Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caving in Budapest

Budapest is well known for its natural thermal springs and no trip to the city is complete without a visit to one of the famous spas. But, what many people don’t know (including myself prior to this trip) is that all of this thermal water moving under the city leaves behind a network of tunnels and caves. Because of this, Hungary is also home to some of Europe’s most extensive caving systems.

As I said, before my visit I hadn’t heard anything about this caving, but a flyer in my hostel (complete with clip art bats) and an enthusiastic review from the hostel owner was enough to convince me to sign up. I convinced a (very) new friend to go with me and crossed my fingers that my on again off again claustrophobia wouldn’t cause a traumatic experience.

The trip was estimated to take around 3 - 4 hours and was oddly scheduled to begin at around 4 pm. Since it was winter in Budapest this meant it was getting dark as we gathered at the appointed meeting spot. When we registered, the company had told us only to meet at the bus stop at 4 pm with 2 bus tickets and a pair of old shoes. Since I was on a work trip, I wasn’t exactly packing old tennis shoes, so I wore my winter boots and hoped it would work out.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Art of Packing

Packing is an art form that I haven't really mastered... I think for most people its a lifelong struggle between underpacking and overpacking. There are always a few things that I wish I had brought and many thing I wish had stayed at home.

The best packing advice I ever got was from my dad. He told me that before each trip I should think of the essentials that must be brought for the trip to be a success and pack those first. Everything else you can live without or buy if necessary. So for most trips it will be your passport, money, camera and medications. Then of course if you are going for something like a wedding you will want to tack on "wedding clothes" or if its a beach trip you can include "bathing suit."

Once those essentials are in the suit case, everything else is just gravy (pretty important gravy, but still).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hostel Manners

Since the theme of this week seems to be Hostels I wanted to touch on something I thought a lot about during my most recent hostel stay - the inconsiderate hostel roommate. Nothing is worse than someone who seems to have no understanding that they are sharing a small space with many other people. In no particular order here are the worst people I've had to room with:

1. The Caller
This 'lady' was in my hostel in Amsterdam and ended up having the bunk next to mine in a 16 person room. I noticed her when she checked in because she didn't really fit in with the normal crowd. She was older, wearing a dress/heals and pulling a giant suitcase which she managed to bang on every chair on her way in. When she wasn't sleeping, she spent the entire time sitting alone at a table and smoking moodily. At one point I was talking to some people and I leaned against another chair at her table and she pulled the chair away saying it was taken.

But, her weird attitude aside this woman seemed to have no consideration for her fellow roommates. She let her phone ring at all hours of the night. One evening it rang continuously for about 15 min while she slept. Finally one of the other girls (we were all wide awake at that point) got up and shut the phone off.  When she did pick up the phone she seemed to have no problem holding loud conversations at 2, 3 am in the morning while everyone else tried to sleep. She also placed several phone calls at odd hours of the night. The phone calls often involved coordination in meeting up with someone and she would then switch on the overhead lights (again middle of the night with everyone sleeping) to loudly pack or unpack her bags before leaving and slamming the doors.

Moral of this story, take phone calls outside or in the hallways, never turn the lights on if other people are sleeping (I like to carry a small flashlight if I need to find thing or navigate into my bed), and if you must pack and unpack your bags do it as quietly as possible. Its understandable that sometimes you will need to enter and exit the room while others are sleeping - but its always obvious and appreciated when someone is trying to be quite versus someone who just doesn't care.

Monday, September 12, 2011

And now the bad news

Now that I've gone through the sunnier side of hosteling, I think its only fair to reveal the seedy underbelly of the hosteling world. Alright - well its not as bad as all that, but there can be some bad aspects of spending your holiday in a hostel. Here are some of the downfalls (and ways to mitigate these downfalls) that I've come across in my travels.

1. BYO everything
Hostels are selling cheap accommodations, so it stands to reason that those little 'extras' that the Marriot offers might not be provided at the hostel. And by extras I mean things like towels and sheets. Although most hostels do at least have these basics, its always better to check ahead or when in doubt bring your own. Even if they are provided, they might be way below your standards. One hostel in Amsterdam actually gave me a hand towel as the 'provided towel.' Thankfully the shower was in a private room so it was possible to preserve some Modesty.  In addition, you will need to bring your own soap, shampoo, toothbrush etc as you won't be getting a fresh supply from housekeeping each day.

2. Security can be an issue
When you sharing a room, its not possible to leave your valuable in your room. Everything will need to be locked up or kept with you at all times. For me this means bringing my purse or money belt into the shower and bathroom with me and making sure I sleep holding onto my valuables. (I usually put them in a bag between me and wall under the covers). You want to make sure you never leave your camera in a bag or lying out on a table somewhere, because chances are it won't be there when you get back.

3. Be prepared to rough it
Chances are something about the hostel is going to rub you the wrong way living condition wise. The shower water may be cold, the bathroom might smell,your roomate might snore,  the bed could be lumpy... I could go on. As long as you take some necessary precautions (bring shower shows, something warm to sleep in, ear plugs, etc) and you prepare yourself for being a little put out, you should be fine. Remember its something to bond with your fellow hostel goers about!

4. No 'me' time
For me, the hardest part of staying in a hostel is the lack of personal space. I'm fine when it comes to sleeping a room full of people or having to keep my stuff isolated to a small corner - but sometimes I like to take a break and read or chill out on my own. That can be hard in a hostel willed with people when you are staying in a dorm room. Often, the easiest solution is to take your book and head out to a park or cafe where you can order a drink and read in peace for a few hours. Otherwise, if you are on a long trip its not a cop out to get a private room every once in a while.

The hidden perks of Hosteling

Now that my summer travels are over, I want to get back to updating the blog on a more regular (and timely) basis. I will still try and put reviews of  my travel locations, but I also want to have more posts focused on travel topics rather than just destinations.

I recently returned from a trip the the Netherlands where I split my week staying in two different hostels. Since I went alone, I had a lot of time to consider the various pros and cons of the hostel travel experience. Hosteling is definitely not for everyone - but it does offer a unique travel experience that has some upsides you can't find in the average hotel.

I'll skip the stuff everyone knows: great place to meet people, cheap, etc. I want to focus on some of the perks that might not be obvious at first.

1.Good Location

This isn't true of all hostels and it certainly pays to read the reviews on a site like tripadvisor, but for the most part because hostels are smaller they often have a more central location than say a large chain like Marriott. Old homes or public buildings  are often converted into hostels which means that in addition to a great location, the building itself is a something to be seen. I've heard of hostels all over the world that were formally prisions, castles, and house boats.