The realization came at a guesthouse in remote Laos, the kind of place that miraculously hovers inches above the ground on six concrete blocks. I was coming home from a night of desolation drinking. The generators had long since expired and I had only a flashlight to guide me.
A sleepless night on an inch thick mattress awaited. The fan clanked with a unique beat, as if trying to keep up with some arcane drum ‘n bass song that the big-pants people liked in the late 90’s. I wasn’t expecting to see the snake, curled up next to my bed.
“SNAKE! DO YOU SEE THIS? SNAKE! IS ANYBODY ELSE SEEING THIS?”
No one came running. No concierge, no guest-relations expert, no complimentary upgrade or oh-my-gosh-sir. I bravely threw Three Cups Of Tea at the snake, pissing it off enough to do that thing where it revealed, yes, it could stand up too.
That night I slept in the unlocked room next door and decided, well, that’s that. No more of this reptiles-under-the-bed nonsense. I would have to swallow my pride and become a…ugh. Flashpacker.
And so it went for the past year. I hunted online for mid-range deals, becoming an expert at finding better accommodation for twenty bucks more, happy to spend the extra dough in order to avoid the poop-smeared toilets at Hostel Incontin-ental. Guesthouses and teepees only became a viable option when everything else was sold out.
Then my day job went bye-bye, my 401k stopped growing and we all started loudly cursing airport taxes.
I was resigned to travel the world for 2009. That extra $20 per day had suddenly become more important for the survival kitty. Flashpacking went right out the window. I moved back to rooms with lime green paint jobs, roosters under the floorboards and showers with pervy peekholes.
I’m not alone. I’ve been away for three months and it’s startling to see the adjustment that has taken place since I was away in early 2008. Mid-level guesthouses, some only open a few months, look positively grim at night. There’s no hiding it when only two rooms have lights on.
You’d think that this would encourage a shift in pricing but it’s been my experience that they’re holding onto that +$20 rate, playing a game that probably won’t pan out in the long run.
On the other hand, cheapies are packed to the rafters and I’ve bumped into quite a few of my fellow former-midscalers along the way. We’re all bargaining out here, quite happy to remind the owner that his “eco-tourist property” is really just a series of termite-ridden huts, and that his nightly solar-powered electricity will last only about as long as a good lay. We’re politely elbowing for the room that faces the garden and violently face-masking for the bulkhead on flights.
I’ve opted out of guide books in most countries. This week in Laos I splurged for a $5 PDF of the always-dependable Travelfish guide, somehow feeling better about giving money to the little guy and content that I pocketed the extra twenty bucks.
I use hostel booking sites that don’t require fees, rather than Expedia or Hotels.com. I find myself pillaging Kayak and Cheapflights for the best airfaires, then booking directly with the airlines so as to avoid their racking fees too.
I call airline reservation lines until I get the right agent, usually a wrinkled warhorse in Houston or Chicago. She will sometimes hit magical F keys and, after a pause that makes my heart pound, will come back with a “Well, would you look at that?”.
These women (and lispy men named Charles) have been pulling backroom shenanigans for years and are often thrilled to speak with a system-scammer. We reminisce about the days of back-to-back Supersavers and how it used to be glamorous to working the counter at LAX, and now it’s just a goddamned mess. A goddamned mess, I’m telling you.
I know which airline websites will charge me for baggage at the last click and which of their competitors won’t. I’ve turned back towards train travel, knowing at least that I won’t end up 30 miles from town and swallowing an unexpected $20 cab ride. I’m also reading all of the fine print, like when I discovered this week that my Eurail pass would snag me a £100 discount on the Eurostar.
This thriftiness has also made me savvy about things like travel insurance. I’ve spent hours comparing policies on insuremytrip.com and reading about other policies on message boards. I’ve pondered just how much my limbs are worth, since every policy tends to pay out per limb lost (multiple amputations often yield three cherries and a bigger payout).
I’ve opted for a more expensive policy than the one I’ve used in the past because, after really getting into the nitty-gritty, it smells about as good as a post-sauerkraut fart. I’d rather splurge a bit up front than get hit with a thousand dollar morphine drip later.
You know what else? The cheapies are thrilled to see me again. They may not have painted the joint since Carter was president but they sure appreciate the business. Gone are the dour faces and the year of entitlement that follows a rave Lonely Planet review. Conversely, the mid-level employees seem pissed off and resentful, angry that I might ask them to bring down their prices, or that I used two towels.
This isn’t to say that bargains aren’t to be had. I recently caved and spent $100 for three nights in a Bangkok five-star. I locked myself in the room for days, thrilled to spend my CNN time with sheets over 200 count. Checking into a guesthouse the night after, I felt ridiculous for having spent the money, but not for spending so much time being seduced by Anderson Cooper’s dreamy eyes.
Truth be told, I’m having a better time traveling now than I have in years. I’m writing this article from a ‘splurge’, a riverside residence that sits just north of budget. A travel agent in Vientiane tried to sell me two nights here for $100, “breakfast included!”. I pondered plunking down my Visa, and then walked outside to call the hotel directly.
I got it for $10 a night.