Travel in Great Britain without Advance Reservations

Travel without reservations? Isn’t that chancy? Perhaps, but you can cut the risk by using Britain’s network of tourist information centres.

On my book research trip following in the 1831 diarist’s footsteps, my son and I spent six weeks traveling throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. No town seemed too small to sport an info centre marked with a big italic “i’ on a simple sign. The knowledgeable staff in each centre helped us select appropriate accommodations (often at a small guest house), phoned for the reservation, and provided directions to it.

London was the only British city for which we secured our rooms prior to the trip. In a tourist mecca like London, the best places are booked up well in advance. We planned to spend too much time there to leave it to chance.

Bonuses of traveling “on the fly”:

  • When not hemmed in by prior reservations for specific days, flex days can be built into the itinerary. These come in handy when time runs short and the list of enticing sights is long. No need to say longingly, “I wish we could spend one more day here.” Now you can! (Even though we’d included five flex days, I regretted not doubling that number.)
  • The locals staffing the info centres know of great lodgings most folks would never find on their own. (A favorite was Fairfield Garden Guesthouse in Bowness on England’s Lake Windermere.)

Fairfield in Bowness (563x640)

Gotcha’s:

  • Most info centres close around 5 p.m. After lingering at must-sees en route, it’s easy to arrive in a town too late in the day. (For our fallback plan, we used guide books or listings picked up at previous centres.)
  • The Brits are fanatics about attending their football matches (soccer to us Yanks). Unaware of the impending Finals, we spent the last of our three nights allotted to Glasgow in the nearest available accommodation—25 miles away in Greenock.

One caveat:

  • This treasure of a resource has recently suffered from budget cuts; some info centres have closed or scaled back services or hours. It would be wise to verify their status before traveling. Though not all centres are shown on any one website, www.britainexpress.com/TIC/ is a good place to start.

As long as you’re tolerant of a few risks, the rewards of traveling without advance reservations can turn a vanilla trip into a flavorful adventure.

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