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Hotels vs. Hostels vs. Couchsurfing

Two things make travel a bit hard 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 – getting the visas.

But, by and large I would say that transport and accommodation are the two biggest challenges.   A while back I discussed budget vs. regular airlines but today I want to talk about the relative merits of a few places you might consider staying. For this particular discussion, I won’t be discussing vacation rentals.

alternative to hotelsFirst of all hostels – Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of hostels as you no doubt noticed in my 25 reasons not to stay in hostels – 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 sometimes are 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. 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.

Of course, there are many definitions for both bed and breakfast

Bed 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.

Guesthouses are along the same lines but 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 nearby and is available to answer questions or help arrange activities, transport etc.

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 wandering minstrel.

hotel room chairHotels are places 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 and many that have been rated that 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.

four star hotelFinally, a resort is a hotel in a specific setting usually with shops, restaurants, activities and everything you could want 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?(the best way might be to check out comparison sites like HotelsPanel.com 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.

all kinds of people couchsurfCouchsurfing has become more and more mainstream.  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 to be your friend 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.

So – in summary:

hostels – can be good for cheap or really bad for too much money

hotels – guesthouses, dars, riads, bed and breakfasts, motels, hotels, and resorts – these offer the most flexibility for you and your budget. Look for value rather than rating or amenities. Get what you pay for.

couchsurfing – don’t do it unless you are interested in spending time with your hosts and making friends is a part of your journey.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook