Ever try to get away from it all, only to discover that half the planet had the same idea? Try as you might to find those ‘best kept secret’ destinations or to go in the off-season, it’s just not always possible to avoid the madding crowds.
My fiancé and I just got back from Palawan, in the Philippines. The guidebook uses words like ‘frontier’ and and ‘sparsely populated’ when describing Palawan. And it is, but it’s also become an immensely popular tourist destination in recent years. In El Nido, every hotel was fully occupied. We thought about moving on to Port Barton but we called all the hotels in the book and no one had any rooms there either.
It was eerily similar to the experience we’d had on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand two years earlier. We never thought the whole island would fill up, but it did.
You could kick yourself for not getting far enough off the beaten track, wallow in disappointment, or mutter under your breath at the crowds. Or you could make the most of it. Drawing from these two experiences and others like them, here are my top six suggestions for how to deal with the crowds and the lack of available rooms.
Perhaps you, like me, pride yourself on your ability to wing it. But I’ve learned my lesson. Book your flights and rooms in advance unless you know for a fact that it won’t be busy. Many hotels will even take a reservation without a deposit, so you don’t lose anything if you don’t end up staying there. If this is the case, you might even consider booking an extra night on either end of your stay to give yourself some flexibility.
Of course, it’s only courteous to let the hotel know as soon as your dates are confirmed. It also helps to have a phone and it’s usually cheap and easy to get a local SIM card. That way, if you don’t have reservations, you can at least call ahead and save yourself some legwork.
Splash the cash
The very thought makes us budget travelers cringe, but sometimes a little extra money goes a long way. As we found, the last room available is not likely to be the cheapest one, and it may be well out of your normal price range. My advice is to take it anyway, just for a night. Put it on the credit card if you have to. After lugging your backpack all over town and being told ‘no’ fifty times, you deserve it. And besides, it’s not a splurge if you don’t really have a choice.
A nice room can be the ideal retreat from the crowds to help you de-stress. Take advantage of the fridge, the air conditioner and the pool right up until checkout time. Save a little money by skipping the bar or the bottle of wine with dinner. Instead, milk the nice room by having a few quiet, private drinks behind closed doors. Have a nice hot shower and slip into clean, soft sheets.
Ask for help
Even when it seems like you’ve run out of options, the locals might know of a place you can stay—perhaps a place that just opened up or something further away from the main strip. When we arrived on Koh Phi Phi, there were several guys, some with signs, who met our boat and noisily offered their services to show us to a hotel. Thinking we’d rather have a look for ourselves, we turned them down. Had we arrived in the morning, that might not have been such a huge mistake.
Of course by the time we were ready to admit we needed their help, they were gone. Also be prepared for the ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ mentality. In El Nido, a tour guide made some calls and helped us find a room when all seemed lost, so of course we booked our island-hopping tour with him. A dive shop on Phi Phi helped us find a room but only after we agreed to go on a dive with them.
Go the extra mile
Personally, my favorite way to shut out the crowds is by lying on the beach with my eyes closed and earphones in. As long as no one kicks sand in my face, I can forget that the other sunbathers even exist.
But you can physically get away by going on a walk, renting a bicycle or scooter and going for a drive, or going on a private tour. When I got off my lazy you-know-what to hike to the lookout point on Phi Phi island, it was well worth the effort. No, we weren’t the only ones there, but it was pretty serene.
In El Nido, the most popular activity is island-hopping, but my we didn’t want to go with a big group. It wasn’t a great deal more expensive to book our own customized tour and it was very romantic. (On one secluded beach, we got engaged!) The tour ended with a private sunset dinner. Ahh.
Go ahead, talk to strangers. Aside from being an entertaining way to pass the time, a conversation with a fellow traveler can be very enlightening. Trade tips about secluded beaches, the coolest dive sites, the best restaurants or the quickest way to get to the next town. And you could save money or time by booking transportation, accommodation or a day of diving together.
More people might also mean a livelier atmosphere, especially when it comes to the nightlife. An empty bar is depressing, even if you are on an island paradise. When lots of people are around, your evenings are more likely to be social, exciting, and memorable, whether you’re watching a sports match on TV or dancing the night away.
Explore your options—and not just the options in the guidebook. Besides asking locals and fellow travelers for suggestions, you can do a search on the Internet or ask someone to watch your bag while you wander futher. There might be more places to stay away from the beach or the main road, or there might be some unconventional options.
On Phi Phi, we found out that some massage shops are open to overnight guests for a fee. There aren’t any showers, but it’s a step up from sleeping on the sand.
You might also need to change your itinerary and try a different town or island altogether. After finding out that Port Barton was all booked up, we remembered another place we had researched earlier, off the coast of Taytay. We called the number on their website and they actually had a room! It was a great, peaceful, affordable island resort. It only had four rooms and a family atmosphere.
In the end, we finally found a place that really was off the beaten track.
photos: middle by V. Tompkins; top and bottom by Amy Lovestrand and may not be used without permission