Summer is upon us, and most are seeking refuge in cooler climes. But even as we browse websites for bigger and better deals, several choose to ignore the millions of cheap hostels and bed-and-breakfasts that dot the globe. So, for those who ask, ‘Is it safe?’, or ‘Will it be clean?’, avid backpackers and couch-surfers have all the answers.
Factor it in
Just like picking a hotel, zeroing in on a budget-stay option depends on what you are looking for. “While scouting, what matters more is the cleanliness of the place and its location. Check out reviews on TripAdvisor, because they give you a fair idea of what to expect,” says Sudeep Shukla, who is a media professional and hostel-hopper.
Other factors to keep in mind include distance from the city centre, access to public or private transport, if there are eateries in the area and, of course, your budget. "Pay attention to Yahoo Answers. People who have been there give the best recommendations. Read on Wiki about your destination; it helps you understand the place and choose where you’d like to park yourself," adds Dipty Gujar, who is an avid backpacker and couch-surfer.
* See what is popular: If you are attempting this kind of travel for the first time, the best thing is to stay at a popular hostel.
* Travel light: First-time backpackers and solo women travellers should always travel light. One will be less vulnerable and more independent if they aren’t weighed down by a lot of luggage.
* Keep distance in mind: Hostels away from the centre of the cities are less crowded, cleaner and give you a better experience, but travel time to the city is an issue.
* Do a background check: Research your options well. There are loads of terrible hostels in big cities, and you don’t want to be stuck in one of them.
Book or turn up?
While couch-surfing requires that a booking be done in advance, hostels and bed-and-breakfasts can be chosen upon arrival. "The accepted norm is to turn up and look for a place that suits your taste and budget. This is the best way to travel most of the time — it is cheaper, easier, and you tend to find nicer places to stay. However, if you are in a new country, it might be a good idea to book a private room for a few nights to rest, and get used to your new surroundings before exploring local pastures," says Akhil Jandial, an application specialist, and frequent hostel-hopper.
And for those who want to go a step further and travel even cheaper, several countries have designated campsites for backpackers. "My personal experience has taught me never to book anything. People are helpful, and they guide you to a much cheaper place than you can imagine. You can discover the hidden treasures of a destination only when you talk to locals. So, I've purchased a tent and sleeping bag for myself," says Gujar.
For couples or solo travellers, especially women, sharing space with strangers or opting for a lesser-known budget stay is often a daunting choice. "It is essential to keep safety in mind. So, a must-do would be to always chat with the hostel managers. They are mostly helpful with insights and suggestions that would not feature in a tourist guide book," says Jaita Guha, a marketing professional, who has stayed at bed-and-breakfasts around the world.
Another problem is the misconception of being alone in a foreign land, if you are a solo traveller. "People refuse to go alone based on five major fears: solo travellers don’t make friends; the single supplement expense is unavoidable, it is dangerous, it is boring, and eating alone sucks. Holding back because of these fears is a big mistake," says Jandial.
HT Column: Travelling on a shoestring budget
No comfort or hygiene
The biggest myths associated with backpacking, home-stays or hostel-hopping is that they lack hygiene or are for students with no means. "This is far from the truth. Whether it is hostels in foreign countries or humble home-stays in remote villages near Darjeeling, I have found a majority of places very comfortable, and spick and span. And on these trips, I have met professionals of all kinds, and of all ages — the only thing everyone has in common is the love for travelling and meeting new people," says Guha.
The main reason for this myth is that people think that travelling cheap means having to compromise on quality. "A lot of times, you can get quality even at a lower price. One needs to hunt a bit for that. Also, be open to go the offbeat route once in a while. The experience is always more enriching," says Shukla.
Suited for some places, not for others
The kind of budget-stay option you go in for depends on the location you are in. Europe, for example, is the best place for home-stays and couch-surfers. The network of hostels is also well-sorted there. But, in Asia, it is better to stick to hostels or budget hotels that are rated well by fellow travellers.
Another question that is often asked is if these options work well in India. "The biggest myth is you cannot travel cheap or backpacker-style in our country. I travelled across seven cities in Rajasthan as a backpacker for just `25,000," says Rutavi Mehta, a travel writer.