Travel wise to sleep safe

The pros and cons of different accommodation options aren’t always obvious

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Illustration by Emily Sicilia

Whether you’re in Tallinn, Estonia, Accra or Ghana—the place you sleep at night can make or break your travelling experience, said John Burke, director of Odyssey Travel on Princess Street. As the previous owner of Odyssey Travel, Burke has been involved in the travel industry for 20 years and has travelled to more than 100 countries, making him an expert on some of the best places to stay around the world.

“Accommodation is so important to a people because one thing that can damage a trip is going to place which is very interesting and exciting, but if you get your accommodation wrong—maybe it’s in a bad area, maybe it feels unsafe—then it can put a huge damper on your trip, a tremendous damper. So it’s important that you … do the research.”

Burke said access to budget accommodation comes in many different forms. He said he has used the Internet to book hotels worldwide—from the Happy Hippo Hostel in Durban, South Africa, to a small hotel near the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

Safety isn’t a huge concern for travellers booking hostels through websites such as bookhostels.com, hostelworld.com and the Travel CUTS website Burke said. Most sites offer a range of options—everything from low-budget hostels to two-star hotels.

“It’s probably better than me showing up in New Delhi at 11 o’clock at night and getting my rickshaw driver to take me to the place that he thinks is really good,” he said.

Many students also purchase Hostelling International Cards, Burke said. The cards give travellers access to thousands of hostels around the world. Because Hostelling International has been around for so long—it was founded in Amsterdam as the International Youth Hostel Federation in 1932—the hostels that hold memberships are usually very safe.

But Burke said the best way to look into accommodation options is word of mouth.

“Connecting with other travellers is probably the most grassroots way that you can find out whether places are good or not. And you can find out whether they’re good from a safety point of view, from a cost point of view, from a convenience point of view and also from an ambiance point of view,” he said.

Burke said it isn’t usually necessary to book accommodation ahead of time, unless there’s a major event taking place in the area at the time or it’s the peak of tourist season. Often, travellers take advantage of offers made by local hotels at train and bus stations in Third World countries.

“It’s the idea of arriving in a town and expecting that when you get off the bus there will be 17 people who will be hotel hustlers,” he said. “As much as that is an oppressive hassle because you’re inundated by these people, it is a system that works quite well.”

Travellers shouldn’t always believe they’ll be safer in a hotel than in a hostel, he said. The line between hostels and hotels is fuzzy, especially in the Third World, so it’s a good idea for travellers to carry their own locks.

Burke said he has good memories of hostels worldwide, including a houseboat at Dal Lake in Kashmir and hostels in Tallinn, Estonia. His “most basic,” hostel experience was a Hostelling International hostel in Delhi many years ago.

“I was travelling on such low budget that even the most inexpensive hotels, which were very basic, were above my budget,” he said. The place he ended up staying cost 10 cents a night and consisted of a number of charpoys—cots with mesh coverings—in a corrugated tin shed.

He said costs and quality vary worldwide. Travellers can book hostels for a couple of dollars a night in some Third World countries, but in Europe they should expect to pay at least $25 a night.

“I think the difference is that in Europe, where you would have a great number of hostels, there’d be more quality control on the hostels. As soon as you move to India or to many Third World countries, the quality control vanishes and you get entrepreneurs who are in the accommodation business and they will present almost anything as accommodation.”

Rowena Selby, education abroad advisor at the Queen’s University International Centre, said she thinks it’s a good idea to plan ahead during high seasons.

“Especially if someone is thinking of going away for the summer … generally you really need to think about booking ahead for hostels,” she said. “You want to feel secure.”

Many of the urban environments student travellers frequent—in France, Germany and Italy, in particular—can be very busy during the summer months.

Selby said she thinks one of the best parts of student travel is the spontaneity, but not everyone is cut out for youth hostelling.

“They can get a bit nervous by it,” she said. “I do try to talk to people about preparing themselves for it.” To prepare for youth hostelling, Selby recommends student travellers bring sleeping bags, pillow cases or sheets of their own to avoid coming into contact with bed bugs. For students travelling to a warm destination, she also suggests sewing a makeshift sleeping bag using two sheets.

Selby said the nice thing about youth hostels is that they’re often located in downtown centres, whereas inexpensive motels are located on the outskirts of cities. They’re also good places to meet people.

“In an inn or a hotel, you’re going to have a much more isolating experience, potentially,” she said.

She said students can also look into homestay possibilities. For instance, registered users on servas.org can arrange to stay in other people’s homes.

“I would always encourage something like that because it tends to be cheap and also that’s what gives you a real cultural immersion.”

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