A Flophouse for Nightcrawlers
I have nothing against five star hotels – a little creamy elegance and fawning service never hurt anybody – but given a choice, I’ll always go for small, quaint and unusual. Give me a converted windmill, rice barge, convent or olive farm any day over a cookie-cutter corporate chain. There’s so much more to talk about afterwards. Once, when I asked a woman I know how she was enjoying her stay at one of Seville’s premier hotels, she said, “OK, I guess. The bathroom had all the complementary toiletries you’d expect.” That’s nice, but how do you parlay free shampoo and shower caps into a sparkling anecdote or a cherished memory?
Of course, quaint and quirky can definitely go to far. Once in Bhutan, we had a bare-bones room in a guesthouse, and to reach the outhouse I had to cross a courtyard, climb a ladder, go over the garden wall, climb down another ladder and make my way through the scrub brush. Luckily, there was a full moon that night, but still!
And then there was the Hotel Maya, a large roadside establishment catering mostly to long-distance truckers in the Punjab. Our little group arrived there after a grueling 18-hour bus ride from New Delhi, and we were underwhelmed to discover sticky floors, electrical wires dangling from holes in the walls, squat toilets and rock-hard beds with stained sheets. Eyeing the sheets, one friend whispered, “I’m not sure I’m getting undressed.” Another muttered back, “Undressed? I’m not even taking off my shoes!”
The facilities were pretty basic at the Maya.
The proprietor led us back out into the shadowy corridor where a small spigot poked out of the wall. “And if you want hot water, it’s right here in the hall!” He turned the handle with a proud flourish and sent a stream of water cascading over the floor. I was pretty sure complimentary shampoo and shower caps were out of the question.
What is the ideal balance between McLuxury and checking into a flophouse for nightcrawlers? How do you find affordable places with character and hot showers?
I often start by consulting such savvy travelers as Karen Brown and Rick Steves. Their websites and books are full of well-researched recommendations for small, charming hotels. Trip Advisor provides customer reviews, which are enormously helpful but do need to be taken with a grain of salt. Once, after booking a small, inexpensive B&B in Rome, we later read a scathing review and rushed to cancel our reservation, only to find we couldn’t. With considerable annoyance and trepidation, we showed up … and decided the review had seriously overdramatized the drawbacks. It might not be the Four Seasons, but it was a long, long way from the Maya, and we’d certainly stay there again.
The hot new phenomena is AirBnB, which lets you rent a room directly from individuals in their private homes in an informal (and some say questionably legal) type of bed and breakfast. If you’re on a tight budget and your privacy and comfort requirements are more flexible, there’s CouchSurfing, in which locals let you stay on their couch or in a spare room or even their entire apartment for free or a very modest sum. Both Air B&B and CouchSurfing seem to work surprising well in most cases, although one couple I know booked someone’s spare room over the Internet and arrived to find a dingy, squalid atmosphere that sent them running for the door so fast they almost tripped over the empty beer cans scattered around the floor.
And then there are the new, improved, not-for-youth-only hostels, such as those shown on Hostels.com; they’re so respectable now that Rick Steves and Karen Brown include them in their listings. Hostels still offer the cheapest beds around, but many have now added private rooms with en suite bathrooms to attract more upscale travelers, and you’ll often see Volvos as well as walking sticks parked outside the door.
Small hotels, informal B&Bs and hostels offer a great way to meet locals and experience the regional culture. Of course, be sure to read the reviews and the fine print to make sure you’re not expected to scale garden walls to visit an outhouse or wait in line to use the hot water in the hall. With a little basic research, we have discovered many delightful, out-of-the-way places over the years. Some of them even offered complimentary shampoo and shower caps. All of them offered moments I'll never forget.
3/6/2013 09:59:46 am
Thanks, Kathy. It's such fun to have an excuse to tell all my favorite travel stories. Glad you're enjoying them!
A lovely article. Historically I have stayed in chain hotels... thinking I would prefer the level of cleanliness and care that you "associate" with these places. But, once you have tried the smaller independents... I don't think you will ever go back.
3/6/2013 10:01:44 am
I've stayed in my share of chains, and there is something to be said for the convenience of predictability...but it will never compare with teeny fishermen cottages right on the beach where they let you bring the dogs. Sounds like you found a winner!
3/6/2013 08:02:01 am
Great article. We find that a mix of both the small, quaint, often-mom-and-pop-run places with a night or two of 'big-box' modern luxury often is a nice way to be reminded of the rewards to be had from both types of stays.
3/6/2013 10:03:24 am
I agree, Jackie. A mix is ideal. We stay in small, colorful places most of the time, and every once in a while splurge on something luxurious, with all the trimmings. The contrast makes it all the sweeter.
3/6/2013 10:12:46 am
Excellent observations. Enjoyed reading .
3/11/2013 01:16:55 am
Glad you liked the post, Aimee!
3/10/2013 10:15:19 am
When I stayed in India I was looking forward to doing the whole experience, ie not staying in the top hotel etc, but the family of the people we had travelled to see get married wouldn't hear of it, it would have bought shame on them to let us pay, and they certainly weren't going to put us in the budget accommodation. I was quite disappointed at first, but grateful when I later got a bit sick. Quite an adventure, that trip, even if we didn't end up roughing it.
3/11/2013 01:23:54 am
India is intense, no matter where you're staying. It's one place I usually recommend more upscale hotels, at least part of the time (and especially if you're sick!). Our last few days there, after the Maya and worse, we finally gave up and checked into the Delhi Hyatt for two days. We thought hot showers and flush toilets would make a nice change of pace. There is something to be said for creature comforts!
3/14/2013 07:19:36 am
Your post reminds me of a brief stay in a Kansas City hotel about 15 years ago. The plan was to stay there overnight before heading on to the destination. I laid in bed for a few moments and finally asked my then-husband, "Is the mattress moving?" He thought it was just him. Something was moving in the mattress at the bottom of the bed. We jumped out of bed, got back in the car and drove all night to our eventual destination.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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