My newest mantra is to practice “travel on the cheap” and my getaway to Montreal, Quebec last weekend provided the perfect opportunity to put myself to the test. Instead of staying in a fancy hotel, I opted to stay at a youth hostel in a female dorm that could accommodate up to 6 people.
I’m a princess. Everyone who knows me would nod their heads in agreement. The idea of me staying in a hostel seemed a little far fetched.
Over the past couple of years, whenever I’ve gone on vacation, I stayed in some rather swanky, upscale joints. I used to consider a fancy hotel an important element of any holiday that I took. Nothing but the best for me.
I wasn’t always this way. I’ve roughed it before and lived to tell the story.
When I traveled to the Galapagos Islands in May 2007, staying on a boat, I shared a cabin which was no bigger than most people’s closets. The waves were so rough at night, I thought I was going to be tossed out of my upper bunk!
After leaving Ecuador, I traveled to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail to Machhu Picchu, staying in a tent for 3 nights, using a rented sleeping bag that had previously been occupied by other very sweaty hikers. I went the whole time without a shower. Baby wipes, hand sanitizer and deodorant became my best friend. I even mastered the art of going to the bathroom in the gross outhouses along the trail. Trust me, it *is* an art.
Last year when I was in Argentina, I stayed in a hotel for 3 nights that had mold growing on the walls. When I returned to Rio de Janeiro, I had to launder all of clothes as they were wet and smelled badly. While staying at the same hotel, I asked if I could have a hair dryer for my room. When I turned it on, it immediately caught on fire and burst into flames! One could not swim in the hotel pool, as it was dirty, full of dead bugs, leaves and who knows what else.
Perhaps it was these somewhat less than hygienic experiences that made me long for more luxurious accommodations?
Aside from being traumatized upon receiving my credit card bill for these hotel stays, a few other things happened that made me come to my senses.
1) When planning my trip to Italy in September, I left the task of booking a hotel in Positano until the last minute. Not a good idea during high season! It seemed every hotel I tried to book was full. Panicked and frustrated, I enlisted a travel agent’s help. She came back to me with hotels that would have cost me more than 500 euros a night.
I turned her down, consulted my trusty Lonely Planet guide and ended up booking Villa Flavio Gioia for 179 euros a night. Yes, still pricey but cheap for Positano. The studio room was actually quite spacious and had a large balcony offering up a stunning seaside view. Just as good, if not better, than any 4-5 star hotel.
Better yet, I had one of the cheapest and tastiest meals of my trip while I stayed there. I purchased a panini from a local grocer, bought a bottle of local white wine and had a great dinner on my balcony overlooking the sea.
I learned that not only could I find cheap accommodations that had the same amenities as expensive hotels, I could also dine cheaply on a simple delicious sandwich made by an old Italian woman who piled it high with fresh prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes.
2) I started meeting other travelers who make it a regular habit to stay at hostels and even couch surf. For the price of my trips to Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Eastern Europe, I could have back-packed and traveled around the world for a year, maybe even longer. This really put it into perspective for me!
It was an epiphany. I realized that I was crazy and knew something had to give. The princess needed to give up her expensive tendencies. Or at least try!
Here I was, forking out big moula to take a handful of vacations that only lasted a short period of time. Don’t get me wrong, the vacations I took were wonderful and I had the time of my life. They gave me greater happiness than I have ever known. Yet, these backpackers were also having their time of their life, living out one of my dreams, traveling the world and at a much cheaper price.
3) The more I traveled, the more I came to value the experience of travel itself. The memories that linger, the one I keep close to my heart are not of the fancy hotels in which I stayed or the disgusting sleeping bags in which I slept.
In the Galapagos Islands, it was observing the animals in their natural habitat. In Peru, it was taking in the glory of the Andes and watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu. In Argentina, it was being in a boat that went directly under Iguassu Falls, getting soaked and drenched in the process. In Italy, it was being in the divine presence of St Peter’s Basilica. In the Czech Republic, it was a night tour through Prague.
Not only was it the experience of the places I visited but also of the people I came to meet. I’ll never forget the fun we had, the laughs we shared. I have so many fond memories.
In Argentina, our small tour group of 5 was stranded in the park surrounding Iguassu Falls for several hours when striking workers blocked the only entrance and exit. We hung out, had a late lunch together and shared travel stories. One British couple, who were wrapping up a 3 month tour of South America shared a funny story of when they were in Bolivia. They came across striking workers there as well. You’ll never be able to guess why the workers were on strike. They were protesting a move by the Bolivian government to pass a law that prohibited drunk driving!
On Christmas Eve in Vienna, I found myself happily salsa dancing with others from my tour group.
When I was in Montreal last weekend, I met some people while having dinner at Garde Manger. We ended up going to a jazz bar together called Piano Rouge and having a great time.
My travel experiences over the past year have changed me for the better.
I no longer desire to spend a lot of money on hotels. I now don’t mind staying in hostels. I survived last weekend in Montreal and have it in mind to stay in many more hostels in the future.
In fact, when in Cuba next month, I have plans to stay at casa particulars in Havana, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Trinidad. If possible, I’m even even going to attempt camping one night in the mountains.
With that being said, I’m going to focus on having the best experiences I can when on the road. I’m going to take longer trips that cost much less. I’m going to live life to the fullest and continue to pursue my greatest passion, traveling.
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