Travelling on a budget means you often encounter the seedier side of the world, as Kristin Hall has discovered.
Travelling is all sunset Instagram shots and pina coladas right? Late-night stumbles down stylish city alleyways and #wanderlust tattoos on tanned ankles.
If you're reading this from some freezing bunker of an Auckland flat while your friends frolic in a somewhat unnatural but photogenic manner on the shores of a faraway cove, you're probably frothing with jealousy.
That's fair, but I'm here to shed some light on where the young nomads of the world spend their nights: it might make you feel a little better.
Since I quit my job in March, with the lofty goal of travelling across three continents in three years, one-star hotels, strangers' couches and mysterious carpet stains have become my new normal.
My partner and I travel to the edges of cities and unheard of towns all in the name of saving a few bucks on accommodation, the biggest money-waster when it comes to seeing the world. Our extreme stinginess has allowed us to spend more on essentials like sangria and cheese, but it has also landed us in some diabolical shitholes. Here are my tips for staying and surviving in the most budget of budget accommodation.
Airbnb — if a host describes a room as shared, they bloody well mean it
Bordeaux is a city full of nice wine and nice buildings. It's expensive, so naturally the backpackers' option is to head to an uninspiring town beyond the city's edge to sleep in someone's lounge. The moral question in such a situation is, is it right to charge $100 for three nights on a foldout couch in the middle of nowhere? The answer is probably not, but the type of Airbnb owner who would do that is likely even stingier than you, so they don't care. In Eysines, we chose a newly renovated flat with a couch "that feels just like a real bed" set up in the living room. The bed was fine, what seemed less fine was lying in bed while the hosts ate dinner 30 centimetres from our heads. Do not expect to be afforded even the most basic level of privacy in a shared room, and don't go for it unless you enjoy being spattered by flecks of chicken korma mid-nap.
What you can do:
If your Airbnb room was advertised in a misleading way or you have issues with checking in, you can complain to Airbnb and apply for a refund. The catch is you've got to do this quickly, the complaint must be made within 24 hours after check-in and you may also need to leave the property within 24 hours as well. It also helps to take photos if you can. We applied for a refund when we arrived at a property in Paris to find the previous guest hadn't checked out and the bed was unmade, but only got 50 per cent back because we didn't leave within 24 hours. Ruthless.
Hotels — it pays to have a Plan B
If you're an intrepid traveller it's likely you'll end up in some less than idyllic spots at some point along your travels. If there's a chance your hotel room could have been the scene of several grisly murders, it's good to have an escape plan. Our hotel in Dakhla, Western Sahara, was advertised as having a sun terrace and views of the sea. What the listing failed to mention was that our room looked like it was the set for that scene in Taken where Liam Neeson is searching for his trafficked daughter in the druggy rape den. Our door had recently been busted open, but whether the inhabitants were trying to get in or desperately trying to escape was unclear. The beds were two soggy mattresses on the floor and the most obvious means of entertainment was playing whack-a-mole with the cockroaches that popped in and out of light fittings. For €10 a night, can you complain? Probably not, and the receptionist doesn't speak English anyway.
What you can do:
Find at least one other place you could feasibly stay at short notice before you arrive at the potential hellscape. Also don't go to Dakhla.
Hostels — ask to see the dorm before committing
You know you're on to a winner of a dorm room when your first remark on entering the bathroom is, "is that snot on the wall?" Yes, it is snot on the wall. Yes that is a toilet brush caked in poo, yes you will notice a dramatic decline in your will to live over the next 24 hours. When you've been lugging 20kg around on your back for half a day it's easy to give in at the nearest available hostel, like we did in Brighton. If the air in the reception is so greasy it feels like being wrapped in a cold bacon butty, for the love of God ask to go and see the room before you commit to staying there. If you point out the obvious faults you could get a discount, be moved to another room, or a staff member may even attempt to remove the dried mucus from the shower, which would be a considerable plus.
What you can do:
Hope that no one else has been dumb enough to book the same dorm as you; if not, take the mattresses from the other beds and pile them up Princess and the Pea style in the middle of the room. Individually they are about as thick as a sanitary pad, but piled together you might just get some sleep. If you've got roommates, organise a night on the booze so none of you can tell you are sleeping on a sanitary pad.
Couchsurfing — don't stay with weirdos
Couchsurfing is a wonderful tool for broke travellers to stay in people's homes for free and make some friends in the process. The cost-effectiveness isn't the main point, but it's an undeniable bonus. Unfortunately, the site is also riddled with weirdos. If you're a solo female traveller it pays to be extra careful, but even if you're travelling as a couple you may still be made to feel pretty uncomfortable. Take this chap in Alicante, Spain who was strangely persistent about us staying with him and proceeded to send us dozens of awkward sex jokes over the space of a few hours once we declined his offer.
What you can do:
No amount of free accommodation is worth feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. If a Couchsurfing host is raising red flags before you're even there it's best to make your excuses (or just tell them they are being a creep) and bail on the booking. Even if you are already at the property you should leave the second you start feeling uncomfortable. You can then report the member to Couchsurfing with supporting screenshots and/or documents.
Some of these might seem like pretty commonsense points, but the budget lifestyle is an all-consuming one and it can be easy to get carried away as you envision all the pastries you can buy with your savings.
As long as you're not being sexually harassed or contracting hepatitis in the process, the minefield of budget accommodation can be fun to explore.