25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 3

Hostels, Hotels, Private Homes, Campgrounds, Palapas,
And Free Accommodation

Hostels  Backpacker Hotels  Private Homes  Developing Country Hotels  Reservations  Bargaining  Campgrounds  Palapas and Hammocks  Free  Tips


HOSTELS ARE TRADITIONAL backpacker accommodation, providing cheap beds in a communal atmosphere. Most have rooms with four to ten bunks each, kitchen facilities for individual use, showers, a common room with television, and clothes washers. Some have swimming pools, gardens, camping areas, game rooms, and other amenities.

Hostels belonging to Hostelling International (HI) (formerly International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF)) usually enforce certain rules and standards. These include a midnight curfew and a mid-morning until late-afternoon lockout when all guests are required to leave the premises, although you can leave your stuff there. (Many urban HI hostels now offer 24-hour access.) Simple chores such as emptying wastebaskets may be assigned. Non-HI hostels generally do not have a lockout period, and curfews are non-existent or flexible. Most hostels segregate guests by sex, but not all all the time.

Membership cards are available at HI hostels. HI hostels usually do not require membership, but charge an extra $3 per night for nonmembers, which goes toward your eventual membership. (Each time you pay $3 you get a stamp in your membership card until it's paid off.) Other hostels are not affiliated with HI and do not require membership. If joining in the U.S. membership costs are $10 per year for those under eighteen, $15 for over fifty-four, and $25 for load carriers. It's slightly cheaper to join in some other countries.

Some hostels are in truly magnificent settings--I've stayed in a few castles transformed into impressive backpacker quarters, and in Prague you can even stay in Vaclav Havel's old cell in a former political prison. Of course some hostels are better than others, but backpackers will regularly recommend ones they have enjoyed. Almost all are good places to meet other travelers.

A really fun hostel.

Photo: A really fun hostel.

While some--especially European--hostels are extremely crowded and hectic during summer tourist season, they can be delightful and casual the rest of the year. You may get a room to yourself, and it will be easier to meet and get to know fellow travelers. Plus the price often comes down. I highly recommend off-season hosteling in Europe, although it's fun any time of the year.

Hostels are open to people of any age. Only in Bavaria during the summer are they limited to persons under twenty-six. Otherwise plenty of older folks go the hostel route. Some people tire of hostels because of the almost hyper-social atmosphere, but I generally enjoy meeting people when traveling.

Some Scandinavian hostels cost over $20 per night/per person, but most European, U.S., and other western hostels average around $7 to $15 per night. Eastern European and developing-country hostels--where available--are less.

Many HI hostels require use of a sleepsheet, which you can rent, buy, or make by sewing up one regular sheet into a kind of sleeping bag. This may be to protect you from some hostel bedding, which is apparently attended to only in the initial euphoria when new owners take over. "Yah, Gert, when I buy that hostel the first thing I'm gonna do is wash all the blankets!"

The first link below takes you to the HI homepage, from which you can visit sixty country federations and buy a book listing 5000 HI hostels. You can also learn about their IBN hostel reservation system for up to six months in advance. (You front the money.)

My estimate is that HI has about thirty percent of the worldwide hostel market. Other hostels are often termed "unofficial" or "independent," but in fact usually belong to a national or regional network of hostels or backpacker hotels. The network may be all-powerful or beyond loose, but it makes sense to belong to something.

Hostelling International, as above, with links to sixty country federations.
Lists hostels of all colors, with FAQ.

American Youth Hostels (AYH) 733 15th St. NW Suite 840 Washington, D.C. 20005 tel. 202-783-6161 fax 202-783-6171  hiayh.org

Hostelling International Canada (HI-C) 1600 James Naismith Drive #608 Gloucester, Ontario K1B 5N4 tel. 613-748-5638

Backpacker Hotels

Backpacker hotels are such a force in Australia and New Zealand that they are simply referred to as "backpackers." There are about thirty in Sydney, a dozen in Auckland, and every other city and town of size has at least one or two.

While similar to hostels, they have no or looser lockout and curfew rules. Some guests really enjoy the atmosphere and stay for months while working, or looking for work. Some are large, older homes, while others are former regular hotels adapted to meet the new backpacker market.

Standards of cleanliness vary, of course, but usually a backpacker or two is employed to mop the floors and clean the kitchen and bathrooms. Prices for these ubiquitous hotels in Australia and New Zealand range from $8 to $15 per night.

Backpackers' hotel advertisement Illustration: An attractive advertisement from many Sydney choices. That my even cheaper hotel was overly inhabited with long-term working English wasn't its saving grace.

Bed-and-Breakfast Hotels, Pensions,
And Private Homes in Europe

Traditional bed-and-breakfast accommodation is common in Britain and Ireland. In Scarborough, England I recall walking several streets where almost every house had a sign proclaiming vacancy. In seaside and other vacation towns bed-and-breakfast hotels are often clustered like this, so it can be relatively easy to find an available room. Pensions are the rough equivalent to bed-and-breakfast hotels on the European continent.

These small hotels have two to ten rooms, with usually shared bath facilities. Breakfast is provided, which is something of a social event as guests chat away. Many English patrons go to the same bed and breakfast at the same time every year, creating a family atmosphere. English and Irish bed and breakfasts range in price from a low of about $12 per person to $30 or more.

Accommodation in private homes is also common in Eastern Europe and developing countries, where enterprising families trying to make ends meet take in guests on an informal basis. You may be met at train stations by groups of older women holding signs declaring "room" or "zimmer" (German for room).

Private Comblock AccommodationSometimes the initial offer will be high, but the price comes down if you don't act too interested. Do agree on the price beforehand, though, and find out exactly where the room is before accepting. In Warsaw as I walked forever with an elderly lady she kept saying "Only a little further" with her fingers. Then we boarded a bus and rode to the suburbs, finally arriving at a huge communist-concrete tenement. (Actually I had a great time as neighbors came over to meet "the American.")

Many popular backpacker destinations are likely to have this kind of accommodation. Finding it, however, may be a problem, since it may be a slightly illegal operation. Inquire at the tourist office, but you may need to ask at restaurants, markets, small grocery stores, or even of a postman. Sometimes "room," "zimmer," or in Italy, "affitti camere" will be displayed on a gate or window.

These entrepreneurs infinitely prefer someone who stays a few days or longer, so you should be able to work out a price-break for longer-term accommodation.

Hotels in Developing Countries

Accommodation is quite affordable in the developing world. While the big tourist or business hotels--even in Bombay, Nairobi, or Quito--will charge $100 or more per night, the midline and bottom-end hotels which serve the local middle classes will have affordable prices. They are often conveniently clustered within walking distance of rail and bus stations. You can expect to pay from $3 to $20 per night.

Typical developing country clean hotel room Photo: Typical clean hotel room. (I made the mess within minutes of arrival.) It had ten foot ceilings, a good mattress, and was spotless. The hotel had a large lobby, interesting clientele, and was perfectly located downtown. At $10 per night for one, I stayed a week.

All over Thailand enterprising families have set up "guest houses" for the budget tourist trade. These aren't really houses, but small, Spartan rooms that sell for $5 to $10 per night. In Morocco most Moroccans and backpackers stay in "unclassified" hotels in the medina. These cost from $3 to $7 per night, and range from dirty and dangerous to not bad at all. In Egypt backpackers stay in pensions and "student hotels," which have sprung-up specifically for backpackers.

Hotels in India are classified according to the style of toilet facilities: Western and Indian. With Western you get a place to sit; with Indian a place to squat. One very civilized feature of some Western and many Indian hotels is that check-out is twenty-four hours after check-in--not merely the next morning. You can also usually buy half-a-day of stay. These hotels range in price from $2 to $20.

Photo: Typical glossy-walled not-so-clean hotel room. We bargained the price to $8 for two. It had a bad mattress and stunk. (But hey, it was available, we were there, and at least it was cheap.) Glossy-walled not-so-clean (but cheap) hotel room

Some of the best-value backpacker accommodation is in Bali, where family-run hotels called "losmen" dot the island. They have no more than a dozen rooms, and feature the indoor/outdoor Bali style of living. Breakfast is included with the $4 to $10 per night price.

Most other popular developing world countries also have hotels catering mostly to backpackers. Again, these are usually small, family-run operations which traditionally have provided an inexpensive roof for local travelers, and are now encouraging the backpacker trade with low-priced private rooms. Sometimes if you get there late and the place is full-up, the owner will throw down a mattress in a back hall or common room.

Rooms vary greatly, of course, but are usually basic, with a bed, nightstand, closet, concrete floor, window, and a fan of some kind. The least I ever paid for such was $1, and it had all the above, except the window. (No, there were no iron bars and I could leave whenever I wanted.)

The main point is that low-priced accommodation is available almost everywhere--especially anywhere the first-time backpacker is likely to go--and is relatively easy to find once you get there.


I rarely make reservations while backpacking. For travel in Europe during July and August, however, it's a good idea to make reservations. For summer Eurrailing, I would call from one city to the next to find a room or hostel space. Many developed-world hostels do this for free or a small charge. But it all depends on what you want and your style of travel. I would probably choose to occasionally sleep in the rain over fronting my money all over Europe and committing myself to a schedule.

For the rest of the year the tourist office--which is almost always located in or near the train station in European cities--should be able to find a room when you arrive. Otherwise you can find something by phoning around the morning of your arrival.

Throughout the developing world I never make reservations, and neither do most backpackers there. Phoning is usually expensive and difficult, you don't really know when you're going to arrive, and for most backpacker-type hotels you probably want to look the place over before committing yourself, anyway.

Even if you make a reservation the room may be gone when you get there, and you may pass something better on the way. While I have been turned away from quite a few full hotels and hostels, usually the clerk recommends a place nearby that may have space. Something always works out, even if once in a while it's the hard (though unbeatably cheap) floor of a train station.

Once you begin traveling you will probably enjoy the freedom and flexibility of planning your trip as you go.

Room Bargaining

In developing countries you can often pay less for a room without much effort. After being quoted a price it can be effective to reply, "Do you have another room for less?" Or while shaking your head sadly, "I'm sorry, but I can't pay $8 for a room without a fan/toilet seat/hot water/etc." Give the clerk an excuse to give you a lower price, and you may get it. Of course this only works when empty rooms are expected that night.

Some experienced travelers become peeved at neophytes for not bargaining since this makes it more difficult for them to get rates closer to what locals pay. One impecunious Swiss shamed me for agreeing to $7 for a good double, which was down a buck and a half from the first quote.

Sometimes when you ask to see a room you will be shown the worst one first, as they know many travelers will take just about anything. Ask to see another--sometimes you can get a better view, bed, or fan, and once in a while an altogether superior room, for the same money. In the seedy hotels I sometimes find myself, I usually ask to see at least one other room, and then make a decision.

In some countries you cannot make the assumption that something works just because it's there. Check the lock on the door, and give the toilet a test flush.

Camping in Europe

For every hostel in Europe there are four or five legal places to erect a tent, ranging from delightful municipal campgrounds in city parks, to gigantic caravan (RV) parks. Many small towns and villages, and nearly all medium-sized and larger towns, have a campground, usually within the city limits.

Photo: Typical European city campground in July. This one becomes livelier in the evening as campers return from another hard day on the Heineken brewery tour (featuring free Heineken). Typical European city campground

Norway, Sweden, and Finland have an "Everyman's Right" law. This means campers are allowed one or two nights on private lands outside city limits as long as they stay out of sight and leave without a trace. Ireland, with its long tradition of tinkers (traveling menders), has many accommodating farmers if you ask permission. Many hostels have a lawn area where campers are allowed to set up at half-price, but with full use of all facilities.

While some campgrounds may be extremely crowded in the summer tourist season, if you arrive at the reception on foot with a pack on your back and perhaps a tired look in your eye, you probably won't be turned away, even if the sign says "full" in five languages. Most campgrounds only turn away campers with vehicles. This is a major consideration if you have ever raced around all afternoon to win the right to pay a lot of money for a bit of hotel space.

Another point is cost--campgrounds run about half your cheapest hostel. The most expensive campground I encountered was in costly Oslo--it was sited relatively close-in on a mountain with a fabulous view of downtown ($14 in 1994). You will generally pay between $3 and $8 per night, per person.

Many European campgrounds are open from early May to the end of September, others an extra month or two on each end, and some all year. Some city-sponsored campgrounds are only open in July and August. More campgrounds are open year-round in Spain than elsewhere.

France is a camper's paradise, with private campgrounds practically everywhere, and municipal campgrounds often located in central park areas. Summer in Greece is so comfortable and predictable it's easy to throw down your sleeping bag on a beach for a great snooze. Many Mediterranean hostels and backpacker hotels also sell sleeping bag space on the roof for $5 or less.

Camping in Europe is by no means roughing it. To my way of thinking it's the cheap and easy way, ideal for many couples. Indeed European campgrounds are filled with frolicking young lovers. Many European campgrounds have a store, cafe, swimming area, playground, kitchen, laundry facilities, and hot showers, some even a bar and disco.

Drawbacks of Camping

A tent adds significant weight and bulk to your pack, so you don't want to be hauling one around without good reason. Most backpackers always stay in hostels or hotels and therefore don't carry a tent.

On the other hand I carried a tent on four tours: twice in Europe where it saved money and hassle in finding accommodation; once in Central America where I used it mostly for mosquito protection under palapas in national parks and archaeological sites; and in New Zealand and Australia where its best use was a few weeks camped on the grounds of my all-time favorite hostel. (An English manor-style house with a great front porch where I drank tea and beer, made conversation, and observed international co-ed volleyball on the front lawn.)

Some campgrounds in major cities are far from the center, which adds to costs in money and time. On the other hand some major city camping areas are amazingly central, and in small and medium-sized towns it's usually easy to get to the campground. There will always be a bus stop nearby.

If it rains you don't have to spend a lot of time inside a cramped tent. Nearly all campgrounds have a covered area to hang out, if not a cafe. Rain will only get you down if you let it dictate your activities. I pack a mini-umbrella and a long rainjacket, and go about my business of travel.

Camping Safety

European campgrounds are usually safe for unattended gear. I routinely left my sleeping bag and pack in the tent during the day, often not returning until late at night. Many campers do the same, and most consider campgrounds safer than hostels. Of course this is not a guarantee, so if you don't want to take any chances you can check your stuff at the reception, but then you must return by closing to retrieve it.

In my experience of about fifty campgrounds I've found them totally safe, except for one instance. Late one night in Prague I was awakened by a figure crouching at the entrance of my tent. My zipper had broken some weeks before, and the door was open. Surprised, I yelled as loudly and deeply as I could, "HEY! HEY! HEY!" and the intruder ran off. A few campers popped their heads outside, but no one saw anything. At the time I thought someone had stumbled into camp drunk, and had simply gone to the wrong tent. I felt badly about yelling so meanly, but was too tired to think about it much.

The next morning three tents were found to have slashes running nearly their entire lengths, a few inches above the ground. Two money belts were gone--the third tent was lucky. At the rear of the campground we found a hole in the fence and a beaten path running to it. We then learned the campground was having regular trouble from thieves at a nearby apartment complex. For the next night a guard was hired.

Most campers agree that if there is going to be thievery at European campgrounds, it will be from outsiders as in the above instance. The experience and camaraderie of camping seem to make people honest--or perhaps everyone realizes we are all in the same boat. Nevertheless, I now secure my tent zipper with a very small plastic lock, if only to deter mischievous children.

Never leave unattended gear in your tent in developing countries. The temptation for desperately poor people is too great. In these countries it's probably not safe to camp anywhere but established campgrounds, which will probably have guards on duty.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears

In North American grizzly country never eat in your tent, store food in it, or wear clothes to bed in which you have eaten. The smell of tuna may overpower your unappetizing human scent. Food should be stored in a bag hanging from a tree limb at least fifteen feet off the ground. You get it up there by throwing a weighted cord over a limb, and then hoisting it up.

Park rangers in Africa say that as long as you zip up the doors and windows of your tent, you won't be attacked by lions. While it is true they usually won't attack a zipped-up tent, it's not always so. One Welsh wildlife photographer who spends several months each year in East Africa said that park rangers minimize or ignore the danger, even right after a lion attack. (After all, what's the big deal, really, if a few tourists are dragged off now and then. Locals put up with it all the time.)

Suffice to say in lion and tiger country stay in established camps, and select a site toward the center as opposed to off on your own near a watering hole. Note that North American black bears and mountain lions, and Central American jaguars are extremely shy and normally no threat to adults.

Wild Camping

Wild camping is camping away from any campground, and probably where some regulation says you shouldn't, but because you are tired, stranded, or broke, you do anyway.

When I wild camp, I prefer not to set up a tent. I feel safer and more comfortable sleeping in the open, it's less bother, and I can hit the road faster in the morning. If you do set up a tent when wild camping, wait until dark, or just before. Try not to let anyone see you making camp, and keep the lowest possible profile. If no one knows you are camped somewhere, no one is likely to come calling.

Camping in the Rest of the World

Besides Europe, camping is also popular with backpackers in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), much of Latin America, the United States (especially Alaska and Hawaii), and Canada, among other places.

Tents are less used by travelers in the developing world as accommodation there is plentiful and cheap. Even while trekking in Nepal you can easily find inexpensive hotel-type accommodation every night.

Palapas, Hammocks, and Mosquito Netting

Hammocks are useful sleeping mechanisms from central Mexico through Central and South America as they provide maximum cooling in very hot and humid conditions. Many locals have hammocks permanently hanging inside their homes. Furthermore, there are many covered areas to hang hammocks--called palapas or chozas--that charge a fraction of a fleabag hotel. (The fleabag hotel may also have hooks in the walls for hammocks.)

Palapas usually have thatched roofs and no walls, and are the cheapest and coolest backpacker accommodation. Sometimes they double as restaurants or community centers. Hammocks are also essential for riverboat travel on the Amazon, where backpackers and locals hang them on deck for journeys that may take up to five days.

Palapa campground Photo: At this palapa campground backpackers swing from hammocks in a magnificent jungle setting, listening to the haunting cries of howler monkeys and the ominous, beating wings of gigantic bats as they drift off to sleep.

You can always buy hammocks in hammock country for $10 to $30, and sometimes rent them. If you get one at least nine feet wide you can sleep crossways on it, thus less banana-like and more comfortably. If you attach both ends of a hammock to a single overhead hook, you can also sleep sling-like, which is preferable for some. A hammock with a tight weave is also more comfortable, although heavier and bulkier than a loose weave.

In the U.S. you can buy for $7 a small "backpacker's hammock" which weighs eight ounces and rolls-up softball-size. Although not as comfortable as a full-sized hammock--or as safe in terms of "roll-out"--it packs much smaller. L.L. Bean sells a camping hammock, 4 lbs., $150, which protects from rain and insects while you swing from the trees. I don't know how well it works because every swinging backpacker I've met has used a regular hammock and mosquito netting.

See Chapter 9 Effects of the Sun, Maladies, etc. for mosquito protection, and Chapter 23-b Useful Information for a company specializing in mosquito netting.

Where and How to Crash for Free

Every backpacker traveler spends at least a night or two sleeping free, usually in a train station or airport. Others take advantage of every free opportunity. Of course sleeping free is not as safe as a locked hotel room or hostel, and the following are not recommendations, just the facts. Women must be extra smart in the present world.

Overnight Trains and Buses

The #1 semi-free place to stay is on overnight trains or buses. Some Eurrailers chug off every evening for another city six or eight hours distant. ("Yeah, I was in Paris Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and in Milan on...")

Advantages are obvious. You save on a room, and you get to your destination early enough to have a big day, find accommodation, or locate a shady park for extra snooze time. You may meet other backpackers doing the same, and team up with them for accommodation the next night.

For bus overnights, avoid headlight glare by choosing the side away from oncoming traffic. The front of the bus is the most frightening, the middle of the bus has the smoothest ride, and the back of the bus is the roughest, noisiest, and smelliest, although the very last row sometimes affords a luxurious multi-seat stretch-out.1

For both trains and buses place your pack under your feet or otherwise secure it, and bring ear plugs and your low-profile beverages of choice.


Train stations are the #2 free place to stay. In many larger European train stations (but not all) there is a nightly ritual of travelers bedding down for a few hours. Just see where others are crashing, select a safe-looking bunch, and crash-out beside them. Ask if they mind, to start a conversation. Everyone sees safety in numbers, so perhaps with a pretty smile or luck you won't be too dangerous-looking.

First, though, you may want to check your pack in luggage storage or a locker, just taking out your sleeping bag, mesh clothes bag for a pillow, and pad, if you have one. If you can't or don't want to check your pack, you may want to tie it to something next to you, and/or to yourself. Otherwise use it as a pillow, or at least keep it between you and a wall. You don't want your pack to look like an easy mark, and you'll sleep better.

Then relax and have a good sleep. I usually pop in foam ear plugs. I've always been able to get at least a few hours of sleep, but once I slept for ten hours straight. Travel can be tiring!

Station policies differ regarding freeloaders. Sometimes the police come around asking to see onward tickets. Sometimes you can buy one and cash it in later. Sometimes they ask to see passports. Sometimes they ask you to take a seat. Sometimes they come around early in the morning and order everyone to get up and move on. Sometimes they tell you to move on, and then they move on.

Always nod your head and agree, and be as respectful as possible. They are just doing their jobs. Whatever the station policy, you can rest assured that it is no big deal, that it is handled in an orderly and civil manner as long as you don't cause trouble, and that they don't have any interest in you other than not seeing you.


Crashing on the beach is fairly common among some backpackers in Mexico, Greece, the west coast of Turkey, Thailand, and the state of Goa in India, among other places. Guidebooks such as Let's Go and Lonely Planet even list areas where beach crashing is usual, or where it is dangerous.

The general rules are you shouldn't sleep on the beach alone, and that you should ask permission from someone first. I've broken the first rule a few times without incident, except for being awakened by giggling children at six in the morning. The second rule I've always broken, unless you count asking fellow backpackers. "Yah yah, of course," or, "Sure dude, join the party!" As always, you must be careful in a dangerous world.

Public City Parks

While I've spent a few nights in public city parks in Europe, this is not a smart move, and I strongly do not recommend it. Many rip-offs occur in parks, as gangs of several thieves sneak up on backpackers and swipe packs, or even rob at knife point. I've heard about this many times. Even several travelers together are not safe, as thieves who prey on backpackers are probably drunk and looking for a fight.

Unfinished Buildings

If it's late and I've just been let off on the edge of town, and there across the street is an unfinished building, and no one is looking, Voilą! I just found a place to crash. This is not safe, and it's the last place I'd want to be in an earthquake, but it may be convenient for a few hours shuteye.

If you are so foolish, unlucky, or fortunate to find yourself in an unfinished building for a night, do keep out of sight, and beware watchdogs. Since you may be considered a trespasser, get up extra early if it looks like work may resume in the morning. For some reason Greece has an astounding amount of unfinished construction where no work at all ever seems to be going on.

Again, I'm not advocating this or any other free accommodation. I'm just letting you know alternatives should you get stuck, for whatever reason.


While there is much ongoing squatting in the major cities of Europe, the trick is to find where--you may find interesting accommodation for a few weeks or months. Better, of course, to do this with a friend, and not to be carrying expensive gear. In some European countries squatters have certain rights regarding their housing. I doubt foreign backpackers have any.

One backpacker who toured Europe for ten months on $4000 squatted in Berlin for three of those months. On arrival he asked around in a student cafe, and was directed to a known area with many squats. He eventually moved in with three female French photographers and had a whopping good time.

Photo: Here I shared an outstanding $10 triple with a German and a Dane. Palace Hotel

Travelers' Tips

Look for a good lobby in inexpensive hotels. It's great to have a reasonably large and comfortable area to hang out, read, and watch and meet people as they come and go. In the old days every hotel had to have a decent lobby, but now many older, inexpensive hotels are pressured to turn such areas into moneymaking rooms. Jim, Atlanta

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1. Select alternate transport if the company rallying cry is Better dead than late. back