You go to a foreign country. You need to sleep somewhere. Your choice of where to rest your weary body can totally change the feel of your trip. Are you thinking of staying in a business hotel because they have a good deal? How about a timeshare because it’s ‘your weekend’? Possibly a resort because you don’t want to think about plans and they’ll make all the arrangements for you? Maybe a five-star hotel because they have good food? Perhaps you’re staying with friends or family because you are traveling to visit them. Staying in a bed and breakfast? Hostel? Camping? What about staying with strangers you meet along the way? There are many possibilities and I’m sure some have struck a chord with you and some have made you cringe.
There are certainly upsides and downsides of each option. Let’s break it down and find out which is the right choice for the type of experience you want to have.
You’re one of hundreds of people, mostly business people, and there’s probably not much coziness to it, but honestly, you’re not planning on spending much time at the hotel with your eyes open. This can be a good deal if you just need somewhere to rest at the end of the day and it’s lack of comfort can even encourage you to stay out in the city more!
While is can be good to make use of ‘your weekend,’ it might also put restrictions on your trip for where you want to be or when you want to go there. If you have a timeshare in one city but really want to stay overnight in another, you’ll essentially be paying for two rooms in two cities for that night. If you like going back to the same place year after year, this can be a wonderfully opportunity to find ‘your restaurant’ and have ‘your market,’ but don’t let it hold you back from seeing other places if that’s what you want to see.
If you don’t want to think about any logistics at all, go for the resort. They can usually make packages for you with activities you’re interested in and organize it all for you. All you have to do is show up. Unfortunately, they usually keep you a little farther away from the real culture and many ‘cultural events’ they organize are not what the current culture does, but they are what the guests want, so that’s what they get. If you’re there for relaxation, the landscape or to learn certain activities, this can be a great way to go.
If you want to relax in luxury and eat in style and you have the money to do it, a nice hotel can be a memorable part of your experience. It can be a treat to wake up in extravagance and have food expertly prepared for you, but it might be tempting to stay in your hotel instead of going out and seeing the culture each day.
Friends and Family
Staying with friends and family can be unforgettable and it can be the highlight of your trip. Be sure to discuss with your friends what plans you have so they don’t expect to spend all day Saturday with you, but you planed to go to a museum alone on Saturday, or maybe you think they will show you around on their day off from work, but they just want to stay home and relax after a long work week. Mix ups like this can put a strain on the visit and the friendship, but with the right communication, it can be a wonderful way to spend more time with friends.
Bed and Breakfast
These great, family run places are wonderful for having a cozy place to stay, owners who can give you suggestions of what to see and where to go and a good breakfast to help you start your day. They are usually cheaper and more authentic than bigger hotels, especially if you share one or two bathrooms with everyone else. Since they have fewer guests than a hotel, you might get more attention from the owners, or they might close the front desk at 8pm and go home! So, if you think you need 24-hour care or need your personal space, this might not be the way to go, but if you want a cozy room and a family atmosphere, this is certainly the way to go!
If you are traveling alone, aren’t afraid to share your space with others and want to make new friends, definitely stay in a hostel! I’ve met many new friends in the social rooms or shared kitchens of hostels and many I’ve gone on to travel with, or at least sightsee with. They are cheaper than any of the above options by far and you are usually put in a room (sometimes with men and women mixed, sometimes separated) of 6-10 bunk beds, each with a locker, and you pick a bed and hope your roommates don’t snore, stay out late or get up early. Usually people are respectful, but every once in a while, you’ll get a good story to complain about when you get home. While these are sometimes called ‘youth hostels,’ they welcome people of all ages and everyone has a good time!
Especially if you’re going somewhere scenically beautiful, camping can be a great option. In the mountains in the summer or along the coast in a warm climate, waking up to fresh air and a beautiful sunrise can stick in your mind forever. It’s usually very cheap, especially if you are sharing a tent with others. If you don’t have a car, it might be a little hassle to find a campground you can get to by public transportation and if you want to visit the surrounding area, the transportation issue will be very important. You also want to be sure your bags will be secure while you’re gone for the day, so see if there are lockers or if the main office will hold your things.
Using a service (sometimes free, sometimes for a small fee) like CouchSurfing, SERVAS or Hospitality Club can make your trip unique in ways you can’t imagine. By doing a quick search, setting parameters for age, gender, experience or hobbies if you want, you can find hosts in the area you will be traveling to. After reading their profile and references, you can send them a request and they will reply after reading your profile. If they can host you, a meeting point and time will be agreed upon (sometimes a café, bar, the train station, a metro stop, their office or their home) and phone numbers will be exchanged to keep in touch in case plans change (your bus is late or you get lost). There are also meetings organized through these websites that can let you meet other people (both locals and travelers) in the area and you can find new friends to meet up with or even travel with. Safety is usually a concern from people who haven’t used the services, but great reference and vouching systems make it more secure. Of course, bad things can happen, but bad things can happen anywhere and the worst experiences I’ve had were with people I didn’t get along with and I never felt my safety was at risk.
While using the above hospitality websites means you are staying with people you don’t know, you are still able to tell a little about them from their profile and references. What about staying with people you don’t know at all? I’m sure this sounds like a front-page news story ready to happen to many people, but in a lot of countries, especially in the Middle East, hospitality is a way of life and if you don’t welcome a guest, it’s seen as a very bad thing. Maybe like not holding the door open for the next person, but worse. If you don’t feel comfortable with it, don’t do it, but do realize that if someone invites you to sleep at their house, they are not necessarily flirting with you or trying to rob you. The whole world isn’t out to get you, but most of it is trying to help you. I’ve been offered hospitality most memorably in Kosovo by a man who was so excited to meet an American and he was sure his sister and mother would love for me to stay with them, then just an hour later I was invited by a Kosovan girl who had studied in America during the war and felt like Americans had treated her so well, she wanted to repay the favor. Sadly, my plans never allowed me to accept their offers (I was leaving the next morning) but given the right situation it would have been wonderful and probably the highlight of my trip.
With so many options of where to sleep, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes your budget will choose for you. Maybe you can stay two weeks in a bed and breakfast or 4 days in a resort on the same budget. If staying longer is more important to you, stay in the cheaper accommodations. If you would rather be treated like royalty, go for the short stay in a resort. Don’t feel like you have to cut corners that you don’t want to and if you get really creative, it’s always possible find a balance between different options or cut spending elsewhere in your trip. If you have your heart set on something, make it happen.
As a general rule, the less you spend the more authentic experience you will have. More money means more of a buffer from the country and culture you are visiting. With that in mind, I highly recommend staying in bed and breakfasts, hostels or using a hospitality website (I use CouchSurfing). By staying closer to the culture, you will learn more, have more memorable experiences and they will be unique to you.
Whatever way you decide to stay, I hope you get the experiences you hope for and that they stay with you for a lifetime. Anything can be memorable and the best things can happen in any situation if you let it.