Month: April 2014

The Traveler’s Dilemma: Hostels Versus Hotels

Originally posted for MyFunkyTravel.com

When I booked my weekend trip to the Amalfi Coast as a Florence study abroad student, I figured I was making the obvious choice when I chose a hotel instead of a hostel. The idea of a hostel brought forth horrific film images of dingy basements, fake blood, and conniving Europeans. However, upon stepping into a dingy econo-lodge reminiscent motel, equipped with stray hairs and sour milk, it quickly became apparent which was the better choice, especially when checking out the modern, chic, and youth-friendly hostel down the road.

As in all situations, one isn’t always better than the other, however when it comes to backpacking, hostels are bound to be your better bet with a little bit of background research beforehand. So why are these colorful cohabiting pseudo-homes so much cooler and more fun than your run-of-the-mill hotel?

Image

Hotel Verona in Milan, Italy

1. Hostels keep you social. Unless you specially request a private room, normally, hostels bunk you with a bunch of other rowdy travelers like yourself – they usually have between four to sixteen beds per room, although some can range up to 100 beds. For some, this may be a turn-off, but for young backpackers, especially those flying solo, it’s the easiest way to grab a travel buddy and make international friends for the next time you hit the road. What better way to make friends with someone than to brush your teeth next to them?

2. You’ll meet more “travelers” than “tourists” at hostels. When staying at hotels, you’re bound to run into some loud little kids, stuck-up tourists, and confused vacationers. However, at hostels, it’s a sure bet that you’ll be with other adventurous backpackers that you’ll have more in common with and can stay in contact with for years to come. The average age of one staying in a hostel is between 18 and 26, according to Rick Steves, however there is no average age or demographic of one staying in a hotel.

3. Hostels add an interesting new level of surprise to your travels. A hotel pretty much always looks like a hotel, especially if you’ve opted for a chain or you don’t have the dollars to drop on a luxury hotel. However, hostels tend to be more optimized with amenities, activities, and décor related to the city you are actually staying in.

Image

Image of Generator Hostel Dublin, Ireland, Photo Courtesy of generatorhostels.com

4. Hostels tend to run much cheaper. Because you usually share a room with other travelers and they are geared towards younger travelers, hostels are almost always much more cost-effective than hotels, especially if no loyalty points are involved or you’re only staying for a night or two. The average nightly price of a hostel is only between $20 and $40. If you can part with Egyptian cotton sheets and private bathrooms, then the hostel price is worth it.  

5. Hostels tend to be locally owned and operated. If you’re pissed that your room is sub-par and you complain to the desk staff at the local Holiday Inn, the college dropouts at the front desk probably don’t really care. However, when you’re upset about an issue with your hostel, the person you are complaining to (or praising) at the front desk, most likely owns the whole place and they will personally help you handle your issue and can easily change hostel policies to avoid that issue at a later date.

Image

Image of Goli and Bosi Hostel Split, Croatia, Photo Courtesy of whatwedoissecret.org

Crossing Enemy Lines

Now what do you think about THAT, Mr. German?! yells the balding old American man in a tie-dyed shark t-shirt, leaning dangerously over the table facing (who I guess would be) Mr. German. 

For some reason, American cruise lines attract a ton of international patrons, which seems odd to me considering that the whole point of going on a cruise is that you don’t have to do anything besides eat, drink and tan – flying to get to an American destination just to get on another vessel seems counter intuitive. However, regardless of the reasoning, on American cruise lines, Americans are going to interact with Europeans and Asians and Canadians and everyone in between.

For an entire subset of people kind of isolated from the rest of the world from a geographical standpoint, this is actually pretty cool. It’s fun to sit at a table full of strangers and leave an hour later collecting email addresses and Facebook usernames; it’s even more fun to find out what people do for work, where do they live, and what their lives are like across the pond (or a few ponds).

However, this type of interaction may not be suited for all, including who I will consider Mr. Shark (I really would hate to call him Mr. American). When meeting others of differing backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas, regardless of their originating country, it is obviously important to respect those thoughts and respond accordingly, especially if you disagree. (This isn’t kindergarten class and this shouldn’t need to be reiterated from a kindergarten class, but I will). Since there are boundary lines involved here, I actually think it is more important to remain respectful because we must remember that the birthplace of those ideas is extremely different, especially when aboard an international cruise ship or any other cross-lines destination.

So what was Mr. Shark and Mr. German fighting about? Universal healthcare and the effects of Obamacare. If Mr. Shark had cared more about presenting a valid argument, possibly changing the opinion of another, and learning about another’s viewpoint over the ego-boosting feeling of being right especially from an international standpoint, he probably would not have stood up, pointed his finger in Mr. German’s face, and addressed him as Mr. German in his tie-dyed shark t-shirt. Unfortunately, he did.

Although as human beings we have a lot of shared human experiences, we also have a lot of severely seperate experiences based on the country we live in, the taxes we pay, the part of the world we reside in, the car we drive, the work we do, the government we operate under, and a thousand other facts. And although it’s fun and pretty cool to pick out all the quirky similarities we share, it’s important to also remember that there is no need to stick us all in the same box and assume we all think and act the same exact way. Whether we live next door to one another or across the ocean, your experiences and thoughts will never mirror mine – and I like it that way.

As a result, Mr. Shark will never even somewhat understand Mr. German’s viewpoint and Mr. German may not ever understand Mr. Shark’s. Leaving a bad taste in one another’s mouths, Mr. Shark may never respect Germans and Mr. German may cease from respecting Americans, especially if these were their limited experiences of one another’s countries and cultures. Mr. Shark may stray away from visiting Germany and Mr. German may avoid visiting America.

Is this a stretch of circumstances? Yeah, maybe. But the point remains – Mr. German will not forget the time he went on an American cruise line and an old American man in a tie-dye t-shirt stood up and pointed and wagged his finger at him. He may not remember what the argument was, or if his shirt had a dolphin or a shark on it, but he will remember the sheer disrespect and embarrassment at that wobbly table in the middle of the Atlantic. He will remember that it was a tiny American man that did it. And, for the first time in this entire circumstance, it will become blatantly obvious that neither man has had the same experiences which led him to this opinion in the first place.

1

Smitten With Sea Cows

One of the many joys of travel is that unlike your commute, unlike your job, and unlike your family, you truly have free reign over your travel plans. If you want to go away and sit on a beach with a colorful drink in your hand, you can do that. If you want to get your hands dirty and play in the wilderness, you can do that too. However, there are also some ways you that you travel that you didn’t even realize – such as that of ecotourism.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Obviously for some do-gooders out there, this is their chosen travel plan – such as visiting Madagascar to view the peculiar biodiversity and bring aid to poverty-stricken communities in the meanwhile or heading to Guatemala to learn about the historic cultural traditions of the Mayan Itza. For the average middle class traveler, though, these plans sound a little far-fetched and out of reach. They’re not. Especially you have no idea you are currently operating as an ecotourist. 

IMG_5303

A few weeks ago, in the heart of this nightmarish winter, I found myself in beautiful Cape Canaveral, Florida on a Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas cruise set for Florida and then Nassau, Bahamas. Of course, being the devout adventurer that I am, I had the intention to hop on an airboat set for the Everglades to check out some alligators, then head to a wildlife park in this jungle environment to meet some monkeys, and finally eat the tails of the nasty gators at a classic Floridean lunch. It was the perfect tour – until it was sold out. That’s what you get for laying poolside for three days before booking anything.

Instead, we did the next best thing (“best” being used loosely) – the wildlife ferry tour down the Banana River. Sounds cool, right? Of course it became much more exhilarating when my sister refused to even get out of bed for it and our 87-year-old tour guide, Jim, insisted not to worry, no walking was involved. 

I took Jim’s old man jokes and the seemingly drunk ferry captain’s antics with a grain of salt, knowing that I was literally the only person on the tour under the age of 50 (who was my dad). I made myself comfortable on the back of the ferry with a pair of binoculars, prayed the boat would move a little faster, and asked my dad how much he thought the riverside apartments went for. Jim said we would be lucky to see a manatee or two on the hour-and-a-half tour.

IMG_5322

However, soon enough, even calm and down-to-earth and exotically dressed Jim got a pretty excited when he saw the telltale swirling water marking the sign of a manatee caused by their circular-ended tails. I still wasn’t ready to pull out my binoculars – he was going to have to do better than that. Soon, though we checked out our first manatee though a couple of minutes later, and then a few more touting about the ferry, and finally, I was eyeballing tens of them throughout the water, doing their manatee thing. I was smitten with those big ol’ sea cows.

I liked their loafing, happy faces hanging out near the Banana River islands. The wildlife tour was becoming a true-life wildlife tour – we checked out giant, stout pelicans, nobly sitting nearby in the trees in little flocks, silently watching because they have no voice boxes. My dad made ridiculous chirping noises (which kind of worked) and dolphins soon huddled around us, jumping out of the water and chasing the boat. Jim explained that since they were in little groups of two or three, they were probably young males out on their own for the first time. We checked out tiny island birds and fish swimming about the dolphins, all the while admiring the riverside cottages (and mansions) and wondering what it would be like to have a backyard filled with all this life. 

IMG_5314

As the sun went down and we neared the ferry docking station once again, ever-reliable Jim pointed out the strings falling from the docks, which were filled underwater with oysters that would reproduce and clean the heavily-polluted river. Jim explained that normally, we wouldn’t have even seen the manatees eating leaves off low-falling trees, but the sea grass couldn’t grow as much with all the pollution and they didn’t have much to eat. Even the little minnows hung out near the surface of the water, gasping for breath in a river that offered them little oxygen.

In an hour, you can fall in love with an ecosystem; a set of sometimes funny-looking and sometimes pretty animals that operate within the scope of one another yet over time, became the victims of pollution and consumption. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than an hour to fix that; to clean up a river that has been dumped in for years and now has a rough time sustaining healthy life. However, with the allowance of once-blind tourists and normal vacationers looking for something to do on a Tuesday afternoon to view these habitats with a worthy (yet very old) guide, perhaps a healing can actually ensue.

A Pirate’s Life for Me

As a frequent cruiser, while wandering around various ships like the lost nomad I am, I often make friends with international cruise staff. More often than not, cruise workers are from countries where job opportunities are not as great, and having the chance to see the world, make money to send home to loved ones, and create lasting friendships with like-minded adventurous people is something that can’t be passed up.

However, I will also stress that this isn’t always the case. On a recent Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas cruise,  I met a Swedish girl who told me that she wanted to be a singer and dancer, but in Sweden, if you don’t follow the traditional career paths, you are often shunned by friends since there is a push to fit in and be “normal,” so working on the ship was her chance to meet new people and follow her dream of being an entertainer.

Regardless of why one works on a cruise ship, there are a ton of perks you literally get paid to travel, hang out with other kids who are fun as you, and meet people from all walks of life. Cons exist as well, of course – one being that working on one is really freakin’ hard. You work long hours, seven days a week, only pausing for a little under two months after each six month period. You have little time off in port and you live in close quarters with people who start off as complete strangers to you. You’re away from your friends, family, and children, which becomes a huge burden as you grow up and become a real-life adult.

Often when I go on cruises and meet these cruise workers, I ponder the pros and cons of the operation, since it seems like a pretty fun job and a great way to live in a college dorm again and travel the world. When it comes down to it though, I end up figuring that I’m probably not really cut out for such a life and I’m better off trying to find an easier way to see the world, have some fun, and pursue my career aspirations.

1

On my last cruise, though, I really wondered what the hell I was thinking. The last stop on many Caribbean cruises is Coco Cay, a small touristed-out island near the Bahamas where ships unload their passengers so they can hang out on the beach, play some water sports, and snorkel or scuba dive. Each time I visit this island, I participate in a fantastic hour-and-a-half long jet skiing tour, where one tour guide leads happy adrenaline junkies around some Bahamian islands, periodically stopping at points to see sharks, swim around, or look at starfish. It’s a really cool, fast-paced and independent tour that makes you feel like you just hit the jackpot at Six Flags.

Since my parents locked all my crap in a locker when they went jet skiing and I was stuck wandering around half naked burning like a lobster, I hung around the hot Brazilian tour guides (who did not even notice I existed). The snippets of conversation I heard went along the lines of:

“Yeah, when my seven month contract ends, I’m going to go home to Brazil for a week or two, but then I’m off to Mexico to cave dive and then to Australia for a few weeks of backpacking.”

I was stopped dead in my fried, red tracks. Had I been living on another planet? How had I dared to think that a life like that wasn’t worthwhile just because they had to work a few extra hours a week? The bottom line was pretty simple. I live in freezing-cold New Jersey, where I commute an hour and a half and get home around 6:30 so I can make dinner, feed the cat, plan my outfit for the next day. On the weekends, I go out; try to make plans with friends. This Brazilian dude conducts jet skiing tours in the Bahamas and then after seven months of sunshine, he goes friggin’ cave diving and backpacking. Who am I to say my 401k is more rewarding than that?

I’m not saying that I’m the newest applicant for Royal Caribbean (or Carnival, either). I’m not saying I’ll ever work on a cruise ship or volunteer to bust my ass seven days a week or make it seven months without seeing one familiar face. All I’m saying is that a little patch of life like that from a tanned, happy man can pretty quickly make you reconsider what you’ve been doing everyday for eight hours a day – whether it makes you appreciate a quiet life with family or a wild life on the open seas.