By Florianne Humphrey
They say that experiences are priceless, that money cannot buy happiness, and that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. Sadly, these clichés do not apply in the real world, particularly in the world of travelling. Unless you pitch a tent on the side of the road, eat out of a bin, and ban sightseeing, you will not be able to avoid spending money abroad. That is an unavoidable fact, so that part time bar job better be in the pipeline or you won’t be seeing the inside of a plane anytime soon.
However, spending money does not mean splurging money. Budgeting is every travel journalist and self-made expert’s buzzword when it comes to that overdone ‘Top Ten Tips’ article. Don’t eat out every night, don’t be fooled by dodgy dealers, barter on souvenirs, visit places off the tourist trail, hitchhike, sell your soul to the devil…but then for accommodation the answer always is: hostels. Hostels are the student’s Mecca, these mythologised budget hotels that pack ten strangers into bunk beds with only a flea bitten bedsheet and a mattress with an unidentifiable stain on it. But it’s okay, it’s all part of the fun, the stoner guy across the room has a guitar and he’ll lead us in a rousing rendition of Wonderwall to drown out the sound of someone using the toilet through paper thin walls. Or on the paper thin walls, by the smell of the place. But, again, it’s all part of the fun, we’re students, we don’t need luxury, the last time we saw luxury was when our flatmate bought a Dominoes instead of an oven pizza from Aldi. And of course, we can put up with the prison-like conditions because it’s cheap.
Hang on a minute.
Let me demythologise the romanticised idea of hostels. I have never been in one, let me establish that to start with, and the reason I haven’t is they are too expensive. ‘Expensive?’ you cry. Hostels were made to be married to the word budget. Well, I’m afraid they must file for a divorce because when I began planning my two month road trip around Europe (not Perah though, yah) I could not find a single last minute cheap hostel. Yes, I tried Hostel World. Yes, I am aware that booking last minute isn’t in the Top Ten Tips for travelling. But I scoff at the thought of pre-booking the entire holiday beforehand, which is akin to going on a package holiday to an all-inclusive in Benidorm. It restricts spontaneity and removes the element of surprise, and that for me is the fun part of travelling. What is not fun is finding out that all the hostels are the same price as a Holiday Inn. If I wanted a hotel, I’d book a hotel and not pay the same price to be kept awake by a randy couple in the bunk below me. Desperate for a sign, I looked towards the Google God for answers, and found something that was not quite 42, but was at least a solution to my budgeting woes.
Airbnb was only founded in 2008, but already it has over 1,500,000 listings in 191 countries. If you have not already heard of it, it is a website on which hosts advertise rooms in their houses for travellers and holidaymakers at an affordable rate. The app is free to download, there is no signing up fee, and there are filters in place to find properties offering various additions from free breakfast to a pool. All you need to do is create a profile, link up your payment method, and get searching for your perfect accommodation within your chosen price range.
Airbnb’s USP, what differentiates them from hotels or hostels, is that you can stay in unusual places, from wigwams to castles. Honestly, I just stayed in bog standards houses, even if two of them had pools and a Jacuzzi. Although the castles do exist, they are around £100 a night which was a bit steep for two people. However, these castles are large enough for about twenty people, so a good bargain if you and the lads want to replace a boozy week in Magaluf with a cultured stay in a Renaissance French chateau.
Airbnb gives you the option of an entire place, a single room, or a shared room. In cheaper countries having a whole house to yourself was the same price as staying in a room in Italy. Of course, there are pros and cons for both options. In Croatia, we stayed in a rustic villa by the sea, with our own terrace area and barbeque, which was beautiful, quiet and the perfect escape. Yet in the next place in Croatia we slept in a room in someone’s house and, although there is less privacy, it was the most memorable week of the trip because of our hosts. Our hosts treated us like family, cooking us local delicacies at no extra cost, offering us homemade alcohol and chatting with us about their culture into the early hours of the morning. Airbnb’s tagline is ‘belong anywhere’ and we certainly felt like we belonged with this Croatian family by the end of the stay. After two months we met some weird and wonderful people, from a spiritualist woman who treated people’s auras to a fifty year old swinger who had gambled in every casino in the world.
The problem with Airbnb is it is a bit like playing in a casino – you don’t know if you are going to pick the right hand or not. I heard one horror story during the trip from Airbnb users who arrived at a house that was locked up and empty. Although we had nothing as serious as this, there were a couple of hosts who were either rude, inflexible, or had underlying intentions (two guesses as to why one Slovenian man only accepted female travellers…). If you want to pay a reduced price for staying in someone’s house, you literally do have to pay the price if the stay is not exactly how you expected it. However, there is a slightly extortionate service fee to Airbnb that is partly because they act as a neutral arbitrator if there is a problem, allowing you to get the money back.
Everyone expects something different from a holiday and a lesson I learnt with accommodation is there are a lot of choices out there to suit every type of traveller. Hotels are there for someone with a bit more money to spend on luxury and privacy; hostels are good for meeting up with fellow travellers, particularly important if you are going solo; Couchsurfing is free but it comes with the presupposition that you want to spend the entire stay with your host; and then there is Airbnb that is somewhere in the middle, where you get the opportunity to meet new people but the money paid grants an escape route if you long for privacy. Just as with everything on a holiday, including the destination itself, it is entirely subjective, so there is no right or wrong answer. But give Airbnb a go, because the world is a big place and there are so many people out there waiting to welcome you into their home.
Illustration: Faye Chua