An Online Primer for Budget Exploration
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For a bit more flexibility, privacy and comfort, look for the family-run accommodations usually available under various general names in most countries. You have no doubt heard of Britain's famous bed and breakfasts. In German-speaking countries, look for signs saying "gasthaus" (guesthouse) or "zimmer frei" (room to let). In the Mediterranean countries look for "pensions" (spellings vary).
These range from families renting out a room or two in their house to several-room, home-style facilities. They tend to have private rooms with shared bathrooms, may offer meals, extras such as thick bed comforters, and often are quite cozy and friendly. Again, they all have their own distinct personality, usually reflecting that of the family running them.
There are several ways to find them. Guidebooks usually list several, but if you don't have one, check with the local tourist office, ask fellow travelers as you go, check with locals around the train stations or simply look them up in the phone book ("Gasthof Fritz", "Pensione Bobo"). You may often be met at the train by little old ladies or children offering a room to rent. Most people brush past them warily, but I have found a few nice rooms by agreeing to follow them home if they seem reasonably trustworthy; don't let them lead you into a taxi in which you are expected to pay, though. Normally they should have accommodations within walking distance.
It should be noted that these accommodations, even popular ones, can be thriving one day and gone the next. Guidebooks and even the tourist often will often have dated information, so don't count on a bed unless you have called ahead and confirmed with the family member in charge.
You should be able to find jewels in small towns by simply wandering around, looking for signs in windows. Seaside towns are often best explored this way, and you can find occasional hidden treasures, or not, with a little footwork.
It is customary to look over a room first, and if you are not satisfied with the price, location, cleanliness or anything else, say so. You should not feel uneasy about being honest and moving on if you are not happy.
Prices range from $15 to $35 per person (even cheaper in the east, Turkey and Portugal). Feel free to negotiate on the price, and the extent to which you do that depends upon the country: again, the farther south you are, the more you should bargain. You can bargain down a room in Turkey to a few dollars. On the other hand, consider the family you are bargaining with, and whether the money is needed more by you or them. A discreet tip at the end is a nice gesture as well, if warranted.
A cozy room with a friendly family can really do wonders to cure travel fatigue, and can bring some of your best travel memories. Your fellow lodgers will often be Europeans and you can spend time getting to know them and their countries without the bustling nature of the youth hostels.
Just in case the place is a dump or otherwise unsavory, it's better to only pay for one night and renew as needed. If you pay in advance and want to bolt, it may be hard to find mama, or she may be reluctant to refund your money.
For a while, bed-and-breakfast type accommodations predominated in Eastern Europe, and big cities such as Prague had chronic shortages of budget lodgings. Shortages are still problematic in peak seasons. Tourist infrastructure is coming online all the time but you will need patience while a more official and complete tourist infrastructure develops in the east.
There are a few other options, including homestays and house swaps, which are mentioned in the resource section of the last chapter.
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