Friday, April 27, 2012



As with all of the traveler's tips, I'm going to give my usual disclaimer. You don't have to agree but all of this stuff is working for me and I hope it helps you. [How is that for boiling it down to one sentence?]

One of the biggest pains in visiting a new town or city is finding a place to stay. Some people will use sites like TripAdvisor, Hostelbookers and Wikitravel to find places to stay. They will also swear by booking them in advance.

It is a comfort, they tell me, to have a place already booked in advance. They know where they will be staying and can save a lot of time and head to it. For travelers with more money than time, this makes good sense. You might even get a decent room out of it.

I don't do this. Outside of Europe, the inexpensive places aren't on the internet. My technique is just to write down a few places from Wikitravel that look promising. When I get to the new place, I try to find the tourist area. Usually, all of the guest houses, hostels and restaurants are clustered in one district. Once there, I can get a lay of the land and see what looks good. While it does suck to wander up and down stairs wearing the backpack to see different rooms you find out a lot more information than anything on the internet.

What follows are the steps I use to try to ascertain 'is this a place I want to stay'? You won't always get to do all of the steps. If you know you will only be staying one night and are too exhausted to care, you can gloss over the steps or ignore them.


Before going into the lodging (hotel, guesthouse, hostel, home stay, etc) check out the street and surrounding areas. Are there signs of construction? Bars or dance places? All of these create noise at different times of the day. It is a horrible thing to be kept up till late at night by the disco beat then woken up early in the morning by power tools.

While western hotels are known for having a level of soundproofing, most of the worlds are not. In addition, the climate may force you to leave your windows open or bake.


If there is a bar or restaurant within the lodging, this will often add to the noise level as well. Pay attention to the other clientele. Aside from hippies, locals are often more noisy and less considerate than tourists. I have no idea why - possibly they can understand what is on TV and like to watch it at deafening volumes.


The attitudes and body language are the next thing to look for. On one end, you have eager and energetic staff. Slothful and disinterested staff will give you a worse experience.

The staff of some places will be very interested in selling you stuff - trips, tickets and so on. Sometimes the junior staff will tell you sob stories in order to try to get money out of you. Find out about the staff before letting your guard down.


All of the steps up through this point are pretty much just glance around things. With practice you will start to do them subconsciously. You'll just get a feel whether you want to stay at this place or not. The next step is to ask how much they charge for a room.

This part is crucial. Neither agree nor disagree with their price. Give no indication whether you like it or not if it is within your price range.

This is important for bargaining later. Also, you must get an answer. If your budget is $15 per night and the room is $50, you are wasting your time seeing the room. There is little (no if you are not a master at bargaining) chance of your getting the price down to your budget.

Many times, the staff won't want to give you an answer.

Guest: "How much is the room."
Staff: (Grabs key) "Let me show you the room."

By following the staff you have proven that you are showing you are weak or easily led. This will hurt in the bargaining phase later. Westerners want to be polite and friendly and often docilly follow the staff member. I don't. I plant my feet and just stare at them with a very neutral expression. They may wander off down the hall to the room but I have not moved. They eventually return and say something ("This way sir" or "Could you come with me?") but all they get is me looking at them with my feet planted and a neutral or slightly smiling expression on my face. Then, very distinctly I will repeat my question "How much is a room please?"

This tells them that I am unwilling to give them control and they must meet my price range to even get me to follow them down the hall.

Once I have established that the lodging is within my price range (or can be bargained down to it) then it is time to check out the room. You don't want to bargain at all at this state. You don't want to give away what your price range is. You do want to appear to be as friendly - though possibly with a stubborn streak - as possible. This is despite you will probably be in a crabby mood after a horribly long, bumpy, smelly, crowded and torturous time traveling.


This is the tricky bit. You want to do a fast but complete inspection of the room. If something is important to you, check it. You can't be shy or fussy about doing so. You want to find out if the bed is clean? Throw back the sheets and look at them. You want to see if (like in most of Asia) the toilet leaks? Feel the floor with your bare or stocking feet. Turn on the lights. Is hot water important to you? Turn on the shower and wait for hot water to come out. The closer the room is to the front desk, the nosier it will be. This is not so much from other guests but the staff watching television at outrageous volume levels, often all night long.

To westerners, this may seem intrusive and rude but unless it works when you get there, it never will. If you were told there is hot water and were dumb enough to believe them rather than testing for yourself get use to cold showers. Complaining will not get it fixed, you are stuck with it as is until you change lodging. In all of Asia, I have only once had an owner fix something in a private room within 24 hours of my saying something. It kind of worked after that.

Check out the room security. Are there bars on the windows? Places to chain your pack to? How accessible is the room?

If you are thinking you might like to stay in the room, it is wise to make note of all of the things you dislike about the room to use in the bargaining process. "It would be a nice room if it wasn't so close to the street. The noise might be a bit much for me..."


[I am not going to cover 'how to bargain' here as it is a large topic in itself.]

Obviously if you are not liking the room you'd be leaving instead but this step assumes you want to stay there. Bargaining for the room is important. If you don't want to bargain many cultures will see you as someone with more money than brains and act accordingly.

Remember, there are more things than just price which can be bargained on. "Well, yes, I will pay your 300 baht per night but if I do I will need two keys right now - one for me and one for my lady here." Always having multiple keys when you have multiple guests is important. Or, you can leave them at the front desk to help encourage the workers and their friends to rifle through your room while you are out.

You can not and should not bargain for future things because they won't happen. "We'll take that room if you fix the toilet." Here's a news flash Jack - the toilet won't get fixed.

Make sure that the price you agree on is the total price. If they reveal later there is a service charge or VAT (value added tax), your answer should be along the lines of "Fuck you". See step seven.


Paying attention to the care with which they check you into a room is crucial. If they insist on making a photocopy of the photo page of your passport, this is best. If they tell you "We can take care of your passport later" or let you fill in the information without seeing your passport that should tell you that the security is horrible and it is very easy for thieves to bluff their way in.

If you are in a country that requires you to be registered with the police department, make sure that gets done here as well. Sometimes, checking into a nice place for the first night - just to get properly registered - is important.

Pay your first night and insist on a receipt. No receipt, no money - ever. They may tell you that you do not need a receipt. This should serve to stir suspicion within you, regardless of how 'cool' they seem. Remember that if there is a disagreement in the bill it will be you - who probably do not speak the language of the land versus a respected business owner who is friends with the highly corrupt police officers. You'll end up paying.

Things I like to see on my bill include the initial date I arrived. Each day I payed for. What I payed for and how much. The word 'PAID' with some sort of signature or initials of the person I gave the money to. These are routine things on bills in western countries but often overlooked elsewhere. Be sure to get it on your bill to cover your ass.

Get a business card of the hotel. Ideally, they should have the name/address in English on one side and the local language on the other. Remember, you will be showing this to people who may not read any English - or perhaps even their native language. Getting a business card (I suggest a couple) is critical. If the hotel can't be bothered to have business cards you are in a real slum - get them to write the name and address on a paper for you so you can find your way back.


Security is your overriding concern within the room. Assume the door lock can be picked, bumped or forced. If they have a safe in the room check it carefully to see if it is really secure or just appears to be. Using duct tape to hide valuables in unlikely spots is often preferable to the safe. If you are smart enough to own a pacsafe use it. Chain it to as many pieces of furniture as possible to slow the thieves down and force them to make noise destroying furniture. I recommend it even if you have 'just packed clothing'. How much will it cost for a new backpack and all new clothing?


Don't advertise when you want to leave. They should know when you walk downstairs with a backpack on and toss the key onto the counter. This prevents a host of different evils such as robbing you just before you leave, figuring out how to squeeze more money out of you, getting pissed you didn't buy more stuff and so forth. Just walk out when it is time to go. Make sure you carefully inspected your room before doing so - otherwise it can be a bit awkward realizing you left your ipod behind...

There are a lot of very beautiful, comfortable places you can stay in the world. For every one of those there are several squalid and indifferent places. Hopefully, these tips will put you into more good places than bad ones because having a bad experience at a place can sour your whole experience within the country.

Review of steps:

1. Scope out the neighborhood
2. Check out the other guests.
3. Investigate the staff.
4. Initial price range.
5. Inspect the room.
6. Haggle.
7. Check in.
8. Move in.
9. Get out.


  1. Probably asked before: do you have a hand-crank flashlight or battery?

    And for your Traveller's Tips Language section (NSFW):

  2. I have a small but very bright LED flashlight. The reason I don't have a hand crank - usually larger, heavier. LED's don't suck much juice. Even with the crappy quality batteries you get in Asia you don't go through that many. I'd suggest the brightest possible because it is a potential weapon to temporarily blind someone. Mine is fist sized and could be used to reinforce a punch. Despite my strenious attempts to avoid physical conflict I try to plan for the worse.

    Having a flashlight you can hold in your mouth is a good idea because you'll be doing that a lot. If you have one of those head lamp flashlights and are anything like me, you'll misplace it soon.

    Crank flashlights also make noise. Not cool to use when you're trying to dig out stuff from your pack in a hostel with a lot of sleeping people around.

    Since my personal philosophy is "If you don't have a working flashlight on you at all times you are stupid and will probably fall down a hole and die." I recommend 'small, light (weight) and bright'.

    This has now gotten long enough I will put it into the next blog. Thanks Jamas!

    1. These are the type I'm thinking of (Amazon)

      Small, decent, can lock the handle so it doesn't crank (aka make noise). I've got a few around the place. Haven't tried to put them in my mouth...

  3. They look a bit large to me and the reviews don't look especially good. I recommend something sturdy, small and light. Travel can put a lot of wear and tear on stuff pretty quickly.

    But I think that just having a flashlight is better than not. If you find out that you don't like it for some reason it can be replaced later - though many of the flashlights for sale in other countries are way too big or junk.

  4. PS: Jamas, get ya some facebook!



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