Here’s how to travel without a confirmed reservation for almost anything, including—wait for it—a flight. It really wasn’t so bad, except the one time we got dumped off the side of the road. (Explanation coming.)
There are advantages of traveling with a reservation: peace of mind and locking in a great deal, among others. But there are also bonuses on traveling without a reservation: spontaneity and getting in on *even better* last-minute deals. Gnarly dreadknots completely optional.
In the end, I didn’t feel like I spent more than I would have if I had planned this trip in advance. I spent significantly less money in certain places, more money in other places, which evened out the cost. Perhaps the only regret that I had was that I wasn’t able to stay longer in a Cusco Airbnb that I fell in love with.
Remember, adventure usually doesn’t come without some stress (the latter being a prerequisite for the former), but it often brings the most unexpected surprises. There must be space for things to unfold naturally.
(Though we've written on this topic before, we thought it might be helpful to see how a trip actually turned out. It's a good opportunity to practice the art of zen.)
Booking the flight to Lima.
The whole rather happenstance nature came up when a JetBlue attendant/friend offered to fly me to Lima, Peru on a Buddy Pass, which is a companion pass offered to JetBlue employees. Since I hadn’t had a vacation in a year, I jumped at the chance to fly standby. The main caveat being I would not have a confirmed seat, and wouldn’t know until I reached the gate of each flight if I would make it on.
Because the flight to Lima from Newark passes through Fort Lauderdale, it meant that not only did I have to clear the first flight, I would have to clear the second flight.
On a Friday in March, the reservation was made. The flight was booked for Monday, three days later. The previous day, I checked in and got placed on the standby list. I made my way to Newark with packed bags. Ranking #1 on the standby list out of 24 seats available in coach, I embarked on the flight to Florida no problem.
Getting stuck in Fort Lauderdale for a night.
It turns out, I would soon find out the Fort Lauderdale to Lima flight is the third-most popular flight on the entire JetBlue system.
As I made my way to Fort Lauderdale, availability dropped to five seats on the Lima flight. I was sitting at #5, and if I made it, it would be through my teeth. More or less, I stood there at the gate, believing I would make it on, because, honestly, these things have a habit of working out in my favor. This was not to be.
As the clock ticked, there was one point where it looked like that I would briefly make it on, then someone was rolled over from a late connecting flight. Then a couple showed up for boarding after the plane door had closed, opening up two seats. But then the flight attendant gave them a stern warning before letting them on the plane. I had been one seat away from being on the plane.
I was stuck in Fort Lauderdale, without knowing anyone. Quickly, I checked HotelTonight, Airbnb and a few hotels nearby. Most of the options were over $100 for the night, until I found an affordable $50 Airbnb option a mile or two from the airport. Within two hours, the place was booked and I taking an Uber en route to where I would sleep for the night.
The following day, I posted a Facebook status that I was in Fort Lauderdale, and was looking for cool options to kill time—I ended up reuniting with a good college friend I hadn’t seen in a decade, and spending some time on the beach. I also got to see Florida, for the first time ever.
I also made it on that day’s flight, being the second to last person seated.
In this entire process, my biggest mistake here was actually booking the Lima hostel before I reached Fort Lauderdale, but luckily, the hostel was kind enough to cancel the first night’s charge, accommodating the new dates and arrival time. I was able to update them via email as soon as the plane door closed, using JetBlue’s free Wi-FI. I was even able to arrange my Lima airport pickup.
Most of my time in Lima passed pretty uneventfully in comparison. Unfortunately, this was the same weekend as Santa Semana (Easter) so when I went to extend my stay an extra day on the day I was checking out, everything at the hostel and other surrounding properties was booked out.
I ended up booking an Airbnb for the same price about a 5-minute car away. From booking to Airbnb arrival was a mere hour (mostly because I wanted to grab a coffee before heading over). It was cute, cheap, and comfortable.
I had planned on making my way to the beach town of Paracas from Lima via bus. True to form, I quickly looked up the schedule via Busbud and showed up completely without a reservation at the terminal. It was at this point that I walked up to the counter, and was informed that the bus was sold out.
After chatting some more with the agent, I learned that there were four seats being reserved. If the seats were not claimed within 30 minutes, I would be able to purchase one of the tickets. Half an hour later, I bought a seat.
I booked my (shitty) hotel on the bus via Booking.com. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, and I pretty much booked my activities once I arrived into town.
Ica and Huacachina, Peru
Then things got a bit hairier than I liked. The route to Huacachina was not as straightforward, since it involved a transit through Ica. (Turns out Huacachina was not very far from Ica at all, maybe five minutes!, but tell that to a extranjero freaking out.)
The company promised me they would transfer me to Huacachina directly. The bus unloaded in Ica, and then I was put in a car to Huacachina. Halfway between Ica and Huacachina, one of the operators told me I would have to get out of the car because I did not pay for the final transfer. The remaining passengers were put in a taxi, and I was left standing on the side of the road (there might have been some screaming in Spanish).
However, I quickly pulled myself together, flagged a car or two, asking them whether Ica or Huacachina was closest. After figuring out I was pretty much equidistant between the two cities, I paid a driver to take me to Huacachina (while finally being able to explain why I was crying when he picked me up).
Once I walked into town and had a chance to reel emotionally from the situation, I did the most possibly backpacker thing ever: I walked up to a touristy-looking dude with a backpack and asked him where he was staying at. I then proceeded to ask when he checked in and if they had space, and proceeded to walk to the same place to book a room.
It was sufficient. It wasn't the best. It was affordable. It was for one night.
It was also Easter, which meant the pickings were slim, and I knew it.
The next morning, I took off for Ica, found a hostel that had availability, walked straight to the front desk with no reservation and asked if they still had a bed. They had one of the best breakfasts I had on the entire trip. And there was coffee!
Spending the day in Nazca (or randomly showing up for a flight).
My main preoccupation had been centered on one thing, and one thing only during the entire trip: Seeing the Nazca lines. During the entire time from Paracas and on, I had seen private flights being advertised from $90 USD to $160 USD. (On average, they ranged around $100 USD to 120 USD.)
I decided I would do something unusual: Not only would I chance the ride to Nazca, I would chance getting a flight at the very last-minute at the airport. There was no issue when I headed straight for the Nazca airport (got off the Ica bus, and immediately asked to be taken there), and ended up bartering the price down to $84 USD.
Right after that, I decided I would grab the overnight bus to Cusco, because I had to meet a friend in Cusco the next day. The bus was unusually expensive. This was definitely one area where I felt I might have saved a bit booking in advance, but again I wanted to be all free-spirited1 and demonstrate how cool I was.
This was one of the few instances where I booked an Airbnb reservation in advance (read: the night before). Mostly, driven by the fact that I was exhausted, wanted to spend more than one night in the same place, and take a couple of days to decompress.
There I was, sitting on said overnight bus, waiting to hear back from the host the night before I was supposed to come into town. It wasn’t until right before I dozed off that I got a confirmation, and then proceeded to knock out for the next 14 hours. (I woke up to a slew of messages from the host.)
Next, I stumbled off the bus, hired a taxi, and rolled into a bed. DONE. I spent three nights there.
Concluding the adventure.
I decided to extend stay in Peru by two or three days, partially because the standby tickets I was looking to fly back on looked particularly full (it was Passover weekend, and this time, the hard flight would be Fort Lauderdale to Newark).
During this time, once I was able to figure out my new return date, I decided to book a flight from Cusco to Lima (three days from booking to flight), since I had to go back to Lima to take my final flight back. I felt like I got a good price.
The day before I was due to check out, the host had another booking, so once again, I couldn't extend my lodging. The next morning, I did the same thing I had done in Ica: I found another hostel that had open availability, walked up, and asked if they had space.
I had zero issues coming back to the United States.
- Though I didn't expect to be in Florida at all, I really enjoyed spontaneously meeting up with an old friend. Adventure!
- For Airbnb reservations, it is always good practice to create a list and star some listings that might be available in case the original one doesn’t go through.
- Don't always expect to extend a stay the last minute, or at least have other options in mind.
- Traveling last-minute allowed me to barter for great deals in some cases. (It also cost me in some other areas, like not always getting the greatest value in terms of comfort.)
- Probably better to be more balanced with spontaneity and making plans in advance. I probably would have been more comfortable, which is increasingly important as I age. ↩