Things to do before checking in to a Budget Hotel – Hotel Tip

Whether you just show up or book online always check the room before handing over the cash.  Here’s why:

  • But the lobby’s nice… Don’t get stuck with the smelly room with broken shower head and lop-sided bed. All hotels have these.
  • Bargain… See what you are getting and then negotiate rate based on quality , length of stay etc.
  • Hot shower…check to see if there’s pressure and how, when and if it’s heated
  • Secure locks/safe…Make sure they work and room feels secure

Budget hotel’s can be clean, safe and comfortable places. Allow enough time to bail and find something more suitable.

    Eat, Sleep and Meet: Ways to get the most out of Travel

    A traveler moves away from being a common tourist to one who actually is an actively taking part in daily life of a foreign land.  Many people go on trips that just end up being type where you roam around like sheep and view the sites as if in a zoo peering though the plexiglass.  This experience is satisfying to many but there is so much more to experience then just being on the sidelines. Make the most out of the trip and see more.  Start with mastering the basics:  Eat, Sleep and Meet.

    Start with the basics:  food

    These are the two basic things a person needs to seek out in a day.  Nothing is more stressful than trying to find a place to satisfy your hunger in a domestic or international unfamiliar territory.  There are many who give up too easily will and find themselves buying a value meal McDonald’s.  Why not.   The overall quality is consistent, the menu selections doesn’t change from country to country, it’s cheap and most the food not local but imported frozen.  It’s good if you are in a small town on the Danube and all they serve is locally caught fish, but really McDonald’s?  At least try because you may come across a gem that serves a great meal.

    Before you give up in venturing into the unknown local culinary scene, take a minute and ask the person checking you in if there are some places to eat near by where you can try some local food.  They usually will have a list of places to recommend.  If they end up being not so good, then it’s time to settle for the familiar, but if they are outstanding then you will be rewarded with a great meal, a unique experience and a great travel story.

    Now…shelter

    There are so many places available online and even in the old-fashioned hard copy book form that can put you in contact with accommodation that is not your garden variety business or name brand hotel. Most destinations have beds for rent range from space someone’s couch (couchsurfer.com) to staying in a fancy 5-star hotel.  If you are lucky, there are many options to choose from.   If not, the decision is easy since it may be a one trick pony town.  When there are many choices then try to stay somewhere with some character like a small hotel located in a residential neighborhood but not too far from local sites.

    Get out of the comfort zone and be adventurous.

    It is possible and a bit risky to find your accommodation when you get into town.  It’s ok to take some of the adventure out and put a good list together along with contact information before arrival.   Try to find at least three in the same general area so you don’t have haul your pack too far.  Also take advantage of technology and visit a booking site.  It will make you feel a little less anxious knowing that your list of options have space available.  If the hotels in the area all seem to be booking up and there aren’t many choices it may be a good idea to be safe and pre-book.  Save the adventure for the next town.

    Not booking a room until getting into town or a few days before can help in getting a better deal on the room.  Prepare to bargain.  Free wi-fi, breakfast or transport and/or room rate discounts are all up for negotiation.   Can’t hurt to try.  It’s pretty much the more risk a traveler is willing to take the less money a traveler will have to pay out on accommodation.  A savvy traveler can use this as an opportunity to practices some bargaining skills.   Be bold and ask for a more but don’t get too greedy since you do need a room and don’t want to piss people off since you probably are going to be their guest for a few nights.

    Finding accommodation as you go does involve some pre-trip planning but can ultimately save you some money and offers chance to meet local residents  since most are places run by families, a group of friends or people who own and run the place themselves.

    Learn some of the local dialect

    No one expects a new person to an area to be fluent with the local language and dialect but knowing a few words and phrases is a good start and the effort means a lot even if it’s just please and thank you.  Don’t worry and just do your best.  Ultimately, try not to tear the language too much apart.  The grammar and accent are things that someone needs to study over a large amount of time.   Do your best to listen and ask native speakers how to say things once you have built some sort of rapport with them.  It is a great way to begin to learn, broaden your experience and make good use of that expensive and weighty language guide.

    Try a hostel

    The term hostel when it comes to a place to rest for a night makes some think of those dirty hole in the walls where rooms are full of adolescents up until all hours, then sleeping 10 or more to a room in bunk beds and whose main goal is to be piss drunk the entire journey.  This is true but not all hostels were created equal.  They vary from country to country and region to region.  With development of the travel guide and online booking agencies the hostel as branched out in form and features.  More of them now represent what used to be only known as B&B’s, Guesthouses, Homestays and budget hotels.

    The one common theme that most around the world have are a common areas where travelers hang out to relax and hopefully meet other travelers.  They also offer the comforts of a private room and bath at a higher price.  The price is usually equal to what a regular hotel will offer in the area.  The plus is that you can usually get perks like free wi-fi, breakfast, beverages and local first hand knowledge of what the area offers from the proprietors and/or guests.

    These are just a few things that a traveler can try to carry out  when the are a visitor to a foreign land.  Try to go off the well-worn tourist path of the area and get an experience that only belongs to you. The best part of traveling is that it’s a constant learning experience.  The first step is to figure out the basics or the things that ever society has in common which is how we go about eating, sleeping and how we communicate.  Take it from there and run with it.

    Best Budget Spa Trip in Japan: Beppu Sand Spa

    It’s 7:15am on a monday morning (weekend after spring-back daylight savings to boot) and I’m be-gowned and getting conveyed into the  tomb or otherwise known as an MRI machine.  I know, what does a MRI have to do with any trip to the spa to relax?  I guess it was a combination of what I was dressed in a cotton robe and quite ready to fall back asleep.  It’s kind of how I felt when my husband and I got to the sand spa in a town called Beppu in southern Japan this past October.

    Getting into a very tight space where I can’t move and try not to think of the fact that it’s like being buried alive is one of those things that I really don’t enjoy.  We all have our cope mechanisms and mine is to use my imagination.  I imagine myself in a place where the situation is reversed but has some of the same themes.  (the robe and closed spaces) My recent trip to Beppu is the quickest and best I could come up with.  It was a good choice.

    The fall visit to the Sand Spa or in Japanese Suna-yu on the Beppu shore in southern Japan is Japans answer to Las Vegas.  It’s famous for its hot springs of various colors and mineral types and of course the sex, gabbling, African Safari Park, Rakutenchi Kid Park, Aquarium, a day of seeing monkeys at Mount Takasaki and it’s rotten egg smell.  We had just a few days were here for the Japanese Spas alone.

    There are many spas to choose from in Beppu.  There are 8 onsen areas which include Mud baths, Drinking Spas (good for the stomach I guess),  Waterfall baths,  and Sand Baths.  There cater to families, couples and single travelers and prices go from budget to luxury.

    We opt for the most interesting and budget friendly.   The first one we visited is called the Sea Side Sand Bath which is located down route 10 in Beppu.  It was a 15 minute bus ride from our hostel SPA Hostel Khaosan Beppu.  They have their own indoor spa but we decided to try ones that we could do together and not single sex.

    The Sand Bath Spa was amazing and probably one of the closest Japanese cultural traditions I have had so far besides the usual Saki drinking and Sushi eating.  Here’s how it goes down:

    1. The visitor is given a cotton robe to use as well as a locker and towel.
    2. Out on the beach the attendant digs out a 2 foot trench where you in your cotton robe recline into.
    3. Next, they continue to shovel hot steamy sand on top of you covering you completely (everything except the head).  The sand is course and sometimes too hot and heavy for some.    I was one of those who needed to just close my eyes, do some relaxed breathing exercises and just try not to freak out.  I managed to keep everything under except my hands.
    4. Along the way, the ladies help keep you covered since if you tend to want to move  a little.
    5. When the 25 or so minutes of being soothed by the hot salty steam were over they unburied us.  We then showered off and had the option of soaking in there indoor onsen and showered off the black sand.

    The attendants were great.  They off to take pictures and make sure that visitors were as comfortable as possible throughout the 25 or so minutes immersion.  They even put small umbrellas next to our heads when the sun got in our eyes.  At the end I was perfectly relaxed even after the claustrophobic panic feelings soon left.   I made it through with newly finished skin new and an appetite for more spa treatments.   What a great experience.   The budget part is that the 25 minute spa costs us $20 each.  We also had a day pass so we could hang out as long as we wanted to.

    Some useful information needed for planning your spa trip to Beppu.

    Train info: The best way and most economical way to travel in Japan is by getting a JAL Rail Pass before you depart.  We used a service called JTB USA here in New York City.  I take advantage of using services where I can make transactions in person.  The price is based on the current exchange rate which was 88 yen to the dollar so it came out to be $500 per person for 14 days of travel.  Seems steep but check out the individual trip changes and you’ll see for yourself.  It also depends on if you are going to travel beyond Tokyo and Kyoto which I highly recommend if you have the time.

    The best site to start with is my favorite Seat61.com and it’s easy to figure out train schedules by using Hyperdia.com

    A good place to visit before Beppu is Hiroshima.  There was a train that left Hiroshima in the morning and we just needed to switch trains once in Kokura.  We arrived in the late afternoon.  The scenery was wonderful as well.

    Accommodation:

    This is a place where you can find a fairly cheap and nice place to stay.  I just did the easy hostelworld.com search and found a place called SPA Hostel Khaosan Beppu.  They were very helpful with recommendations (they have put together their own guide of the area with details, prices and how to get there)  there was the free hot spring right inside the hostel for guests, free wi-fi and an overall relaxing atmosphere.  The convenience store was also a 5 minute walk away.

    Hostels…nothing like the movie

    It seems like when I talk to many I know back home about my travels they always have a negative opinion about the usual things.  The one of the biggest ones are why we enjoy staying in a hostels.  I wonder if this having to stay in one is sometimes what intimidates people from getting out there and traveling to unfamiliar places. In many cases, a hostel may be the best or only option.

    I can understand that some travelers can do without the adventure and prefer to book a room at the hotel who is backed up by the chain brand like a Holiday Inn.  They are supposed to uphold a standard.  If something goes wrong it’s nice to know that you can call customer service to help.  There are also the travelers who will not anything below a 3 star hotel.  This is also fine since each trip and traveler is unique and has different levels of comfort zones and some vacations are just a time to relax and get taken care of.  Hostels are not all equal but many are very comfortable and add so much more to a trip then just the a UNESCO site or other major attraction that brought you there in the first place.

    There are some really interesting towns and villages not found in a Frommer’s Guide that don’t have a need or market for such a hotel.  In some cases the town itself is protecting itself from the outside.  Not every town or city wants a foreign-owned conglomerate taking over and no directly contributing money back to the community.  There are also many instances where these 4-5 star hotel/resorts have taken over a once pristine village and turned it into a full-blown tourist trap.   Examples of this are the Golf Resorts of China Beach, sewage problems seen in Boracay, and Palawan soon could be the next paradise turned toxic wasteland.

    Hostels

    Hostels have come along nicely in the past decade.  American travelers in the 80’s who used to spend spring break remember them as being more like flophouse.  The stereotypical hostel has restricted hours (closed during the day), they imposed curfews and sometimes ask backpackers to help maintain the hostel in exchange for a cheap bed.  They had a more communal hippy way about them.  They tended to lend themselves to the stereotype of being of the grimy sort and full of travelers who were young and ready to party until all hours.  For those looking to stay up all night and hook up with other travelers the word gets around pretty fast on where to go.  Let the debauchery begin. These are still around but some of them have also grown up.

    The internet has made it easy for travelers to find out where to stay according to what kind of crowd they would like to hang out with amongst many other things.  The field has opened up for those who want the character of a hostel and all the social aspects of it but without the fraternity atmosphere.  There are now a vast selection of hostels to choose from in most towns and villages on the tourist trail.  There are the original form and the ones who like to get a good nights sleep and are willing to pay for their own room sometimes with a private bath go to another.

    I was at the New York Times Travel Show the other weekend and one of the audience members asked the panel who he can find a hostel and know that it’s not going to be full of 18-year-old partying drunks?  I’m glad that one of them, Michelle Higgins from the Times, defended hostels and said they are much more sophisticated than that these days.  Another audience member helped out and mentioned that the best thing to do is going to a site called http://www.hostelworld.com and use it to research what kind of crowd goes to which hostel.   If it’s a party hostel it will most likely say it in the reviews and the reviewer is required to put in their age.  So, if all the reviews are 18-24 then there’s their target market.

    This is still the case in some instances but the field has grown exponentially in the past decade or so.   Social media and the reviews that are  written on online travel guides and booking sites have changed things.   They are written by those who have been there recently and have nothing to gain (also for the most part) by putting a good or bad review.  I have found most travelers are eager to give others words of advice, but remember it’s best to take them all with pinch of salt.  Not everyday is a good day at a hostel.

    I’m in my 30’s and my husband and I usually travel together.  We enjoy meeting people along the way but prefer a private room and if there is a private bath attached it’s an added bonus.   It’s more expensive but having our own space is well worth the money since we like our sleep but like the option of being able to hang out with a nice group of people all night as well.

    It’s interesting on how what looks like a Business Hotel or in Japans case the Love Hotel are now considered hostel according to booking sites.  Travelers beware.  All these places need to do is add-on a few dorm rooms, put in a common area in a spare closet, dust off the computer they found on the side of the road, put out some guide books travelers tossed and then well- la. You can’t blame them.  Hostels are encroaching on their space and taking away customers.  This isn’t good when a traveler is looking an actual hostel not a hotel that was intentionally built to serve business men in transit and looking for a cheap no-frills room.

    This is when it’s important to research before the bus gets to town.  Know exactly what you are booking beforehand. It may be that it’s the only place in town sometimes, but it’s better to know what you are getting into before showing up.  For me, it’s sometimes may just come down to having a clean bed with a safe place to spend the night before moving on the next day if there’s nothing else available.  And yes, maybe you may end up at that party hostel full of 18-year-old’s on spring break if that’s what available.  All I can say is earplugs and a plan to get on the first bus and on to the next town.

    Here are some great examples of places I have stayed in that were listed as hostels  but ended up being a very wonderful places.  We even stayed longer then we originally planned because when you get a chance to be totally comfortable after a long stretch of not being so then you take it.

    Seventh Heaven Hotel

    Pushkar, India

    We happened to get to this part of India during Rajasthan’s famous Pushkar Camel Fair.  We were lucky to get a room for the night since it’s Pushkar’s only real draw besides being Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace was this event.  The Seventh Heaven is a hotel with 3-star accommodation but also provides less expensive annex rooms that were not air-conditioned and very basic.  This was fine since we had a device in the room that plugged into the wall.  Once plugged in it seemed like the mosquitoes were being exterminated in mid-flight.  I still am not sure how it did and what it did to us but I didn’t get stung once.

    The camel fair is in November this year, so book now.

    Backpax Hostel

    Xi’an, China

    I can’t say enough good things about this sanctuary that appeared on hostelworld.com in the middle of my short month-long stay in China.

    My husband and I were both recovering from being sick and just needed a place to relax, get better and catch up on some travel planning.  This place had comfortable beds, hot water, laundry, wi-fi and a great place to lounge and meet other travelers.  The owner, Mark, was also from New Jersey so it was nice hanging out with him and while enjoying a cup of real coffee and great food from there cafe.

    Mark had just opened the place about 6 months before we arrived and was still working it out.  The space had some interesting history.  Let’s just say it used to be a high-end spa but some bad business decisions had made it go under.  Mark scooped up the place immediately and transformed it into a hostel.  I took this picture from their Facebook page since I forgot to take any pics when I was there.  I hope they don’t mind.

    The place was kind of tricky to find but if you get the first train in the morning into Xi’an there is usually a person waiting for the arrival of weary travelers looking for a bed.  Just look for a nice looking person holding a big sign saying “Backpax Hostel” and they will assist you in finding the place.

    So, check them out if you are heading into town to see the Terracotta Warriors.  Make sure you go to the Shaanxi History Museum in town before you get the bus out to the site.  It’s very informative and above all free.  Just get there early because there’s always a line.

    A little slice of paradise

    wo years ago this week my husband and I we stuck in Phuket, Thailand.   For most being stuck in a tropical resort beach with nothing to do but looking at naked Europeans and ladyboys playing volleyball in 70-80’s F temperatures is heaven.  For us it was just killing time and itching for something with more adventure.

    We had arrived in Hong Kong at the end of 2007. We had unfortunately applied for our visas to China after the unforseen Tibetan riots occurred in Tibet, so this ment we could only be issued a single entry 30 day visa.  The Chinese government had totally messed up our plan.  We had not only planned to stay in China for 6 weeks but our travel path would have taken us over the Himalayas and into a whole different part of Asia and not Thailand.  We love south-east asia but had been to Vietnam and Cambodia a few years back and wanted to see experience traveling in northern India, Burma and then way down to Malaysia and Bali for some beach time.

    I’m not saying that Thailand isn’t a great place to visit.  The people seemed very friendly but since they were still in recovery mode and most of the visitors to the area were those from the Euro zone countries prices were incredibly high and I could have been on any island in the Caribbean for the experience I got there.  Very commercialized and tacky.  The only good feeling I got was that I was helping a cause when I was there.  The hotel we stayed was rebuilt and run by a family who had most likely been a victim of the tsunami two years earlier.  We selected places to eat based not on popularity but whether it was locally owned and run.  There were no trips to Starbuck’s, McDonald’s or any of the chain restaurants that had re-established themselves there.

    The only sadness I had in leaving was knowing that this area had a tough road ahead of them.  We had spent our days hiking up either side of Patong Beach to the outskirts of town.  These areas where either abandoned or being turned into very high-end condominium developments in the hills overlooking the beach that was once a place of very high devastation.  The only reminder of the tsunami was a small memorial located not far from the beach area.  It’s a simple construction which people have placed small elephant figurines and other mementos on it to show remembrance of love ones lost.

    The early morning we left behind the cheap massages on the beach, the overzealous prostitutes, the noisy waterfront and the ladyboy that was ironically waving at our taxi as we skipped town.  He/she in her/his magenta wig pretty much summed up the place.  I don’t mean to discourage those in going to Phuket but know that it’s not like Leonardo’s movie.  If you are in for a place where you can recover from your hangover on the beach, ride an elephant through the jungle and get a cheap massage it’s a great place to go.  I only wish them well in there own journey to full recovery and hope they are better prepared next time.

    Please let me know your thoughts on the matter of Phuket or other places like it.  I would love to hear other travelers comments.