Posted by: ramblinrobert | April 10, 2008

Plan ahead or be spontaneous?

I’ll be in Scotland for three weeks. Two of those weeks are very intensely scheduled as part of Nadine’s tour. I wondered what to do with the remaining week (two days before and four days after the tour). I considered heading north to visit Findhorn, or west to visit the Isle of Mull. My friends Ben and Suzanne, after seeing the tour itinerary, suggested I just stay in Glasgow, Falkirk and Edinburgh and enjoy them at a more leisurely pace. They are not only seasoned travelers, but know Scotland, and I decided to follow their advice. So, before the tour I’ll take a couple of days to explore Glasgow and after the tour I’ll take a day to travel to Edinburgh, by way of Falkirk (gotta see the wheel!) then spend three days in Edingburgh before heading back to Glasgow to catch my flight home.

I wanted to know I had a bed when I arrived in Scotland, so I found a highly rated hostel in Glasgow’s West End and made reservations. I thought I’d be a bit more spontaneous after the tour and try getting lodging on the fly when I arrived in Edinburgh. This would give me a chance to have a looser schedule, to allow for some serendipity at the end of the trip. My searches for hostels showed that their were many hostels in Edinburgh that I could check out before deciding where to stay.

To my surprise, given this is the tourist off-season, I found a festival in Edinburgh that seemed interesting and would occur during my stay there. The Beltane Festival is the Celtic version of May Day, held the night of April 30. It’s a celebration of spring and falls roughly halfway between the Spring Equinox in March and the Summer Solstice in June. The Celts were clearly a partying people, as they had three other similar festivals falling between each of the other solstices and equinoxes. That’s a total of eight “natural” festivals determined by the solar calendar. I like that. Apparently this night of revelry is popular–they recommend tickets be purchased well in advance as they expect 12,000 people to join the festivities.

I mentioned the festival to a friend, who was quite jealous; she knew about the festival and wanted to go. She also offered me some advice: make sure I get lodging in advance, since the people who would go to the festival are also the people likely to be staying at hostels. Sure enough, the two large hostels part of Hosteling International, both just a few blocks from Calton Hill, site of the Beltane Festival, were both booked on April 30. So, I booked reservations for the night before, to make sure I’d have a place to land when I arrived. Then I started looking for lodging for the 30th.

You may have noticed that I’m limiting myself to hostels. I’m a budget traveler, so like to stay at inexpensive places. I’ve used them in the U.S. and have heard they are better in Europe. They’re also fun places to go because you can end up meeting and cooking and eating with other travelers. However, my experience in the U.S. is that some are very nice places and others are, well, dumps. Reviews I’ve seen online suggest that quality in Europe also varies considerably. I’ll certainly keep you posted, but for now I’ll just recommend a website for searching out a variety of lodging and vacation packages, not just hostels: Trip Advisor. But, I digress.

So, there I was, in a bit of a panic, already imagining myself in a new city with no lodging my second night. I started noodling around on the Internet again and found more hostels in Edinburgh. Trip Advisor reviews steered me away from one hostel, but one of those reviews steered me to another hostel in the same neighborhood, Smart City Hostel. Trip Advisor reviews of that hostel were favorable, but their website showed they were also fully booked on April 30. Somehow, I got to the Expedia website. I found a hostel that sounded good so I checked availability and they had a room for April 30 and May 1, so I booked it.

Now, here’s the funny thing. The booking is at Smart City Hostel. I was pleased to get the booking on a night when many places were already full. However, I wondered, how can Expedia get me the booking if the hostel’s own website said they had no room available? I speculated that Expedia might have a standing booking that only they can fill, which would explain the discrepancy. But, I’ve read horror stories in the newpaper about people with confirmed reservations, including those made through Expedia, who end up with no space at the inn when they arrive. As a check, I called Expedia and talked to Kai, who called the hostel and talked to Edward, who confirmed that I was already in the hostel’s system with a confirmed reservation. I think this should do; I don’t need to get any more obsessed about it. Given my experience so far, I’ll also recommend Expedia for their booking service, for being a secret backdoor into an already booked hostel, and for their responsive customer service.

What I’ve ended up with is some planning ahead, but with some flexibility left for spontaneous exploring within the constraints of my pre-arranged lodging. I can live with that.



  1. Glad to hear you are planning to spend some extra time in Glasgow and Edinburgh. They were worth it on our trip “back to the old country”, as my Dad used to say. The walk up to the castle in Edinburgh was quaint and picturesque. Be sure to stop for tea and crumpets along the way, and of course a scone.

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