How to Travel the World on the Cheap. Part 2: Accommodations

Sleep. The final frontier. No matter where you go, or what your situation, it will find you. From upright sleep on bumpy busses brought on by extreme exhaustion to the ever occasional full 8-hours, where one rests their weary eyes is of continuous of concern on the road. The decision on how to tackle the matter of where to sleep depends primarily on circumstances and preference. The options range from pre-booking to just showing up, and from camping for free to working in exchange for a bed. What follows below are the basics on determining where and how to find your shut eye while traveling the world on the cheap.  

Let’s start with the most common, prepared, planning oriented and move on to the less premeditated, less conventional. Whether one books the night before or months in advance, these days the business of finding accommodations is done online using a platform such as agoda.com, booking.com, hosteworld.com, or hostels.com, among others. I would suggest trying them all out to see which one fits your needs, but for Asia, we’ve had the best luck using Agoda and in the US, airbnb.com or vrbo.com. However, before even logging on to one of these websites, figure out what you want to do and where you want to be in each destination you intend to visit. As with anything real estate related, location is everything. Bear in mind where you’ll be arriving and departing in addition to the sights and activities you plan to see and do. Your accommodation choice should first and foremost be as ideally located as your budget allows. Booking the cheapest place doesn’t save you anything (time or money) if you have to take a taxi from the suburbs just to get to the attractions surrounding the central square, and likewise, if you intend to explore the countryside, stay there, assuming you can afford it, instead of trekking in from the nearest big city. Since location is the most critical piece of the accommodations puzzle, I prefer the map view instead of the list view on whatever online booking platform I’m using to more easily pin down the best location for the price.

Once you’ve nailed your location, it’s time to begin adding specifications to reduce the number of options to simplify your decision. In this game, as is often the case in life, the fewer options, the easier it is to make the right choice. Price is an obvious one, and depending on where we’re traveling, I generally tend to look for places at price points of $20 per night or less, but stay alert – many places will tac on taxes and fees in addition to the price they’ve quoted, sometimes to the tune of 25% or more. There are many other specs one can enter, if they are really important to you, but I generally stick to price. Once the exact location has been determined and a price point has been entered, you’ll likely have no more than a few options from which to choose. Obviously, the pictures and reviews can only tell you so much, so take them with a grain of salt – your final decision will probably come down to which one just “feels” the best. When in doubt, we generally choose the one that looks the cleanest.

Another way to predetermine where one will rest their head is to hit the couchsurfing break, and hope to catch a friendly wave. I could (and someday may) write a full entry exclusively on couchsurfing (“CS”), but for the time being, I’ll keep it brief. Unless you know someone in the town you’re visiting, or you’re just really good at meeting people and convincing them to allow a stranger to sleep in their home, you’ll need to start your couchsurfing paddle out virtually. To begin, one must create a profile on couchsurfing.com. Obviously, a picture, an interesting and detailed (and not creepy) write up, and references/friends are required to establish credibility among other surfers. Ask anyone you know who has an active CS profile to be your friend and write you a reference and eventually, as you stay with or host more surfers, your credibility will grow as they too befriend and recommend you. The key to having a good CS experience is catching the right wave, so find someone with whom you think you’ll get along. Whatever you do, please don’t use it as a hookup site. Those who do are rightfully given bad references and are forever ostracized from the community. Instead, write thoughtful requests that are personalized to each host based on things that are unique to their profile, and if you’re lucky enough to get an affirmative response, I always like to bring them some kind of gift from wherever I’m traveling. The nice thing about CS is that it’s free and you get to commune with a local person, sometimes finding lasting friendships. The risk is surfing with someone with whom you don’t get along and being relegated to the back row so to speak, far away from whatever it is that you came to town to do in the first place. It’s certainly not the most convenient of accommodations, but it can be a special experience, if you find that perfect wave. I tend to use CS in the US, where hotel costs are high, and when I have a car, so that location isn’t quite as critical. I have to put the disclaimer out there to be careful when couchsurfing whether it’s with someone you’ve just met on the ground or online. Common sense goes a long way.

The cousin to couchsurfing is the homestay – it’s not free, but you do get to know the locals and live like they do. Sometimes these can be booked in advance, either through word of mouth, travel agencies, or when you first get to a town. Occasionally, they can even be found on the sites I listed above. Much of the time on overnight treks, your trekking guide will have arranged a homestay in a local village or will allow you to stay at their home. Where CS is generally an opportunity to hang with someone like you for the day, homestays put you in an entirely different world with totally different people, many of whom have families with children, animals, a small home on a plot of land, and little else. But what they lack in possessions, homestay hosts generally make up for in charm. In a lot of cases, you can help cook the meals and in this way, get a free cooking lesson, as authentic as anything you’d pay good money for anywhere else. Homestays are not just about a bed and a hot meal – they are about experiencing life as it’s lived from a local’s perspective. And although they tend to be a bit pricier than the average cheap hotel or guesthouse are prices in terms of deepening your understanding of and appreciation of a place.

I’ve found that the more people in your party, the more important it is that you nail down a place before arrival. Case in point: Mount Abu, India. Our bus was delayed (go figure) and we arrived to town late. It was a weekend. And most of the hotels in town did not accept foreigners. As the hours ticked away and it got colder and colder, we were turned away from at least a dozen hotels. Our anxiety grew along with the clouds of breath we were exhaling at each denial, and we were forced to stay in a complete dump for five times the price it should have cost…because that was literally the only place that would take us. Utterly dejected, we resolved to never let that happen to us again. If it was just me, suffering in a crappy hotel is one thing, but to ask my partner, friends or family to do so really sucks. So, unless you’re travel alone, my advice would be to book ahead, if only for a single night, so you have a place to lay your head until you can learn the lay of the land the next day. In solo traveling though, anything goes.

If you’re someone who prefers to live by the seat of their flowing elephant print pants, there are some ways to make the accommodation decision on-arrival more bearable. Generally, if you are just showing up in a town, you’d better at least have a map (maybe maps.me) that shows where the hotels are located or a recommendations from a travel guide book. The latter is probably your better bet, having been vetted by the book’s writers – it’s really one of the best reasons to buy and carry one. As much as I deride Lonely Planet for its overly positive representation of places, it is, along with the Moon travel guides, an easy to use companion to help plan your trip. With that being said, if you stay at a highly recommended place, there’s a good chance it will be sold out when you get there and be crawling with western backpackers. If that’s not your scene, I’ve had luck with checking out the places across the street or down the block from the highly recommended ones. These are often cheaper and less crowded. Whatever the case, do at least some pre-arrival research so that you’ll know where the hotels are, and remember to focus on finding one in the location that is most convenient to what you want to do and how you’ll be getting around your destination.

The question of whether to stay in a hostel (dorm) or a hotel (private room) depends mostly on your personal situation. Are you a solo traveler, young and full of social energy? Opt for a dorm. Are you a couple or family that’s looking for a clean and quite homebase for the time being? Opt for a private room. It also depends on what you want to get out of your stay. Would you like to meet others with whom you can adventure or just spend a fun evening on the town or at the rooftop bar? A hostel is your answer. Or do you need some introvert alone time to recharge those inner batteries of yours? A hotel it is. Hostels tend to be cheaper for the solo traveler but if you’re a couple or family traveling, a private room is not that much more expensive per person, with significantly more seclusion and value for your money. I’m to the point that I’ll stay in a dorm if I want to meet people and a private room if I want to go it alone. Each place is different as is each traveller, therein lies the beauty of having a choice of the two.

Let’s say you’ve arrived in a new town, perused the tourist district, and found a place that looks promising. Here are some simple tips on how to ensure your stay there is as keen as possible. First, ask politely, and if possible in the local tongue, “Do you have a room?” If no, ask for a recommendation elsewhere. If yes, ask to see the room. Only after seeing the room, ask about the price. This way, you can negotiate the price down in private (instead of in the lobby surrounded by others who’ve all likely paid full price). Use whatever negotiating techniques come natural to you. If the price seems right, and before leaving the room, make sure to check the wifi signal in the room and the wifi speed. The speed can be checked fairly easily by downloading a random podcast and seeing the MB speed at which it’s downloading. If the wifi signal sucks, ask for a room that has a better location/connection. If the speed sucks, consider going elsewhere – you’ll need it to plan, at the very least. You may also prefer to be on a high floor for a better view or to be further from the noise of city streets below, so you can also ask at this point if such a room is available. Whichever room you choose, make sure it has the following: towels, toilet paper, hot water, and soaps/etc. I also like to ask for an additional bedsheet (most cheap places only have a bottom sheet) and blanket if the nights in your new locale prove frosty. Sometimes breakfast will be included in the price of the room – ask if this is the case. You can use this as a bargaining chip in your negotiations. A few other items to note: If you’re in a place with communal bathrooms, try your darnedest to not accept a room near the shared lue. Sometimes hotel operators will show you an aircon room when aircon is not needed just because it’s more expensive, so always ask for the cheapest type of room you’d be comfortable in. And if you’re someone who has to have a certain type of mattress (firm or soft), there’s nothing better than the old sit test.  

Or, if you’re the type that prefers no bed at all, there’s always the great outdoors, the call of the wild, stary open skies…and by all these cliches, I mean: camping. There’s really no better way to see the beauty of America than to camp within it. If you’re American, this may come as common knowledge to you, so I’m scribing this for our cousins from another country. There are a number of different camping options out there, so let’s start with the most conventional. Not all camping costs, but the developed campgrounds, with bathrooms, running water, and, drumroll please…hot showers, do. In most cases, state parks will have a fee campground, while national parks are serviced by private campgrounds just outside the borders of the park. All campgrounds will cost anywhere from $15-30 per night. One can also find free camping at (rough sites) on what’s called BLM land, which stands for Bureau of Land Management and is basically any federally owned lands that aren’t part of a national park. Googling “BLM campsites near ____” is a good start, but if you don’t have internet access in the wilds of nature, your best bet is finding a nearby green splotch on your map and hunting for flat, grassy or otherwise open ground down a side road, most of which tend to be dirt or gravel – the more remote, the better. Main roads are not safe to camp on and would prove too loud for sleep anyway. Although it’s not generally accepted in the US, camping on the beach has been a good option abroad as most beaches are usually unregulated, but be careful. The last and most desperate, uncomfortable form of camping, which is sometimes your only option, is to put the back seats down in your car, blow up your air mattress, unroll your sleeping bag, and bivy in the trunk of your car. Only when all else fails is this acceptable, or if you have a sweet vanagon setup. Unless you’re a diehard camping fanatic, carrying a tent in most countries is just not feasible, lest you rent a car and turn your holiday into a good old fashion ‘Merican style road trip.

Maybe you would prefer to stay a while in a place, instead of moving from place to place like a Bedouin floater. Well then, a work exchange may be your temporary calling. These situations vary widely but basically entail working in exchange for your accommodations and in cases, your food as well. Long term volunteering, from a 2-year fully paid for Peace Corps assignment to a single week of voluntourism will not only put a roof over your head, but allow you to give back to the community you visit, or in some cases, call home. I worked for a year in Micronesia as a teacher and business consultant with WorldTeach, in one of their fully funded, Peace Corps-esque programs. Most of their programs though are fee-based, as are most any other volunteering you’ll find. There are very few volunteering organization that will fully fund your service, so expect to pay to work. As surprising as that is for most people, it’s the name of the game these days. Bringing a new volunteer online, transporting, housing, and feeding them, is all too much of an expense for non-profits on already on tight budgets to handle. Please don’t expect them to pay for your privilege to save the world. On the flip, you can always work teaching English abroad for a year or more, have all your expenses paid, and actually walk away with some dough at the end. There are also the options of doing shorter term work exchange gigs at hotels/hostels, farms, or various other rando endeavors that require relatively unskilled labor abroad. wwoofinternational.org (farming) and workaway.info (various types of employment) are two online platforms that require a membership fee but are well established ways of finding short term gigs in your country of choice. Just don’t apply for a work visa as it’s one of the biggest pains in the ass you’ll ever have – a tourist visa is all you should need, unless your work is legit and you’re getting paid. Do yourself a favor and don’t worry too much about fibbing in order to contribute to the common good.  

From night trains to the back of a rental car at 13,000 feet, and 4-star hotels to camping on remote islands, I’ve run the table, trying just about anything in the hopes of finding something resembling a bed. But one universal always rings true: There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to recharge you for another day of adventure on the road. The trouble is that it’s not always easy, so make sure to pack extra earplugs and eye masks, melatonin and podcasts to put you to sleep, and stay away from screens for at least an hour before bedtime. Try to keep to a fairly set sleep schedule, despite your jet lag and whirlwind pace. Speaking of jetlag, the best way to combat it is to sleep as much as possible whenever possible, even if it means crashing mid-day or sleeping in. Remember to eat healthfully and get regular exercise. Come to think of it, these are all things that people everywhere should do to get a proper night’s rest, not only those lucky enough to be traveling. I might even turn into an ear plug-eye mask kinda guy myself whenever we get home. And one thing I’ll really be looking forward to? Sleeping in our own bed…priceless.  

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