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.
Who draws the line between “corporate travel” and “leisure travel”?
(My answer: The travel industry.)
Is this a good thing or a bad thing for travelers? Why?
One great part of travel is the thrill you get from the random and deliciously quirky places you find yourself. Just a few weeks ago I was thrilled to find myself sleeping on an 8×10 square foot floor with 2 other people on a tiny fishing island in the Yellow Sea. Why? Because it’s an 8×10 foot floor on a tiny island in the Yellow Sea.
For those travelers who are willing to spend a little more, there are some really unique hotels across Europe that would be quite a thrill to experience. Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden definitely provides a unique lodging experience. Guests can sleep on an ice block lined with reindeer skin in rooms made entirely of ice and snow. In Ottensheim, Austria, travelers can sleep in rooms built into immense drainpipes at Das Park Hotel. Why not stay 10 meters above ground in the tree house hotel Baumhaus in Germany? (advertised as child-friendly)
For an extensive list of accommodations like these, check out this website.
Last week, the online travel search engine Travelocity announced that a new partnership with EC3 Global has enabled them to display more green hotels in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
As green/eco awareness increases, so too does the need for ethical travelers to be able to find those businesses that adhere to morals and business practices that they believe in. Travelocity reported that “green hotel bookings in the first quarter [of 2010] were 65 percent higher than their non-green counterparts.”
Of course, one of the problems is that “green” can be a somewhat arbitrary designation that is often self-applied, and used simply as a marketing tool. This is where EC3 Global comes in. Their ‘EarthCheck‘ service provides a trusted validation mechanism for determining whether a business follows through on claims of sustainable business practices.
A section of Travelocity’s website is devoted entirely to green travel and promoting “voluntourism” by awarding eight $5k grants per year. Travel for Good provides a green hotel directory, as well as offering hybrid cars and carbon offsets.
This morning I read about a hotel that’s under construction. There’s an art museum going up around the corner, and the hotel is designed to complement it by displaying contemporary art in the rooms and common areas. Construction is partly financed by a local nonprofit focused on downtown revitalization. The husband-and-wife operators are excited — Steve Wilson, the husband, says, “We have a totally embracing experience where [people] walk into the hotel and they’re in the middle of an art gallery.”
Sounds cool, right?
Here are some more details: The hotel will have 120 rooms, going for roughly $190 per night. The husband-and-wife team are building this hotel (and two others) as extensions of their 21c Museum Hotel brand, which started in Louisville, Kentucky. The other two hotels are going up in Austin and Cincinnati; this hotel will be in Bentonville, Arkansas. Along with 21c and the local nonprofit, the third financier/owner will be the Walton family, founders of Wal-Mart. You can bet that most of the rooms will be booked by business travelers visiting Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters.
Still want to go?
I do. The late-night hotel bar conversations will be bizarre, with a chance of cute account exec from Atlanta. There’s the thrill of renting your own personal art gallery. You can be a voyeur to the flip side of People of Wal-Mart (and no, I’m not linking). Plus, Wal-Mart’s my guilty pleasure (sad but true).
But then there are the ethics and ideals that argue against such a splurge. Reconciling the $190 with my usual spending habits. The one-place-at-a-time trade-off: It’s Bentonville or a dream destination du jour. The rat-guilt of funneling my hard-saved travel dollars into the pockets of the Wal-Mart clan.
So this brings us to the main question (and thanks for hanging in there):
How many people use travel as an opportunity to get closer to their ideals — ideals that might get pushed in the direction of the back burner during normal “at home” making-a-living time — and, after having lived nearer to these ideals for as long as possible, can return to the grind with minimal psychological/ethical turmoil?
And how many people use travel as a pressure-release opportunity to indulge their vices? After having lived their ideal good-clean-hardworking-responsible-familyfriendly lifestyle for the bulk of the year, how many people hit the road and swill booze, smoke cigars, sunburn their bellies, roll dice, and all-around blow off steam in the name of sanity maintenance?
It’s hard to always travel one way or the other, although sometimes round these parts there’s a feeling that we should. If you catch yourself where you think you don’t belong, go easy on yourself. It’s probably just some sort of balancing act.
Photo by superbomba via Flickr.
Semi-related: Family travel: Holiday makers versus travelers
Hostels are nothing new to vagabonders. Not only do they tend to be significantly cheaper than hotels, homestays, and guest houses, but by their very nature, they offer a communal experience that can be a blessing when in a strange new place. Who among us hasn’t sat in common rooms with travelers from all over, trading stories and getting the scoop on the best local hole in the wall restaurant or bar with the cheapest beer?
But how do you find the right hostel in Bangladesh, Botswana, or Belize? Tripadvisor has some. Hostelworld.com and Hostels.com are both owned by Web Reservations International, and tend to only have affiliate hostels listed (24k and 31k respectively). A smaller UK-based site, Hostelbookers.com has 17k. However, the largest source for hostel information is hostelz.com, boasting almost 39k listings in 8,200 cities.
Started in 2002 by backpackers, for backpackers, they try to be comprehensive and unbiased, giving as much information about a given hostel as possible, including contact information, pictures, and reviews. In addition to their extensive database, they pride themselves on their “brutally honest ratings and reviews” by both anyone who wants to review a given hostel, and by a team of paid reviewers. Unlike reports of some other sites, they do not censor negative reviews.
In addition to the hostels themselves, another unique feature of hostelz is that they provide a simple forum for users to comment on destinations themselves. They can be as simple as “Hogsback is magical,” or more specific tips such as, “Do carry a swimsuit in Goa — it’s impossible to get a decent one in Indian stores.“
When you’re researching a trip, it’s not always easy to determine whether your tour operator or hotel cares about sustainable travel. And when you’re paying a middleman instead of giving your money straight to a business in your destination, you may not know how much of that money goes to the local communities.
Some tour operators know an area after traveling there for years, but if anyone knows an area or destination best, it’s the folks who live there. When I’m interested in taking a tour—even just for a short period of time—I usually try to find locally sourced groups first.
A U.K.-based website, PureTravel, partners with local experts and enthusiasts in locations throughout the world—so you know where your dollars are going. And booking direct can help you save money. In addition to organized tours, the company also lists hotels, lodges, villas and ranches for folks who would rather figure out what to do once they’re on site.
Some countries have more information listed than others, so it’s clear that the company is working to build its contacts, but it’s definitely worth a look. Because I recognize some of PureTravel’s partners and I appreciate the company’s goals about responsible tourism, I’m adding it to my travel bookmarks.
Do any of you have great sustainable travel resources? Share them in the comments section!
When spending months abroad, it’s important to remain flexible in considering lodging options. While hostels are a fairly typical way to stay someplace cheaply, and get the advantage of meeting fellow travelers, sometimes it might be nice to have a place of your own.
One alternative to hotels are sites like HomeAway which are vacation rentals by owner. Many of them offer weekly or monthly rates. For example, Casa De Imaginacion in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico can be rented for $30/day for a month. The site represents owners worldwide who are willing to rent their second homes. There are over 188,000 homes listed, and the distribution highlights their vacation focus; 51% in Europe, 40% in the US, 3% in the Caribbean. However, all the continents (except Antarctica) are represented. For example, take this bungalow on the Island of Samar in the Philippines, that can be rented for the same price.
Vacation rentals have a lot of advantages over hotels. For one thing, you get to deal with the owner directly, which is more personal. A good owner can be a great first contact in a new location, one who will point you towards points of interest, and tell you what to watch out for. Their homes tend to have character, there are often locals that are available for help, and the price tends to be cheaper for the same or better quality of lodging that you would get at a hotel.
A similar site owned by the same company, is VRBO.com. There is a significant overlap between the listings, as might be expected, but they are not exactly similar so it is a good idea to check both sites.
As always, some places cost more than $30/night, but it’s nice to dream. For 60€, I certainly wouldn’t mind spending the night in the Zen House, located in the medina of Marrakech with an open roof and an atrium housing 20 birds, despite the oddity of being a zen house in an Arabic city.