August 16, 2014

The Worst Tourists in the World

Paris20_6164I read with interest a recent study by the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce, which rated the behavior of tourists from all the world’s industrialized countries. Consistently ranking last in the study — bottoming out in categories ranging from airline etiquette to podiatric hygiene — were travelers from Great Britain. “This settles it,” a TATTC spokesperson was quoted as saying. “The British are the worst tourists in the world.”

Actually, I’m just kidding. There is no such thing as the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce. I made it up just now, because I know that people like to obsess over international rankings, and I’ve been looking for a chance to poke fun at the British.

Mind you, I don’t really think the British are bad tourists. To the contrary, I’ve usually found travelers from the U.K. to be friendly, well read, and quite prolific in their wanderings. You can find Brits in all corners of the world, from Valparaiso to Vladivostok, and they most always make good travel companions.

The problem I have with the British, however, is that — to a bigger extent than other travelers I’ve met — they seem to be obsessed with stereotypes of national character.

I used to think that British travelers were just disproportionately gung-ho about bashing Americans (apparently, we’re noisy, over-religious, and we’re supposed to use a “u” when we spell “color”). Over time, however, I’ve discovered that Brits also hold strong preconceptions about nearly every nationality in the travel milieu, from the Swiss (officious and dull), to the Japanese (unimaginative and over-polite), to the Argentines (narcissistic and sex-obsessed).

In fact, were I to base my perceptions entirely on the basis of Britannic generalizations, I could very well conclude that the world’s worst tourists are roughly categorized as follows:

  1. Americans: Ignorant. Loud. Oblivious to surroundings. Insincere.
  2. French: Rude. Bigoted. A trifle out of touch with reality.
  3. Germans: Humorless. Rule-obsessed. Unfriendly. Stubborn.
  4. Israelis: Rude. Cheap. Arrogant. Cliquish.
  5. Canadians: Exactly like Americans, but more polite, less ignorant, and twenty times more boring.

Before I go any further here, I will admit three things. First, I realize the circular logic inherent in making generalizations about the generalizations of British travelers (and I apologize if you happen to be one of those Brits who isn’t a nationalistic busybody). Second, I realize that half the readers who’ve stumbled across my column this week have skipped straight from the headline to the above list, and are now typing angry things in the comments section below (especially if they happen to be American, French, German, Israeli, or Canadian). And, third, I’ll concede that the British fixation with national character reveals an impressive knack for world geography (in contrast to us Americans, who associate “Vienna” less with a European city than with canned snack sausages).

Were I a more meticulous analyst, I might posit that this British tendency is the cultural residue of Victorian-era self-superiority (vivid examples of which can be found in most any 19th century British travel guidebook, one of which described Valencian Spaniards as “perfidious, vindictive, sullen, mistrustful, fickle, treacherous, smooth, empty of all good, snarling and biting like hyenas, and smiling as they murder”). Since I’m no scholar, however, I’ll just point out that the British affinity for stereotyping their fellow wanderers is a mostly harmless amplification of what all travelers do from time to time.

The problem here is that assessing your travel companions by nationality is rarely an earnest inquiry so much as it is a dull parlor game — an empty exercise in rhetorical one-upmanship. The worst travelers in the world are, after all, the rude, small-minded ones — and rude, small-minded travelers can hail from any nation.

Moreover, most hostel-lounge arguments about which countries export good or bad travelers fail to take in the local perspective. A few years ago, a survey conducted by international tourist offices found that the oft-disparaged Germans and Americans were rated most favorably by host communities around the world. This rating didn’t hinge on cultural or aesthetic opinions, but the simple fact that Germans and Americans spend money more generously than their tourist counterparts. Economic benefit, it would appear, was more important to local hosts than the common traveler obsessions with fashion, geopolitics, and collective behaviors in tacky backpacker nightclubs.

My point, then, is a simple one: The next time you find yourself in a heated argument over which nation produces the best or worst tourists, this is probably an indicator that you’ve been spending too much time yapping in hostel lounges and not enough time outside having engaged adventures.

And that, in its own way, means you’re a bad tourist.

Tip sheet: How to avoid being an ugly American (or wherever it is you’re from)
1) Study up on the local culture.

Get to know something about a place before you go there. Read novels and travel books about the region, and study guidebooks to learn about customs, manners, and cultural norms. Learn a few phrases of the language (such as greetings, thank yous, numbers, and food terms). Keep in mind that culture expresses itself at an instinctive level — not an intellectual level — and that different standards of time, courtesy, and personal service may apply in far-off lands.

2) Listen, and ask questions.

On the road, make it a habit to talk less and listen more. Travel is hardly the time to extol the virtues (or shortcomings) your home country; instead be curious about how people think in the place you’re visiting. Ask follow-up questions. Seek to maintain open-mindedness, which is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.

3) Avoid arguing politics.

Avoid political proselytizing, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you think you represent. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. If you really are liberal and enlightened (or conservative and informed) you will stop yammering about politics and learn something about the culture you’re visiting.

4) Avoid traveling in large groups.

If your sorority or church group or wiccan pilates club decides to travel to Paris or Quito or Bangkok as an eight-some, do everyone a favor and split into groups of two. This will make you less noisy, less self-enclosed, more approachable, and more open to what’s going on around you. If nobody wants to split off from the group with you, tackle the day solo. I guarantee that you will have more memorable adventures on your own than with a big group of travelers.

5) Give respect and you get respect.

Having rigid stereotypes about individuals you haven’t taken the time to know is silly in all contexts. As a representative of your own country, the best way to win respect is to show respect to everyone you meet. Odds are, your hosts will return the favor.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Oct. 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Hospitality, Hostels/Hotels, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

July 10, 2014

Finding a good working environment for travelers with online incomes- the travel-hacker way

It is hard to get work done in a hostel, if only for the flurry of social activity vying for one’s attention.

The number one reason that my husband and I really appreciate having status with a few of the major hotel chains is for one important detail: free wifi. We work online so honestly, we wouldn’t be able to travel without wifi.

Or some statuses come with free breakfast, lounge access, business center access, and upgrades. All of these things are in no way necessary. Absolutely luxuries and nothing more. But they happen to be luxuries that are perfectly suited for a person working as they travel. It all makes sense really seeing as these statuses were somewhat designed top make life easier for and reward the loyalty of those traveling on business a bulk of the year.

But these perks are just as convenient for travel bloggers, photographers, programmers or anyone else creating an income online.

Traditionally status is for people who stay a ton of nights with a hotel and spend an exorbitant amount of money with them. (Or rather…someone whose business does so). But luckily there are a few hotel statuses that come as perks for having the hotel credit card. Now, this does require a good credit score and an ability to be smart with your credit, but if you make sure that you are using the card for the perks and not as an excuse to spend money you don’t have, then check out the list below of cards that come with hotel status as a perk.

(For a more thorough rundown of hotel loyalty programs, I recommend our infographic about the Best Hotel Rewards Programs.)

I’ve ordered this list from lowest annual fee to highest.

1.) Hilton HHonors Visa: (no annual fee).

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses as its only real benefit is a 15% increase on points earnings for paid stays. However, the card comes with a 40,000 point bonus after spending $1,000 in 4 months and has no annual fee.

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses as its only real benefit is a 15% increase on points earnings for paid stays. However, the card comes with a 40,000 point bonus after spending $1,000 in 4 months and has no annual fee.

2.) IHG Rewards Select Visa: ($49 annual fee, waived for the first year).

Status earned: Platinum Status

Perks of the status: This status is a bit more helpful in that it gives 50% increased points earnings as well as free wifi. Also occasionally (though unofficially) you’ll get a free drink voucher or upgrade as well. It’s not a listed benefit but platinums may still get upgrades when visiting the more budget members of the chain like Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, etc.

Also worth mentioning, this credit card comes with an anniversary gift of a free night at any IHG property.

3.) Hyatt Credit Card: ($75 annual fee).

Status earned: Platinum

Perks of the status and perks of the card: Again, this status gives 15% increased points earnings as well as free internet. Better than the status perk however is the credit card’s other perk- a certificate for a free night at any category 1-4 Hyatt property. And, after spending $1,000 in 3 months on this card, you’ll earn 2 free night certificates for any Hyatt property.

4.) Club Carlson Visa: ($75 annual fee).

Status earned: Gold

Perks of the status and perks of the card: Much like the others, this status earns %30 more points for stays and comes with free wifi. The card offers 50,000 points (quite generous) after just the first purchase with a possibility of 35,000 more points after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of having your card.

This card needs some special attention though because of my favorite credit card perk ever: for every stay you reserve with points, card-holders automatically get a free night added on, including for 1 night stays. It’s almost like a buy one get one arrangement! I cannot tell you how much use my husband and I have made of this perk. Obviously this means that we try to use our Club Carlson points in two-night increments (with the second night being free). Then, since you aren’t allowed to just do back to back two night stays and still receive the extra night perk for both of them, we might make a paid stay in-between our two-night blocks for a total of 5 nights, 2 of which are paid for in points, 2 of which are free, and one for which we pay with cash.

5.) Marriott Visa Signature: ($85 annual fee, waived for the first year).

Status earned: Silver

Perks of the status and perks of the card: This is one of the lesser impressive statuses again as it only gets you a %20 increase on points earnings. The perks of the card itself are alright though, earning 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in 3 months as well as 1 free night certificate for a category 1-4 Marriott property. (On the anniversary of this card, you’ll get a category 1-5 certificate.)

6.) Hilton HHonors Reserve: ($95 annual fee).

Status earned: Gold

Perks of the status and perks of the card: This is at last quite a rewarding status. It earns only %15 extra points for stays but comes with free wifi, lounge access, and free breakfast. The lounge access is sometimes just as good as having access to a business center. Not always as sometimes printing and scanning still costs, but some lounges will have a set-up for free printing etc. But the best part is the free food. Not to mention a great, quiet place to work and sip your free coffee.

Otherwise, the only perk of this card is 2 free night certificates after spending $2,500 in the first 4 months of having your card.

 

As you can see almost all of these cards will get you free wifi, though with an annual fee can you really call that free? Ultimately these cards will only truly be worth it to you if you also take advantage of the points bonuses and/or the free night certificates. You see, travel-hacking is all about maximizing your benefits or at the very least, making sure you’re taking full advantage of all the benefits you’re entitled to.

Here we are enjoying the outdoor seating at a Club Carlson hotel’s lounge in Salzburg.

salzburg2

 

salzburg1

It could be a very helpful thing to start thinking intentionally about status and points when it comes to hotels. In the case of Club Carlson you could hop across Europe spending your points in a buy-one-get-one fashion and getting free wifi in a comfortable working environment as we did this past year.

 

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Category: Hostels/Hotels, Working Abroad

April 24, 2014

5 tips for how not to chase a deal

Hotel and airline “deals” are a big part my long-term travel strategy. My husband and I are constantly chasing promotions if we think they’ll help us gain another day, week, or month on the road. In fact, quite often we find ourselves making our travel plans based on the deals we find.

We’ve learned a lot about living out of hotels. You can read about our general tips for living out of hotels here. But in the process of cultivating that list of tips, we’ve made definitely had some flops.

Hotel Leonardo Berlin

For instance last summer we found a list of hotels throughout Germany that had been mistakenly priced at around $20 for a week’s stay. In our circles this is called a “mistake-fare.” It’s always up to the hotel as to whether or not they’ll actually honor this kind of accidental rate or not but in the case of these Germany hotels, they approved. The first hotel booked under this mistake-fare rate, a hotel not far from downtown Berlin, was great. The second one on the other hand was in the middle of an industrial park far from any of the beautiful sites Hamburg had to offer.

While the comforts we agree to give up for a good deal may vary from person to person, there are a few general “do’s” and “don’t's” that may be helpful across the gamut.

As someone who has chased a lot of deals…and made lots of mistakes as well, I’ve created a list of general rules for how not to chase a deal.

How not to chase a deal.

1.) While it’s ok to go somewhere you know nothing about specifically for a deal, don’t go somewhere you aren’t interested in for a deal, and don’t be afraid to ditch the deal and leave if you find that’s the case when you arrive.

If you are a person who works online as you go, it’s not always important to be in a place that stimulates your curiosity if you’re in a place that instead stimulates your work stamina! However, being a place you hate is not likely to be a place that stimulates anything but negativity. A deal isn’t worth that.

parkhyattshanghairesized

2.) Don’t forget to factor in what your price-cut is going to cost you.

In other words, sometimes you get what you pay for. In the example I gave above the awesome price cost us a good location. There was not even a cheap restaurant in walking distance let alone a place to get internet or laundry or any of the other needs that come up. So staying at our “good deal” hotel probably would have doubled our food budget, taxi budget, and internet budget as we usually choose hotels with internet included.

3.) Not all that glitters is gold…and not all hotel points and airline miles are useful.

Loyalty programs are becoming really popular so every hotel and airline seems to have one. But some of them are more “fluffy” than others and you may find yourself feeling fairly disappointed when you’ve made a few hotel stays for the sake of a promotion only to find the hotel chain is a regional hotel with very few locations you’ll be able to use. Or only to find that the points expire in a short amount of time.

4.) Don’t let luxury convince you a deal is better than it is.

This really comes down to letting math guide you out of the enticing siren-song of luxury. Fifty-percent off of something twice as much as your normal budget brings you back down to your normal budget. That’s not really a good deal, it’s just a special treat. It doesn’t necessarily help you stretch your budget even if it does give you a good experience. Maybe you’ll decide it’s worth it and that’ s totally fine. But don’t get into the habit of going for “deals” on luxury that trick you into spending a little bit more than your ordinary budget. (At least, not without simultaneously earning enough points to make up for it later as discussed in my previous post about how luxury hotels can save us money).

5.) Don’t sample a really great deal when you could go big.

We’ve done some wacky things for really good deals. One time Club Carlson was offering a brief promotion of 50,000 points (enough for up to ten free nights) per stay. This means that every time you make a stay, regardless of how many nights your stay included, you’d earn 50,000 points. Even though we felt funny about it, the hotel had plenty of unsold rooms so we each got a room for the night despite being a married couple. We didn’t even use the second room but we paid for it knowing we could get more than our money’s worth out of it in free stays with the points we’d be earning.

If the hotel had been close to full occupancy I would have felt too guilty about occupying more space than we needed, but as it was, the hotel certainly didn’t mind us paying for a second room that would have otherwise gone unsold. And we certainly didn’t mind paying for a room that would earn us 10 free nights.

Even with our 100,000 point earnings, we quickly regretted only making two stays during that promotion.

Conclusion

Ultimately every traveler has their own lists of what works, what doesn’t work, and what they’ll try to do differently next time. What are some of your rules? What will you and won’t you do for a deal?

 

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Category: Hostels/Hotels

April 15, 2014

Housesitting: A strategy to lower costs and extend travel

housesit costa rica

When I handed in my resignation letter, put what few belongings I hadn’t sold into storage and packed my life into a 55L rucksack, I became a vagabond.

Without bricks and mortar, without a stable income and without fear of regret, I altered the direction in which my life was headed and set off to travel the world.

Long term travel is a romantic notion, one that many aspire to but never achieve.

Why? (more…)

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Category: Hostels/Hotels, Vagabonding Advice

April 10, 2014

How Kayak.com can help you get a free room

Whenever someone has no frequent flier miles, no ability to get travel-rewards cards, and really wants a cheap domestic flight, I always send them to Kayak.  Kayak.com is a popular travel search aggregator that scans all the other travel search aggregators and shows you the cheapest rates it finds.  It does all the comparison work for you and that’s why so many people love it.

But what makes Kayak so lovable in my mind is its ability to help you get free hotels.

icdusseldorf

To explain this, I’ll have to explain what a “BRG” or Best Rate Guarantee is.

 

1.) Best Rate Guarantee Policies

The BRG strategy is one of my favorite tricks because not only does it often get us a room that costs no money, it won’t cost us points either.  Furthermore, it’s a trick that anyone can use as it doesn’t require you to sign up for any kind of credit-card or promotion or anything.

So what is this BRG policy?

This is simply a promise a hotel makes that they will offer a better price for their rooms on their own website than they will on any search aggregator like Kayak, Travelocity, Expedia, etc.  My guess is they set this up as an accountability system to make sure they keep on top of the prices they’re releasing to these aggregators, and that they’re correcting the price anytime an aggregator’s price is listed too low.

First, I’ll share with you the basic steps of applying for a BRG, then I’ll share with you a few hotels with the most generous BRG policies.

This is where Kayak.com comes in and shines.

 

1.)  Find a hotel you’re interested in that advertises a BRG policy.

This includes so many hotels that I probably don’t need to name them, but the ones that are most likely to result in a free room are InterContinental and Hilton.  We’ll discuss the specifics of their policies and others below.  Here is the most complete list of BRG policies we could come up with.

 

2.) Find a cancelable rate on that hotel’s own website- a rate you think you’ll be able to match or beat.  

We book cancelable rates just in case the hotel decides not to approve our claim- then we’re not left with an expensive hotel when we meant to have a free one.

 

3.) Use Kayak.com’s “search by brand” feature to find the EXACT same room. 

This needs to be more exact than finding a “Hilton standard room” if you’ve booked a Hilton standard room.  Depending on how picky the hotel is and how badly they don’t want to approve your BRG, you need to make sure no listed detail contradicts the hotel’s own website description.  Check-out time, breakfast or no breakfast, etc.

We’ve been told that because breakfast was included on the cheaper rate we found on an aggregator, but not included in the rate on their own website, it wouldn’t be considered the “same room.”

This even goes for the currency the price is listed in.  Luckily, Kayak has a country selection that will allow you to see only rates listed in that country’s currency.  OR sometimes you can go to the site Kayak has pulled up for you and change the currency from there.

Really though, only some of the hotels are so picky about a matching room description and because you booked a cancelable rate, if you think the description is close enough, you can always try!

 

4.) Obviously, most importantly, make sure the room Kayak has shown you is cheaper.  

This may take a bit of hopping back and forth from the brand’s website to the aggregators, but other times you’d be surprised how easy it is to find a cheaper rate.

 

5.) Now it’s time to submit your claim. 

This is a simple process that happens online.

Hilton’s BRG claim form can be found here.

IHG’s BRG claim form can be found here.

Choice’s BRG claim form can be found here.

And Marriott’s BRG claim form can be found here.

 

As I mentioned above, our favorite use of the BRG strategy is with hotels whose BRG policies are generous enough to allow  a free room.

Whose policies are the most rewarding?

icvienna

InterContinental Hotel Group is a hotel chain that includes Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, IHG, etc.  Their BRG policy states that if you find a cheaper rate for their rooms on someone else’s site, they’ll give you “your first night free.”  Naturally, we take advantage of this by aiming for BRG’s at their nicest brand, InterContinentals, and by booking one night stays so our whole stay is free.

Hilton is a hotel chain that includes Hampton Inn, Waldorf, Conrad, Double Tree, and Hilton, etc.  Getting approved for their BRG claims will either give you a $50 Amex gift card (for domestic stays) or a $50 price reduction (Internationally.)  We take advantage of this by trying to book rates that are as close to $50 as possible.

Best Western basically offers a $100 Best Western voucher for approved BRG claims.  So your initial stay won’t be free, but your next one would be as there are plenty of Best Westerns for $100 or less.  Also, by the time you have one $100 voucher, you could submit a BRG claim for another stay, paying for that stay with a voucher and receiving another voucher for your next stay.  And on and on and on.  But there are a few more rules to this, which you may want to familiarize yourself with.

These are just a few of the most generous Best Rate Guarantee policies.  But there are so many more Best Rate Guarantee policies out there. 

Thanks to Kayak.com, the hunt for an approved BRG claim can be pretty easy.

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Category: Hostels/Hotels

March 13, 2014

Learning how a luxury hotel can stretch your travel-funds more than a hostel

ICKowloon

It is odd to realize that a luxury hotel can be the means for budget travel, and therefore, sustainable travel for my husband and I. But strange as it sounds, we have found this to be the case.

For instance when we arrived in Venice a few weeks ago and needed a place to stay, (after a bit of internet time), we found ourselves at the Westin Venice, a five-star hotel just around the corner from St. Mark’s Plaza. We found ourselves here not because we have high standards for comfort and quality, but because we are cheap- too cheap to pay $20 a bed for a hostel when we could stay at the Westin for free.

Now, certainly hostels serve a unique purpose for lone travellers that is tough to find elsewhere. For instance, in a hostel you are sure to find other travelers and thus, some of the anxieties that can come along with lone-travel might be eased. It is tough to find such a community atmosphere elsewhere.

And yet, my husband and I will pick a hotel over a hostel every time. Our reasoning can be summed up in just two words: “Rewards programs.”

While this strategy may cost very little cash, it does cost quite a bit of research and strategy. In this article I’d like to start that research process by discussing what rewards programs are, how they work, and how they can end up stretching out your travel funds.

What are rewards programs and how do they work?

Chain hotels will often create a program that offers its customers an incentive for remaining loyal. (Thus, these rewards programs can also be called loyalty programs.)

Most often in the hotel industry these incentives are given in the form of hotel points. For every dollar you spend with the hotel, you receive a point (sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the situation) that you can put towards a free night witht he brand in the future.

These points may feel like they accumulate slowly, but there are a few ways to speed up that earning process through promotions. We won’t go into that now, but you can read more about the role promotions play in our strategy for full-time travel.

Really there are two basic ways to collect these hotel points.

1.) By being rewarded for your paid stays, as mentioned above (with or without a promotion to speed that earning along).

2.) By signing up for that hotel’s credit card. For example Starwood (the hotel chain associated with the Westin hotel mentioned before) offers a credit card with a 25,000 point bonus, achieved after spending a certain amount on the card within a certain amount of time.

If the mention of a required amount of spending between you and your bonus makes you nervous, there are tricks for that too. While it’s a bit complex to introduce in this article, you can read more about the tricks for reaching spend requirements here.

How do these rewards programs make it possible for a luxury hotel to be a cheaper option than a hostel?  

1.) Points
The primary reason we’ve opted for hotels over hostels is because many luxury hotels are part of a chain, and as I mentioned above, many chain hotels offer you reward programs that open the door for spending something other than money- points.

2.) Earning
A hostel has never decreased my nightly rate because I’m a return customer. When we go to a hostel, we pay per bed, perhaps we buy a locker too and perhaps we pay for internet on top of that. Then, when our stay is finished, we go on our way and that money is gone.

When we stay with a hotel that has a loyalty program, even if we are spending money, we’re buying more than our room for the night. We’re buying a small piece of another night.

The best way to make this work for your benefit is by paying for stays at the cheapest hotel the brand has to offer. For instance if we see a Holiday Inn for $50, we’ll stay there knowing that we’ll earn points that can be spent at the nicest hotels in IHG’s brand if we’d like. IHG is actually a wonderful example of this process because of a promotion they offer called “PointBreaks.” During this promotion IHG releases a list of hotels whose price in points will be discounted severely, including some very nice luxury hotels. (Read more about IHG’s PointBreaks promotion here.)

3.) Location
Luxury hotels like to grab up the best property they can find, often making them quite central to any kind of attraction you might be in town to see. And centrality will save you money. In the Venice example I mentioned above, our central location allowed us to avoid taking a daily bus into Venice.

On another occasion, we stayed at a five-star hotel in a prime location in Kowloon, HongKong. Thanks to our location, we were within walking distance of the evening light show.

Conclusion

While it takes a bit of a strategic approach, my husband and I have made this our primary strategy for long-term travel. Since beginning our pursuit of the nomadic life two and a half years ago, we’ve stayed at 74 four or five star hotels for free.

In my mind this statistic is not impressive because of the luxury but rather because of this: 74 free nights means 74 more days of exploring this beautiful planet.

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Category: Hostels/Hotels

August 29, 2013

Tips for Hostel Accommodation in China

chinaHostel

When it comes to travel on a shoestring – my favorite style – the amount of money you spend or save on accommodation becomes a serious matter. There was a time when travelling to China was very, very cheap, and accommodation options where everywhere. Unfortunately, with China experiencing the economic boom, things have changed quite a lot. On the other hand, the development of Chinese tourism has also created a wide range of opportunities for all kinds of travellers, making it quite easy and affordable to find budget accommodation in comfortable, clean beds. Where?

Simple: at YHA, the first wonder of Chinese Budget accommodation!

Everywhere and anywhere in China, my first option is to look for the YGA symbol, which means Youth Hostelling International. This international franchise is widely spread all around the major tourist destinations of China, and at times also a bit out of the beaten track. Generally, this kind of hostels are the Chinese equivalent of the Southeast Asian guesthouses, are full of travelers, good vibes and dispense good travel information. Besides, they are generally very cheap to stay in, they provide free wi-fi connectivity, restaurant facilities, self-service kitchen areas, luggage storage options and, very important if you cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese, can help you book your onward train or flight tickets. You will pay a little surcharge, but believe me, it is worth to save time and effort.

Most likely if you are looking for the cheapest option, you will end up staying in a dormitory: have no fear, as YHA dormitories are usually big, equipped with your own locker, sparkling clean, spacious and comfortable. They are also great places to meet other travelers. Dorms usually come in different sizes, and are generally equipped with several rows of bunk beds able to accommodate 4, 6, 8, and even up to 10 or 12 people. Dorms are also very cheap, as they start from 20 to 40/50 yuan per bed. So far, I only found the higher end of the spectrum (50 yuan) in Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai.

One of the best services provided is definitely the onward-travel hostel booking service: each hostel will have many cards advertising other hostels in the next “tourist towns”. Just glance trough and pick the one you like most, tell the receptionist and he/she will make a call to reserve your bed at your next destination. Generally, you will have to pay half of the fee to the hostel you are reserving from and once you get to your destination, you will pay the difference. It works like Hostelworld, but over the phone, and most times free train or bus station pick-ups are guaranteed.

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Hostels/Hotels, Simplicity, Vagabonding Advice

November 12, 2012

Do you prefer hostels or hotels?

A girl in a hostel dorm room.

A girl in a hostel dorm room. Photo: Katie Brady / Flickr

Travis at the frequent-flyer blog Extra Pack of Peanuts had a post titled, Why Hostels Are Better Than Hotels. Among other reasons, he waxed poetic on the benefits of the local touch and community atmosphere. Many hostels are owned and operated by locals, so you get a more intimate feel than you would at a chain hotel. As for community, most hostels are set up to encourage interaction between guests. You might strike up a conversation while watching TV or sipping tea on the rooftop.

He helpfully includes photos and names of his favorite hostels around the world. Note: the hostel he recommends for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–Rainforest B&B–is out of business. I stayed there the first time I visited KL in 2008 and thought it was fantastic. Huge and had the fun feel of a jungle lodge. Last I heard, the owner was planning to open a new hostel.

The No. 1 reason I continue to stay in hostels it to meet people. I can’t adequately describe how much richer my travels were because of the people I met along the way.

Why do you stay in hostels? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Hostels/Hotels, Notes from the collective travel mind

May 24, 2012

Evolution of hostels

Can you imagine being woken up at a hostel at 7:30am to chop fire wood or complete your chores before breakfast?

Chore detail had fizzled-out before 2009 when I hostel hopped for several months; spending anywhere from three nights to two weeks at various places. Personally, I enjoyed seeking out the odd ones, like old prisons or sailing ships. But what I discovered recently was, that same year the concept of youth hostels had officially been around for a century!

First youth hostel, Rhine Valley Germany photo/castles.org

Apparently the idea came from Richard Schirrmann who led extended hikes across the German countryside and sought shelter for his group at farms along the way. But on one rainy night in the summer of 1909 Schirrmann and his companions were turned away by a farmer. Though they weren’t forced to resort to sleeping in the rain; it was a close enough call that he dreamed up the vision of widespread dorm-type accommodations. A year later the first youth hostel opened at Altena Castle in Rhine Valley which is still in operation to this day.

In the beginning beds were stuffed with straw, chores part of the payment and everyone was required to be out exploring during daylight hours. But now each one has its own social vibe and offers creature comforts. Hostels actually do more business than large hotel chains and are progressing with demands by offering smaller more private rooms.

How different would backpacking be without hostels? Have you ever done chores while staying at one?

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, General, Hostels/Hotels, Notes from the collective travel mind

February 10, 2012

The fastest way to find great hostels

Mediterranean Hostel Front Desk

Mediterranean Hostel Front Desk. Photo: Oh-Barcelona.com / Flickr

Hostels vary wildly in quality.  Some are total fleapits; others are so luxurious they rival hotels.  How can you find the quality hostels instantly?

The website Hostelworld.com announced the 2012 winners of the “Hoscars,” their awards for the best hostels in the world.  Users around the world voted for their favorite places to stay.  The establishments are clustered into an amazing variety of categories.  You can find hostels based on size, region, popularity, and many more characteristics.

Portugal had a strong showing, completely sweeping every award for “Ratings Criteria.”  These were things like “Most Fun,” “Best Location,” and “Best Staff.”  It’s eye-opening to see one country rack up so many awards.  They must be doing something right.

Do you have a favorite hostel that’s not on the list?  Tell us about it in the comments.

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Category: Backpacking, Hostels/Hotels, Notes from the collective travel mind
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