It’s no secret that I prefer airline miles over hotel points by a wide margin. The reason for this is that I when I’m traveling, I really enjoy staying at places that provide what I deem a more authentic experience.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have any hotel points, because I do. And don’t get me wrong, I’d appreciate a stay at the Park Hyatt Vendome or the Hilton Bora Bora Resort as much as the next person.
But while those places are amazing in their own right, as a general rule of thumb I look for other alternatives when traveling.
Here are 4 different ways that you can stay in a place while traveling that offers an experience that is unique from the typical chain hotel experience. Oh, and I should mention: they’re almost always cheaper!
The media has given hostels a bad rap. In short, hostels are far different from the perception that many people have of them. Nowadays, they are much more like unique, boutique hotels (try saying that 5 times fast) as opposed to slummy, skeevy dens full of backpackers.
In fact, one of the major reasons I recommend hostels over hotels is that they have much more character to them. Each one is different and has its own quirks and personality, which makes them far more memorable than a concrete monolith emblazoned with some corporate logo.
The vibe is usually much more friendly and social, and the staff usually has a much more vested interest in your enjoyment, seeing as they are often the owners themselves. I could go on and on about the virtues of hostels, but again, I’ve already done that.
Give hostels a try, and I’m betting you won’t regret it.
Hostelbookers– My first stop when looking for a hostel because they charge the hostel owners less than other sites.
The popularity of couchsurfing has exploded in the past few years and for good reason: couchsurfing is about as authentic an experience as you can get!
The premise behind couchsurfing is that you, the traveler, stays at a local’s house or apartment for free. That’s right, a stranger opens their home to another complete stranger…asking nothing in return but to learn from each other!
This may seem completely nuts to some of you (as it did to Heather when we first started doing it), but really, it is an amazing experience for both people. I have both “surfed’ and “hosted” and each and every time, the experience has been a great one.
Obviously, couchsurfing has a high element of trust, both as the surfer (“I hope I’m not staying with some lunatic”) and as the host (“I hope I’m not hosting some lunatic”).
However, the Couchsurfing website has continued to add more and more safeguards each and every year to ensure that both parties can feel as comfortable as possible without having met the other firsthand before.
How Couchsurfing Works
The first step is to create your Couchsurfing profile, filling in details like your age, where you live, awesome experiences you’ve had, etc and adding any pictures you want. You’re also required to then fill in if you have a couch available and if you can host.
From there, Couchsurfing will send you a postcard to the address you have listed with a confirmation number. Once you enter the confirmation number in to your profile, your location becomes “verified”. You can also have your identity verified by offering a small donation to Couchsurfing.
After those safeguards are passed, you can also have people you know on couchsurfing serve as references for you. This is just another way for people to “get to know you” without having met you before. The more references you have, the more legit you’ll be in the eyes of others.
Since Couchsurfing has become so popular in recent years, if you are looking to stay in an area, there will often be multiple people who have been verified and also have numerous references. This helps alleviate some of the anxiety or nervousness of staying with that person, since they have been vouched for many times over.
The same goes for hosting people. I am much more likely to host someone who has an active Couchsurfing profile, has had a profile for longer than a few weeks, and who has references under there belt. The more ways you can prove your trustworthy and safe, the better chances you have of getting hosted.
The “Why Couchsurf?” question is hard to encapsulate in a few sentences but easy to understand if you’ve ever done it. Here’s my best attempt:
Couchsurfing provides an incredibly unique opportunity to see how someone who is a local lives. Maybe this means a crazy experience like staying with a family in a hut in Africa or maybe it simply means having someone to point you to the best pizza joint in New York City.
Regardless of where it is, you’ll be able to pick the brain of someone who knows the area much better than you, and getting to see the local side of things is something I’ve always loved (and being pointed in the right direction when it comes to the best places to eat is priceless)!
On top of that, you’ll get to meet someone completely new. If this person is opening up their home to you, chances are they are an awesome person. I don’t know how many people have built lasting friendships at hotels, but I’m willing to bet the percentage is much smaller than those who formed great bonds over Couchsurfing.
Amazingly enough, services like Couchsurfing, where people are helping out others and not asking anything in return, tend to bring out the best of society, and that’s something I want to be a part of.
So What’s the Couch Look Like?
The last point to consider is what type of place you’ll stay in. On the Couchsurfing profile, you’ll usually get a pretty thorough run-down of the sleeping arrangements and comfort level that each person provides. Many will even include pictures of the actual set-up.
This can range from “I’ve got a super tiny apartment and you’ll be sleeping on the floor of my kitchen on an air mattress” to “I’ve got a whole wing of my house devoted to guests with multiple queen-sized beds and its own kitchen and bathroom”.
Since you’ll be able to see this beforehand and almost every person is honest when talking about their hosting situation (I can’t think of any real reason to lie about it, seeing as that person will show up there), you’ll be able to pick and choose ahead of time what fits best for you. If you’re past the point where you want to be cuddled up next to the stove, then simply choose another host.
I know that Couchsurfing isn’t for everyone, especially those traveling in large groups or with children, but it is for more people than you may think. “Seeing the sights” is only one part of traveling, so get out of your comfort zone a little bit, stay with a local for a day or two, and you’ll be richly rewarded with stories that people in hotels can only dream of.
Couchsurfing Official Website– While there are other smaller sites that promote this style of travel as well, Couchsurfing is the major player and run amazingly well.
My Couchsurfing Profile- For those interested in seeing my “not recently updated enough” profile. Also, if you do decide to join, send me a friend request and I’ll gladly friend you back, giving you a little bit more validity love!
House-sitting is a great opportunity for people who are looking for to stay in some amazing homes and properties and do so for free! Yep, you read that right; for free!
The great thing about house-sitting is that it can be for short-term vacations of 1 week all the way up to year long sabbaticals. It all depends on what you want!
How House-sitting Works
House-sitting is pretty straightforward. Many people who will be away from their home for any extended amount of time want their place looked after. Sometimes this is because they have pets that they can’t bring with them, sometimes this is because they want someone to look after their garden and yard, and sometimes it is simply because they want someone to occupy their house while they are gone for safety reasons.
Whatever the reason, people will offer up their homes and properties to be house-sit. In exchange for taking care of the animal(s), yard work, or whatever the owners wants, the house-sitter will be allowed to stay at the property free of charge (although sometimes the owner will ask you to pay utilities).
There are a few reasons that house-sitting can an incredible way to spend your vacation. Like we’ve already mentioned, it is usually free (a big, big perk).
The second reason is that house-sits can allow you to enjoy some really fabulous and amazing properties. The size, style, and condition of the property can vary greatly, but I’ve seen castles (literally castles) available for house-sits as well as places such as off-the-grid home in the rainforest in Costa Rica that is only accessible by boat. Of course, there are more “normal” places like apartments in the center of major cities or townhomes in the suburbs. The point is, the breadth and scope of the available house-sits is huge, which makes for some really cool opportunities.
Another great thing about house-sits is that you can find some for extended periods of time. While having a place for free is great for a short vacation, it really comes in handy when you are thinking of going somewhere for more than week or two. House-sits can range from a few days up to “indefinite”. If you have a profession that allows you to be location independent and you really want to immerse yourself in a culture, it doesn’t get much better than taking a house-sit for a few months. You’ll have all the comforts of home (just not your home, although it will probably start to feel like it after a few weeks) and you’ll be living for free. It’s hard to argue with that!
Just like Couchsurfing, there is an element of trust that goes in to house-sitting, on both the owner and the house-sitters part. While the owner is entrusting their most valuable asset to someone else, the house-sitter also has to trust the owner that that property and the conditions of the house are up to the standards specified.
Luckily, there are some great sites out there that can help you learn the ins and outs of how to score a good house-sit and how to make sure it works out for both parties involved.
Dalene and Peter Heck’s site, Hecktic Travels, is far and away the best place to go to learn all about house-sitting.
They’ve been doing it for a number of years and have had numerous experiences, both good and “not so good”, which they openly share on their blog.
Heck, they’ve even put out a guidebook with all their best tips.
On top of that, they have some amazing photography, so I highly recommend you check their site out. You can’t book house-sits on their site, but you can learn a “heck” of a lot!
There are a number of membership sites out there that connect owners and house-sitters.
Personally, I recommend and subscribe to Trusted Housesitters, which is not only the most user-friendly but also is growing the fastest (probably because it is set up so well).
Every day I get an email with the new postings and I can’t help but check it immediately, which is a bane to my productivity but wonderful for dreaming about where I want to head next.
The other good membership site I recommend is Housecarers. It was one of the first house-sitting sites and has a lot of listings.
The problem for years was that it was set up like it was the 1990’s.
Just recently, they’ve begun updating their site (which, oddly enough, looks very similar Trusted Housesitters), which means their design and ease of use is (slowly) catching up to quality of their listings.
Apartment or House Rentals
Most of what was written about house-sitting can apply to apartment or house rentals with one major caveat; it isn’t free.
However, you also won’t have to worry about having any major responsibilities like taking care of an animal, so you have much more freedom.
Renting an apartment or house is way better than staying in a hotel for a number of reasons. One, you can usually find rentals much cheaper than hotels, especially if you are in a large group.
Two, you have all types of amenities that might not be available to you in a hotel, such as a kitchen and washer and dryer.
Third, rental apartments won’t nickel and dime you for things like internet and/or parking. If the place has internet and parking, you’ll often be able to use it for free.
Lastly, if you get a chance to meet the owner of the place, they’ll often have some great advice on what to see and do in the area (and maybe even draw you killer handmade map with insider info like “all the best-looking girls are on the 2nd floor” and “mention my name to the owner and he’ll give you a free drink”….thanks Clint!)
Renting places has become much more common recently, and in almost every area I’ve looked, from Louisville, Kentucky to Munich, Germany, I’ve been able to find good rentals for a fraction of the price that I’d pay for a hotel. Every time, I’ve been extremely happy to have a rental as a home base. Not only have the properties themselves been great, but so has the experience.
Airbnb – Find apartments or house rentals anywhere in the world, with reviews from other people who’ve stayed there.
Craigslist – I’ve snagged apartments for super cheap both in America and abroad through Craigslist. Don’t be afraid to look at this as an option.
Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and give some of these other options a try. The amount of awesome experiences and crazy adventures I’ve had by staying in hostels, couchsurfing, or taking over someone’s apartment or house are innumerable. It is these experiences that I remember long after I’ve left a place and the backbone of why I enjoy traveling so much.
Branch out, fellow travelers. You won’t regret it!
Are there any other options other than hotels that I’ve missed? Have you given hostels, couchsurfing, house-sitting, or renting a try? What did you think of it?
It’s a cave. No, it’s a hostel. No, it’s a cave hostel! The Aydinli Cave Hostel in Turkey
I was dead tired. My last 24 hours had consisted of a cramped 4 hour ride on a packed commuter train, most of which I spent standing, a 7 hour international flight desperately trying to sleep while squeezed in to an economy seat next to a crying baby, a 2 hour layover in one of the world’s most hectic airports, a 2.5 hour flight followed by a 1 hour wait at customs, and lastly, a bumpy 30 minute tuk-tuk ride.
But as I pushed open the door, that all melted away. I stood in awe, staring at a beautiful, wooden lobby with a hand-carved railing and bannister.
And then, along came Sony. Beaming smile, cheerful voice, and carrying 4 cups of what would turn out to be some of the best liquid refreshments I’ve ever tasted (and still, unfortunately, can’t remember the name of).
“Greetings Travis and friends, and welcome to the Golden Mango Inn! I’m Sony, like the electronics company, and you are now at your home for the next few days. Please sit, rest, drink, and relax. We’ll put your bags in your room and bring you food right away.”
I was barely able to ask him how he knew my name when pancakes, eggs, and fresh fruit appeared. 30 minutes later, stuffed and slipping in to a food coma, and only after I had assured Sony many times that I didn’t need anything else, I drifted to sleep thinking “This is why I love hostels!”
Wanna live like a king but pay pauper prices? Stay at the Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel in Carbisdale, Scotland
Does this mean that I never stay at a chain hotel? No.
It also doesn’t mean that I don’t earn hotel points when given the chance, because I do. Last year, when I unexpectedly found myself driving in to Melbourne at midnight with no place to sleep for the night, I was super thankful for my stash Hilton points.
What it does mean is that most of the time, when given the choice between a chain hotel or locally-owned hostel or guesthouse, I’m choosing the latter.
While 20 years ago hostels were the domain of grungy backpackers and skeevy characters, that isn’t the case anymore. Sure, there are still some places you can stay and engage with that subset of society, but the imagery that the term hostel conjures up in most people’s mind simply isn’t accurate.
There aren’t many Marriotts or Hiltons that look like the Arkabarka Hostel in Belgrade, Serbia
Nowadays, the world of hostels provides a great cross-section between a cheap place to lay your head and and a boutique hotel, with the term “luxury hostel” entering the lexicon, and for good reason.
With the growth of the hostel industry, the quality has improved dramatically. There are even the Hoscars, awards given out annually across multiple categories to help recognize the best hostels in the world.
And while hostels used to be dominated primarily by solo travelers, many have now begun to cater to groups, couples, and families as well by offering private rooms in addition to the standard dormitory bed room. Luckily, most hostels still use a per person pricing policy, which means they still remain very viable and popular option for the solo traveler.
The major benefit of hostels is the uniqueness they bring to the traveling experience. A Holiday Inn in Tokyo is going to look like a Holiday Inn in Des Moines. However, hostels have the benefit of not having to conform to a certain corporate standard, which leads to some amazingly innovative hostels.
Two of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever been in have been hostels; the Kanalian in Yokohama, Japan and K’s House Ito Onsen in Ito, Japan. The fact that both of these places were able to integrate every modern amenity you could ever want in incredibly old, traditional Japanese home while still staying true to the roots of the area and building itself is an awesome feat.
Live out every kid’s dream and spend the night in a tree house at Kadir’s Tree House in Olympos, Turkey
Another major reason I prefer hostels over hotels is that many of the hostels and guesthouses are locally owned and operated. Since the owners of the hostels and guesthouses are also usually the people who are responsible for your daily enjoyment as well, they have a much greater stake in making your stay as pleasant as possible. I’ve found that this not only leads to better service, but really, a better overall vibe and feel.
This is their place, their project, and their hostel, and there is a certain pride present that is not apparent at chain hotels, where the workers are the workers and the owners are fat cats living in some high rise apartment 10,000 miles away.
I’ve spent many nights staying up in to the wee hours having priceless conversations with hostel owners, many of whom I now consider friends. I’ve been given numerous incredible gifts and “freebies” that I’ll take every day over a pair of slippers or a complimentary toothbrush (although I’ve also been given a toothbrush from a hostel owner as well). This personal connection is not an experience you’ll get a hotel, where you are just one of the faceless masses.
And the personal connections that are made are not limited to owner and guest. Hostels and guesthouses are set up to provide a much more social environment than hotels. Generally, there are communal lobbies, kitchens, and bars. TV rooms and internet areas are shared by all, and the feeling is much more genial, friendly, and interactive than the antiseptic feel of a hotel. You’ll meet fellow travelers, share stories, and who knows, maybe even become fast friends. At the very least, your bound to get a beer bought for you or a meal cooked for you, and that is tough to argue with!
If you’ve never stayed at a hostel or guesthouse during your travels, I highly suggest you give it a try. Get away from the big name chain hotels, even if it is just for a few days. If you don’t like it, fine, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll find yourself having a more genuine and authentic experience.
Didn’t catch any zzz’s on the flight over to Sweden. No big deal, rest your head in the cockpit suite at the Jumbo Stay in Stockholm. The converted Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet houses 26 rooms!
How to Find a Hostel
The three best places to search for and book hostels or guesthouses are (in order of my preference):
There is some discrepancy between the three websites, with some hostels showing up on one site but not the other, which is why I’d recommend giving all three a look. I’ll always book with Hostelbookers if I can because the fee they charge the hostel owners is much less than Hostelworld. The more money I can keep in the owners pockets, the better.
Hostels and Guesthouses I Recommend
Additionally, here is a list of some of the best guesthouses and hostels that I’ve stayed at. If it made this list, it has my personal seal of approval!
Mountain Hostel, Gimmelwald- If you want to wake up to the best view of the Alps the world has to offer, stay here.
Balmer’s Herbage, Interlaken- This is no doubt a party hostel at night, so if you want that, there’s no better place to stay. However, it does offer private rooms on the other side of the building that are more quiet and also an amazing hammock room for chilling out during the day.
MD House, Chiang Mai- Centrally located and very clean, I’ve stayed here two different times. Not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that it also has a pool shaped like a human body part, but I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.
Leafhouse Bungalows, Koh Lanta- Stumbled across this little haven by accident. Right off the beach, super cheap, and with very unique rooms. The link takes you to a video walk-through I made when I stayed there.
Rainforest B&B, Kuala Lumpur- Located a stone’s throw from the heart of KL, Bukit Bintang, this cool place is tucked in to a side street that stays amazingly quiet for how close it is to all the hubbub.
Golden Mango Inn, Siem Reap- The pool is nice, the breakfast is free and delicious, and Sony is the man! Make sure you grab some of that awesome juice he serves and if you find out the name of it, let me know!
K’s House Ito Onsen, Ito- The neatest building I’ve ever stayed in, this place is a true gem. The natural hot spring baths are to die for, and the whole place is so tastefully done that you’ll never want to leave.
Kanalian, Yokohama- Completely renovated by hand by the owner Li and some of his friends, this place only has bunk beds but makes up for that by the incredible attention to detail that is everywhere. And even though you’ll only pay $20 a night, Li will hand you out enough free snacks and beer that he’s basically paying you to stay there (bad management skills, but an awesome guy!).
Madhuban, Jaipur- This guesthouse is in an old haveli (home for the rich) and has a super friendly staff, beautiful courtyard, and nice little pool.
Hotel Pearl Palace, Jaipur- The key to this place is that rooftoop restaurant, which is constantly packed with people, not only for its cheap food but its amazing view.
Hotel Taj Plaza, Agra- The rooms are just ok, which for Agra means nice, but the real reason to stay here is so you can sip a Kingfisher at night from the roof and gaze at the Taj Mahal and then wake up the next morning and do the same with a lassi.
The Tiger, Udaipur- I sound like a broken record with my India recommendations, but again, the main reason to stay at The Tiger is because the 360 degree rooftop view is tremendous; the Lake Palace, the City Palace, and the entire city of Udaipur is all laid out before you. The staff is also some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, and Cafe Edelweiss, which is across the street and owned by the same guy, provides a very nice break from curry and naan for breakfast each day.
Ok, I’ve said my piece, now its your turn. Have you stayed at a hostel before? If so, what did you like or dislike about it? Do you have any recommendations of places you’ve liked? And if you haven’t stayed at one, have I convinced you to try it?