What should you look for in a property? I look for a hotel that’s in the centre of things, close to restaurants and an Internet cafe, with an outdoor area for people watching. If I bring a laptop, which I usually do now, I look for WiFi. The best places have character such as the many small hotels in Latin America that were once colonial homes.
Travel books generally sort hotels into categories such as Budget, Mid-Range, and Top End. I’m usually happiest staying in the mid-range category although I’ve met many travellers who are middle-age and middle income who prefer budget ones. Occasionally I stay at the Top End.
Consider spending a few days at the same hotel to get to know the staff and surroundings better. That way you won’t feel like you’re always just passing through. We once made the Hotel Aurora in Antigua, Guatemala our base and each time we returned after a few days on the road we’d feel like we were coming home. On a solo trip to Bocas del Toro in Panama I spent a week in a cottage that sat on stilts in Saigon Bay and shared the kitchen and living spaces with other international guests. It was an opportunity to know the neighbourhood a bit as well as fellow travellers.
Sometimes I ask to see the room before checking in.
What you should expect:
- A very clean room
- Door and windows that lock securely
- Window curtains that provide privacy
- Means to keep valuables safe
- An extra blanket for cold nights
- A fan for warm ones
- A good reading light (alas, this is hard to come by so bring a flashlight)
- A decent pillow
I hate wall-to-wall carpeting unless it’s new or really clean. It’s nice to have a table for writing, a refrigerator for yogurt and drinks. Personal touches such as a vase of fresh flowers make me feel particularly well cared for. Complementary bottled water is always welcome or a container of boiled water that has been cooled. And of course nothing beats knowledgeable, friendly staff.
I usually leave the maid who cleans my room a tip each day. I leave it on the pillow, which I believe is a Japanese tradition. In Latin America the maid often thanks me by turning my towel into swan or elephant shapes, sometimes decorated with flower petals (I am such a suck for these).
On rare occasion I am indulgent and stay at a luxurious place. I got a great deal at a 5-star hotel room in Split, Croatia which made me happy because I was a little down and thought the wireless internet, great lighting, spa-like bathroom, and pillow of the ‘finest down’ would pick me up. The next day I moved to a place that looked like a retirement home with a good-will dining room but it was in the centre of things and overlooked the Adriatic Sea so I was thankful for that.
After landing at a decrepit airport in Vietnam my sister and I were pleased to be escorted to a tropical island with the so-claimed largest swimming pool in Asia. When my family reentered the world of independent travel we spent our first few nights at a plush property in Antigua, Guatemala. The grounds were lovely and the staff attentive but only very well-to-do Guatemalans stayed there and it was too far from the centre of things so we were fine about moving on.
Over the years I have had my share of bad rooms. I’ve slept in a room with grain under the bed and mice running over the bed frame (Nepal), shared an attic room with chickens (also Nepal), stayed in places with no toilet (had to use the field in the back), no electricity, and no running water. But these were exceptions. Today there are usually great properties in all budget categories and it is worth the effort to find them.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010