How Not To Enjoy World Travel – Part 1

Here’s an oldie but goodie I first published back in 2009!

There has been a lot written about how to enjoy world travel or how to increase the ways that world travel can fulfill you. What I haven’t seen is a lot about how to have a miserable time when you are on the road.

Having lived in quite a few tourist destinations, run hostels, and interacted with literally thousands of travelers, tourists, nomads, vagabonds, and gypsies over the years I’ve seen more than a few people who are making themselves as miserable as possible. In fact, I’ve done it a time or two myself.

So, I dedicate this post to all the miserable wretches who thought they were going on the adventure of a lifetime but ended up having the worst time of their lives.

Across Canada1) Get drunk all the time. Party like a miserable suicidal rock star.
Sure, it’s nice to have some drinks now and then. It’s even nice to sometimes throw caution to the wind and just get blotto and see if you wake up in the morning with a beautiful stranger (or a stranger you thought was beautiful when you were hammered), but the truth of the matter is that alcohol is a depressant.

Alcohol used to excess has a negative impact on our bodies, our minds, and our emotions. While it is easy to shake off a hangover now and then (easier for some than others), no matter how fit you are if you are getting soused every night your mind and emotional state are going to suffer.

Not only will you miss those glorious early morning walks when people all over the world are getting ready for work and starting their day but you are putting yourself in a position where you won’t be able to clearly see the things that make foreign cultures beautiful. And you will spend a lot. With a few exceptions (like the Philippines), booze is also one of the most expensive things you can buy. Drinking will sap your budget and sap your spirits. As an example, an average night of drinking in Turkey will cost you anywhere from 30 to 100 lira. For 20 lira you can take a boat tour in Kaciegiez including lunch and visit the mud baths, and go to the beach, and drink a beer and eat an ice cream. So, one night drinking or a boat trip?

2) Don’t leave the resort or tourist areas.
I know that being in a foreign culture can be difficult, but if you only eat in the McDonalds, use the hotel facilities, stay in the backpacker ghetto area, or stick to the guidebook than you are missing out on what life is really about in whatever place you are in. Would you rather sit by a pool meeting other vacationers or perhaps meet Chinese villagers who are celebrating a local holiday?

When I ran a hostel in Waikiki, I noticed that some guests never left Waikiki and they usually wrote things in the comment book like “Hawaii is just like Miami but more expensive”, but for those who ventured out into little towns like Kailua or who visited local spots in Honolulu, the comments would usually read something like this “Aloha is real! I love Hawaii!”
Which comment would you rather leave?

Valencia, Spain3) Compare everything negatively with somewhere else.
I’ve heard plenty of tourists in Fez, Morocco say things like “The clubs here aren’t as good as the ones in Barcelona” or “The cafes here aren’t as good as the one’s in Paris”. They are right, but the problem is that by comparing things in a negative way they are missing what is good or interesting about the clubs in Fez.

A better way is to say something like “The cafe’s in Fez are different from those in Paris because they are filled with only men. That’s interesting, I wonder why?” and then to ask someone about it. Sure, you may not like it as much, but explore the diversity instead of just harshing about it.

If you want to know more ways to not enjoy world travel, stay tuned. More are coming soon.

In the meantime, what do you recommend for those who want to be miserable?

Hotels vs. Hostels vs. Couchsurfing vs. Vacation Rentals – Where to stay when you travel!

Enjoying travel is easy. The hard part is making sure everything works.

Kahala Mandarin ResortIn terms of accommodation, it comes down to 1) figuring out how to get where you want to go and 2) figuring out where to stay when you get there. Sure, there are other factors like finding the money to travel, what to eat, how to stay in your budget, and of course the biggest challenge for those not born with a magic ticket passport – getting the visas.

But, by and large I would say that transport and accommodation are the two biggest challenges. What are the relative merits of a few types of places you might consider staying.

First of all hostels – I’m not a huge fan of hostels now that I’m no longer in my twenties,  but, for people who aren’t like me, there might actually be some very good reasons to stay in hostels. Here are just a few – hostels are great places to meet people, hostels are sometimes cheaper than a hotel (but not always), and hostels can be good places to find cheap tours, activities, etc.  My personal recommendation is to avoid the dorms and get a private room – even if it means finding a new friend at the hostel and sharing a private the next days you are there.  A private room at a  hostel is probably the best value and you don’t have to deal with inconsiderate, crazy, or drunk dorm-mates. Here’s another but though- if you are going to get a private room at a hostel, have a look at hotels nearby because you have a pretty good chance of getting a more comfortable room for the same or less money at a one or two star hotel and sometimes even the three stars can surprise you. Don’t assume that hostels are the cheapest option because often they are more expensive than a nicer room somewhere else.
As far as hotels go – there are really a few different types of accommodation that fall under that category.

Polynesian Hostel Beach ClubBed and Breakfasts are essentially hostels for grown ups as they generally have common areas where guests can converge (for breakfast for example) and more personalized service than a hotel – this can, in some cases, be annoying if you just want to have a place to sleep and be left alone by other guests and staff but most people find it to be pretty nice. The staff and owners at good B&Bs are generally interested in who you are and getting to know you…if you don’t want that, just get a hotel.

Guesthouses are along the same lines but without the interest in you from staff. You may or may not have breakfast or common areas – these can range from a lakeside house in Koycegiez, Turkey to a Dar or Riad in the Fes Medina – to me, a guesthouse is characterized by a host who lives in the house or somewhere nearby and is available to answer questions or help arrange activities, transport etc.

Vacation Rental Vacation rentals are a mixed bag. This could be an extra room in a family house or a whole property dedicated to being rented out on a short term basis. These days, you can find vacation rentals  that fit with everything else that is described in this article from a spare couch or van parked in someone’s driveway to a luxury home with a butler and private chef.

Motels are places you can drive your car to and park. Motor + Hotel – In South Korea, they tend to be places where you can get some loving with a special someone (either that you just met or who you already know – up to you) and they also tend to be much cheaper than hotels. They call them Love Motels for a reason. In the USA, these are hotels that are along motorways, highways, and freeways. I grew up staying in motels since my dad was a musician early in my childhood..

Hotels are places generally in cities where visitors can stay. Service tends to be detached, professional, and standardized. A managerial staff usually runs the hotel rather than the owner of the property. This is your best bet for privacy, comfort, amenities, and location. Hotels are rated by stars, but there are many hotels that have never been rated that offer exceptional value. Many that have been rated degrade over time or fail to provide the standards you would expect. In general – no stars means it has not been rated, 1 star means basic room with toilet and shower, 2 star means the room has additional comfort features (like shower gel and soap, daily cleaning etc)  and the property may offer food or drink, 3 stars means that there are additional features like telephone, television, hair dryer, extra pillows or blankets etc.  It also means the hotel likely has a complaint system in place and works hard to make guests comfortable and happy.  4 stars brings you additional comforts like a bathrobe and slippers, minibar, room service, couch and/or upholstered chair, patios, cosmetic products, etc. And finally, the 5 stars (or five diamond) hotel brings you fresh flowers in the rooms, welcoming drinks, personalized service, shoe shining, ironing service and everything else you can imagine in terms of comfort and service.

WaikikiFinally, a resort is a hotel in a specific setting usually with shops, restaurants, activities and much of what you could want on holiday all in one location. Examples would be Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu, Hawaii ; Disney Resorts; or Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.

So, which is the best hotel? As with most things in life- it depends. The star or diamond system is a great general guide but in many cases hotels don’t live up to the stars they have or far exceed them. For my money, a three star hotel that aspires to four stars is the best thing going.  Or – a hotel that hasn’t yet been rated that aspires to four or five stars. The worst? A four or five star hotel that is living on it’s reputation from long ago – these are the kinds of places that charge you for internet access or have terrible expensive restaurants in the lobby.  If you are just looking for a bed and a place to stash your bag – a one or two star will usually give you the same or better accommodation and rates than a hostel private room. Even if they are one star, they value it and want to keep it- a hostel doesn’t have stars and won’t get them – although in some cities I’ve seen hostels that behave as if they are five stars while giving less than one star treatment.

Brussells CouchbsurfingA final note on what used to be my favorite means of making friends and learning about new places. Couchsurfing. For a while Couchsurfing was an amazing underground way of finding free accommodation and making new friends. Then it became more mainstream. Then it tried to monetize itself like AirBnB had done. Then it all fell apart. I’ve tried to use it over the last seven years and found it to be more trouble than it is worth. However, it may still be worth it if you can figure out how to make it work.

I need to emphasize  this – you can’t really put couchsurfing on the same level as hotels, hostels, or motels.  First of all, you aren’t paying with money. You are, however, paying with a guest/host relationship that has responsibilities.  If you are going to couchsurf but don’t want to interact or spend time with the hosts – you shouldn’t couchsurf. Often, your hosts will provide you with experiences you wouldn’t find elsewhere, but never forget that couchsurfing is about friendship. Would you call your friend in a different city and say “I’ll be arriving on the 5th at 10 pm, please have my room ready. I’ll work all day the 6th so you won’t see me and then I’ll leave on the morning of hte 7th at 6 am. Can you arrange transport?”

If you would do that, I’m guessing you have no friends. I certainly don’t want a friend like that and neither do couchsurfing hosts.  Couchsurfing can provide you with all kinds of levels of comfort from filthy, stinky, sketchy drug shacks to mansions and villas with private gyms and saunas.  It depends on the host. The reason they are hosting is because they want to know you and become friends – if you don’t have the time or desire for that – don’t couchsurf.

Beyond the Hotels – Big City Homestays in South America

By Melissa Ruttanai

alternative to hotelsIn South America, accommodations are classified into categories and awarded stars for service, similar to the way guidebooks and AAA function. But travelers coming to South America for the first time may be a bit confused over the categorization of the sleeping arrangements south of the equator. For example, just because one business is a hotel it is not necessarily better than a hostal, or small guesthouse. Visitors to the region must do their research and investigate star-ratings for each place that they stay. Overall, hostals are a good budget choice where private bath, clean sheets, and family-run service is provided. Hospedajes are also nothing to ignore. They are even smaller establishments than hostals with perhaps 4-5 rooms often with private bath, but lacking in other amenities such as restaurant, bar or communal kitchen. We’ve found some of the best deals via hospedaje in Huanchaco and Nazca, Peru. But a new class of accommodations has emerged in South America and savvy travelers should take note. Private homestays are a fantastic way to relax but also immerse yourself in the local culture.
What is a Private Homestay
homestay peruUnlike hostals, hotels, and hospedajes, a homestay is often a rented room in a private home. In the past, companies would arrange “homestays” with local families in order to allow travelers to see what life is like for the locals. Often, the experience was trite. But now from Ecuador all the way down to Patagonia, private homestays offer more authentic and sincere experiences.
Neil and I have had four homestays overall, two in Ecuador and two in Peru. All have been fabulous. In a homestay, you live in the home of a local, practicing Spanish, taking your meals, and learning about the best places to shop and visit from the insider’s perspective. You’ll receive your own key, sometimes your own entrance. But for 4 days or 3 weeks, you will get an experience that cannot be mimicked in a hostel or hotel. Guests eat and socialize with the host family and other travelers. The experience is not about partying all night or locking yourself in your room. Here, the crowd is diverse—ranging from traveling couples, 30-something backpackers, expats, and even young families with kids.
the good life in travelFor all four stays, we’ve utilized Craigslist and AirBnb. Do your research. Find comments left by previous guests and secure a deal that suits your budget. As two people traveling on the road for over 2 years, Neil and I love homestays. The room is usually slightly more expensive than a hostal guesthouse but less than a hotel. However, security, cleanliness, and warmth of each place have been fantastic, especially in the city. When we stayed in Quito and Lima, our hosts gave us specific information about the city regarding safety, bus routes, and restaurants. Our hosts took great care in making sure we had everything we needed. That doesn’t always happen in the other accommodations.
Every Homestay is Different
homestay Peru friendsDepending on the family, every homestay is different. In Quito, our “Ecua-mama” picked us up from the airport, offered us dinner and even played a very competitive round of Rummikub with us. In Manta, our hosts let us have the run of their waterfront apartment. Dinner was not included but breakfast was a culinary event with homemade broccoli pies and hand-ground plantain and cheese fritters. While in Lima, we had a private apartment with bathroom, TV, living room, and private access to the kitchen. Currently in Cusco, we are in a cozy cottage-like house with flatscreen TV and great WIFI.
So, before booking and after you’ve researched their online reputation, think about asking your homestay hosts the following questions:
Are they renting a private room or an entire apartment?
Are there private bathrooms?
Is there a kitchen to use?
Are there any discounts for multiple guests or longer stays?
Can they pick you up from the airport or bus station?
What meals are included?
Do the hosts live in the house?
What kind of neighborhood is the homestay in?
How far is the walk to the city center?
With four homestays under our belts, Neil and I have had four unique experiences. While some homes were about total integration into the family, others give travelers space to rest and relax. Though you never know for sure which host you’ll have, from what I experienced, both are fantastic with accolades of their own. In April, we will be in Buenos Aires and have already started to research homestays and apartment rentals. Since three friends will travel with us, I’m toying with the possibility of renting a homestay that is an entire penthouse or maybe a multi-level colonial house. Though I love affordable hospedajes and even party hostels, our preference for homestays has eclipsed them lately especially in the big city.

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