hiking gear we brought also make it to our next flight?
My stress came from pre-booked and pre-paid plans. We had to make that flight to Lombok Island because we had a driver already arranged to pick us up at the airport and then drive 3.5 hours to the small village of Senaru where we would begin a 4 day trek up Mt Rinjani early the next morning! Tours were booked and paid for, porters and guides hired and provisions already arranged. Even if we could have delayed the trek, I had already booked the next flight from Lombok back to Bali and the hotel we would be staying at.
If travel plans were not already booked, I wouldn’t have cared in the least about a few extra hours at an airport. Transport got delayed. It happens. However, since plans had been booked, it was quite a stressful situation. As the minutes ticked away, I could vividly see my plans falling apart. Beyond money lost, I dreamed of summiting Rinjani and the dream was fading away.
After our flight from Flores Island to Bali finally came, we still had the next challenge of catching out next flight to Lombok Island. At the transfer desk at Bali Airport, I quickly ran infront of everyone and frantically shouted, “Our plane is about to leave!” while waving our boarding passes. Staff quickly stamped our boarding passes and we ran to the gate. As luck would have it, the next plan was also late and we had 5 minutes to spare.
Everything worked out. Our driver with a Green Rinjani sign was waiting outside the Lombok Airport. We stopped by the office to get briefed and then were taken to the hotel. In the morning, we started the trek and 24 hours later, we were exhausted and exhilarated looking at the world from the top of Rinjani summit. I felt like we had the best guide, porters, equipment and food than everyone else doing the trek. After the trek, we were driven back to the airport and flew to Bali.
Because I had researched and booked everything beforehand, we had secured a spot with a good trekking company. We had met some other girls on the trail that said that they tried to book with Green Rinjani but the day that they wanted was full so they went with other company and really suffered. I had paid everything in advance, which got me a nice discount and money was never mentioned during the tour except that we rented some trekking poles and tips. It was really nice not to have to worry about anything because it was already arranged.
The changing face of budget travel
In over a decade of travel, I am amazed by how the field has changed. I remember when I first started travelling of popping into internet cafes about once every few weeks to send a quick email to family back home that I was still alive and having a good time. We didn’t send pictures because internet was often too slow for that. Lonely Planet guides were a traveller’s Bible but even the most detailed guidebook left out stuff. With hotels, restaurants and tour companies coming in and out of business faster than a guide can be revised and published, we knew there was always more off the pages. Now, there is Tripadvisor and every traveller can be a travel writer and post reviews.
There will always be unconnected establishments but those are getting fewer. Instead of running around Senaru talking to the different trekking companies, I read reviews from hundreds of travellers from my couch in Canada. We can now research a trip from abroad in a way that was impossible a decade ago. As an independent traveller, it is now more possible to book budget trips in advance whereas I felt in the past that only expensive tours could be booked online and were trustworthy enough to do so.
To book or not to book, that is the question
A large part of the benefits of booking in advance is not wasting time arranging things while on location. Many things were paid in advance we didn’t have to worry about it in the travels themselves and we paid off the bills over the span of 6 months, which made costs easier to manage. We got highly recommended hotels and tour companies and there was an ease to travelling that I never had before.
However, as the example of the late flight reminds me, carefully laid plans can easily fall apart. In each location, I wished we had more time as we heard about different things to do. Something I learned while travelling is that the faster you travel, the more time you spend in transit and the more expensive the total trip is. More time is spent doing tours and etc that cost money rather than walking around and exploring. Also, by the end of the three weeks, I was completely exhausted. We had did so much that I had a hard time motivating myself outside our hotel room in our last three days in Legian in Bali.
Both booking or not booking in advance has their advantages and disadvantages and it really depends on the type of trip you are going on. Building in some flexibility is always good as travel plans get delayed or fall through. However, booking in advance is most beneficial for shorter trips when you really want to pack things in.
That being said, the experience walking from one hotel to another with hot baking sun with our backpacks on our back and finding all the good ones full has taught me that I may very well be booking hotels in advance from now on!