© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Earlier this year, I was sitting in the lounge of a very nice hotel in Prague, Czech Republic, waiting for my room to be readied. I'd arrived three hours before check-in time. I'd flown overnight from the US, and despite being in Business Class, I'd had no sleep, so jetlag was taking hold. In order to keep myself awake "just one more hour", I started thinking about all the different kinds of places I'd stayed in 35 years of domestic and international travel. My notes from that led to this essay.
I've limited the places to those for which I have paid. The categories are in no particular order. FYI, my top priorities are a clean, non-smoking room, a comfortable bed, seriously hot water, heavy curtains to keep out the light, and quiet. The rest of the so-called amenities are generally wasted on me. And for the most part, when moving around on personal travel, I like to make it up as I go along.
I've stayed at more than a few of them, from the low end to the high. The higher the number of stars, the more I am repulsed, I kid you not! Give me a 1- or 2-star place any day.
When on personal travel, I've often been seen at a Motel 6, a U.S. national chain that when it was started, charged $6/night. Now I am also a fan of the Denny's restaurant chain, so when I found a Motel 6 with a Denny's in its parking lot, in Anaheim, California, not far from Disneyland, I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven! And a Red Roof Inn suits me fine as well.
Throughout this year, I've made a number of trips to Silicon Valley where I've paid $200–250/night at a national chain, and that is far less than many charge in that neighborhood. As I work very long hours, often leaving and getting back in the dark, the facilities for which I'm paying are totally wasted. Basically, I'm only there to sleep and bathe.
Although I first learned about Airbnb some years ago, I didn't use it until late 2013. This site allows people to rent out spare bedrooms in their apartments, houses, castles, and so forth. I've used it in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Salzburg, Austria; and Madrid, Spain; and all were good experiences. After years of staying with host families, this is my new form of accommodation when on personal travel.
A few years ago, I walked the paths between the famed five towns of Cinque Terre, in northwest Italy. Throughout, I was based in a private house in the village of Vernazza. The landlady spoke no English and I spoke no Italian, but we got along just fine.
A fine way to experience the countryside in Bavaria and surrounds is to rent a room in a zimmer frei (spare room in German), which people advertise on handmade signs outside their houses and farmhouses.
I arrived in the sleepy town of Viejo on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica to find the place I'd planned to stay to be booked out. However, the staff directed me to a house nearby that was built on stilts. If the owner, Ms. Mary, liked the look of you, you might be able to convince her to rent you the room under the house. She did and I paid about $7/night for three nights. The next morning, as I was waiting for the daily 1–2 inches of rain to stop, she came out and started calling, "Rex". Now how did she know my name? It turns out that was the name of her Jack Russell dog, and when I told her that was my name, she refused to believe it. "That's a dog's name", she said. To which I replied, "Woof!"
I've had three experiences: a small unit for two adults and a child in Alaska, a medium-sized unit for four adults and a child in South Dakota, and a large unit for three adults and two pre-teens in Montana and Wyoming.
Having a motor home solves three main problems: where to sleep, how to get around, and where to eat. Of course, you need to find a place to pull up for the night that isn't illegal or dangerous. [When we were in Alaska, the law was that one could stay overnight at any place there was a state trash bin. My thought was that if we took one of those bins with us, we could put it out wherever we liked and stay there, but apparently that was not the intention.]
After a week or two in a motor home, you realize just how little you really need to live, and all the stuff you have is almost within arm's reach of the dining table.
There are several downsides, however. First, if a van is advertised to sleep X people, two of those would be sleeping in the bed that goes over the dining table, so using that requires you to fold and unfold that bed every day. Second, the beds can be short and/or narrow. For example, I took up the whole of a so-called "double bed". Third, the water and waste water storage is limited and the shower cubicle is small, especially for someone as tall as I am. During my trips, every three days or so, I've made sure to stay at a campground with a shower block.
These are called Ryokan, and I've used them quite a few times. A room can accommodate as many people as they can fit futons on the floor. None of those US-like rules of "The Fire Marshall limits this room to two [or three] people!" The downside is that the cost is based on a price per person, with kids paying the same as adults. None of this "A couple is a little bit more than a single, and kids under 18 in the same room stay for free!"
What's the downside? As I get older and my body slows down, getting down on the floor and back up again requires some serious effort. Most rooms do not have chairs or writing tables, which makes it hard to use a laptop computer. Any table provided is probably about 12 inches high and is used to serve tea. While some tables come with cushions to sit on the floor, others come with chairs with no legs, just bases and a back. When sitting on one of these, I can find no good place to put my very long legs! All that said, I like such places and the tradition that goes along them, especially wearing (and sleeping in) the yukata robe and obi sash, and wearing the slippers.
As I write this, I'm just wrapping up a 2-week trip in Japan. Many accommodations include a flashlight by the bed. At first glance, it seems like an unusual accessory to have in a room, but once you think about having an earthquake, you'll be happy to be able to find your way out of your room when the power goes out in the middle of the night. (I've experienced two earthquakes in Japan, both at night. For one of them, I was in a hotel, but there was no evacuation. After all, it only measured 2.5!)
Several times, I've stayed on the Korean island of Jeju (sometimes called Cheju), and that area can be subject to a variety of natural disasters. My room had a balcony on which was an emergency escape kit that included a rope ladder with hooks. If one could not leave one's room via the door, one hung the ladder over the edge of the balcony and climbed down to the floor below, and then repeated the process using the next floor's ladder.
Sleeping on the Move
I've slept four nights on a cruise ship off the coast of Florida. I've also slept a couple of nights on a train. I'd like to say I've slept on a plane in Economy class, but that would be a very rare case. I have, however, had some decent sleeps in International Business and First Classes. However, only the latter beds are long and wide enough for my frame to completely fit.
My First International Experience
My first trip outside Australia just happened to be when my wife and I left Australia to live, work, and travel abroad. Our first port of call was in Hong Kong (which was still a British territory). Our Cathay Pacific flight included two nights at an up-scale hotel, complete with Colonial-style uniformed staff. After that, we were on our own, and we located a cheap, Chinese-run place. Although there might have been a front desk, all I recall was that each floor had an attendant who sat on a rickety chair at an old wooden desk, and it was his job to "watch" that floor. Each time we came back to our room, he'd welcome us and then open the adjacent fire-hose cabinet in which there were a row of hooks with keys for each room. And we'd hand him our key each time we went out. The contrast between the two places was huge, and I remember the doorman at the first hotel looking strangely at us when he put us in a taxi to go to the second place and asked us where he should direct the driver.
At short notice, I booked a 10-day trip to the wilds of the Amazon Jungle in northeast Peru. The first night, we stayed at a Holiday Inn; the power went out during the night. The next two nights were at a base camp where the jetsetters could stay and claim to be in the jungle, but still have ice with their drinks, kitchen staff, and electricity. After that, we each slept in the middle of a clearing under an open-sided thatched roof with a mosquito net over us on very old and soiled mattresses. All the food was cooked by the local Indians and was rather nondescript. Ablutions consisted of a bucket of cold water and a towel.
Of course, many people consider having a room without an en-suite bathroom to be "camping". I've stayed in many places with share baths and toilets, and lived to tell about it. (The most recent was last week in a ryokan in Tokyo.)
Speaking of camping, at one place we pitched our tent in rural US, we saw electrical outlets at tent sites, and wondered what they were for. The answer was obvious that evening when we saw one family with a TV and microwave oven in their tent.
Sleeping outside can be interesting, although I've never woken up to find a wild animal sniffing at my face, like some people I know. However, the night I slept outdoors at Kakadu National Park in Australia, no more than 100 yards from the creek where there were crocodiles, I confess to sleeping with one eye open. I figured that if I slept in the middle of the group, I'd probably be woken by their screams if the crocs came for a snack. On another occasion, we arrived in town quite late at night on a big holiday weekend. There was no accommodation available, so we slept in sleeping bags on the dunes by the beach. I woke to find I'd made camp over the entrance to an ant hill, and they'd all come to join me in my bag. Don't you hate that when that happens? I also spent a rough night in the Aussie Outback on a camel safari.
For my second adventure trip, I joined a group on a hiker's trip across Patagonia in Chile and Argentina. Although we slept in two-person tents (with me sharing with a retired New York City policeman), porters brought bowls of hot water to our tents each morning, and we had a chef/cook who put together some impressive meals, along with wine and cheese in the early evening. When there was luggage to be carried, that was done by cowboys with packhorses.
Almost certainly the smallest space in which I've stayed is what I call a "shoebox" hotel in Tokyo (in which I'm sitting as I write this). The total living space was about twice the size of the single bed. There was also an en-suite bathroom. It had everything I needed, and I could just about reach everything from the center. It was compact, but practical. I have no wish to stay in a Japanese capsule hotel, however!
Two places come to mind, both of them suites. The first was in Tartu, the university, and second largest, city of Estonia. After staying with hosts for six nights, we decided to splurge, and we stayed in one of two top-tier places, the Pallas Hotel. This suite had four separate rooms, and the bedroom walls and ceiling had been painted by university art students in the style of a famous Estonian painter from the 1920's. The colors on the walls seem to drip down to the blood-red carpet, and I could imagine waking up in the night thinking that the nightmare was real! That said, it was a very nice room and hotel with very friendly staff.
The second was in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. The room rate posted on the wall said US$2,200/night, which I expect was actually charged on/near New Year's Eve. However, as part of a conference-group booking, I paid just 10% of that, $220. There was a big-screen TV at the foot of the bed and another in the lounge. A full-size fax machine sat on a table next to the Queen Ann furniture. Of course, there was a phone on the wall of the separate toilet room.
The Low End
Prior to joining a hiking trip in San Diego, Chile, I spent some days on the Pacific coast in Valparaiso, the home of the Chilean Navy. There, I stayed at the Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria) Hotel on the waterfront. The price of the rooms went up by $2 with each level, and I think I paid about $6–8/night. As I checked in, the clerk asked me what time I'd like coffee brought to my room each morning. Using my very basic Spanish, I requested hot tea instead, at 8 am. The clerk said that he understood, yet coffee was delivered at 7 am the next day.
I also remember a rather dingy place in the Red-Light district of Amsterdam near the main railway station. And yes, you could rent it for the whole night, not just by the hour! The "lobby" was very dark and somewhere hidden there was a large bird in a cage that screeched when someone entered. And the rough bathroom area smelled heavily of bleach. (Perhaps someone had been removing bloodstains!)
I did, however, have a perfectly decent room in Montevideo, Uruguay for $12/night.
The High End
I've mentioned the suites earlier, and I've stayed in a number of other 4- and 5-star joints. One I actually like is the K+K in old-town Prague (whose lobby I was sitting in when I got the idea for this essay). Its breakfast area is largely made of glass and it seems to be suspended in air. Another fine property was the Priory in Bath, England. There was none of this crass numbering of rooms; instead, all were named for flowers, and I was in the Marigold room, don't you know!
The Very High End
It used to be that five stars was the top of the rating system, but seven-odd years ago, I stayed in a so-called 6-star Kempinski Hotel in Geneva. Now that city is already expensive without going looking to spend more, but I was part of a very large business group staying there, and I wasn't paying! On arrival, I found a large box of chocolates on my bed, and then a small packet again each other day. The terry-toweling bath robe was so luxurious I felt a bit like a polar bear. Around the walls of the large lobby, a few feet up from the floor, was a panel of smoky grey glass behind which a gas fire burned. Every time I saw it I immediately thought of one of my high school novels, The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh, which was set in a funeral home with crematorium. I doubt that was the image the management had in mind. Breakfast was a grand buffet that cost US$45. I just wanted a croissant, a cup of coffee, and a small pastry, so I was directed to the ala-cart menu. I ordered from that, and that cost only $42! Despite that fact it wasn't my money I was spending, each morning after that, I walked to the main train station nearby where I ate with the locals without having to take out a second mortgage.
Although I didn't stay there, while I was in Hong Kong in 1979, I did walk through the afternoon-tea room of the fabled Peninsular Hotel (which has a fleet of Rolls Royces to ferry around its VIP customers). Let's just say that it was "over the top", but in a veddy dignified British way!
There are now 7-star properties, one of which I drove by recently in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
We spent several nights in Singapore in a non-descript place. It was early evening, and we planned to go out after midnight to the famous "Boogie Street" where cross-dressers, transsexuals, and others paraded around in their finery. As we were a little tired, we decided to sleep for a few hours and to set the alarm for some time after midnight. We slept, our alarm went off, we dressed, but once we got downstairs, we found a huge metal grate across the entrance, and it was locked. And although we could hear someone snoring back in the office area, we couldn't get anyone to come and let us out. Fortunately, we also had no need to make an emergency evacuation that night.
My first stay in a Youth Hostel was in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was traveling with my wife and small son. We had our own family room and had to do chores as part of our stay. It was a good, first experience. As part of a trip to Chile, I stayed in a hostel in the up-scale coastal town of Viña del Mar. One day as I lay on my bed reading, two guys starting pulling apart the old bunk beds, taking them outside, and replacing them with new ones. As the men were quite short, I offered to help them with the upper sections, especially pushing bolts through as they assembled the new sets. As I wrote in my diary that day, it gave a whole new meaning to "having to make my own bed".
My son and I were in a huge men's dormitory in the Netherlands, while my wife was with the women. The problem with this kind of place is that there are always loud and inconsiderate people coming in very late and/or leaving very early. One person insisted on packing and repacking their gear several times using plastic bags that made a lot of noise when handled. In Milan, Italy, I actually stayed in a hostel while attending a 5-day conference. Unfortunately, it had restricted hours in that one had to be out after 9:30 am and could not get back in until around 5 pm. Many of the people staying there was itinerant workers from Peru, of all places!
The hostel in upper Manhattan, New York City, was a 400-room hotel that had been renovated. We had a family room that slept four, and a key-card lock. It really was a decent place and not at all like a typical hostel.
My first two nights in San Jose, Costa Rica, were in a room sharing with three other guys, from three different countries. We exchanged stories and travel tips and then each headed out to different parts of the country. To our surprise, without any coordination, three days later we were all back, sharing the same room. The Norwegian guy had recently been in intensive-Spanish training in the old Guatemalan city of Antigua, and he passed on the address of his accommodation and details of his language course. Although I had no interest in that at the time, a year later, I was knocking on that house door and I stayed two weeks at $5/night, room only, and had private Spanish lessons each day for $2/hour.
Our first week in Chicago in 1979 (after moving to the US from Australia) was spent in the YMCA. We were waiting for funds to be transferred to us, so we could rent an apartment, and as we ran out of money, we found that we couldn't afford to stay, yet we couldn't afford to leave either!
B&Bs and Pubs
I've experienced quite a few of these, especially over the 21 days I hiked the Thames Path. (See my essay from July 2011: A Walk along the River.) One regular place I stay in London has bathrooms so small that once one is inside the shower stall and starts the water, the shower curtain clings tightly to one's body in the initial seconds. In Wales, we started our visit with a B&B and later stayed one night as the only guests in a country pub whose proprietor was very happy to have us as guests. In a B&B in Dublin, on the wall was the quote from George Bernard Shaw that went something like, "Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire!" I spent two nights in a nice B&B near the beach in Bray, just south of Dublin, which came complete with a very friendly dog. I had a series of decent B&Bs during my week in Cornwall and Devon.
Odds and Ends
I had an around-the-world plane ticket that required me to stay in at least three cities, but I only needed to stop in two. As such, I stayed a little more than 24 hours in the bridal suite of a small hotel in the town of Incheon, near Korea's international airport. The way in which the room was decorated reminded me of movies showing bordellos. It was most amusing. I was traveling solo, and the hotel didn't even provide me with a bride! Another time in Korea, on Jeju Island, I stayed in a new hotel that catered for honeymooners. I soon discovered that no matter what I asked any staff member, they always answered, "Yes".
On our first stop during a 10-day winter-time tour of County Kent in England, we arrived at the Gatehouse Hotel that is literally built into the wall at the front of the Canterbury Cathedral. When they quoted us their prices, we said we wanted something cheaper, to which they replied that they had a quaint double room up in the attic. It was more than adequate, but the entrance door was no more than four feet high. And the floor was on quite a lean with one end of each bed's legs having extensions to keep the beds level.
We stayed one night in Bombay, India, and the tourist literature said not to drink water from taps, but rather from the bottles in the hotel room. We dutifully followed this advice, but when we came back to the hotel, we saw a staff member filling those bottles from a tap!
When we landed at Heathrow in London in 1979, we visited the tourist office and asked for some place cheap. The woman looked down her nose and said, "Then it will have to be in South Kensington". It was quite a nice place, actually. At least it wasn't Earls Bloody Court!
I flew to Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for a two-week trip without any accommodation reservations. By the time I got to Tulum, it was dark, and I had a taxi driver help me find a cheap place to stay down near the beach. I refer to the place I settled on as the House of Sticks (from the "Three Little Pigs"). The walls literally were made of one-inch diameter rough, crooked sticks between which all kinds of critters could squeeze. The roof was thatched palm fronds, and from the rafters hung a new queen-size bed on thick ropes. The room was not much bigger than that bed, and came with a large fan on a tall pole. A mosquito net covered the bed. At $30/night, it wasn't cheap, but it was an interesting experience. Oh, there was no traditional door key; instead, a padlock was used to secure a large metal bolt.
At the end of a two-week trip backpacking from Mexico City and back via Vera Cruz and the Pacific Coast, I stayed in a gothic-style, mini-castle built by a wealthy, eccentric Brit named Edward James, which was being renovated by a young American couple. They were not yet open for business, but were happy to take my money as my room had been completed.
One Christmas, we spent several days on the quaint Dutch island of Saba, just off the south coast of Saint Martin. When sailors arrived there to settle they found no timber for construction, so they dismantled their ships and made houses from them. We stayed in one such Saba Cottage.
One place I've stayed at numerous times is on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, way off the tourist track. Each room had its own kitchen, and no phone or TV. The waves crashed on the beach under the coconut trees ten yards from the window. It even came with a very nice dog, Babe. (She has since passed away, and is buried behind the building in which I stay.) Every afternoon, she'd come to visit me and lie on the cool tile floor of my room. A room by the beach and with a great dog is hard to beat!
My pet peeve about accommodations is the all-in-one bedcovers that are common throughout Europe and other countries. I generate a lot of body heat, and without any way to remove a layer or two of bedding, it's either too hot or too cold, never the Goldilocks "just right". Over the years, I've developed some inventive workarounds.
Despite all those stories about traveling salesmen who have broken down in a rural area and need a place to stay overnight, I've never been invited to spend the night sharing with a farmer's daughter!