In the times of economic recession and trying to find alternatives for a cheaper travel (think budget airlines), a hotel stay for many avid travellers just doesn’t cut it. They are often too expensive, while lacking originality, personal touch and ways to meet/socialize with fellow travellers. So, then nomads like myself consider alternative places to crash for the night during the travel. Today, I am sharing my experiences with three great and affordable (or even free) types of accommodation: hostels, Airbnb flats and Couchsurfing.
For travellers on the budget but who don’t want to give the idea of a hotel entirely, I would recommend hostels. Even though sceptical about sleeping in the same room with other 3, 5 and more people of the same or opposite gender was once not so attractive to me, I have discovered you can find hostels that offer private rooms with en-suit bathrooms at the fraction of the hotel room cost. Also, during the low seasons, when hostels are under-occupied, you may end up sharing a 4-people dorm with just one more lodger, as it happened to me recently.
How it works: Check out websites like hostelworld, put in your travel dates and a number of people travelling. The list of available hostels in your destination will have ratings and guest reviews, which come handy in making a final decision. Read those carefully and weight all pros and cons (e.g. a hostel may not offer free breakfast or have early check-out but may be located in the city center with easy access to transportation and major sights) before booking a hostel.
Pros: Cheap and convenient, great place to meet and socialize with fellow backpackers in a fun and relaxed environment. It’s like a dorm for travellers from all over the world. During my recent trip to Marrakesh I paid only 6 euros per night at a great hostel Riad Massin. Pretty much all hostels have lounge areas, office space with computers and internet access, kitchens where you can fix your own meals and enjoy daily breakfast (typically coffee/tea, toast, jams, etc) for free or at the minimal cost. The price usually includes sheets and towel, but may have to pay extra for a locker.
Cons: Hostels, given their low rates, can be limited in comfort and amenities. With several people sleeping in the same room, be prepared to give up privacy, expect higher levels of noise and possible wait to use bathroom. Some hostels also have age limit, which can prevent 30+ travellers from staying.
I discovered Airbnb through a friend a couple of years ago. It’s a great alternative to a hotel since it provides an opportunity to book a room or a whole apartment often at the prices lower than a hotel. Booking process works pretty much the same as the hotel, but payment is held by Airbnb as a guarantor of the transaction. Hosts with higher scores and better references are much likelier to get more guests and, thus, generate income.
How it works: Once you put in your destination and dates, the search gives you a list of properties, which can then be sorted by room type, price, location, and available amenities. The listing shows detailed information and photos of the property provided by the owners, outlining their requirements for the stay and any extra charges (if applicable). Once you book the flat/room, a message goes to the owner who either approves or declines the booking. Many owner profiles/property listings have reviews, which can be helpful in deciding where and who to stay with.
Pros: A great choice of properties in private homes and apartment, which makes your stay more fun and adds a personal touch. Many owners try to accommodate their guests in best possible way: for example, they will offer home-made breakfast every morning free of charge or a bottle of wine or provide lots of tips and information about the city. I once saw a host family that had a whole stack of guide books of their city for potential guests.
Cons: Some of the owners will offer a whole flat to you, while others will list just a room in the flat or a house they live in. In any case, you will be surrounded by other person’s stuff and this may or may not be comfortable. While you will expect some level of comfort and privacy for the money paid, the owner will expect respect and trust in return (for example that you will maintain their place to a certain degree of cleanliness and nothing will go missing after the stay). It is their home afterall, so they have a reason to be cautious. The same applies to the traveller – since you are dealing with a private individual, misunderstanding and other issues may arise. To prevent this, read listings and other travellers’ reviews carefully. Ask a host questions if some information is unclear or seems missing.
Couchsurfing is picking up in its popularity after years of existing (since 2003)! It’s a culture and a way of life for some. Being something in between the hostel and Airbnb, it’s a great way to meet locals, make friends, discover the city and learn about its culture from inside out. I know the way I discovered some of the cities, having visited them as a couchsurfer and being taken to hidden gems that only locals know about, was very different from if I were a regular tourist staying at the hotel and relying on a guidebook only.
Some hosts are so generous with their space and time that they will pick you up at the airport/train/bus station, be your guide, introduce you to their friends, give you a separate bedroom and treat you to a homemade meal.
How it works: It’s a social network site so you need to register to be able to access and use all of its functions. Once you create a profile, you can do different things: post announcements on the board of the town/city you plan to visit, contact local hosts directly, list your own couch for hosting (if you have one!) and/or make yourself available to meet for coffee with fellow travellers. If you need a place to stay, you can search a list of local hosts and read descriptions of the sleeping space available, which can range from a couch or inflatable bed in the living room to a separate bedroom. As a guest, follow a basic etiquette by keeping things clean and tidy, offering host your help if necessary and thanking them for their hospitality at the end. I usually try to leave a small souvenir from home as a Thank you gift.
Pros: It’s a FREE stay and you will be surprised how many people are willing to host a stranger. When I asked hosts in different cities why they want to host someone they don’t know, they told me they enjoy being part of this cultural exchange which allows to learn something new about other cultures and practice their English. Even if you decide to stay at the hotel/hostel, you can still use couchsurfing to meet locals and fellow travellers for sightseeing, drinks and other activities.
Cons: Again safety and possible lack of privacy! As a female traveller, I never stay alone with a male host for these reasons. In general, Couchsurfing is safe but make sure you read hosts’ profiles and references from other people they hosted. If there are some negative ones or something just doesn’t sound right, it’s better not to take the risk and stay with someone else or at the hotel/hostel. Since you are staying in somebody’s home and possibly sleeping in an open space (like living room), your privacy will be limited plus you may have to abide to certain house rules. Just like in any kind of relationship, Couchsurfing is all about chemistry. Depending on your and their language and social skills, you may hit off with some people right away and really enjoy their company, and with others it can be more of an effort and even uncomfortable. But don’t let this deter you, try it for yourself – you may be pleasantly surprised!
Stay safe and happy travelling!