Figuring out where to lay your head
Finding lodging on an extended trip is a big part of your continuing tasks and ongoing expenses. Whether you decide to plan far ahead, arrive in each city without a reservation, or somewhere in between, where you lay your head can make a big difference in how you experience a place. Even with two ’round the world trips under our belt, we learned something new in each place we visited.
We’ve tried most of the options out there, and finally have some idea of where we feel most comfortable. Travel accommodations can vary depending on the type of trip and length of stay too. We are definitely budget travelers, but not the kind willing to settle for the cheapest deal we can find at any cost. When looking at travel accommodations for personal trips, we consider guesthouses and hostels first, though we don’t do dorms unless we really must. At the beach, or on a shorter trip, we’re more likely to stay in a hotel.
In different countries, the same lodging can be called by different names. A hostel in one place is a guesthouse, bed and breakfast, inn or posada somewhere else. In India, a paying guesthouse (you often see PG after the name) usually means a room in a private, family house. It’s a good idea to do some research ahead of time to see what the options are.
Book travel accommodation ahead or fly by the seat of your pants?
If only there was one right answer! In our experience, unless it’s holiday season or a big festival time, you can arrive almost anywhere without a reservation and find somewhere to sleep. That being said, it may not always be the ideal place. If you’re not the type to accept that you might have to spend the night in a place that’s more expensive/dirty/loud/distant than you hoped, by all means reserve something in advance. We usually book one or two nights when arriving in a new place, just to have a place to head from the train, plane or bus. That way, if you like it you can usually extend; if you’re unhappy you can move on. You also avoid lugging that heavy backpack up and down the road, and up and down the stairs while shopping for rooms on the fly. (The room they want to show you is ALWAYS on the top floor, isn’t it?) Either way, research neighborhoods in advance to get a general idea of where you want or don’t want to be. This is especially helpful when arriving after dark.
What kind of place am I looking for?
The word “hostel” has different connotations to different people, and it may mean different things in different places, but most generally it refers to establishments offering multiple beds in one room with shared facilities, usually at a substantially lower cost than a private room. Conditions vary from super-basic to downright swanky, with the majority falling somewhere in between. There are a several major international organizations like Hosteling International that offer special rates for members or those with student ID. Many hostels offer at least a few private rooms as well, with either a shared bath, or en suite. These can be a great deal, since you can enjoy the community feeling of a hostel but still have your privacy. We’ve found that if it’s only a few extra dollars for a private double, it’s usually well worth it.
- Pros: Chance to meet new people, common kitchens help lower food costs, most include breakfast even if that just means toast and coffee (or a banana pancake)
- Cons: Lack of privacy, occasional lack of sleep
- Best bet: Private room in a hostel (best of both worlds)
There’s been a fair amount of controversy about Couchsurfing, especially since the site became for-profit. Some marketing of the site as a free place to crash has attracted the “freeloader” types who are much less interested in the spirit of sharing information. There have been stories of travelers being harassed by hosts and vise-versa, and special care should be taken by solo travelers. While it’s true that travelers need to use common sense and do their due diligence when seeking a place to stay, the concept of couchsurfing is one we wholeheartedly support. Couchsurfing was designed with people in mind who are willing to offer a bed in their home at no cost to travelers who wanted a more personal look at a destination and have something to share in return. It can be a great way for people to share local knowledge, act as ambassadors for their city or town, and best of all make new friends. From the travelers’ perspective, you get away from the tourist zone, and stay where real people live. You can act as an ambassador as well, sharing your knowledge of where you’re from and where you’ve been. The only experiences we’ve had with Couchsurfing have been 100% positive. We keep in touch with former hosts, and thanks to them had unforgettable experiences in their hometowns!
- Pros: Exchange of cultural experiences, new friends, free
- Cons: Lack of privacy, potential discomfort of staying with strangers
- Best bet: Well-researched host that has gone through verification by the organization, and has lots of good feedback by verified members
Short-term Apartments / Airbnb
Stays in apartments or homes using services like Airbnb provide all the amenities and comforts of home at prices comparable to (sometimes less than) hotels. Our experience with VRBO, which is similar, has been smooth. The house we rented in the Florida panhandle was managed by a local real estate agent, so picking up and dropping off keys and such was simple. With Airbnb, there are a wide variety of options, from a room in someone’s home to an apartment or private home. Like Couchsurfing, renting a room or apartment will get you off the beaten tourist track, but you don’t have the same obligation to interact with your host. Your required interactions are primarily financial in nature, and sometimes everything can be handled by email.
- Pros: Home-like experience while maintaining independence, off the tourist trail
- Cons: Money can be tied up far in advance, hosts can cancel, may not be cheaper than other accommodation types
- Best bet: apartment with a host with good reputation nearby to answer questions and give advice when sought
Friends and Family
If you’ve got friends or family in the destinations you’ll be visiting, take advantage! Staying at a friend’s place will definitely save you money, and if you’re lucky you may get a free guide as well. Just remember, be a good guest. Clean up after yourself. Make dinner one night, or take your hosts out to show your appreciation.
- Pros: Knowing what to expect, free
- Cons: Obligation to spend time with host when you may have different goals/priorities for your trip
- Best bet: Spread your visits among different friends if you can, and don’t overstay your welcome
Clearly the traditional choice for many travelers, there are countless options when it comes to hotels. From big chains to locally-owned one-offs. nearly every city you visit will have a couple of options. Hotels are usually one of the more reliable among travel accommodations, but will certainly cost more in many cases. Hotels are the most reviewed, so it’s often easier to research hotels. With chains, there is a level of continuity in service, decor and facilities. When we’re traveling on a mobile marketing work contract, we usually stick with Marriott. Chains like Marriott’s Residence Inn are geared toward long-term stays, and equipped with a full kitchen. That still doesn’t mean you have to make your own bed or take out the trash!
- Pros: Generally a known quantity; higher expected level of service
- Cons: Impersonal and sometimes doesn’t support the local community
- Best bet: Use when consistency is a must or when arriving late at night
Guesthouses / B&B
When traveling on our own dime, these are probably our favorite types of accommodation. A family-owned guesthouse gives you the opportunity to spend your money in support of a local business. A family member or two is usually around to answer questions about the area, and share insights. Our favorite B&B’s are quirky and/or have a historical connection. We love the B&B’s on Cape Cod that have been transformed from old sea captain’s homes, for example. Period accents and furniture, and themed rooms add to the fun.
- Pros: Keeps money local, often family-run
- Cons: Can sometime lack amenities
- Best bet: Family-run guesthouses or B&B with some historical twist
Homestays are often arranged as part of language study or cultural exchange programs, but they also can be organized through a local government or tourist organization. As an high school exchange student, I spend two or three months with four different families in Japan. There is no better way to get such a deep and intimate look at family life. More recently, we spent two nights on the island of Amantani on Lake Titicaca in Peru. We shared meals, learned about customs and traditions, and joined in a local celebration. Communication was a bit of a challenge, but the father and one brother were able to act as translators for other family members who only spoke Quechua. Our bed was on a second floor of a barn-like building, reached up a rickety wooden ladder. The bathroom was outhouse style, and located down a dark (at night) path.
- Pros: Experience life with a local family, contribute to the community
- Cons: Comfort level may be quite different from what you’re used to
- Best bet: Give it a shot! You never know, you could make a friend for life.
Whether you are in a tent or a camper van, being out in nature can certainly be rewarding. We’ve been lucky enough to spend many nights in both options. Certain places lend themselves very nicely to camping, like New Zealand. We spent nearly a month in our camper there. We got a great deal with a relocation. This is when the rental company needs a vehicle moved from one city to another and they usually give a deep discount. Facilities are communal, and the level of modernity and cleanliness at the ol’ ablution block can vary quite a bit. Common kitchens are the norm as well.
- Pros: Lodging and transportation in one; total freedom
- Cons: Less security for your personal items during the day
- Best bet: Shop around and see if a relocation is an option
What’s your favorite among travel accommodations?
Have we missed anything?