My husband and I are thinking of flying in to Scotland and driving down to London next May without planning ahead for location or lodging. Are there generally places available to stay at the last minute? We like to decide each day what we want to do/where we want to go rather than planning ahead. Have had luck with this is the US but have not travelled out of country before.
Have you figured out the basic route you plan to take? That could matter.
May 4 and May 25 are bank holidays next year, so there might be an unusual demand for lodging around those weekends. If the weather happens to be unusually nice, I'd expect possible difficulties finding last-minute lodging along the coast and other places popular for outdoor activities (such as the Lake District).
In general, a car is helpful for wing-it travelers since you can move on to the next town if you find local hotels full. However, keep in mind that these days, everyone travels with a smartphone, and most people who choose not to pre-book before leaving home will do so by the night before arrival. The rare travelers who do not do that get the rooms the others didn't want. If you stop in larger towns or want to stay in historic areas, needing to find a place to park the car may somewhat constrain your choice of lodgings.
I often make my hotel reservations only 1 to 4 days ahead of time--and I travel without a car--but I have no illusions about the quality of the rooms I get compared to those booked by other travelers weeks or months in advance. I also end up having to make trade-offs between location and price, since the best-priced, centrally-located rooms are rarely available by the time I'm trying to find something.
Personally, I would never, ever drive into town these days and start looking for a vacant room. Do you want to spend your precious vacation time doing that? Finding a place to leave the car while you wander around will not be a trivial task.
There is also the school May half term which would impact on accommodation availability and visitor numbers, traffic etc. My experience has been that booking well in advance during school holiday periods is essential if you want to benefit from the widest selection and best prices. If the accommodation quality is not of great importance then your plan might work but be prepared to spend a significant amount of time searching for it, time which would be better spent enjoying your time exploring.
We did this in 2019 during the same late May and early June time period. We drove from London to Edinburgh without reservations and had no trouble along the way. We decided on the fly what we wanted to see (with some idea before hand of course) and then used Booking.com. We would book the next night either that morning or the night before. We did have Edinburgh and London booked well ahead based on RS recommendations.
I think grogman above has the best idea. Spend a little time each evening on internet finding your hotel for the following night, and make that reservation. Then you won't spend valuable sightseeing time looking for hotels in a new town. Maybe you could do your search around lunchtime on the day you'll arrive in the new place. See "Travel Tips" on this website, and the "Techology" part of this forum for ideas about connecting to the internet, which you'll need to be if you're "winging it."
grogman how many days did you take?
Currently looking at airfare flying in to Glasgow, arrival on May 18th and then flying out of London on May 28th... Looks like we will just miss the holiday weekend so that is good. Liverpool and the Black Country Living Museum are the only "musts" on our list (my husband is a huge Peaky Blinders fan). You would think having a set itinerary would be nice but it seems to make me feel anxious and rushed knowing there's someplace I "have" to be. We tend to travel better together when we decide on the fly what our plans are for the day and usually find a lot of random/interesting places that way. Currently thinking of landing and staying in/around Glasgow and taking a couple day trips from there to explore the area, then driving down to Liverpool and staying a day or two there, then over to Black Country Museum/Birmingham for a day... then possibly return the car and take the train to London? I've read having a car in London area is not helpful. We do want to explore the London area for a few days.
So if our route is basically Glasgow to Liverpool to Birmingham to London, what are highlights/stops/towns we should take time to see or stay in along way? Is it worth it to take the long way around (i.e. coastal drive)?
It would be a shame to miss the Lake District, one of the most scenic parts of England. Coming down the M6, turn west at Penrith and take the A66 to Keswick, then the A591 south through Ambleside and Windermere, picking up the M6 again toward Liverpool. Those A roads will be slow and go through towns. You'll enjoy the area much more if you can spend at least one night there, but it's very popular and you may need to book farther ahead than the day before.
Your overall timeframe is pretty short, especially if you want to spend any significant time in Glasgow and/or London. Is Liverpool a must-see for you?
As I usually say with the ‘wing it’ trips, I doubt you’ll be shut out but paying £150 for the last and worst room in a hotel can sting. Absolute freedom in the pre Covid era came at a hefty price.
Who knows what post Covid life will be like. Maybe they’ll be a glut of rooms, maybe it’ll force many out of business and you’ll be the beggar rather than the chooser.
We didn't go to Liverpool or that area. The whole trip was 24 days. We used Rick's recommendations when we could and yes, a couple of times we were told "Oh, you were lucky, we just had a cancellation". But the flexibility was worth it and we never stayed anywhere substandard. We were off the beaten track seeing things like John Constable country and Jane Austen country. We did royal homes: Sandringham and Balmoral. We toured the Yorkshire Dales and the Cairngorns. I liked not having a rigid schedule.
Our main lodging category on the British Isles has been Bed and Breakfasts (B&B’s), and there’s usually a very good one nearby, whether you’re looking at a place in a big city, smaller town, or even a bit outside of a community. Although now we’ve generally booked places at least a week or two before leaving the USA, we used to do a more book-as-we-go approach most of the time.
Not sure whether a more spontaneous plan will still be useful for you next year, but as we we’d move during the day, we’d determine where we figured we’d be spending the night, and by stopping at a town’s Tourist Information (TI) office, the helpful people there could help us locate a place (B&B, hotel, etc.) in that town, or even a location some hours away. Their local “insider” information could help you find lodging pretty quickly that will meet your price, amenities, and location, without you having to devote more time searching the Internet yourself. They can even book the place for you.
There once were times where we’d show up at the front desk of a hotel, or knock on the door of a B&B. Often we’d be able to get a room. If not, they’d often be able to recommend a suitable place nearby, where we’d find a vacancy. Our approach now has changed to having a more certain room for the night, booking it more ahead of time, and earlier planning of where we’d be, and when. If you drive to your latest planned destination, and it turns out there’s not a last-minute room available, there could very well be a room in the town 5 or 10 miles down the road. Just don’t wait until it’s too late in the day. Hope you can have the trip you want next year!
Based on my observations in 2017, it is risky to assume there will be a local tourist office to bail you out if you arrive in town without a reservation and can't immediately find a room on your own. Quite a lot of the local tourist offices seem to have been closed for budgetary reasons. The largest place where I observed that was Brighton; considering its size (area population about 290,000) and its status as a major coastal tourist destination, I was stunned that there was no staffed tourist office. Fortunately, I was just looking for general tourist information, not assistance in finding a place to stay.
I know that 90% of people on here will tell you to book everything ahead. When we drive we never book everything ahead, we book first and last nights, and London if we will be in London. When you book ahead you are on a schedule, having to be in a certain place by a certain time. When you don’t book everything a head you have the freedom to spend as much time in places as you want without worrying about getting someplace. There are hundreds of places that depend on their signs for business, because advertising is so expensive. We have never spent more then 15 minutes finding a place. Each day when you think you want to stop for the day start looking for B&B signs, most of them will offer to show you the room before you agree to take it.
When I first traveled to Europe as a solo traveler in the 80s, I only booked the room for my arrival day. I took potluck and chance everywhere I went, and it worked out OK. Back then, there was a TI bureau and/or room booking service in every large train station, and I relied on that many times. Of course I was young, and rolled with the punches more easily than I am willing to risk today.
But the most important point is that was how most people traveled 30 to 40 years ago, pre internet. Today, it is incredibly easy to book rooms online, and that is your competition for hotels, all the folks who plan every stop in advance, even if only a couple of days in advance.
Finally, you at least need to be aware of any major convention, festival, concert, or sports events in any city you intend to visit. I have been tripped up by that a few times, and it is not fun to find that there is no room to be found within 50 miles...it can even trip you up in small towns or villages where there is a big wedding event, something that would be almost impossible to know about in advance unless you had tried to book in advance.