Updated: Apr 21
As a lifelong budget traveler, I’ve seen the inside of countless bottom-budget accommodations: from tents to shacks to huts to crumbling palaces to the triangular, asbestos-filled broom closet under a Candelaria hotel stairs I shared with my Colombian boyfriend, once upon a different lifetime in Bogota.
I detail a couple of the more harrowing anti-hospitality stories in the Hack Solo Travel guidebook. Suffice it to say here: I am not a particularly squeamish or jumpy traveler when it comes to staying in budget 1-star hotels. I understand that an extra low price comes at a different kind of expense – the sacrifice of foregoing most conveniences and sometimes even being uncomfortable.
That said, when it comes to cheap rental digs, they are not all created equal! There’s a difference between a humble abode lovingly tended by poor but thoughtful hosts -- and an absurd disaster "designed" by someone with the sensibilities of a mountain goat (as in: only a quadruped mammal with superb jumping and balancing abilities would be in their element in the provided set-up.) And yet, you'll find both types of room for the same price!
Ignorance, Negligence Of Plain Evil?
In my heart of hearts, I believe that most hosts would actually be glad to learn about things they could inexpensively improve for their guests.
Sure, there are indifferent hospitality professionals, as well as extra cheap / greedy ones that cut every corner on customer service to save a pfennig. There are even a few bona-fide villainous ones out there (I've run across at least one major baddie hostel owner who was way reckless with how many armed-and-violent organized crime goons he allowed around the place).
Most other offenders in the category of "hospitality fails", however, are not making things extra uncomfortable for the traveler on purpose -- they just lack the experience and the intuition for what's important to you and I, the traveler (many budget hosts are not travelers themselves -- so they may lack the practical knowledge of what's important).
The bare necessities upgrades I have in mind would not be expensive to institute, nor would they add too much to the cleaning/laundering burden. They would, however, drive the quality of life quotient of the hotel room waaaaaay up.
So, for the sake of avoiding the real "doozies" of bad accommodations out there, let’s review the most frequently encountered offenses that make you, at some point during your stay, look to the sky, throw up your hands and go: who did this??
1. Mirror Mirror On The Wall, I'm More Than Eight Inches Tall!!
Those in the hospitality business ought to know better than the rest of us how vain the human species are! With a few exceptions made for people who genuinely hate mirrors, most of us can’t get enough of reflective surfaces to duckface into.
In the meanwhile, many budget accommodations provide a “mirror” that looks like it belongs in the dentist's toolbox. And no, it's not in the bathroom, it's in some sadistically unreachable spot on the wall. Cue to me, balancing on top of a chair on one foot with my back to the mirror, trying to "owl" my neck 180 degrees to see what my ass looks like. I'm used to it, but geez.
The most infuriating “special décor touch” is when a section of a wall is done up with a myriad tiny mirrors, each the size of a pocket compact, aligned in some “cute” or edgy pattern. I just wanted an idea of what I look like before I step out of the house, but instead, I’m experiencing fucking bee vision of countless slivers of the same dismembered slice of my neck, cheek and one eye duplicated all over the wall from slightly different angles! This is a clear example of when the hosts pay attention to the aesthetics but not actual utility of how they set up their rooms!
I get it – large mirrors are expensive to furnish and replace. So, why not provide the cheapest full-sized mirror model sold in every corner of the world. You know, the ones backed by cardboard, making your reflection look like something out of a mild acid trip? I just want to see my entire figure from head to toe: if it's a tiny bit funhouse-y, it's not the end of the world.
2. "Drawer Me Like One Of Your French Girls, Jack!"
It's not even funny how rare it is to find a dresser with drawers in the world of budget travel accommodations! In the meanwhile, just a handful of pull-out compartments would swallow up most of a budget traveler's meagre stuff, letting us unpack a bit while keeping the room neat.
In budget accommodations, there is a general scarcity/lack of closet space, shelving, hangers, hooks and receptacles for clothing, toiletries and gadgets. Backpackers are often forced to unpack all their belongings on the bed in order to have access to them.
I'm a no-frills traveler -- but I'm not an animal! I need usable surfaces for just about everything! I don't care how shabby the closets/dressers/shelves are -- as long as they are clean and not "splinter-ville", I'm grateful.
3. Toweling 101: Towels Must Towel
Budget backpackers -- as well as anyone who has read the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams -- know that a towel is a sacred and “massively useful thing” for a universal traveler.
Now, this is something that shouldn’t have to be said and yet, here goes: the provided towel(s) must be at least quasi-competent at toweling.
On my most recent trip to the breathtaking San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, staying in a low-end budget place, I encountered a new species of towel that was utterly lacking in water-absorbing ability. It was puzzling and almost impressive how a fabric could achieve this level of water-repellency, but there I was, repeatedly rubbing this object against my wet skin, smearing and displacing water droplets around, and not getting any drier for it!
The only explanation I have is that this ultra-cheap towel had more plastic than polyester in it, which made it about as absorbent as a cellophane bag. And so, I re-learned a general life lesson: the essence of a thing's purpose is not in how it looks but what it ultimately accomplishes.
4. “TP or not TP?” That Should Not Be The Question!!
As someone who spent my childhood wiping my ass with shredded newspaper, thanks to the deficit of toilet paper in the Soviet Union – and as a self-respecting, lifelong budget traveler staying at bottom-priced establishments – I haven’t left the house, never mind the country, without TP/wet wipes in my bag for decades.
Nonetheless, every traveler appreciates having toilet paper in the bathroom -- for its practical as well as symbolic values.
It’s a basic courtesy, really. You wanna talk hospitality?? Acknowledging our shared humanity and providing guests with a dignified, culturally-comfortable way to wipe their butts is the least a modern host can do, wouldn't you agree? And keep those rolls comin' every couple of days too.
5. Don't Let The Electrical Sockets Shock You
Dear budget hotel hosts: whichever god(s) you pray to, you can be sure they are shaking their head(s) in judgement when you send your guests on a wild goose chase for the one available electrical outlet in the room! And when they do discover it, please let it not be10 ft off the ground, riiiiight by where the ceiling fan slices through the air with its metal blades – or, alternatively, under the bed, its trapped behind the headboard nailed to the wall -- so close and yet so far away.
When I was traveling in India, I routinely constructed elaborate pyramids out of random pieces of furniture from around the room to get my laptop "up there", closer to the source of electricity. The medical tape I carried for splinting broken toes came in super useful with taping my charging chords to the wall next to the outlets, since the holes in the sockets were too loose to support any weight from the plugs.
Frustration with electrical sockets is something you encounter in many budget destinations / lodgings around the world. You'll come across electrical outlets that are blocked by something unmovable. There are also electrical outlets that don't work at all. And then, there are those that shoot a low electrical current through your finger when you touch the metal paneling / switches around them.
Sometimes, it's so ridiculous, you feel like you're being intentionally screwed with. Most of the times, though, it's "just" cheapness and negligence. But if your accommodations are set up so stupidly that you catch yourself wondering if "they" are "out to get you", it might be time to move to a less stressful / more comfortable spot.
6. A Kingdom For A Spork!
Even if there’s no kitchen set-up in the room, it not all that much to ask to provide at least one fork, one spoon and one knife per guest, as they may want to bring something to eat back to the room with them. These don’t have to be the host’s finest silverware (though I do wish they'd stay away from the cheapest-of-the-cheap spoons. Those things will cut you. Specifically, they will leave the inside of your mouth full of tiny paper-cut-like lesions, owing to their super-sharp edges...)
Worst-case scenario: it can be plastic cutlery kept over from food deliveries. Whatever the budget of the hotel/host -- something workable (and clean) should be provided to the guest, as there are few things worse than having some grub and nothing to scoop it up into your hungry mouth with.
Bonus points for a can opener/corkscrew! Because if there is anything worse than not having utensils to eat food with, it’s having a can of food – or, god help you, a bottle of wine -- that you aren't able to open for love or money -- or at least not without attracting attention with the loud sounds of demolition coming from your room.
7. The Princess And The P...TSD From A Baaaad Bed
As someone who travels by overnight transport a lot, I’m usually grateful for any clean, non-violently-shaking horizontal surface to sleep on. Alas, some budget spots manage to mess up even the lowest of standards and expectations.
I tell ya, I’ve slept on some backbreakers! It’s amazing what passes for a “bed” and a “mattress” [you pay to sleep on] out there! In economically struggling nations – a.k.a. “budget destinations” – even new, expensive furniture can be a total piece of garbage right off the factory floor: uncomfortable from the start and quick to wear down/fall apart.
The subpar, old furnishings can't really be held against budget hoteliers, but a decent mattress that gets cleaned, turned over and replaced at reasonable time intervals -- that's the host's responsibility for sure.
I’ve also learned that, when it comes to bedding, “clean” is not a terribly meaningful quality without “fresh”. Your sheets may have been technically washed just earlier that day – but with the cheapest possible powdered detergent that smells like the result of a collision between a cistern truck full of Axe Body Spray with another one filled with Axe Body Wash -- and another one filled with nail polish. Get ready for an activation of your allergies / migraines / nausea / what have you.
After your inflamed nasal passages get acclimated to the toxic chemical smell of the sheets, you’re hit with the wet-towel musk of the lumpy pillows and comforters beneath them. You now have the rest of the night to realize that this experience is perfectly consistent with all the previous times you took a sniff behind fabric drenched in Axe Body products...
8. Wi-Fi Or Die
It’s not negotiable that, if a place to stay is offering Wi-Fi, the service has to be decent -- as in: a stable, strong signal with relatively fast (stream-friendly) speeds. Lots of places nowadays claim to have Wi-Fi, but considering what garbage some of them they are offering, it would be more honest if they didn’t.
The only thing worse than no Wi-Fi at all is Wi-Fi so painfully slow and spotty that it’s just as useless as having none. What makes it worse than zero WiFi is that it falsely gives you the hope that you might actually get to use it. It taunts you with split-second glimpses of what you're missing without actually giving you access to it.
If I were told there was no Wi-Fi, I would grumble and then find something to occupy my time that’s not WiFi-reliant. But when I’m told there is Wi-Fi, I will spend untold hours trying to connect to it, anxiously wasting time and developing an angry eye twitch. It's cruel and unusual stuff, I tell ya.
You don’t have to be a digital nomad to want/need regular internet in your room these days. Internet cafes are, as we speak, disappearing from existence, because most travelers carry phones/tablets/laptops and most lodging offers Wi-Fi. Now, they just have to make sure the Wi-Fi, you know, wifies.
9. Climate [Out Of] Control
This is a tricky one as air conditioning units / space heating devices can run up some crazy bills for the budget hotel. This is why, in many budget destinations, you can rent the same room with or without air conditioning, for different prices, which is fair enough (I only wish heating was this readily available for an extra price in some freezing budget places...)
At the bottom-dollar places, I don’t expect those things – but there are cheaper ways to at least take the edge off the uncomfortable elements.
For hot places, it means providing a ceiling or floor fan to blow the hot air around. For freezing places, it means providing a hot shower that will serve as the one refuge from the cold. Without those budget-conscious compromises, rooms that are too hot or too cold become unbearable in no time. And speaking of showers...
10. Harder, Longer, Hotter!
I've come to believe that it is one of budget travel's unwritten rules that, when it comes to showers, usually you can hope for two out of three of its most desirable qualities:
adequately hot temperature
durability of said hot temperature for a decent amount of time
good water pressure
On a rare occasion, you'll get all three. If that happens, make no mistake: you got lucky -- so enjoy it!
There is also the pesky issue of electrical showers you'll often find in budget digs across Latin America. Those things have been known to get a little... zappy. You got your hair all lathered up, eyes closed, reaching for the metal shower fixture to adjust the water volume and the next thing you know: BZZZZZT!!!!!! It's happened to me in rentals in multiple countries. You don't get electrocuted -- but it wakes you the hell up!
Budget Travel Can Be [Fairly] Dignified And [Somewhat] Comfortable
Budget travel certainly requires flexibility and compromise in what you can get for the small sums of money you are willing pay for lodging. You definitely have to be ok with simplicity, as opposed to luxury. You might find that, like me, you even enjoy some of the challenges presented by the budget travel lifestyle. But you shouldn't have to straight-up suffer from awful accommodations, you know?
Luckily, a lot can be done to avert the above-described poor outcomes on both ends -- the provider and the consumer.
The budget hotelier needs to commit to bolstering the customer comfort and satisfaction -- by at least not causing discomfort and dissatisfaction.
The budget traveler needs to develop a sharp eye / nose / sense for spotting and avoiding the worst among the budget offerings out there and, instead, seeking out the good-value "gems" (which absolutely do exist even on super low-budget level!)
For Budget Hotels: Change Is Easy And Profitable!
The great news here is that the vast majority of the above-mentioned improvements are easy and cheap to add to any lodging. In the meanwhile, the level of customer satisfaction is likely to shoot way up (as long as guests are not treated obnoxiously -- that's a whole other separate write-up…)
All a proprietor really needs to do is care. The more thought is put into “creature comforts”, the more hospitable the experience for the guests who, in turn, will give the hotel positive reviews, come back for more stays, recommend it to friends and family, etc. – thus growing the popularity and success of the place in the long run.
This is all to say, the return on the investment is quite worthwhile. The hosts that don't bother with any of it are shooting themselves in the foot in today's market. We live in a brave new world of online reviews and people are very trigger-happy with sharing negative experiences -- so, word to the wise...
Budget Guests: Be Choosy About Your Accommodations!
I’ve had heavenly stays in $15-per-night rooms and I’ve experienced unsatisfactory stays in $100/200/300+ spots. It’s not all about the $$$. It’s about the pride an establishment takes in what they do and how they treat you -- and the subsequent welcoming energy that makes you want to take a load off and stay.
It’s about, well, hospitality.
The good news for you and I -- i.e. budget travelers to budget destinations -- is that, unless we're traveling through the peak-of-the-peak holiday season, the market is in our favor, with multiple options to choose from.
So, don’t settle for the first thing you see! Within the same low-priced category of hotels, there will be sheer hellholes, there will be hidden gems and, of course, everything in-between. So, learn how to pick a winner.
Looking On The Spot
When searching for accommodation with boots on the ground, you have the privilege of, for the most part, seeing what you're getting -- so, take advantage of it! Know your most basic requirements (and dealbreakers) and take your time to check out as many budget hotels as you need until you come across an affordable spot that feels like a good place to rest your weary bones.
I wouldn't be a perfectionist about it, but it really pays to make a quick walk-though of the hotel's public areas and the room being offered. You won’t be able to detect every problem but at least you can eyeball the general cleanliness / usability of the space. Sit on the bed to make sure it has at least some bounce. Connect to the WiFi to see how it performs -- run a speed check. Turn on the shower to see what comes out of it before you commit to the place, you know?
If you like the hotel but aren't crazy about the room, don’t be shy to ask to see another one. The hotel personnel are unlikely to show you the best room the first time around – but once they see that you’re a discriminating customer, they will roll out the nicer stuff.
When it comes to budget hotels in budget destinations, the prices, the availability and the images posted online are not always true to life. The pictures make the place look better than it is; the prices are typically higher than what you can get if you just walk in and negotiate a bit. I also wouldn't expect perfect communication or accountability when you get to the other side.
If I'm booking a cheap hotel / AirBnB online, I pay a lot of attention to online customer reviews of the listings that catch my eye. You've got to read between the lines as, sometimes, it’s not what is said but what is repeatedly left unsaid that sets off a red flag.
This is especially true for AirBnB, where most travelers are trying to be “nice” and would rather omit the bad stuff and focus on the good. Suppose you really want to know if the place has excellent internet but none of the multiple mostly positive reviews mention it: I wouldn’t take that to mean that the internet is good. People tend to take every opportunity to gush about excellent internet, so if you’re hearing crickets on this topic from dozens of reviewers, something could be “off”. In such a case, I would make sure to contact the host and specifically clarify the wi-fi situation before booking.
When it comes to deciphering online budget hotel descriptions, the following a few terms are, essentially, euphemisms, for old and homely features:
"Historic" = the plumbing, heating and cooling systems haven't been updated since the 1800s.
"Charming" = expect annoying inconveniences (like no elevator to your 6th-floor )
"Cozy" = expect a small, cramped and possibly cluttered space.
"Has character" = the building is old and weird, possibly to the point of creepiness.
Now, I've stayed in some charmingly historic hotels with tons of character and very cozy rooms -- and loved it. Nonetheless, decoding these descriptions is good for managing expectations: it's better to know more than less.
Some Things Can’t Be Controlled – And That’s OK
To be realistic and fair: when it comes to certain public services like running water and working internet – as well as natural occurrences / so-called "acts of God" – the hotel / host can only be responsible for so much.
Oftentimes, it’s the telecommunications company that’s messing up the internet, not the hotel. Or there’s a city-wide blackout because the neighboring superpower is failing to deliver the country’s electricity (this happens!)
So, make sure not to get mad with the hotel / host for things outside of their doing: they might be as helpless and frustrated as you.
At the end of the day, it's helpful to keep things in perspective and to remember that, in the world of international budget hotels, whatever hiccup you got on your hands -- it could be worse. Much worse. On the bottom of the “budget accommodation” spectrum, there exist rooms that are missing most or all the above-listed amenities altogether. Not to speak of adhering to basic standards of cleanliness and security. Hell, I once spent 10 days in a place in Rio with no locks or even door handles…
As a life-loving person, I don’t like to sweat the small stuff – and as a budget traveler, I can’t financially afford to sweat the small stuff – so I usually don’t.
Still, we all draw a line somewhere, don’t we? And for me, it’s water-repellent towels. WTF?? Now, they're messing with my mind, making me question my sanity and what's real -- I don't need that kind of stress on the road, and I won't be gaslit by a towel! I long for the good old days when a towel's functions included:
to dry you off
to give you towel tips
to ask you if you wanna get high (yes!)
And that's why I always bring my own.