When you hit the road, where do you stay?
For many of us, hostels are the obvious choice – the common room, the books and board games, meeting people from all over the world and the mandatory pub crawl. For others, the thought of bunking in with a roomful of strangers and a shared, unisex bathroom is your idea of hell. Can you really have a good holiday if your day doesn’t start with pancakes and a personalised omelette at the hotel breakfast buffet? And there are more options still as trends today suggest homestays are all the rage for the traveller who seeks a truly local experience. Never mind hashbrowns – what says authenticity more than a home cooked dinner by your host?
In the interest of full disclosure and the slightly unbalanced nature of this guide, I spent most of my recent honeymoon in hostels – such is the strength of the hostel tribe. Even when you’re on what’s supposed to be a romantic getaway, there’s nothing quite like cheap beers and a foosball table to start the night with.
HOSTELS: PROS AND CONS
At hostels, you get to meet everyone. You get to meet the inspiring person who has truly lived life at his or her own pace, hopping from country to country and making their own way in this world in a way most wouldn’t understand. You get to meet the young first-timers who, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, remind you of why you made your first step out the door in the first place. You meet the person you’ve been looking for your whole life – that person who just gets you. You meet people who speak languages you’d never heard spoken, or come from countries you’d never thought twice (or once, even) about. In one room you could have the whole world and all your collective experiences that make international travel what it really is.
Hostels are, for the most part, usually much cheaper than other options. Stay in a dorm and you could save a significant sum, spending the rest of your cash on other more valuable memories than where you crashed for the night. Perhaps not the most comfortable place on earth, but you get so much of the whole earth in your experience. If you must (and I quite regularly do), most hostels have private rooms, providing the best of both worlds. If there are two of you, a private room is often cheaper or the equivalent of two beds in a dorm, and it provides all of the party and most of the privacy.
There’s usually a common kitchen where you and your worldly friends can cook up something cheap and easy, and a common bar area where you and your brand new crew can look out over the city while someone strums to provide the mandatory acoustic guitar solo. For the wandering soul, hostels can feel a lot like coming home.
At hostels, you get to meet everyone. This means you might just be stuck with that asshole who keeps hitting on all the girls, the suspicious guys with shifty eyes you’re uncertain about leaving your valuables, locked up as they may be, around. One moment you’re enjoying a rooftop sunset and the next thing you know, you’re surrounded by gap year kids who came to party hard and want everyone to know it. You might try to retreat to your room, but the noise follows you far.
You’re sharing a bathroom with a lot of people; you just never know who or what you’re getting with a hostel.
THE PROS AND CONS OF HOTELS
If the humble hostel’s benefits are outweighed by the possible inconveniences they present, paying a little more can go a long way. Nicer hotels come with magical things like room service, breakfast, and someone to open the door for you. Even an average hotel will bring you some ice if you really need some and you ask nicely, and most will serve you breakfast at a small fee.
Clean sheets, housekeeping, and a concierge – all things that make the hotel experience so valuable.
What most hotels don’t have, though, are a truly personalised experience. You’re unlikely to get someone (in many cases, the hostel owner herself) emailing you recommendations and directions. You’re not going to get the feeling that you know the place even before you arrive. Hotel staff won’t be as sympathetic to your meagre traveller’s budget, and asking for the cheapest eats and drinks in town might not be so readily welcomed or expected.
While hotels are generally nicer than other options, they don’t come with the party. When you hear that boisterous bunch riot past your bedroom window as you sit in your too tightly tucked bed, you know you could’ve been part of it, and you wonder what your night might have been, thinking about all the people you could have met.
Perhaps the most current and trendy option in the travel scene, homestays are rising in popularity all over the world, driven by travellers who want something more than a chain hotel experience, as assured of quality and meeting your expectations as they may be.
A homestay involves your host welcoming you into their home, introducing you to their family, their pets, their lifestyle and their culture. It’s an amazing way to get to know how people in the places you visit live, to get real first-hand information on what’s what and where’s good to go, and what a day in the life looks like. When you’ve been away for a while, it’s a comforting touch of home.
As a gracious guest, you don’t quite have the same luxury of coming in, kicking off your shoes and doing as you please. While most hosts will leave you to it, it’s still poor form to not stop for a chat, have a cup of tea, or join the family for dinner when you’re invited. If your habits include loud music and a six-pack, the room above the family’s newborn might not be the best place for you.
You’re much obliged, and as the kind, good-natured person that you likely are, you will do what you must – but perhaps with a twinge of regret thinking of the times you weren’t fussed about leaving your room in a generally tidy state, or offering to help with the dishes because you know you should.
IN SUMMARY: WHERE TO SLEEP?
Did you come to party and play hard and to socialise with like-minded strangers, to have fresh sheets and a buffet breakfast every day at a greater expense, or to enter a home and culture that requires a bit of participation from you as well?
Whatever you choose, there’s a lot of good in every option. The more you travel, the better you get at figuring out what’s right for you; getting there, as with most things, is at least half the fun, and a big part of the adventure.