This is a contentious issue. Camino purists will tell you that a “true” Camino experience involves walking every step of the 800km, with all your belongings, and staying in nothing but albergues. While this might be important to some, in reality everyone walks their own Camino in their own way, and you can get just as much from walking 100km, staying in hotels and having your main pack transported for you.
HOTELS VS ALBERGUES
There are many factors that influence your decision on accommodation style. Albergues are an undoubtedly cheaper option but you need to consider your comfort levels. Depending on when you walk, you could be packed in like sardines, smelly and possibly wet clothing draped in every available space, a bunfight for showers and possibly limited hot water, snoring and early risers depriving you of precious sleep are among just some of the obstacles to this style of sleeping.
Albergues can be as small as four beds, or they can have literally a hundred beds in a dorm! No linen is provided so a sleeping bag is essential. But probably the scariest thing about albergues is the very real possibility of bedbugs! While hotels are not immune to this, albergues, by their very nature, have an exponentially higher chance of being infested with them.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that if you don’t stay in albergues you will miss the communal spirit of the Camino. While you undoubtedly have a communal spirit in them (sometimes begrudgingly as it’s often very difficult to get your own space), staying in hotels or casa rurales doesn’t deprive you of this spirit. Casa rurales especially usually offer you this in spades, with communal living areas and pilgrims meals bringing walkers together to discuss their experiences.
CARRYING VS TRANSPORTING YOUR LUGGAGE
Again, Camino purists will tell you that you need to carry your main pack in order to truly replicate the pilgrims of ages past. But the Camino experience is about your walking experience, and this doesn’t mean you need to suffer more than necessary to get the most out of it. Indeed, it could be argued that having fewer physical ailments as you walk affords you more space to contemplate life as you walk. There is no shame in getting your main luggage transported and is becoming more and more popular as Camino numbers grow.
GROUP OR INDEPENDENT WALKING
This is very much a personal preference. Despite very few safety issues are experienced on the Camino, some people enjoy the safety of being in a group. The Camino is very well marked so navigation is not an issue and there’s no need for a guide, but a group scenario affords a certain level of comfort to many. Others rigidly walk alone, some to the extent of not socialising even once they have reached their accommodation. Each to their own.
One word of advice however. If you walk it completely independently with nothing booked and you find yourself among a close knit people walking together, don’t sacrifice your own Camino for the sake of keeping up with them. Many a Camino has had to be abandoned by people walking unrealistic distances to try and keep up with their Camino “family”.
BOOKED VS NOT BOOKED ACCOMMODATION
While not booking your accommodation before you go certainly allows for more freedom of your itinerary, there are definitely some major drawbacks to this. The increased popularity of the Camino has far outweighed the increase in accommodation options and there’s few times during the walking season (Apr-Oct) where accommodation isn’t very tight. And certainly if you’re wanting to stay in some of the nicer, more popular, places pre-booking is almost essential. So unless you fancy getting up at the crack of dawn to ensure getting a bed in the albergue you want, or having to go from property to property once you arrive at your destination trying to find availability, then booking your accommodation early is definitely the way to go. Just due your due diligence when planning your itinerary and be realistic about the distances you plan to walk each day.
There’s a classic line spoken by Joost in the movie “The Way”when they see some cyclists. In exasperation he says “What, you can do this thing on a bike? Why the hell are we walking?”. It’s a good question, but there are many things to consider when cycling the Camino.
If you’re not a seasoned cyclist it’s really not a good option. And even avid cyclists may struggle if they’re predominantly road cyclists. There are hills to climb, rough tracks to ride on, traffic to negotiate etc. One popular option is to cycle the meseta, the section between Burgos and Leon. This is nearly dead flat with just a couple of short sharp hills. This could be a good way to fit in the whole Camino if you don’t have up to six weeks to spare.
Whichever style you choose, remember there’s no “correct” way of doing it. We are all individuals and the way we choose to experience the Camino is up to us. And please, if you decide to walk the whole thing with your back and staying in albergues, don’t judge those who do it differently.