Are budget accommodations the door to authentic travel experience?
Travelers, there’s a lot to be said for staying in a dump.
As someone who has stayed everywhere from four star hotels to boutique inns, guest houses, B&Bs, Airbnbs, VRBOs, other people’s homes, hostels, and down-right dives, I’m here to tell you, there is value in staying in dumps.
Now, what constitutes a dump differs from person to person. You might, for example, think a place without room service and a pillow menu is a dump. I remember having a conversation about a luxurious indoor waterpark in Wisconsin Dells which a woman referred to as “a dive.” Hmm.
You might also be thinking, “But it’s my vacation! I want/deserve/need the best!” Well, there’s something to that–but you should know by now, this isn’t a luxury travel blog. I’m typically a two-star traveler, for so many reasons. So if you think you deserve the best no matter where or when or why you travel, this probably isn’t for you.
Or maybe humble accommodations get a lot of wiggle room from you. Maybe you don’t mind a leaky faucet, a resident gecko or roach, shared bathrooms, old bedsheets, or multi-bunk dorm rooms.
Let me clarify that I’m using the term “dump” loosely, as a conversation starter. While someone might refer to many of the places I’ve stayed in my travels as a “dump,” there are only very rare occasions when I might truly use that word. One example would be a hotel we were strong-armed into booking while taking the slow boat down the Mekong River. We were told a pack of lies about the place, promised free WiFi, a deck overlooking the Mekong, fairy lights and luxurious rooms. It turned out to be a filthy, run-down hotel in the malaria-mosquito-ridden jungle with no amenities and sheets that hadn’t been washed in probably ages. Oh, yeah, and hair in the food and on the bed. You know the kind. I guess I’d also use the term for the prison-like hotel we stayed at as part of our travel package the previous night.
But I digress. Being lied to about a hotel you’re paying for is an issue of integrity and fairness, and a different matter entirely than choosing to stay at humble accommodations, and recognizing the value in doing so.
The benefits of staying in a dump
In my travels, I’ve found a lot of reasons staying at a “dump” is worthwhile.
It puts the focus on the destination, not the lodging.
There are places you go specifically because the lodging is amazing–and that has value. So if you’ve planned an anniversary escape splash-out to The Biltmore or The Charmant, more power to you. I’ve stayed at nice places for special occasions, and have truly enjoyed myself. But when you really travel, particularly in developing nations, perhaps even long-term, the focus should be on the destination and the experiences and lessons you can get there, not whether the white glove service is up to snuff. Having a simple crash pad actually pushes you out into the environment you traveled so far to see and experience.
It reminds you what you really need in life.
One of my favorite aspects of long-term, budget travel is that it enables us to clearly see the excess in our lives. You start by whittling down your belonging to the bare minimum, just what you need to survive, and for me, that all fits in a 40L backpack. When it comes to lodging, what we really need is so little: a place to sleep. Air conditioning, privacy, luxury bedding, even a soft mattress–none of that is truly necessary for survival. Best of all, when you come home you’ll see everything you have with new eyes, and perhaps appreciate the relative luxury a little more.
It keeps travel real.
Most people, no matter where they live, do not wake up every morning in private, four star accommodations with a dedicated staff. Heck, many of us don’t return home to luxury accommodations. Why do we expect the whole world to deliver the best in luxury when we’re away from home, no matter how poor the country? Why do we need a clean bath towel every single day? Or, individual shampoo bottles, which waste so much plastic? Why do we need turn down service at night? Seriously, it’s crazy when you think about it.
Simplify your lodging and you’ll be keeping it real.
It breaks down barriers between locals and tourists.
Tourists stay in luxury lodging, because they expect other places and countries to adhere to or exceed the standards they experience at home. This goes for cleanliness, functionality, technology, cuisine, convenience and comfort. Real travelers strive to better understand local culture by entering the experience unencumbered by those unrealistic expectations. A four-star hotel will show you what they think you want to see (and hide what they think you don’t want to see). A small, family-run hotel will give you a picture into the lives of local business owners and families. Perhaps you’ll see their children, helping out in the kitchen or playing in the yard. Maybe you’ll be able to see into their living room, as has been the case in some places I’ve stayed. Who knows? You may even forge new friendships with the staff. I have found if you treat people with mutual respect, instead of treating them like servants, the barriers come down quickly. Luxury hotels won’t allow it; the walls will always be up to preserve the fairytale of perfection.
It will make your whole trip cheaper.
On my first trip through Bangkok, I was arriving very late at night and was worried about navigating the city at 2 a.m. as a solo traveler. So, I sprung for the super expensive Novotel hotel at Suvarnabhumi Airport. It was awesome to disembark from my flight, take a luxurious bath, and collapse, jet-lagged and exhausted, on high thread count sheets. The next morning when I was famished, the buffet was awesome and gentle on my tentative tummy. And it was a decision I made because I was unsure how safe I’d be. But the Novotel is the opposite of what I love about Southeast Asia. It represents so many of the things I dislike about luxury travel. In fact, the experience was so bleached and fluffed and perfectly manicured, that hotel could have been anywhere in the developed world.
There is no true cultural experience to be had within the walls of a four star hotel.
So, how does staying at budget accommodations make your whole trip cheaper? For one, there won’t be a $25 USD breakfast buffet on the premises. Taxi drivers will be less likely to see dollar signs when you hail them, unlike when you’ve exited a hotel that costs more than locals can afford. And budget accommodations, in particular hostels, are usually close to the awesome things you want to see, and cheap food options. That means less money spent on transportation, less markup on meals, and easier access to affordable options.
It enables you to travel longer.
So often, people ask me how I can afford to travel. The truth is, I stay in really cheap places. My cheapest stay was a $3 per night private room with a shared bathroom–gosh, I wish I could score that again. But most often, I’ll scour listings for hotels, hostels and Airbnbs and try to find the cheapest accommodation that meets my basic needs. Pricing varies on the destination, of course, but it’s very, very rare for me to spend $100 on a night’s stay. I’d say I probably average $15 -$50 a night in my travels. In places where lodging is more expensive, I choose dorm room hostel stays, sometimes with as many as 30 beds. Then, I’ll sprinkle in some private room stays at Airbnbs, so I don’t lose my introverted mind. As a plus, I typically seek out places with a kitchen to save cash on meals by cooking my own.
If I stayed in nice accommodations all the time, it would severely limit the amount of time I travel, as lodging comprises such a huge chunk of a person’s daily travel expenses. It’s simple math: stay in a $100 a night hotel for four nights, or a $25 a night hostel or cheap hotel for 16 nights. For me, it’s an easy choice.
Final thoughts on budget lodging
The choice, of course, is up to you. If you choose to stay in cheaper accommodation, or at a “dump” as some might call it, suffering a little discomfort is a probability, but you should never do it at great personal risk. Always be mindful of personal safety and the security of your belongings. Read reviews to get a full picture of what you’re getting yourself into. And if you find yourself in a situation where your accommodation isn’t quite as safe or clean as you need, don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s better to be out a few dollars than to put your health and safety on the line.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog, she applies her worldview to her business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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