Hotel, hostel, or couchsurfing: how to decide where to stay while traveling
Travel accommodation is one of the biggest factors to consider when planning a trip, and not just because of price. While it’s true that lodging generally eats up a fair amount of your travel budget, it’s also a major influencer on the kind of experience you have in your destination. It’s something you should consider very carefully, and there are certain questions you can ask yourself to smooth the process along.
Where am I happy to stay?
These days, there are myriad accommodation options to choose from. These range from completely free (kipping in the airport before an early flight) to spectacularly expensive (Dubai’s Burj Al Arab springs to mind). You could have a room the size of a small country to yourself, or be sharing with 23 of your closest friends — or not have a room at all.
Generally though, your travel accommodation options are:
1. Camping in a tent or hammock, or sleeping rough.
2. Sharing a dorm room in a hostel with other travellers.
3. Staying in a hostel, but in a private room.
4. Finding a local guesthouse with just a few rooms.
5. Picking a hotel.
6. Renting an apartment or housesitting.
7. Staying with someone: a friend, relative or Couchsurfing contact, or using a service like AirBnB.
Of course, there are many other options, like staying in a campervan or houseboat, but let’s stick to the basics. So, where are you happy to sleep? I’m not happy to camp because I don’t want to carry a tent with me, but if the tent was provided I’d reconsider. I used to be more than happy to sleep in a dorm room in a hostel, but I’m much less likely to do that these days, because I find it difficult to sleep with the noise of other people moving around in the room. And I often find that the price of a hotel far outweighs its value to me — which isn’t to say I wouldn’t stay in one, just that I’d usually prefer another option. A private room in a hostel or guesthouse, an apartment rental, or Couchsurfing are definitely my preferred options.
Perhaps for you, Couchsurfing is a scary prospect — you’re staying in the house of a stranger, after all. Or perhaps you don’t like to interact with other travellers as much as you have to in a hostel. Or maybe you really like the consistency a hotel usually offers, and are willing to pay for that.
As you travel, your preferences or budget might change, and what you used to prefer might no longer be an option.
How much energy and free time do I have?
This is a major factor for me. Since we’re travelling full time, we’ve used almost all of the options above, and energy has often been a reason for choosing one over another.
For example, I love couchsurfing, but I try not to do it if I’m exhausted or emotionally drained. It’s an unwritten rule that you should spend time with your host — otherwise you’re just there for free accommodation. I similarly avoid hostels if I’m really tired, as they are sometimes not the quietest option and I’m a light sleeper. However, they’re perfect if I need to spend time with people.
Some options are easier to book than others, so you need less time to organise them. Hostels, hotels and guesthouses can all usually be booked online, but couchsurfing, AirBnB and apartment rentals all involve some level of back-and-forth. Do you have the time to devote to writing couchsurfing requests or waiting for a host to confirm your booking?
Camping can also take time — campgrounds are often located on the outskirts of town, so you’ll need to factor in transport time, and you’ll have to put up your tent as well.
What do I want out of my trip?
Why are you travelling? If you’re travelling for business, and you just want to get the work done and go home, a hotel is probably going to be your best bet.
If you’ll be in one place for more than a few days, the comforts of home are also available. Apartment rentals from companies like Roomorama or AirBnb allow you to rent whole apartments by the night, often with discounts for stays of a week or more. They’re often centrally located, so if you want to see the sights of a city, they’re a good option.
I used to travel to see the sights, so I usually chose a centrally located guesthouse or hostel to minimise transport time. Now, though, I want to get under the skin of a place, and I think the best way to do that is to meet locals. AirBnB is a great way to do this — as well as offering full apartments, it also has the option of renting a private room, so you’re staying with a local host.
Couchsurfing is also great, since it allows you to stay with locals for free. When I couchsurf, I spend a lot more time organising accommodation and travelling to my hosts’ houses, and I don’t always save a lot of money — but I’ve always had a fantastic experience and have learned a lot about the culture and history of my destination.
Personally, I think the best choice is to have variation in the places you stay. Couchsurf for in one place, then stay in a hostel in the next. Stop for a week or so in an apartment rental, then find a boutique hotel or go back to couchsurfing. But in the end, it’s up to you and what kind of experience you want to have.
Who do we book with?
We book accommodation through a wide range of websites, but we find ourselves returning again and again to the following ones: Booking.com for hotels, and AirBnb for apartment rentals.