I didn’t bother bringing a guidebook for the other countries I visited. Instead, I went to Internet cafes because WiFi wasn’t ubiquitous like it is now (I didn’t even have a smartphone or laptop with me). I would rent a computer station to browse Hostelworld, which was the only booking site I knew about back then.
Even though 2008 wasn’t really that long ago, the way we travel and the sources of information we turn to have changed wildly. Now, travelers have more options than ever when it comes to different types of accommodation. Not only has access improved thanks to search aggregators like Skyscanner and travel marketplaces like Booking.com, but the variety of options—from international hotel chains to Couchsurfing to Airbnb—has exploded over the last couple decades.
Best of all, these varying types of accommodations allow travelers to interact with the local community in different ways according to their own comfort level and travel style. With so much freedom of choice, travelers can easily be flexible and change accommodation types for each trip depending on what experiences they hope to have. For example, choosing a hostel for a quick Eurotrip, but an all-inclusive resort for a relaxing vacation in Mexico.
We’ll break down a few non-hotel accommodations to give you a better understanding of the pros and cons of each. This way you can best decide which option is the right one for you!
What is it Like to Stay in a Hostel?
Just like all types of accommodations, hostels vary in quality, though with competition so high nowadays, many hostels have adapted and look more like sleek boutique hotels than the Bohemian backpacker digs that you might be imagining. For the most part, you can count on hostels to have WiFi access; common areas with tables and couches; shared kitchen facilities; a dining area; and a receptionist who can answer questions or help you book onward travel. Many hostels offer a free, simple breakfast included in the price of your stay, though options tend to be pretty basic—a spread of jam, bread, fruit, coffee, and juices.
Most of the rooms in hostels are dorms with as few as four beds or sometimes more than ten. When making a reservation, you get to select whether you want to stay in a gender-specific or mixed room. Bathrooms are always shared for those who are staying in dorm beds. It’s important to confirm that the hostel provides you with an individual, lockable storage unit that is large enough to hold all your valuables. You never want to leave your valuables out when you aren’t at your bedside, no matter how much you trust your fellow bunkmates. (I personally know someone who left a DSLR sitting on her bed, walked to the bathroom, and the camera was gone when she returned minutes later.)
Many hostels also offer private double and triple rooms with the option for a private en suite bathroom. This is welcome news for those who want the social interaction that comes with staying in a hostel while also having the opportunity for privacy, which is nonexistent in dorm rooms.
If you’re traveling with friends, you may be able to take over a single dorm room if you book early enough (for example, if there are four of you and all four beds in a mixed dorm are still available). Be sure to get in touch with the property directly to ensure you all are assigned to the same room and not split among other four-bed rooms.
- Access to shared kitchen facilities
- Community rooms to relax and meet other travelers
- Organized activities for guests (free or for a fee)
- WiFi and breakfast typically included
- Bedding and towels aren’t always included for free,
- Lack of privacy in dorm rooms or if you have a private room with a shared bathroom
- Lack of security in a dorm room (must keep valuables under lock and key)
- Potentially loud roommates who may shuffle around while you try to sleep
- Budget travelers
- Solo travelers
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing was created as an international, cultural exchange, where members act as both hosts and guests, alternating between opening their home for free to other members of the community and staying with other hosts when they travel themselves. It goes against the Couchsurfing mindset to just look at it as free accommodation. Travelers who choose this type of accommodation should be interested in interacting with their host instead of closing the door to conversation and new experiences.
The site works by asking every member to set up a profile. Couchsurfing doesn’t force members to host—you decide whether to indicate that your home is open to guests, and you can change your preference at any time. If you can’t currently host but still want to be an active member of the community, you can also choose to meet with visitors for a chat or an activity. For the most part, it’s good manners and an important part of the community spirit to open your home to travelers if you Couchsurf when you’re on the road.
To request to stay with someone, you simply browse profiles of hosts who live in your destination city and then send a written request to those who seem like a good fit. Hosts aren’t required to accept every invitation, so be sure to write a request that highlights similar interests.
Your actual accommodations could range from a literal couch to a private guesthouse. It all depends on what the host has available, which they’ll indicate on their profile. While hosts don’t accept payment for their generosity, it’s nice for guests to reciprocate through genuine interaction. Have morning coffee together and ask about their life, culture, and hometown. You might even decide to cook your signature meal for dinner one night as a treat and conversation starter.
Many people wonder about the safety of staying in a stranger’s home. My husband and I have Couchsurfed more than 10 times in four continents and have always been welcomed warmly by our hosts and felt safe. Don’t forget that they are taking a chance on you, too.
Still, you should make every effort to protect yourself: read the host’s reviews, do a Skype or WhatsApp video chat prior to your arrival, leave their home immediately if you feel uncomfortable in any way, and always let a trusted friend or family member know where you’re staying. You may decide that you’re only comfortable Couchsurfing if you stay with hosts who are the same gender as you or with a couple or a family. That’s perfectly fine! You should do what makes you feel comfortable and safe.
- Cultural exchange
- Opportunity to make a new friend
- Homestay experience of living like a local
- Pushes you beyond your comfort zone
- Free (shouldn’t be your main driver, but you still can’t beat the price)
- Safety and comfort concerns
- Lack of privacy if you don’t have a private room
- Limited space and room to spread out
- Budget travelers
- Solo travelers
What is Staying in an Airbnb Like?
Airbnb is sort of like the paid version of Couchsurfing, minus the cultural exchange unless you get a very friendly host. Hosts list their property on the site and the types of accommodations you can choose from include a shared room, a private room, the entire home, condo or even a castle (you can find some unconventional but awesome types of accommodations on the site). There’s an option for Instant Book, which means you don’t need to wait for the host to review your request and approve you, but many properties require pre-approval by the host.
Airbnb search filters are very useful, allowing you to easily narrow down options according to your needs. You can be as specific as wanting to rent an entire apartment in the heart of Budapest from June 2-20 that has A/C, WiFi, a washer, two beds, and in a price range from $70-$100 per night. A bonus on Airbnb is that many hosts will offer a discount if you stay a week and an even higher discount if you stay for a month. This is applied at the host’s discretion, so it’s not available on all properties.
Guests rate and review the accommodations they stayed in, so you have a better picture of the housing situation beyond how the host describes their place in the listing. Past guests may say that the neighborhood is noisy on weekends or that the host is very attentive, answering messages early and late to ensure their guests have a great stay. The reviews are quite helpful, especially if you’re deciding between multiple properties.
Airbnb is a great option for families and larger groups. You can book a multi-room home with many beds as well as a kitchen so you have the ability to cook meals instead of eating out each day.
Just like Couchsurfing and hostels, if you choose to stay in a shared space, you should be alert and only remain in the accommodations if you feel safe and comfortable. Airbnb has a Guest Refund Policy that offers a full refund if the issue you encounter falls under its list of eligible travel issues, but you have to contact them about it within 24 hours of checking in. As someone who has, unfortunately, had to take advantage of that policy, I can say the customer support team is responsive and quick to resolve the issue. It’s nice to have that support as a traveler.
- Wide variety of accommodation options
- Being able to select all your desired amenities for whichever place you choose
- Range of budget options
- Discounts for extended stays
- Access to a kitchen, washer, and other home-like facilities
- Description versus reality may not align
- Limited to homestays and other non-professionally maintained accommodations
- Lack of daily housekeeping/room service
- No receptionist—you’re limited to your ability to get in touch with the host if you have any issues or questions
- Long-term travelers
- Business travelers
Now that we’ve laid out the pros and cons, try a new type of accommodation for an upcoming trip—you never know how it could affect your experience!