Finding accommodation to suit your tastes and your budget can be daunting, regardless of the type of trip you’re taking. There are a myriad of websites designed to help you find anything from free lodgings to expensive hotel suites. One thing’s for sure: there is something out there for everyone.
Travellers on long trips must mind their budgets, and tend to seek out cheaper accommodation like hostels, camping or couchsurfing. Hostels allow you to meet other travellers thanks to their inherent social structure; planned social events (pub crawls and city tours) and common areas (game rooms, bars, and sometimes even a pool).
Short-term travellers or families with open or unlimited budgets (does that even exist?) can look into BnBs, apartments and hotels. These are less tricky to book and the advent of AirBnB and Vrbo has made booking them fool-proof. My focus throughout this article will be the tricker, more hidden world of budget accommodation. Let’s dive in.
SO… WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?
Couchsurfing While not for everyone, couchsurfing is a great way to meet locals. Basically, you crash at a total stranger’s house. Couchsurfing.com is the most reputable website for hosts who wish to offer space on an extra bed or couch - for free - to world travellers; it uses a similar system as Airbnb, where both guests and hosts are rated. While I wouldn’t advocate this type of lodging for solo female backpackers, you can search for hosts by gender and read reviews written by past patrons to narrow down your search. I’ve never tried it, and I’ve heard both good and bad things about couchsurfing.
Volunteer work You can volunteer to earn your keep, and even your meals. Many sites like Workaway, Worldpackers and Wwoof (World Wide Organisation of Organic Farms) offer room and board, and sometimes food, in exchange for volunteer work over a few weeks or months. It’s a fantastic way to get to know a community or a region and is an increasingly popular way to earn travel around the world.
Homestays I have a friend who backpacked Cuba by staying almost entirely with local families. Homestaying offers a bed in a family home and a chance to practise the local language, and even sit down to share meals with the family. Check out Homestays.com for more info.
Camping There are tons of websites you can visit other than National/Provincial parks and local campsites. Hipcamp and Campspot suggest off-the-beaten trail campsites and glamping on mostly private lands (kind of like an AirB&B for your tent or RV).
Hostels Say goodbye to the boy scout bunks and dingy dives of the past. Some hostels seriously rival three-star hotels in cleanliness and style, and most have thriving social scenes. Many offer private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Strictly for hostels, the phenomenal hostelworld.com caters to all backpacker tastes (party, quiet and cozy, hippie, modern, family-run). Read review scores and comments from other travellers (Security, Location, Staff, Atmosphere, Cleanliness, Facilities and Value For Money) as well as house rules. New features allow you to chat with other travellers before arriving, and hook up with other backpackers for walking tours, pub crawls and fun events.
The leaders in the online accommodation world, booking.com, allow you to book hostels as well as hotels and vacation packages (not to mention car rentals). You can browse review scores and comments in 7 categories (Staff, Facilities, Cleanliness, Comfort, Value For Money, Location and Free Wifi). You can also sort results with helpful categories like Property Ratings (Highest to Lowest), Top Reviewed and Top Picks For Solo Travellers.
Van Life This is a great way to explore a new country, as you have your accommodation, transportation and sometimes even a mini-kitchen all in one. You do have to hunt down parking spots every night; campgrounds are still your best bet. Communities are becoming increasingly vigilant about campervans overnighting on streets and in parking lots. Nevertheless, this is a great way to travel. Check out IndieCampers, EscapeCamperVans, Outdoorsy and KarmaCamperVans.
Hotels There may be times during your travels where you’ll want to stray off-budget and give yourself a treat. Maybe you need to roll around in a King-sized bed, a quiet night away from snorers or your own toilet. Keep in mind that a room in a budget hotel can cost the same as a dorm bed in a high-end hostel. Again, booking.com will be great for any of that. You can also try hoteltonight.com, which specialises in last-minute hotel bookings; search up to a week in advance or until noon on the same day. If you see something you like, you can click on ‘Watch This Search’ and they will email you pricing updates. I’ve only just recently discovered www.jetsetter.com; they’ve got loads of fun articles on all things travel, and offer discounts on luxury hotels and vacation resort packages.
Guidebooks Don’t discount your favourite company’s guide books and website (mine is Lonely Planet). No, I’m not paid by them; I am just a fan. They are great filters for campgrounds, hostels, boutique hotels and high-end accommodations. I hold their opinions in high regard and have rarely been led astray by their recommendations.
Needs, wants and budgets
Accommodation will most likely be your biggest daily expense, so certain standards are game-changers. Now that you’ve explored all your options, you can more easily sink into a decision.
Where are you willing to sleep? Can you handle a dorm bed in a crowded room or do you need privacy and elbow room? Do you need your own bathroom or can you share a toilet with someone else? Wallet-friendly hostels work when you’re on a budget, but you’ll be miserable if you’re craving alone time and your own toilet.
Do your research. Read online reviews from other patrons - especially regarding safety and cleanliness - which can be the biggest deal breakers. Choose hostels that have many reviews and a high overall rate.
18.00$ per night in a hostel adds up to roughly 540.00$ a month; 25.00$ per night adds up to 750.00$ a month -- that’s a huge difference. There are all kinds of hostels, from cheaper party ones to fancy boutique ones. Check out photos, reviews and prices on www.hostelworld.com or www.booking.com and figure out what you’re willing to spend on a bed.
Downtown locations tend to be more expensive. Choose an interesting and safe district that’s close to as many coveted sights as possible.
If you’re flexible with your dates, hunt down multi-night deals.
You might want to splurge on an occasional hotel or a private room in a hostel. If you stick to your budget, you can indulge from time to time if you need space, a hot bath or a roomy bed.
Don’t discount www.airbnb.com and other types of higher-end accommodation; you can still save by renting a room in an apartment/home rather than the whole space. My fave is www.booking.com - you can reserve everything from hostel dorms to fancy boutique hotels and resorts, you can cancel without a fee and you can read hundreds of reviews from past patrons.
MAKING YOUR ENTRANCE
Arriving somewhere new is often the most overwhelming part of travelling. You're showing up in a foreign country where everyone around you speaks an unfamiliar language. The sights and smells - and especially sounds - may leave you feeling disoriented and drained; you might also be jet lagged. So many thoughts and emotions hit you all at once; it’s not the best time to figure out where to stay and how to get yourself there.
Have your first night’s accommodation booked, including transit Know where your hostel/hotel is and how to get there from the airport. Pre-book your transfer and be ready to show proof before stepping outside the airport. This will be a life-saver if the airline loses your checked bag and you can provide them with an address for quicker delivery.
Download maps with maps.me (you can access them offline) or screenshot a map on your phone. If taking a cab/Uber, show it to the driver to let them know that you know where you’re going and how to get there. Looking as though you know where you’re going (even if you don’t) can save you so much unwanted trouble. It can also save you money by NOT being driven all over the city while the metre ticks on. I once had multiple taxi drivers in North Vietnam refuse to drive me when I showed them my route on my phone; they preferred waiting for a customer who didn’t know the way, in order to drive them around and collect higher rates.
ENJOY YOUR STAY
Grab a business card from your hostel/hotel (or at least its name and coordinates written in the local language). You might need it to flash to drivers if you can’t find your way back or if you get stuck in a sticky situation.
Use the hostel’s kitchen to save money but also to chat up other lodgers.
Many hostels have a ‘free’ shelf with items left behind by other backpacks, and usually have an array of basic ingredients like salt, pepper, oil and sugar.
If booking ahead isn’t your thing, here’s a trick: Check availability online, then walk into the hostel/hotel and ask if that room is available at a discounted price. They may accommodate you to avoid paying the booking site’s commission fee.
Hostel Etiquette 101
I think hostels are the best spots to meet other travellers. But they vary just as much as hotels and B&Bs do, and not every traveller is well-versed in communal living. Here’s how to best enjoy your hostel experience, and not hinder anyone else’s.
Keep your voice down when you see roommates sleeping. Don’t fiddle with your bag (especially if you’ve got dreaded plastic bags that crinkle).
Keep the main light turned off and use your headlamp’s dimmest light (or the red light, preferably).
Stash your belongings next to your bed and clean up after yourself. Don’t hog the electric outlets if they’re limited.
Although more expensive, smaller bunk rooms (4, 6 or 8 beds) will feel cosier and more intimate than 20-bed rooms. You also usually have the choice between unisex or female/male-only dorms.
Use an eye mask and ear plugs; keep them under your pillow along with your head lamp so that you’re not fumbling around for them.
Keep your important documents, cards and extra cash in your safety locker and use your own padlock if possible.
If you can, choose a bed away from the door or bathroom to minimise disturbances. Bottom bunks are easier to access but top bunks can feel more private, although you might get wiggled around when your bottom-bunk mate climbs in/out of bed.
If your hostel offers free breakfast, get down there early before they run out of food. And for God’s sake… Clean, dry and put away your dishes - your mama ain’t here!
Take advantage of the hostel kitchen/café and prepare your own meals, or order from their menu. One hostel in Lisbon invited the owner’s grandmother to prepare and host authentic Portuguese suppers once a week for a small fee. It was a phenomenal way to get to know a few locals and sample authentic regional cuisine!
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