To book or not to book – that is the question…

Completo. Completo. Completo.

The most dreaded word in a pilgrim’s experience, except maybe for… blisters. That sinking feeling when all the albergues are full and you don’t know where you will sleep tonight.

This was the reality for numbers of pilgrims in May this year, when the Camino reached unprecedented numbers (see the full story with statistics here).

When the Not so amazing bed race is a reality on the route it has several effects. It causes pilgrims to debate pre-booking their accommodation, losing some of the fluidity and freedom of the pilgrimage in the process. The old adage “the Camino provides” and the beauty of letting your journey unfold day to day organically then comes into stark competition with the reality of recent years’ surge in popularity that makes this philosophy unfortunately untenable and unrealistic.

It also has the effect of making accommodation more expensive for the pilgrim overall since the cheapest accommodation cannot be pre-booked, but is always first come first served.

This causes an exodus of rustling plastic bags in the early mornings to try and ensure a bed in their chosen end destination. Some pilgrims have to taxi off the route or further ahead and some even change routes in frustration. Some simply have to sleep on the ground, in overflow accommodation opened up by the towns, if they are lucky.

Waves of pilgrims and conflicting reports in May

The reality in May was that pilgrims moved across the route in waves. On some days in Saint Jean Pied a Port, the starting point for the French Way, 650 pilgrims started on the day, on other days 350. If you were caught in these waves trying to get accommodation in small or even big towns there was often no room at the inn. If you by chance started between waves, you could find accommodation relatively easily.

This led to conflicting reports from pilgrims on the trail, causing those who were trying to ascertain conditions considerable stress and confusion.

As a pilgrim starting the Camino at any given time, it is hard to know exactly how many pilgrims are on the route in real time. You have to rely on pilgrim reports and people’s experiences.

Factors to consider when deciding to book or not

There are some ways though to navigate the tricky waters of knowing when you have to book and when not, and it is by considering and applying the following factors.

1. Month of the year you are walking?

If you are starting from Saint Jean Pied a Port, there are distinct spikes in pilgrim activity during May and then in September again. If you start during one of these months, you will probably have to lean more towards the pre-booking end of the scale in general.

2. Is the town you are walking to one of the “traditional” / Brierly stage endpoints?

A large percentage of pilgrims follow the “traditional” stage endpoints as set out in the guide by John Brierly. These stages, starting in St Jean are:

1. Roncesvalles, 2. Zubiri, 3. Pamplona, 4. Puente la Reina, 5. Estella, 6. Los Arcos, 7. Logroño, 8. Nájera, 9. Santo Domingo, 10. Balorado, 11. St Juan Ortega, 12. Burgos, 13. Hornillos, 14. Castrojeriz, 15. Frómista, 16. Carrión de los Condes, 17. Terradillos, 18. Bercianos or Calzadilla, 19. Mansilla, 20. León, 21. Mazarife, 22. Astorga, 23. Rabanal, 24. Molinaseca, 25. Villafranca, 26. O ‘Cebreiro, 27. Triacastela, 28. Sarria, 29. Portomarin, 30. Palas do Rei, 31. Ribadiso (Arzúa), 32. Pedrouzo (O’ Pino/Arca), 33. Santiago.

If you are staying in one of these towns during a busier period, especially the smaller ones you also might have to consider pre-booking. If you are staying off stage, you might not. This is a factor to consider when planning your pilgrimage.

3. Are you heading to a bottleneck town?

From pilgrim experience and reports, there are certain towns where the bed situation becomes critical more easily. Seriously consider pre-booking if you are staying in any one of these bottleneck towns.

  • Orisson and Augergue Borda, breaking the long stage over the Pyrenees mountains into two, have limited spaces. Prebooking here directly is essential. Borda is on Orisson has their own slightly more complicated system.
  • Zubiri and Larasoaña. Zubiri often fills up by early afternoon. Pilgrims often have to take a taxi to Pamplona and return the next day.

  • Los Arcos, Sansol and Torres del Rio.

  • Nájera – it is hard to find accommodation here even in quieter times

  • Belorado

  • Burgos – especially cheaper alternatives

  • San Jaun de Ortega – often full

  • Reliegos / Mansilla de las Mulas

  • Portomarin.

4. Are there any festivals on?

Are there any festivals on in the town/area you are walking to? If so, you will definitely find it harder to find accommodation.

Examples include Semana Santa (the week leading up to and including Easter Sunday in León,

the Cheese festival in Arzúa in early March,

Fiestas del Santo in late April – mid May in Santo Domingo de la Calzada,

Fiesta de San Juan from June 21-25 in Sarria,

the Medieval festival in June at Hospital de Órbigo, 

the Fiesta de los Sanfermines from July 6-14 in Pamplona (running of the bulls),

Festival de Santiago (July 15-31) at Santiago de Compostela – St James’ feast day,

Celebration of Mary’s birth, September 8 at Roncesvalles and surrounding regions,

Santa María la Real (September 15-18) in Nájera.

This is by no means an exhaustive list (from the excellent “Moon guide – Camino de Santiago – Sacred sites, historic villages, local food and wine” by Beebe Bahrami).

Pilgrims are encouraged to ascertain themselves of the festivals en route during the period they are walking and to take this into account when deciding whether to prebook or not.

5. Is it in the last 100 km to Santiago?

Pilgrims must walk the last 100 kilometres of the Camino to earn a Compostela. Sarria is the most popular starting point for walkers wishing to do this.

This means that the path between Sarria and Santiago is often the busiest part of the route and there is a significant surge in pilgrim numbers here, especially in the months of May, September and August.

Many walkers start in Sarria over the weekend as well, so it might be quieter to time your arrival in this part of the route for a Monday to Friday and to consider pre-booking your accommodation for this part a few days out.

Considering these questions will give you the answer

When you answer all of these questions you will have a good idea whether or not to pre-book.

The short summary is it is not an all or nothing answer.

Some places need to be pre-booked at certain times. Some others not.

How far ahead you have to book depends on how busy the route is – it might range from having to book in the morning for the evening stay once you know how far you want to walk, the previous night for the next night, a few days out, a few weeks out or a few months out in most extreme cases (including places like Orisson or Borda for instance).

If you have specific special albergues you want to stay at, booking is always advisable.

You probably don’t have to pre-book everything. But you might have to pre-book some things.

The trick these days lies in knowing exactly how to determine where and when to apply this wisdom. Buen Camino!