Spoiler Alert: Budget travel will get messy, and the sh*t will hit the fan from time to time
We use budget travel accommodations and take budget flights or otherwise travel “outside of the box” for many reasons. The reason at the top of the list is obviously to save some money. But one of the most important things to remember is that it’s not all about the money. Saving a couple hundred bucks here or there can mean an entire additional trip for a smart, cheap traveler. Alternatively, spending that extra hundred or so in a pinch can take a spiraling, uncomfortable situation and help you spring out of it quickly. Potentially saving you days of misery once you settle down into your new plan.
I’m gonna show you today how I took a questionable situation—one that my gut was telling me had major downside potential—and turned that frown upside down. But it did take time, patience, some money from reserves, and a bit of brass for me to pull the trigger.
Hostels 101 — potential bad hostel warning signs
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that I really do like to stay in hostels. They bring together dozens of people all in one place that love traveling and the majority of folks you meet are also interested in meeting other travelers. The budget part comes in with the fact that most hostels cost considerably less than other lodgings.
About two months ago I booked, through a typical hostel/hotel site, three nights at a hostel in Minneapolis, for which I put down three nights of deposit—about $30 total. Now, my gut was having some issues right out of the gate, but I was a little slow to acknowledge them at that point. Something about the lack of photos of happy hostelers—or of any hostelers at all in their photos—combined with the general feel and tone of the copy on the site, as well as the high rates seemed to start giving me indigestion.
Past hostel experiences vs. my gut feeling
You see, when you’ve stayed at dozens of hostels and researched dozens more, you start to see consistencies in general tone, imagery, the physical makeup of the buildings, pricing, and so on. The tone is friendly with an emphasis on community and helpfulness, the imagery shows bright, public spaces with many travelers, and the pricing is usually within a $20-40/night (US currency) range for dorms, at least in the US, forgive a few high-dollar cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York.
Anything varying from the above should start to have you questioning the hostel at least a little bit…
…and when you start noticing multiple things skewing from above, you may want to start listening to those grumblings in your tummy.
Further down the rabbit hole — loathe at first sight
So if the individual warning signs weren’t enough, I also mentioned to one or two friends (even the morning of), that I wasn’t too sure about the place. But when I showed up, I started to get even more skeeved. First, the old building—described on the hostel website as an old mansion—was nearly indiscernible from other modern buildings next door. Dark, without landscaping or care for the exterior, and no international flags or welcoming fanfare in sight.
Second, there were a few signs next to the doors, and the tone of the messaging on those signs were, well, not welcoming in the least. There were a couple of phone numbers, one of which specifically asked to “call to let us know you’re here.” When following the instructions, I got a voice message with some guy stating his name and that he’s not there and simply to “leave a message.” I literally looked at my phone, the number, and the signs to make sure I had dialed right. I had…
Customer service is king, especially in a reputation-based economy
Some companies just refuse to comprehend this one. We live in a reputation-based economy where folks are reviewing business after business on site after site, at all hours of the day. Unfortunately for the most egregious companies, bad reviews seem to be easier to come by than good ones. If these companies are lucky enough to have someone actually show up to patronize them, as opposed to deciding to go somewhere else altogether based on reviews, they have to take advantage of it.
“Hello. That will be $10.00.”
So back to my day…
I knocked on the door, only to be greeted by a young man that quickly cut to the chase that if I wanted to check in outside of their normal hours, it would cost me $10 for him to “open the office.” I let him know that I had looked on their website the night prior and confirmed that it said check-in was from 9am-10pm, and even showed it to him on the site. (To be fair, it said elsewhere on the site something different that jived with his story.)
After showing him that, he apologized and told me he would look to get that corrected. He then told me that there were some coffee shops and restaurants where I could spend the next three hours until the office opened again. I mentioned that I would hope that he would make an exception, given that I was literally showing him, on their site, why I was there at the time I was.
He once again said that he would be happy to check me in right away, but that it would cost me an extra $10.00. SMH.
Budget travel backup plans
The beautiful thing about having three hours to spare is that you can do a lot of research. Research into reviews of the place you’re on the verge of staying in, and look at all of the various lodging alternative still available to you on short notice. Hotels, motels, Airbnbss, other hostels, and so on.
After reading more dismal reviews about the place I was on the hook for, I started looking at my other options. Thankfully I have a great friend that works for Hilton that reminded me that I have access to friends and family discounts. It didn’t hurt that I’m a Hilton Honors member. Is this a budget option? Not really, but it would do as a backup at a time in need!
Pulling the plug and ditching the hostel
After all of the research, I chose to head back to the hostel and just see how I felt as I went through the check-in process. I decided to wash away the earlier experience and go into it with open eyes and a clean slate and see how it goes. Well, I received about the same lack of enthusiasm, hospitality, and care as before. Unfortunately the physical space didn’t exactly overwhelm either. There was only one other visible person—admittedly not that rare during the day at many hostels, since people are often out exploring. And space just didn’t feel terribly inviting.
After looking around a bit while the employee was helping someone else, we went into the cold, sterile office to settle up for the next few days. I literally had my CC in hand when I politely told him “I’m sorry, but think I’m going to go stay at another place that I found while I was waiting at the coffee shop.”
Although he said that my deposit could be used at a later date, I knew I was out $30, since I won’t be taking them up on that.
A hotel/AirBnB one-two punch for the win
The unfortunate reality is that hotels, especially in big cities, are way more expensive than budget-friendl alternatives like hostels. I had gotten pretty lucky to find one in the center city for under a hundred bucks, along with a cute little Airbnb on the outskirts for the following two nights for $55/night.
After leaving the hostel, I got on my phone and purchased the night in the hotel (before hiking 1.5 miles uptown), then jumped over to the Airbnb app and locked down the next two nights.
The cost, in dollars, of salvaging your gut
All in all, the difference in cost for lodging for those three nights would have me shelling out about an extra $100.
Mind you, I could be all wrong about that hostel. Unfortunately what I deem warning signs and a lackluster customer service experience were what pushed me over the edge. At that point it was a matter of making my decision, telling myself I was comfortable with my decision, then putting it behind me and moving on.
Making lemons out of lemonade?
(Just making sure you’re paying attention.) Like I said in the beginning, budget travel takes patience, and things will go wrong. How you make the best of those situations may define you, and it will most definitely affect the tone and outcome of your trip.
I ended up staying at a super corporate, bland, boring hotel for a night, which is definitely not my preference. But I chose to see the bright side and do something that I knew would make me happy and boost my mood immediately; I found an amazing restaurant with seating outside, on the curb of the city, with wonderful music playing.
Then I chatted with my awesome server, had a beer and some amazing food, and straightened my lackluster mood right out.
The next morning, having gotten an early check-in by my gracious Airbnb host, I headed for my next stop. I chose to hike it 2 miles across town so that I could see the sights (with a 30+lb backpack, no less), and then stumbled upon my dope-ass blue and white, stick out like a sore thumb, Airbnb.
It was love at first sight, and it only got better when I got inside to see the unique art adorning the walls and welcoming committee of two very friendly long-haired cats. I literally melted into my bed for 20 minutes and just relaxed, finally at home for the foreseeable future. And my hosts were awesome and completely helpful too, and there were three other folks staying at the Airbnb, so it still had a little bit of a communal vibe!
The takeaway and some tips
Unfortunately even I sometimes need to be reminded of my own advice and to listen to it! I didn’t do quite enough research into my initial lodging, and in reality, I could have had cheaper digs at an Airbnb out of the gates. That said, I was actually inclined to stay at the hostel because I do love the clientele and atmosphere they typically come with. Seriously, check out the one I’m at right now!
My Airbnb, at the last minute, was actually less per night than the initial hostel would have been!
Spend the time working down the pecking order of accommodations before you pull the trigger, even if you think you found the right one straight away. You might just find another gem that blows it away under another budget lodging style, and even possibly for less.
Always go with your gut
Even if your gut proves wrong, it’s all a learning experience that you can grow from, whether about your external experiences with the world, or your internal conversations and decision making, etc. Glass half full, right? Even when I look back on a choice and realize it wasn’t the right one for me at the time, I live with it and look for all of the positives I can find in the situation.
Have Fun planning your next trip!
Travel Planning Tips
Figure out where you are going & how are you getting there…
I suggest using at least 2 to 3 different travel search sites. Start with Skyscanner or Orbitz or Booking …or whatever aggregator site you prefer. Then when you see what airlines to use, check their respective sites for better deals or rewards flights.
Figure out where you’re going to stay…
If you’re interested in hostels, search Hostelworld or Hostelling International. For longer-term or more private digs, look at Airbnb, VRBO, or you can look for hotel rooms in the links from the search engines listed above.
Get comprehensive travel insurance, or in the least, travel medical insurance if internationally…
Especially with Covid not going anywhere, get covered. Start with an insurance aggregator like Insure My Trip, or with SafetyWing, World Nomads, or another. Then decide what is important to you; trip cancellation, baggage coverage, medical, or all of the above. And get a yearly evacuation plan, since you’ll have to get home after your emergency!
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