When the plane touched down in Barcelona, on our first trip to Europe, my then-girlfriend and I followed the signs to the terminal. At a bank of pay phones in the noisy hall, Kris broke out our Rick Steves guidebook and started dialing numbers. Her decent American Spanish struggled to be understood over the telephone, lots of repetition and frustration. One by one, no room at the inn. Then, finally, after a brief, confusing exchange, a possibility.
The airport express train followed an arc above industrial Barcelona, working class neighborhoods with concrete futsal courts and clothes hanging from metal lines strewn across balconies, then underground to the center, until it spilled the two of us onto the big square at the mouth of Las Ramblas. It was May Day, a holiday. It was raining a little, and lots of young people were out. We checked the map, but couldn’t find our bearings. Then we tried asking for directions, or Kris tried while I stood by useless, but each time we encountered Catalan that got lost in translation. Eventually, someone pointed us in the right direction, down the great pedestrian avenue, and a street vendor halfway down directed us into a warren of narrow alleys to where the hostal awaited.
“Perhaps they will have a cancellation tomorrow,” she said.A year later, in Amsterdam, it was cold but sunny, a Friday in early April, the start of tulip season. At the tourist office on the Dam Square the line of backpackers stretched down the block. We gave up and tried the youth hostel on our own; we tried the cheap hotels; we tried the best hotels. Then, we were back in line. When it was our turn at the desk, the tall, helpful woman could find us a room for just one night. “Perhaps they will have a cancellation tomorrow,” she said, “and you can stay there longer.” The next day we were back in line. We reserved a room far from the city, in a Best Western in the authentic Dutch village of Vollendam, and another hotel in the city for the following night. During our five days in Amsterdam, we stayed in three hotels. We stayed in none of them for consecutive nights.
As much as you want to improvise, at least reserve a place in advance for the first night of your trip.