Or, the Art of Guesting
When I was a kid, we hardly ever stayed in a hotel, a motel or even a cabin while on vacation. Our preferred mode of accommodation was always to go camping – initially in our trusty TAG-A-LONG, hard-top camper, or later on in tents.
My dad would usually take his two weeks vacation in August and we’d visit our favourite Ontario Provincial Parks: Killbear, Bon Echo, the Pinery, Arrowhead, and when we started going on church canoe trips, the legendary Algonquin Park. We’d hang out for lazy summer weeks on the beach and evening pyjama-clad visits to the amphitheatre to see such classics as The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes, How I Learn to Love Lichen, and advice on how to escape an encounter with a black bear.
Because my mom and I are both August babies, most of our birthdays were celebrated around a campsite picnic table blowing out candles on a homemade, Tomato Soup Cake. It is one of my mother’s classic recipes– and with a brown-sugar icing, it is actually even better than it sounds. And whatever the heck is in Campbell’s tomato soup lets it stay fresh for a week or more without refrigeration. Perfect for camping.
But being the ungrateful third-born child that I was, I always envied the kids who got to stay in hotels with pools. Well, not so much envied, but I was always very curious what it would be like to stay in a place like that.
I finally got my chance in Grade 9 when our family made a three-week car trip out to Alberta . We had taken the “short-cut” through Michigan and faced with three days of constant rain, my parents decided it was too wet to camp.
“At last!”, I thought. “Swimming, here I come!” as we pulled up to a great hotel with a pool.
Not so fast. We actually turned left, across the road from the great hotel with the pool, and decamped at what can only be describe as a rather basic motel: no TV, no restaurant and certainly, no swimming pool. It didn’t matter that I probably wasn’t going to swim the rain; I was still bummed.
“Well,” my mother said in her wise, motherly tone. “At least it’s warm and dry”.
And that became the measure for any place that we’ve stayed since.
“At least, it’s warm and dry”, I now intone as the kids roll their eyes.
To Err, ‘Tis Human. To Air BnB….
Of course, as a kid, I had no idea what anything cost or that part of the reason for camping everywhere was to save money. As a parent now, I’m much more aware of every penny, which is crucial when we’re travelling for an entire year, especially in more cosmopolitan places where our every-shrinking petro-Loonie doesn’t go as far.
On this trip, we’ve had great luck using Air BnB, a peer-to-peer (P2P) website that allows owners to rent out their houses, apartments or even a room or couch in their house. This “sharing economy” website allows you to search by location and dates, and to filter places by key amenities like clothes-washer, elevator or WIFI.
Former guests can also posts reviews so that you can find out if there were any problems; in turn, the landlords can review you as a guest, so there is some mutual accountability. This review system works quite well, and a recent host told me that he finds the Air BnB guests to be much nicer than others who rent through bookings.com
AirBnB worked very well for us in Turkey, and again now in Spain, although there were relatively few options in Tanzania. On the upside, we’ve been able to rent whole apartments with kitchens where we can make our own meals, separate bedrooms for the kids and a living room to hang out -- all for a fraction of the cost of a dodgy hotel in the same funky neighbourhoods of Montreal, Istanbul, and Barcelona. We can also book the flats ahead of time in English and pay in Canadian dollars via a credit card, which eliminates much of the hassle factor.
On the downside, we have found that a lot of the places that we’ve stayed are actually commercially-rented properties rather than private residences. As such, the contact with the host is often limited to handing over the keys and the odd text message. Not so gezellig, I’m afraid. And since we’re often staying in a private residence, we don’t bump into other travellers like we used to in hostels or hotels.
But on balance, it really is the way to go as a travelling family.
More Essential Criteria
The Ruffians have been remarkably easy going about some of the places that we've stayed at during this trip. Some of these hovels have not quite lived up to the "4-stars" rating they had advertised. But having now stayed in something like 30 places since we left Ottawa last August, we’ve added a few criteria to my mother’s list. These include:
- cool: a good night’s sleep in Tanzania often required having air-conditioning, and/or a ceiling fan;
- bednets: essential in places where malaria is common.
- a central location: sometimes it is worth paying a bit more to stay downtown to avoid having to take a bus all the time for every outing;
- more than one bedroom – preferably three, so that our kids can enjoy some alone time;
- a place to play football: although Isaac has been remarkably flexible about this, and has practiced his craft in alley’s and courtyards.
- kids: If a place would have kids for Zoe and Isaac to play with, we’d probably stay in a bus shelter.
Probably the most important additional criteria, however, is access to WIFI. It is hard to imagine that we used to travel (shock!) without the Internet. But these days, we’re online constantly to check the weather forecast; to navigate the backstreets of cities we get lost in; to book tickets for planes, trains and automobiles; to find our next week’s accommodation; and of course, to stay in touch with all of you out there in TV-land. Having WIFI also allows us to download English books from the library back home and to stay in touch with our family via a Voice of Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone.
Again, being connected is a mixed blessing. With the internet in your pocket, you’re never actually as much “away” as you used to be, and it is easy to be only half-immersed in your surroundings. But it also helps you find things and solve logistical issues that used to take up so much time in travelling.
So... here we are (left) in a new AirBnB place in Barcelona. It’s great: warm, dry and WIFI, and even better – an espresso maker in a funky, red kitchen!
Now if only I could just find some Tomato Soup Cake….