Traveling has been our lifestyle for two decades.
Recently we took nearly four months to journey through the Pacific coast of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and parts of the Yucatan.
From the outset we knew that covering this amount of distance over land in three months would – for us – be a rushed trip. There were a lot of miles to cover and we wanted to make the stops worthwhile. Our travel style is to meander; to find the out-of-the-way restaurants, the unusual hill tribe, the hidden story in a city or town. We are travelers, not tourists, and there is a world of difference in approach.
Readers often ask us how we schedule our trips, and what methods we use to find hotel rooms along our journey. Our practical answers to these excellent questions are below.
Make a skeleton plan
Billy and I sat down with maps opened to the vast area of land we wanted to explore. Each of us pointed to areas that held significance or allure, and while Billy had been to Guatemala previously, I had never been to these other foreign countries or states within Mexico before. Everything would be new and exciting.
Cities that enticed, long stretches of beaches that lured us, and places along country borders where it was wisest to cross to get visas and our passports stamped were noted. This was the skeleton plan. If a place didn’t meet expectations or if we hit an unpleasant weather pattern, our tried-and-tested system meant that we would move on. Visas in general didn’t seem to be a problem with these destinations as Guatemala offers a 90 day visa and Belize, 30 days upon arrival.
Filling in the blanks
Now that we had the framework for our trip, we researched the in-between places looking for exotic, exciting, new, out-of-the-way, not very touristy places to fill in the gaps. It is our practice to travel during the week instead of the weekend, which generally finds hotels booked, and to arrive early in the day. We like to be settled in at a particular location, staying put through any holidays, both a day before and after. To be on the road, looking for hotels during these busy tourist-traveled times puts us at a disadvantage.
By dividing up the bus trips into manageable distances, usually no more than six hours, allows us to arrive at our destination early and to be fresh so we can explore enough of the unfamiliar area to get our bearings. Arriving late in the evening, tired, hungry and disoriented is not our style. It happens from time to time but we do try to avoid this circumstance.
The Hotel Hunt
Depending on the time of year, the size of the city or town we are visiting, or if there are holidays being celebrated during our travel periods, we utilize any of the following methods to find a respectable hotel room.
1. Use guide books and guide book sites.
The Lonely Planet and The Rough Guides are two book series we have utilized for years. Because each has different approaches to countries and emphasizes different points, we like to use them in tandem when we travel.
These books are published by topic of country and they, along with their respective websites, give lots of information about local customs, visa requirements, bus routes, city maps and hotel room suggestions. From these books and sites we make a list of hotel names and street numbers before we arrive in a new location, with notes of an area and several listed suggestions all close by. Upon arriving to our destination, at the bus terminal we decide to either walk to this chosen area or take a taxi depending on the distance involved.
If we use a taxi, we take advantage of the information that he can provide to us. We ask him: How is business? Are there a lot of tourists in town now? If he says it has been slow, or that this hasn’t been a very tourist-trafficked time, we then use this information to our advantage when bargaining for the price of our hotel room. Conversely, if he says business has been brisk, we realize that our bargain power might be diminished.
2. Go immediately to the Central Plaza.
Guide books – especially when you are traveling to several countries on one trip – can tend to add serious weight and take up lots of space in your backpack. Another way to find hotel rooms in most Latin American cities or towns is to immediately go to the Central Plaza. Ninety percent of the time there are hotels situated all around the Plaza or on the nearby streets. Do not be afraid to ask locals whom you may encounter for a suggestion. Most people are pleased to help you to enjoy their town.
Normally Billy stays at the Plaza with the luggage while I go scouting around looking for hotel rooms. If I do not come in to the hotel loaded down with all our gear, the hotel staff won’t know that we might be tired or needy, and it’s easier to negotiate a good price. Over the years we have learned that if I pick out the room, Billy is generally pleased with it, and fussing between us is minimized.
Upon entering a possible hotel option, I like to take one of their business cards right away to make notes on the back. I let them know I want to see a double room and ask what the prices are. While the desk clerk is taking me to the room I also inquire if there is a promotion running to obtain a better price, if internet service, drinking water or breakfast is included, if cable TV is available and of course, if they have hot water for the showers. I always check the beds for firmness, the bathrooms for cleanliness, and ask to see a room with a view. I try to see more than one room whenever possible.
If I am interested in a particular room, after returning to the desk I will inquire if they give discounts for 2 or 3 nights’ stay. Sometimes I will request what they charge
for a week or a month, and I take all these notes on the back of the business card. I then let the clerk know that I must speak with my husband first before we decide.
When I meet with Billy at the Plaza after seeing several rooms at different hotels, I no longer have to remember so much about them because the address is on the front of the business card and all my information is on the back – everything we need to make our decision. If we ever return to this town again, we then have these notes as a starting point for future stays.
3. Other travelers are in the know.
It is inevitable when journeying to meet up with other. This exchange is invaluable on many points as the guide books can be outdated or wrong. Fellow adventurers can tell you about restaurants, ruins, museums, trekking, and of course, hotels. The best part of this sharing is that it is first-hand travelers who just might have pertinent information for you and vice versa information from someone who has been there themselves and who are not making a commission on what they share. They can tell you what to avoid, what to be sure not to miss, and the prices and addresses of places to stay.
In turn, the inside scoop that you have on your previous locations could be just what they are looking for. Generosity between travelers is legendary.
4. Internet search
These days the internet is a treasure for those on the road. You can research current weather patterns, get recent maps of a location, obtain bus schedules, verify hotel addresses and, if necessary, make reservations.
Generally speaking, if the hotel has enough wherewithal to have a website and goes through an agent for reservations, they will be charging you more to cover these fees and for the convenience they are offering. If you are expecting to arrive late in the evening, during a holiday period, or even on a weekend, sometimes it is helpful to utilize these internet reservation sites. You can arrange to be picked up at the airport or bus station, find out if breakfast is included in the price of the room, or take advantage of package deals ahead of time.
However, one cannot negotiate room price via email. More than likely you will need to use a credit card and this choice will leave you open to be dinged with the not-very-favorable currency exchange rate. Sometimes there are fees applied for credit card usage by the hotels in foreign countries and that will affect the price as well. Always be sure that the website is secured if you use your credit card to purchase reservations; look for the little lock at the top of the page. When you choose a room online, you are making the assumption that you will enjoy your room and location via the photographs posted on the hotel’s website. If you arrive and happen to not like your room and choose to move to another hotel after a day or two, many times you will have to pay a charge to cancel your reservation.
Computer placed reservations have their place and can be most convenient, however you might never know about the quiet, gem-of-a-place just a few doors down because they don’t advertise on the internet.
I cannot tell you how many times we have walked into a hotel, bargained for a terrific price due to several nights’ stay and found posted on our bedroom door that the internet asking price was almost double of what we were paying. Our advice is to be aware of the financial exchange you are making for the emotional comfort of having a reservation. Sometimes that exchange isn’t important and if you are comfortable with that, then there is no problem.
In general, travel encourages us to grow personally. It develops self-reliance, flexibility and boosts a sense of adventure to an otherwise ordinary lifestyle. As we demonstrated in our piece Exotic Travel on $53 a Day travel does not have to cost you any more than staying at home.
What are you waiting for?
About the authors: Billy and Akaisha Kaderli left their fast-track lives at the age of 38 and started traveling the world. After two decades of on-the-road-experience, they share how you, too, can enjoy exotic travel for less than you think. To learn more about world travel and how to become financially independent, visit their website, www.RetireEarlyLifestyle.com