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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
Nomadic Matt recently posted a list called My favorite hostels in the world. Goes to show that low prices don’t always mean low quality. You can save money and have a great time.
Matt’s list spurred me to remember which hostels I’ve enjoyed over the years. Here are some of my picks:
Circus (Berlin, Germany) — If every hostel was as grand as Circus, I’d never worry about staying in a hostel again. I’ve been in hotels that weren’t as cool as Circus. Very trendy, a designer hostel.
Beijing Jade International Youth Hostel — Out of all the hostels I’ve seen in China, this was was the best. Huge, like a hotel, and very clean. Big restaurant and common area on the ground floor.
Yes Inn (Hong Kong) — When you absolutely have to visit Hong Kong for a visa run and don’t want to stay in the Chungking Mansions. Clean, modern, and in Hong Kong Island. I’ve been to this hostel more often than any other because of doing visa runs from Taiwan. I’ve recommended this place to dozens of travelers.
K’s House Tokyo Oasis — Flat-out most awesome hostel in Tokyo. Has the feel of a traditional inn, but all the modern conveniences of an up-to-date building.
Take a Nap (Bangkok, Thailand) Love this hostel. One of the few, along with Circus, that has individual beds, not bunk beds. Each dorm has its own bathroom, saving you the embarrassment of walking down the hall to take a shower. Very colorful and fun too.
Chocolate Box Backpackers (Taipei, Taiwan) — A good hostel with a super-central location across from the Shida night market. Clean and solid. What really cements the place in my memory were the friendly staff and travelers I met there. So many fun times.
Bedz KL (Kuala Lumpur) — When I was backpacking through Southeast Asia, I passed through Kuala Lumpur a lot because it’s the main hub for Air Asia, a low-cost airline. Bedz KL was my favorite out of the ones I’ve been in. Feels like the apartment of a rich friend.
What are the best hostels you’ve stayed in? Please share your recommendations and stories in the comments.
Intro video for inbed.me
Over the years, there have been several attempts to combine travel and social networking. The latest on the scene is inbed.me (that name is just asking for double entendres).
The idea is to solve the problem of that first-night loneliness in a new hostel. You’ve just arrived, and all the previous guests have formed their cliques, so you don’t have anyone to talk to. With inbed.me, you can connect to travelers who will be at that hostel before you arrive. By reading their profiles, you can find common interests and make plans to hang out. Ideally, you land in a new hostel with some ready-made friends.
It is a cool idea. I tested it out by entering a few cities: Taipei, San Francisco, and Bangkok. Your mileage may vary, but I often only saw one traveler in each hostel. Since the site is so new, I think travelers haven’t widely adopted it yet. If the site gains a bigger audience, then it would become more useful. Something to keep an eye on.
What do you think of this idea? Do you know similar websites that do a better job? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Hostels are a mainstay of the budget travel circuit. Share a dorm room with strangers, shave off a big percentage of your accommodation costs. They do come with some drawbacks however, as this article from The Sydney Morning Herald describes: The problem with staying in hostels.
Although for me, the “problem” the author writes about is my favorite benefit of staying in hostels: meeting other travelers. I can’t imagine how lonely my trips would have been had I opted for private rooms in hotels. As for getting distracted, I think it’s really a matter of self-control and politely saying “no.” If you only have one day left in your trip and you’re really set on visiting a certain site, then just go. There’s no shame in politely declining an offer from a fellow traveler to hang out in a pub.
I can see where he’s coming from, since I’ve encountered some of the problems he’s described, as well others that didn’t make the list. For example, people who snore. Whenever I walk into a hostel room and see 10+ beds, my heart sinks. I know the odds favor that at least one person will be a heavy snorer. Yes, I’ve also had people stumbling in late at night while drunk, or waking up insanely early to pack because they have a 6 a.m. flight. But you have to take the bad with the good.
Did you start out sleeping in hostels, but have moved up the accommodation ladder a bit? It’d be nice to stay in small guesthouses with private rooms, but still have a big common area that encourages conversation. For more discussion, you can check out this post: Three modes of travel.
How do you feel about hostels? Please share your stories in the comments.
A 1972 Monty Python sketch called “Travel Agent” contains a classic scene where the Eric Idle character goes on an over-the-top rant about package tourism, at the expense of Michael Palin’s travel-agent character. Many of the references are dated now — and the whole scene is drenched in hyperbole — but many of the frustrations of overly structured group-travel still ring true. Here’s the rant in full:
“What’s the point of going abroad if you’re just another tourist carted around in buses surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their Sunday Mirrors, complaining about the tea — “Oh they don’t make it properly here, do they, not like at home” — and stopping at Majorcan bodegas selling fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel and calamares and two-veg and sitting in their cotton frocks squirting Timothy White’s suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh ‘cos they “overdid it on the first day.” And being herded into endless Hotel Miramars and Bellvueses and Continentals with their modern international luxury roomettes and draught Red Barrel and swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending they’re acrobats forming pyramids and frightening the children and barging into queues and if you’re not at your table spot on seven you miss the bowl of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, the first item on the menu of International Cuisine, and every Thursday night the hotel has a bloody cabaret in the bar, featuring a tiny emaciated dago with nine-inch hips and some bloated fat tart with her hair brylcreemed down and a big arse presenting “Flamenco for Foreigners.” And adenoidal typists from Birmingham with flabby white legs and diarrhea trying to pick up hairy bandy-legged wop waiters called Manuel and once a week there’s an excursion to the local Roman remains to buy cherryade and melted ice cream and bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel and one evening you visit the so called typical restaurant with local color and atmosphere and you sit next to a party from Rhyl who keep singing “Torremolinos, torremolinos” and complaining about the food — “It’s so greasy isn’t it?” — and you get cornered by some drunken greengrocer from Luton with an Instamatic camera and Dr. Scholl sandals and last Tuesday’s Daily Express and he drones on and on about how Mr. Smith should be running this country and how many languages Enoch Powell can speak and then he throws up over the Cuba Libres. And sending tinted postcards, of places they don’t realize they haven’t even visited, to: “All at number 22, weather wonderful, our room is marked with an ‘X’. Food very greasy but we’ve found a charming little local place hidden away in the back streets where they serve Watney’s Red Barrel and cheese and onion crisps and the accordionist plays ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’.” And spending four days on the tarmac at Luton airport on a five-day package tour with nothing to eat but dried BEA-type sandwiches and you can’t even get a drink of Watney’s Red Barrel because you’re still in England and the bloody bar closes every time you’re thirsty and there’s nowhere to sleep and the kids are crying and vomiting and breaking the plastic ash-trays and they keep telling you it’ll only be another hour although your plane is still in Iceland and has to take some Swedes to Yugoslavia before it can load you up at 3 a.m. in the bloody morning and you sit on the tarmac till six because of “unforeseen difficulties”, i.e. the permanent strike of Air Traffic Control in Paris — and nobody can go to the lavatory until you take off at 8, and when you get to Malaga airport everybody’s swallowing “enterovioform” and queuing for the toilets and queuing for the armed customs officers, and queuing for the bloody bus that isn’t there to take you to the hotel that hasn’t yet been finished. And when you finally get to the half-built Algerian ruin called the Hotel del Sol by paying half your holiday money to a licensed bandit in a taxi you find there’s no water in the pool, there’s no water in the taps, there’s no water in the bog and there’s only a bleeding lizard in the bidet. And half the rooms are double booked and you can’t sleep anyway because of the permanent twenty-four-hour drilling of the foundations of the hotel next door — and you’re plagued by appalling apprentice chemists from Ealing pretending to be hippies, and middle-class stockbrokers’ wives busily buying identical holiday villas in suburban development plots just like Esher, in case the Labour government gets in again, and fat American matrons with sloppy-buttocks and Hawaiian-patterned ski pants looking for any mulatto male who can keep it up long enough when they finally let it all flop out. And the Spanish Tourist Board promises you that the raging cholera epidemic is merely a case of mild Spanish tummy, like the previous outbreak of Spanish tummy in 1660 which killed half London and decimated Europe — and meanwhile the bloody Guardia are busy arresting sixteen-year-olds for kissing in the streets and shooting anyone under nineteen who doesn’t like Franco. And then on the last day in the airport lounge everyone’s comparing sunburns, drinking Nasty Spumante, buying cartons of duty free “cigarillos” and using up their last pesetas on horrid dolls in Spanish National costume and awful straw donkeys and bullfight posters with your name on “Ordoney, El Cordobes and Brian Pules of Norwich” and 3-D pictures of the Pope and Kennedy and Franco, and everybody’s talking about coming again next year and you swear you never will although there you are tumbling bleary-eyed out of a tourist-tight antique Iberian airplane…”
About five years ago, San Francisco Chronicle travel editor John Flinn published a column called “A few things I’ve learned in a quarter-century-plus of travel.” I enjoyed his insights so much I saved the article as a text file — and I recently stumbled across it again on my laptop. Here are my ten favorite bits of advice from Flinn’s column:
1. When you’re on a lean budget, one step up from rock-bottom is always worth it. Five dollars is often all it takes to upgrade from squalid to tolerable. It’s the difference between sweaty torpor and air conditioning in a Marrakesh hotel room, between a writhing dog-pile and a seat of your own on the bus to Dharamsala, between dicey hygiene and the meal of your life in a Luang Prabang restaurant. Don’t be a cheapskate masochist.
2. Street food is always cheap and often excellent, but limit yourself to items fresh off the grill. Don’t eat anything that’s been sitting around; watch the guy cook what’s going into your mouth.
3. Plan your trip well, prepare a Plan B in case circumstances change — and be ready to toss both plans out the window when an unexpected opportunity presents itself.
4. Force yourself to be an extrovert. Talk to people. You might find that the white-haired man at the bus stop in Yorkshire flew in the Battle of Britain, or that the Indian woman on the ferry to Koh Samui is a vacationing Bollywood movie star.
5. Build time into your schedule to wander aimlessly. Those magic moments rarely happen when you’re following a tight itinerary.
6. Everyday experiences take on new poignancy in foreign countries. Wandering through a Guatemalan supermarket or attending a church service in Rarotonga can provide more cultural insight than a week of guided tours.
7. Watching television in foreign countries is always fun and sometimes instructive, even if you don’t understand a word.
8. Force yourself to get up early. Before 9 a.m., even the most tourist-clogged of cities belong to the locals. You’ll find corner vegetable markets, fishermen hauling in their nets and nobody but locals in the cafes. Jet lag is your friend here: On your first day or two in Europe, you won’t have to set your alarm to wake up at 5 a.m.
9. When things go wrong — and they probably will — remind yourself that if this doesn’t kill you — and it probably won’t — it will make a great story. Your friends don’t want to hear how beautiful the Taj Mahal is. They want to hear about the psychotic driver who kicked you off the bus and left you stranded in a one-dog town.
10. Remember: An imperfect trip is always better than a perfect trip you never get around to taking.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities. He was referring to life in an area of Europe in the late 1700s, but one could also feasibly slap this line into a book about overnights in hotels and hostels around the world in 2011.
Since this is a blog and not a book, I’m short on space and will focus on “it was the best of times.” Take the photo above, for example. This is my bedside view at the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus, Syria. It is morning, and I’ve just slept like a rock in a comfortable bed, recovering from a long but good day walking all over one of the Middle East’s most fascinating cities. Still sleeping are the three people sharing the dorm: an Australian guy who never talks, a vivacious Argentine woman with Lebanese heritage, and a super-courteous Japanese girl who tomorrow will fly back home to begin a job as an air traffic controller. I sit on the edge of my bed and look out the window into the courtyard of this centuries-old Damascene house-turned-hotel. Down below are more interesting people, a choice of two kinds of chairs in which to read or write in my journal, a fountain bubbling just out of view. There is also breakfast waiting — bread, a boiled egg, cheese, olives, a piece of fruit, and tea. And just outside the building, of course, is the city itself.
The list of other cherished hostels or hotels I’ve temporarily called home is long. I think of the Ocean View Beach Resort on the north side of Ko Phangan (amazing staff), any number of places along Lake Toba in Sumatra (the beauty of the world’s largest crate lake!), the Mountain View Hotel in Sapa (it lives up to its name, and the thick fog on Christmas morning — absolutely magical). There is the Madina Hotel and Guesthouse in Gilgit, Pakistan, with a manager whose aching, burning desire for peace moved me no less than the site of the surrounding Karakoram Range. And how can I neglect the Platypus Hostel in Bogota, which I give two thumbs up to if for no other reason than that here I met Jason Howe, a combat photographer fresh from Afghanistan, whose photos and stories (and a little Jack Daniels) made my head spin? It’s not every day you meet a guy who has written an article titled “I fell in love with a female assassin.”
This list is but the tip of the iceberg, and it shows that a place is more than its walls and mattresses. It’s also the people and surprises, the views and the voices, the space in which we travel in ways that can’t be found on a map.