Hotel basics—To book or not to book
Always reserve at least the first night's room—especially if you’re arriving on a weekend—but reconsider that tactic booking the room for the whole first week
After all, until you're actually in the room, you won't know whether it's got a view of the Eiffel Tower...or of the sewage processing plant across the street.
When you are booking, the hotel will probably require you to send a fax (or email) with the dates you intend to arrive and leave, how many people, and a credit card number (this protects them from no-shows).
All this is a fine procedure, since your copy of the fax gives you a printed receipt of sorts to prove you've booked a room (booking errors do crop up from time to time).
That said, some smaller, cheaper hotels won't reserve far in advance for fewer than three nights. This is to protect them from cancellations, and no assurance on your part seems to change their policy. They'll hold a room only if you call from the train station and tell them you're physically on your way.
The Downside to Advance Reservations
In most cities—Prague especially—as soon as you step off the train or boat, hotel touts will swarm you in a feeding frenzy. Some are legitimately drumming up business, others are out to fleece you. Make sure they point to the exact location of their hotel on a map, and get the price set firmly in writing before you go off with them. Look at the photos they show you, but remember that a fisheye lens in the room's upper corner and a sneaky collage of the inn's best furnishings all in one room can make a dismal cell look like a palatial suite (well, almost). There's a lot that can go wrong with a hotel room—and a lot that the photos on the Web site won't tell you—so I play it safe by playing by ear. Sure, sometimes I have to scramble a bit to find a room, but I rarely get suckered into settling for a hellhole that's been paid for in advance.I say book the first night(s) and the last, but then wing it from there.
Reserving every night of the vacation ahead of time can crimp spontaneity, and, again, trip you up with possible bad choices.
I find peace of mind calling ahead from one city to the next a day or two in advance, but have rarely had any trouble simply searching out a room by phone from the train station upon arrival. (More on all this in the "Hotel Hunting Tips" section.)
A major caveat: Look into whether your plans happen to land you in a town on a festival day, in which case you're probably in for the highlight of your trip, but should reserve rooms immediately, from your home country, as far in advance as possible.
A note on writing the date
When e-mailing or faxing for a hotel room, don't write down the dates in number format (eg: 11/6/11).
Why? Well, because Americans write dates in the format of month/day/year, most of the rest of the world does it day/month/year. So while in the USA that date above would be read as "November 6, 2011" in Europe (and much of the rest of the world) they would see it as "June 11, 2011."
(Actually, if you think about it, the European way makes far more sense, as the units go in ascending order: first the shortest—the day—then the month, then the year.)
Regardless of which way is better, just to avoid confusion, always write out a date in the style: "6 November 2011."
Also, hotels in other countries like to define a stay by the arrival date and the day you actually check out—not the last night of your stay.
In other words, if the last night you intend to sleep there is Nov. 8, they'll think of you as "departing Nov. 9," so saying you want to "stay from Nov. 6 to 8" might end up in only a booking of only two nights, not three.
I always write both the arrival and departure dates followed by the number of night total in parentheses, again just so there's no confusion:
"Arrive: 6 November 2011. Depart: 9 November 2011. (Stay: 3 nights)."