One of the most important questions for travelers of my generation is: “Where should I stay – hotel, hostel, bed and breakfast, or apartment rental?” While hostels are great for early 20-somethings hopping from capital to capital, and 4 star+ hotels are a no brainer for those lacking the word ‘budget’ in their vocabularies, finding the best option for those who fall somewhere in between can be difficult.
This post weighs the differences between hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, and apartments rentals and outlines some of the key information you need in order to find a great place to stay that fits within your budget, no matter where you travel.
I love a great luxury hotel and all of the amenities that come with it (maid service, fitness centre, mini bar…you get the idea), but when I travel, it’s usually for an extended period of time and staying in mid/upper range hotels can definitely add up. To avoid completely blowing my budget, I’m often left staying at inexpensive 2 and 3 star properties. My personal experience in such accommodations has not been overwhelmingly positive – especially in big cities outside of North America.
I also find that many hotels, particularly chains, are devoid of local character, tending to emphasize cheap modern decor over authenticity. Older, more established, hotels on the other hand can be in desperate need of some TLC.
But great, unique, locally authentic hotels definitely do exist – they may just be harder to find. When I was visiting Ulm a few months back, a city in southern Germany where I used to live, I decided to stay in a hotel so to not overburden my friends in their small flats. I did some research and found a great spot, Hotel Restaurant Löwen, which was ultra modern, locally focused, and conveniently located.
Don’t count hostels out so fast. While staying in a dorm room with a group of college-aged travelers has moved pretty low on my list (I’ll relive the stories in a subsequent post), many hostels have private rooms which are surprisingly modern, comfortable, and budget friendly. This is why I will never rule hostels out (and this is usually the part where my friends & family cringe in disbelief).
In Lisbon, I stayed at the incredible Travelers House in one of three private rooms secluded from the multi-bed dorms, and located on a private floor complete with its own living room, kitchen and bathrooms. It felt more like a boutique hotel or upscale B&B than a hostel and stands out as one of my top accommodations during that eight week trip.
Hostels are also a great way to meet fellow travelers, get firsthand advice on what to do/where to go, and to get a feel for the local culture. On a recent solo trip to Florence, I opted to stay at Academy Hostel, in a four person room. Although staying in a dorm was not exactly what I had envisioned when I was planning my trip, I chose Academy Hostel because of the positive reviews, mainly provided by travelers similar to me – those in their mid 20’s and traveling alone.
Some hostels cater solely to youth and have age restrictions, such as under 30 – just do your research beforehand. If there are no maximums, expect to see a wide range of age groups from gap year nomads to retired grandparents. This should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a more “mature” hostel, avoid any place with “party” in the name (in any language).
Hostels are extensively reviewed by visitors which can make your planning relatively simple. My two recommended resources, Hostelworld.com and Hostelbookers.com, not only allow you to gather info and read reviews on hostels in a certain city, but you can also see the demographics of the reviewers, such as age & nationality to better assess which property is best suited to your needs.
Bed and Breakfasts
B&Bs are a great option if you want a more personal and local experience. They usually have more personality than large hotels and come in all shapes and forms: no frills to high-end luxury, independent & private to shared spaces & more homey. B&Bs are one of my preferred lodgings and I always look for spots that are run by people who are passionate not only about their business but also their city. This is where you’ll gain that invaluable local insight that can propel your trip from good to great.
In Madrid, I stayed at Artistic B&B, a small and wonderful place in a refurbished 19th century building, run by a very engaging couple, Paola and Rudolfo. Upon arrival, Paola gave us a detailed rundown of the Barrio de las Letras neighbourhood and their recommended sites in the city. JP and I had a beautiful room all detailed in traditional Madrileño style. In the mornings we enjoyed a fantastic homemade breakfast, shared by all of the B&B’s guests at the communal dining table, and got the scoop on how best to spend our day in the Spanish capital.
Because there are an ever-growing numbers of B&Bs, or basement dives masquerading as such, using a travel user review site such as Tripadvisor is a good way to find accommodations in the area that you’re traveling to and read about other travelers’ experiences. Tripadvisor is my favourite resource as you can view B&Bs separately from hotels and you can often stumble upon off the beaten path spots as well (such as La Posada Rural in Northern Spain).
If you prefer something that offers even more independence, look into renting a room, apartment, or house and really immerse yourself in a city. Apartment vacation rentals have exploded in popularity recently, propelled by their lower cost relative to many other types of accommodation, and their ability to allow you to truly live like a local in a foreign city.
Renting a property definitely has its perks: a kitchen where you can make your own meals instead of eating every meal at restaurants; a private sanctuary where you can relax and unwind, and ultimately a hyper local home base from which to explore your new neighbourhood and the surrounding city.
There are generally two types of apartment/home rentals. You have the option of renting shared accommodation, where you rent a room in someone’s house but have full access to the common areas and can come and go as you please – kind of like a roommate – or private accommodation, where you’re given a key and take possession of your new spot for the duration of your stay.
What’s great about home rentals is that the owners are usually as enthusiastic about traveling as you are, hence why they’ve offered up their space. In my experience, hosts have gone out of their way to ensure that I have the best possible time in their city from providing maps of their favourite local spots, organizing museum passes and tours, to walking me around to get acquainted with the neighbourhood.
Whenever I am heading out on a trip, my goto’s for apartment rentals are airbnb.com, flipkey.com or homestay.com. There’s plenty of information on these sites to make an informed decision: description and photos of various rentals, guest reviews of their experiences, and owner profiles help you get down to the nitty-gritty.