A place to stay – essential in any trip. And actually one of the biggest minefields going, whether you’re backpacking, flashpacking or going on an all-out 5-star trip of a lifetime. The options seem to be either endless or non-existent, advertised to within an inch of their life, or kept cheekily secret by those in the know who don’t want to their favourite hostel/ campsite/ hotel to become the next big travel destination!
All this may be why trying to figure out which of Sydney’s many and varied hostels to head to when we first arrive in Australia has left me beyond confused/ procrastinating more than I ever have in my life. Travel bud (who is now having an awesome time on a GAP trip in Cambodia) and I thought we’d figured it out… then I looked at the latest reviews on one of the hostel sites and I suddenly became a little, shall we say, undecided again. The thing is, while it’s easy enough to find a place to rest your head in a distant land, it’s a little harder to come across a good place.
So what is the best way to find accommodation abroad? Here are some ideas we tried/ tested/ considered earlier…
Rated and Slated: the travel review sites
Hands up, who’s followed up initial research on a place to stay with a quick scan of the reviews on the likes of Trip Advisor, Hostelbookers, and Hostelworld. Me! I have! After all, who better to ask than the people who have already stayed there and tried the delicious inclusive breakfast (such as dulce de leche and the fluffiest bread EVER – Periko in Bariloche, I’m thinking of you!) or, alternatively, run screaming from the ice-cold showers (Oh, Rome hostel, I will never forget your evil morning heart-attack-in-a-bath wake up… but I will forget your name).
PROS: Instant yay or nay vote from other travellers – those percentages say a LOT! And you can usually make a direct reservation pretty easily.
CONS: You don’t know who the reviewers are, whether they have similar tastes, standards or requirements to yourself or, as a recent Guardian article highlighted, whether the reviews are actually accurate or written by travellers at all.
VERDICT: If you’re good at sifting the gold from the dirt, and willing to listen to the opinions of strangers, it’s a goer. If you’re indecisive, perhaps not the best option – too many voices!
Couch Potatos: the alternative approach
Why bother with a hostel at all, when you can potentially get free accommodation and make friends with the locals at the same time? Sites such as Couchsurfing and Globalfreeloaders have become increasingly popular in the last couple of years – you basically sign up, and check out potential hosts or people willing to give you at least a cuppa for nothing, nada, nil, zilch! I’d never heard of the concept until my local guide in Pucon told me he had two travellers couch surfing at his – lucky girls, he was an angel. In fact, he enjoyed playing host so much that he recently opened his own hostel.
PROS: Free accommodation. Hellooo! Oh, and you can meet some new friends, and pick up local knowledge, too.
CONS: You have no idea WHO you are staying with. There is, however, nothing to force you to stay once you’ve met them. Politely decline if you even get a hint of a suggestion that you could end up being inducted into the local cult.
VERDICT: Not tried it…yet. But I wanna!
The Pot Luck Method: rock up and see what’s available
Why bother planning at all?! If you take on the true spirit of adventure, you don’t even know where you’re going to be from one night to the next, so how can you possibly book ahead? There are also those times (Banos, and Montanita in Ecuador, stand up and be counted) when there are plenty of places to stay, they’re just not registered on the big hostel websites. This makes it’s nearly impossible to get a dorm sorted in advance.
PROS: As well as allowing you total freedom on your wanderings, there’s the potential to discover, and haggle your way into, an amazingly sweet deal.
CONS: Wandering around, carrying a heavy pack, trekking up and down stairs looking at rooms, when you’re tired and hungry – not fun. Also, if your timing’s off and there’s a big local event going on, you could end up without shelter for a night. Which is never good.
VERDICT: Done it. Sometimes it worked out (beautiful boutique hotel, again in Banos), sometimes it didn’t (best not to go there). I would do it again, as long as I wasn’t in a massive city – too big, and too damn tiring.
I trust in you: personal recommendations from friends
Put all the other options aside, cos this is where the money is. People you know, people you trust, giving you advice you can rely on. Sorted. Only…what if THEY didn’t find the best place to stay…? Back to the reviews I guess…