Hostel reservations are something I’ve gone back and forth on several times in my travels. At one point I didn’t want to support booking websites instead of hostels themselves by making hostel reservations in advance. Six hours walking around Prague in 42° weather finding that the first eighteen hostels were fully booked changed that.
Toward the beginning of my travels, I was seeing signs in hostels to make a reservation directly with the hostel and not a booking site. At the time I didn’t question this and simply followed the advice, either booking ahead on the hostel’s own website or, more commonly, being a walk-in and paying at the door. More than one hostel (Chilli Hostel in Prague and Lub-D in Bangkok, for example) told me to book on-line after I arrived as it would save me money. In Kuala Lumpur, the hostel I stayed at charged nearly double at the door what it cost to book on-line.
The biggest advantage of booking sites is to compare user reviews and amenities between hostels. In a city like Budapest where there are well over 100 hostels ranging from €5 to €100 a night, it’s not easy to just show up and find exactly what you’re looking for at the first hostel. If you’re looking for something specific, like a dorm with AC (desperately needed but impossible to find last summer in Vienna) or a full kitchen (hardly any hostel in Albania has one), booking websites will save you a lot of time researching.
Booking sites help you find the hostel with maps and directions. In towns like Timisoara, Romania or Kaunas, Lithuania where there are only three or four hostels, I can understand why they wouldn’t need the extra marketing of a booking site. But Downtown Hostel in Timisoara, Romania has no signage outside, and the locals don’t even know where it is. I only found it because the owner of the hostel I stayed at brought another two guests to Downtown when their hostel was fully booked and I tagged along. Sure, you can always use Google Maps to find your hostel, but the three hostels in Kaunas were fully booked when I checked in the off-season!
As I learned the hard way, the biggest disadvantage to not making hostel reservations is finding that the hostel you want, or every hostel in town, is fully booked. In Timisoara, I walked in and got the last bed available in one of the four hostels. Sometimes you don’t have to worry about hostels being fully booked in the off-season, but not always. Especially when you’re unaware of a local holiday or event. In Chiang Mai, where the several hundred hostels and guest houses are almost empty during the hotter months, every single bed in town is full for the Loi Krathong Festival in November.
After a few months of avoiding booking sites and just giving money directly to hostels, I decided to do my own research. What I found was surprising. First of all, it’s true that hostels have to pay booking companies a commission for every room booked through the site. The commission is usually around 10-25%. What’s more, a post I read said that some of those booking sites have clauses that prevent hostels from advertising a cheaper price on the hostel’s own website. So far, I’ve yet to find an instance which disproves this fact.
So the question is: should you support the hostel by booking directly, or have them pay a commission to a booking site you use for hostel reservations?
The way I see it, hostels are paying commissions for promotion on the booking site. If they have a good rating, they are far more likely to have more customers. I would personally never search through a bunch of individual hostel websites to pick the one I wanted. I only sometimes check their own website after seeing their ratings and reviews on a booking site. And since most travelers use booking sites in lieu of searching individual hostel websites, it behooves the hostels to have that promotion!
My recommendation is to always do an initial search on a booking site before making hostel reservations. If you see that the town only has a couple hostels, and they don’t say there are only a couple beds left, you are probably safe to just show up and pay directly, as long as you can get the same price offered on the booking site. You can always then check the hostel’s website, if they have one, to see if they offer a better price than the booking site. If the price is cheaper or the same, definitely book directly with the hostel. There just is no easy answer for what you should always do, beyond always doing a little research on the booking sites to see what your best option is. I’m all for the adventure of showing up with no planning and hoping the hostels are available and comfortable. My adventure in Prague was an adventure I don’t relish having again.
Of course, I admit I also have a small vested interest in your using the booking site Agoda.com to make hostel reservations, primarily for SE Asia. If you use the links or ads anywhere in my blog for Agoda, you can save up to 80% on your room, and I will get a small commission for each night you book.