A love of travel comes with the question of where to stay. Ideally, I would have friends all over the world who would open their houses for a few nights, which has happened on some occasions and always proves for the best trips. Or I would be able to afford the above penthouse. The following is my slightly more realistic account of where I’ve stayed during some past adventures:
My first experience staying in a hostel was during a trip to Europe with my track coach and fellow runners when I was 16. Naturally, since our Florence hostel had both an in-house bar and a dashing Australian backpacker (with whom I fell in love with from afar), I thought hostels were the epitome of good traveling.
Before moving to Granada, I faced my first dilemma of the year: do I stay at a well-priced, private pension half a block from where I needed to be in the morning? Or do I dish out a couple more euros for a 12-bed hostel in the sketchy part of town, a taxi-ride away from my school? What seems like a no-brainer evolved into an extensive pro-and-con session with the whole family over dinner. Yes, maybe it was logical to choose the cheaper, closer, private room. But could I afford to miss out on one potentially amazing night at a hostel? Brits and Swedes and Italians and Australians, all socializing without me–the thought was almost too much to bear. My sister, who had just come back from a semester in Russia, told me straight: You’ll have just traveled for 28 hours. Take the private room.
I didn’t regret it. But I couldn’t wait for my first trips that year, when I would be staying in hostels all over Europe. In October I visited Portugal, and I believe my exact blogging words after that trip were, “Hostels are the greatest invention in the world. I want to be young forever so that I can stay in them all over the world.” (I now shudder at both the prose and the idea.) Granted, Lisbon had amazing youth hostels–complete with Halloween parties–for nine euros a night, but that comment seems a bit shortsighted.
Over the next nine months I stayed at some hostels I’d rather forget. The worst was in Barcelona, where the bunk above me was christened with blood stains, and I held my bladder all night rather than brave the crusty stalls, opting instead to relieve myself in the nearest supermarket. I chose economy that time (it was July, afterall, and funds were running low), but will never again overlook the many negative ratings left by previous travelers. 65% approval ratings don’t lie.
At the end of my year in Granada, I traveled to northern Spain and completed the final stages of the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage. Backpackers stay at communal hostels dotting the path, where there are sometimes upwards of 40 bunks to a room. This is when my love affair with hostels officially ended. After walking 12-18 miles a day with a 25 pound pack, I seemed to ALWAYS get stuck in the bed above or next to the infamous snorer of the group. In one particular hostel, bunks were pushed into groups of two as a safety measure, so no one would roll off the sides (just into their neighbor instead). Who did I end up sharing the resulting king-sized bed with? Hazard a guess. I was practically spooning with the 50-year-old man, and made a promise to myself that night that I would never marry a snorer.
Midway through the year I decided to try my hand at Couchsurfing, since all these so-called “economic” hostels were really adding up. Couchsurfing is where people offer up their couches or spare beds to travelers for free, and in return expect some sort of camaraderie/cultural exchange/show of gratitude (a homemade meal from your home country, for example). My first two experiences were uneventful–I did it with my friend, as I was skeptical about staying anywhere alone. They were fine nights, if not the image I had conjured up of building life-long relationships with foreign friends. The third time, I was traveling to Germany by myself for a few days. Since I wasn’t having much luck with Spanish men, I decided to do exactly what Couchsurfing warns against, and choose a host based on his looks. I was excited to stay with B.–That smile! That jawline!–but the minute he picked me up from the metro, it was apparent that he was flamboyantly gay. Perhaps Couchsurfing’s idea of instant karma. (Disclaimer: B. and I are friends on Facebook, so let me just give him a shout-out here for being a great host! He showed me how to properly eat wild Bavarian blueberries and chill a supermarket beer in the river :)
My last host, G., was an oddball, but pleasant. We had some nice chats about Spanish accents and cultural differences. I was utterly exhausted from having spent the previous night on a bench in the Barcelona airport, so I wasn’t up for much socializing, but we went out and split some famous regional cider. During that time, we talked about some of his previous hosting experiences–how most guests were great, and he only had one truly bad experience. G. told me that for some guests, he simply doesn’t write hosting reviews (a way to build up your online profile and make yourself trustworthy to future hosts) if he thought there was nothing much positive to say about the traveler, or if they didn’t quite hit it off together.
I left in the morning to catch a very early bus West. I am still waiting, one year later, for G.’s review.
Every so often I find myself wondering. Did G. not enjoy my company? Was I not gracious enough? Maybe I should have whipped out some American pancakes for the morning, but I was gone by 6:30! I thought we shared a few good laughs over that bitter cider, but maybe his were forced??
Enough. Free lodging is not worth such deep questioning and insecurities over my own shortcomings. When I return to Spain in the Fall, I’ll be skipping the blood-stained hostels and the awkward, forced conversation that are sometimes too steep a price for a lumpy couch. I’m sure I’ll return to these accommodations soon enough, but upon my arrival I’m opting for an alternative: AirBnB. It’s similar to Couchsurfing, except guests pay a small amount for a private room. There is no sense that guests owe the host any bonding time, because we’ve already dished out the credit card. Just leave me a key, explain the house rules, and let me spend half the day napping, without the guilt.