A good hostel

 

 

For many travellers embarking on a round the world trip, budgetary requirements mean that spending every night in a luxury hotel is simply not an option. Keeping the costs down means that hostels are often the prime option – but quality varies greatly.

 

Some hostels can be filthy pits and others in less popular destinations are pretty much reserved for people on bail and idiots. At the other end of the scale, you end up with some that are ram-jammed with facilities and are kept in a far better condition than most hotels. Making a good hostel isn’t an exact science, but there are some key ingredients to look out for. Such as...

 

 

Cleanliness

 

This should be an absolute given. A good hostel keeps rooms, common areas and – most importantly – bathrooms cleaner than I keep my own.

 

 

Staff

 

This may seem silly, but a good hostel needs to have staff other than the owner/ manager. When it’s just one bloke (and it’s always a bloke) doing everything, things can start to get a little, um, eccentric. The one man band hostels are always the one with lengthy lists of laborious rules and the overwhelming feeling that the chap is doing you a massive favour by allowing ghastly, filthy backpackers to stay there. This said, a hands-on owner/ manager is a good thing. Someone who cares enough to be there and monitor how things are going tends to make for a better hostel.

 

Manageable size

 

Some hostels – particularly in Australia and New Zealand – are enormous 200 to 300 bed beasts. They may have great facilities inside, but you don’t half feel like you’re on a production line. Curiously, there more people there are in a hostel, the harder it is to meet anyone. It becomes a never-ending sea of faces, whereas in smaller joints you’ll end up bumping into and sitting next to the same people all the time. That tends to facilitate conversation. To me, around 30 to 70 inmates is about right for a hostel. Much more and you’re just a number, but dip below the 30 mark and you’re in danger of not having enough drinking buddies to choose from.

 

 

No bar

 

A lot of hostels have their own bars that host all manner of drinks promotions. Counterintuitively, these don’t to be the best ones for either socialising or drinking cheaply. For a start, these are the ones that won’t allow you to bring your own booze in and drink it in the common areas – and this is when friendships tend to be struck. If a hostel has its own bar, that tends to become the social focus – people go there instead of hanging around in the TV room. But the bar is less open, less communal and less inviting for idle chat – or planning who’s going out where later that evening.

 

Service focus

 

Really good hostels will provide wireless internet for free to anyone travelling with a laptop, while they’ll also tend to have little touches such as board games and bookshelves where guests can exchange books. There will also be lots of helpful info, such as updated notice boards letting people know what’s happening in town or booklets suggesting good places to go and eat or drink.

 

Other hostels go for a more corporate, profiteering approach – with surprisingly expensive on-site cafés, internet computers that cost a bomb and a never-ending urge to shunt you towards the tour desk. Type A recognises that guests have a choice and opt to do the best they can, Type B sees every guest as someone to maximise income from.

 

 

 

 

 

Hostels


 

 

For many people heading out on a round-the-world adventure, budget requirements mean that spending every night in a lavish hotel is out of the question. Frankly, unless you’ve got the sort of inheritance that allows you to splash the cash at will, then there’s a high chance that a significant amount of time will be spent sleeping in hostels. Thankfully, the old image of hostels – Spartan rooms full of Austrian hikers, 9pm curfews and an almost monastic code of miserable silence – are long out of date. But hostels do require some adjusting to and modification of behaviours and routines.

 

 

 

 

 

Picking the right hostel

 

 

 

There’s a surprising range of options out there when it comes to hostels. Some are big, modern affairs with surprisingly high quality facilities and innovations such as female-only floors. These will generally have their own bar, travel booking desk, internet café and swish common rooms with TVs, games etc. Unfortunately, they can also feel like a giant battery cage for backpackers – rather impersonal and like you’re part of a big machine rather than having a unique experience. Others can be a lot smaller and – occasionally – bedraggled. Some are aimed towards an older crowd, some have a party vibe, some pride themselves on their eco credentials. An awful depends on what you’re after – a good night’s sleep, cleanliness, a chance to meet other travellers or a launchpad for a big night out.Personally, my tip is to go for a medium-sized hostel that is generally regarded as clean and having decent facilities but doesn’t have its own bar.

 

 

 

Why?

 

 

 

Any more than 100 people in a hostel and it’s bizarrely hard to meet and talk to anyone – there’s too much of a crowd. Also, if there’s no bar, you can bring your own booze in. This is both a lot cheaper and a lot more sociable – people will sit around chatting to strangers in the common areas with a drink in hand. Also, there is an enormous difference between a 16 bed dorm and a four bed dorm. The fewer people snoring and getting in at silly o’clock, the better. Specialist hostel booking sites tend to have reviews on them – and these are generally more reliable than those on Tripadvisor, purely because the people using the sites are those likely to consistently stay in budget accommodation.

 

 

 

 

 

Sanity-preservation

 

 

 

Unless you have a remarkable ability to sleep anywhere, staying in dorm rooms will send you loopy after a while. Getting a full night’s sleeping is something of an art – ear plugs are an essential investment – and sometimes it’s worth taking a financial hit in the name of sanity preservation. Every now and then, it’s wise to book yourself into a cheap hotel, or at least take a private room within the hostel. That space to sprawl out as you wish, shut out the world and have a good kip can be invaluable.

 

 

 

 

 

Hostel dos

 

  • If you’re leaving early the next morning, pack as much as you can beforehand. Then, when 5am (or whatever time you’ve got to be up) rolls by, get out of the room and pack the rest in the corridor. No-one likes an early morning bag rustler.
  • Book a private room (or at least surreptitiously venture into the showers) if you’re intending  to indulge in any funny business. It’s no fun trying to sleep next to (or underneath) a creaking bed and frenzied moaning.
  • This get a private room rule should really apply to anyone who knows they are an appalling snorer as well...
  • Everyone likes to cook something nice once in a while, but if you’re planning on rustling up a feast that takes up most of the pans in the communal kitchen, a whole hob and much of the preparation area, then do so at a non-peak time. To try this one at 7pm when everyone is starving and trying to cook their own meal is a one way ticket to massive unpopularity.
  • Learn to listen rather than just bang on about your own travel anecdotes. Otherwise you’ll become known as The Thailand Bore and suspiciously left out of invitations to hit the town.

 

 

 

Hostel don’ts

 

  • If using the communal laundry, don’t leave your newly clean pants in the machine for days. Try and pick up your washing as soon as possible so that others can use the facilities.
  • Stealing food is a no-no. If it’s in the communal fridge and it isn’t yours, don’t touch it. Curiously, this room never applies to toiletries left in the bathroom. They are absolutely fair game.
  • If there’s only one computer with internet access (very common in smaller hostels), don’t take up permanent residence there. Other people might like to check their e-mails too.
  • If you are having a big night out, at least try and have some respect for your room mates. Don’t charge in, turning all the lights on and singing Come On Eileen at the top of your voice, for example.
  • Never – unless specifically asked to by the majority of your fellow guests – get out a guitar and start sharing your renditions of Jack Johnson/ Red Hot Chilli Peppers songs.  Better still – leave your guitar at home; it won’t half help with the packing...

 

 

 

 


 

Weather

 

A fantastic round the world adventure can often be as much about the when as the where. Freezing your proverbials off in northern China or southern Patagonia might make for an excellent anecdote in retrospect, but it probably won’t be quite as enjoyable at the time. Similarly, you probably don’t want to be dodging hurricanes in Mexico or continually lashed by monsoons in South-East Asia.

Read more...

12 tips

 

 

 

Round the world travel is more popular than ever. The proliferation of cheap round the world tickets and student travel deals means that it is increasingly easy to set off on your own adventure. Grab a last minute travel deal, a round the world ticket and your toothbrush and you could potentially head off tomorrow morning!

 

But we are not all that spontaneous. Besides, one of my favourite things of any journey is not actually the journey itself. It is the anticipation. So do not despair if you are not heading off for a while yet! The trip to the bookshop to buy a map and a travel guide is one of life's real pleasures. So too is the browsing of travel blogs and travel photography websites to glean ideas of unusual places to visit. And the gaping blank pages in your diary that make you realise, with a little squeeze of excitement, that soon you won't be in work meetings or with your friends down the pub. You will be out "there" in places you cannot yet imagine. Every day will bring adventure and variety. I spent over four years travelling round the world by bike and it is the daily variety of it that I miss the most when I'm home.

 

 You may not have four years to spare. You may think that train travel is more your thing than sweating 46000 miles through five continents on a bicycle. It doesn't really matter how you travel round the world: the exciting experiences I had cycling all the way to China won't be too different from those you'll have if you take a flight to Hong Kong and begin exploring from there.

 

New York flights, flights to New Zealand, cheap travel deals: however you begin your adventure, I believe that the most important thing is this: just BEGIN IT! Put a date in your diary, tell your boss and your family that you are leaving on that day, and then commit to actually going. You will never have saved as much money as you should have done; you will never have researched every detail about the countries you want to visit. That does not matter. Landing in a strange and far-off country can be daunting. But I promise you that within a couple of days you will be feeling far more relaxed. You'll be haggling in the markets, squeezing yourself into cramped but fun local buses, and posting photos and stories on your own "round the world blog" to make your friends back home jealous. Who knows, perhaps your travel blog will inspire someone else to buy an air travel ticket and head off on their own journey of a lifetime?

 

Here then are my Round the World Travel Tips to help you get started:

 

1. However much of a budget you are on, I recommend booking into a hostel or hotel online for the first two nights of your trip. I still get nervous arriving in far-flung airports and feel much better if I know that I have a safe hostel waiting for me. Settle in, get a feel for the country you've arrived in, and then you'll be ready to head out and be more relaxed and spontaneous.

 

2. Multiple stop flights (such as flights to Sydney via Hong Kong) are often no more expensive than direct tickets. But they mean that you get to have an extra adventure for free!

 

3. Make sure you are covered in case of an emergency. You can buy cheap travel insurance these days. So it is definitely worth being covered just in case you do require something expensive like a medical evacuation flight.

 

4. Before you leave home email yourself copies of your passport, embassy phone numbers, visa stamps, bank contact details, insurance papers, and any other important documents. Even if you lose everything you own you can nearly always find internet access to start getting yourself some help.

 

5. Read a book by a famous author of the country you are in. It is a real pity that the authors we know about are generally limited to those who write in our language. So seek out a translation of a local classic. People will appreciate you learning about their country, and you will really benefit from getting another insight.

 

6. Always travel with a big, fold out map of the whole country or continent you are in. They are great for planning your trip. But unfold it in a bus station or cafe and it is a guaranteed ice-breaker for opening conversations. I find that people love looking at maps and pointing out  there home towns and so on.

 

7. Keep a diary of your trip. You will be grateful when you are old and wrinkly of being able to look back on your adventures. One option is to keep an online diary (www.blogger.com is simple and free) in order to share your experiences with friends and family back home and reassure them that you are safe and well.

 

8. Take a punt on a random country. Don't just stick to the well-worn routes round the world. Try a country almost at random. I can honestly say I have never regretted visiting a single country. What do Azerbaijan, Lesotho, Nicaragua and Japan have in common? Answer: they are all countries that I was not very excited about visiting but came to absolutely adore. Close your eyes, poke your finger onto a world map, and off you go!

 

9. Take a tent if you can. It greatly increases your freedom or where and how you travel. It will also save you a load of money. If you decide that carrying a tent is too heavy at least do take a thin sleeping bag with you. Better to have a small sleeping bag than a massive winter one that fills your entire backpack. You can always sleep in your clothes if you are cold.

 

10. Travel light. I spent four years on the road with only two sets of clothes. That may be a little excessive. But I have seen so many backpackers looking stressed and hot traipsing around carrying two enormous backpacks. Leaving the luxuries at home is one of the most important experiences of a round the world experience.

 

11. Keep your promises. In many parts of the world you will take photographs of people you meet and they will ask you to send them a copy. It's a bit of a hassle to do this once you get home. But doing it makes people so very happy, and will mean that they treat future backpackers they meet with even more friendly and warm welcomes.

 

12. Ignore the guidebooks. Follow your nose not the crowds. I walked across southern India without a guidebook, without seeing a single famous "sight", without seeing another traveller. And it was magical. Go out and discover places for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Alastair Humphreys is an author and adventurer. See more at www.alastairhumphreys.com

Visa frustration

 

Getting a visa can be the trickiest and most tedious part of any trip. Just ask me.  After a month of stuffing about, I had to visit the Indian Visa office five times in two different cities, make a dozen phone calls and eventually sat in the office for 8 hours the day before my flight left to get my visa. It wasn’t fun. However, it was just one of those hoops I had to jump through to get my visa. And once I got to India, I largely forgot about the hassle.

 

Below is a list of issues you might run into when you apply for a visa, and a list of strategies for minimising the hassle.

 

The You-Give-My-Citizens-Trouble Factor
Some countries work on a tit for tat system. Basically, if your country makes it difficult for their citizens to gain entry, they'll make it difficult for you to gain entry on principle (They call it reciprocity, I call it spite). Another favourite trick of annoyed countries is to hike the visa price so high, it makes it cost prohibitive to go there. This was the case a few years back for a few English travellers on my overland safari, who had to miss out on seeing Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side as the visas cost over a £100 pounds more than everyone else’s.

 

The Notoriously Difficult Factor

Some exit and entry requirements are quite strict. Some countries demand an outgoing airline ticket or a yellow fever vaccination certificate. Others demand proof of funds. Which is fine, except some countries want proof of funds dated to the day of application, like the Brazilian visa people in Buenos Aires, who wanted a bank statement with proof of at least $1000USD in it. Which isn’t actually easy to arrange on when you’re the road.

 

The Bitch Factor

Speaking of Brazil, it brings me to my next point: sometimes people in visa offices can just be mean, bitter & nasty for the sake of it. There’s one woman in the Brazilian visa office in Buenos Aires whose reputation precedes her all throughout South America. As we walked in, we saw one American girl leaving in tears. The two people after that didn’t fare much better. Nor did we. Abused, yelled at and told to get our visa elsewhere- even though there was nowhere else we could get it.

 

The Incompetent Factor
Some countries are simply bureaucratic in nature and largely disorganised. My favourite tale is of the London embassy that ran out of visa stickers. Visas were being approved; there were just no stickers sitting in the stationary cupboard to actually approve them with.  Which isn’t great if you have to fly the next day.

 

So how do you avoid these sorts of problems? Below is a list of suggestions for avoiding Visa issues.

 

1. Be ware when in transit you may need a visa for the country you are transiting through. Similarly, if you're transiting through a country that doesn't like another country, they can make your life difficult (I had great fun at LAX a few years ago when transiting through to Cuba on a separate ticket).

2. Check whether you need certain vaccinations to gain entry (especially in Africa).


3. Don't leave getting your visas until the last minute

4. Whether you’re at a visa office or in the airport, you’ll need to stay calm, act dumb and be nice. Often whom you get and the mood they are in can dictate whether or not you will miss that flight. Don't get aggressive, as it’s just not worth it.


5. Don't overstay your visa: this can result in being banned from countries and deportation.


6. Rules, regulations, prices, terms and availability of visas can change on a daily basis. Roll with it.


7. Read the visa conditions of entry and fine print. Some visas start from the date of issue, others begin from the date of entry to the country.

 

8. Repeat: Some visas start from the date of issue, others begin from the date of entry to the country. I’ve seen people being pulled up many times who have visas already expired and almost done it myself on occasion.

 

9. Some professions attract extra visa queries, such as journalists, soldiers, etc. Be aware that if this is you, you may receive extra scrutiny and have to fill out extra application forms and possibly even pay more money.

 

10. Carry around a half dozen passport photos with you for applications

11. If your passport is damaged or even just slightly worse for wear, some border guards can be real stickler about it. If your passport is in a bad state, it can sometimes be worth upgrading to a new one.


12. Have access to your online bank accounts and have money in them so you can print off a recent statement if necessary.

 

And…

 

Once you’ve passed Customs and Border Control, forget about it and enjoy your trip!

 

 

 

By Shaney Hudson