“I’m sorry, Estée. I know you don’t belong here but I need you.”
If there were ever a sign that you’ve been roughing it too long, apologising to your eye gel would surely qualify. We’d been in Samoa for 15 days staying in a mixture of roadside motels and traditional beach fales, all with cold-water bathrooms shared with other backpackers as well as a host of bugs, moths and mosquitoes. As I propped up my bottle on a thorny wooden ledge, I found myself apologising for the impropriety. Estée Lauder belonged elsewhere.
As do I, I thought dolefully. I won’t lie: if given the choice of slumming it or staying in luxury places like I often do as a travel writer, I would choose the latter. (Clean sheets! Hot water! No cockroaches!) That said, there are lots of benefits of budget travel outside of simply saving money. Here are the ones that make it a worthwhile alternative.
You get under the skin of a place
While staying in traditional accommodation, I have been invited to: dinner with a local family, a visit to church on Sunday, a charity horse-racing event and the wedding of a first-born. Nothing like this has ever happened to me in a luxury hotel – not once. Staff at top-tier hotels are always friendly but also masked by a veneer of professionalism. They seem more mindful of decorum; of keeping a measured distance to their esteemed guests. In budget accommodation, the proceedings are far more relaxed. At Regina’s Beach Fales in Manase, Leano joined us at the dinner table, regaling us with amusing stories while we ate – something 5* hotel staff wouldn’t dream of doing uninvited. Budget accommodation stimulates local interaction that would be otherwise unlikely or even impossible.
It toughens you up
In London, if I were to arrive at a hotel and find cockroaches in the bathroom, I would pack up and leave. In the Pacific, they’ve almost become a fact of life. I say ‘almost’ because some of them are massive (massive) and can’t be ignored. That said, I have definitely become more tolerant. On the 12-hour boat journey from Vanua Levu to Viti Levu in Fiji, Peter and I had laid out our sleeping bags on the floor. It wasn’t long before I noticed cockroaches crawling along the walls, occasionally darting across the floor (thankfully not the massive ones, but what they lacked in size they made up in numbers). Resignedly, I lay down and closed my eyes. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had but the mere fact I did it showed I was building my mettle. Add to that a six-hour hike in melting heat, walking with a heavy backpack, waiting for five hours after a missed bus, and you’ll understand why my tolerance is building.
You appreciate simple pleasures
When, on our 16th day in Samoa, we finally had the privilege of a hot shower, it felt amazing. Okay, so it wasn’t a private dinner on a secluded sandbank in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but it was pretty satisfying nonetheless. Budget travel gives you a genuine appreciation for the simple things in live. As I said in Poverty Tourism, it changes your perspective and makes you appreciate the things you have – unlike luxury travel, which highlights the things you don’t have (like a plunge pool in the backyard).
It has a ‘halo effect’ on saving money
We had booked a room for two nights at Elisa’s in Apia. The hotel is made of two buildings: the first, a clean, air-conditioned mid-tier hotel; the second, a basic budget hostel with rooms that reach inhumane temperature levels. On the first night, I popped down to the main reception to ask if I could make a phone call. The receptionist told me there would be a charge. I acceded. After the phone call, she pulled out her big red book and asked me for my room number. When I said it was 11, she said, “Ah, at the back?”
“Yes,” I replied, reaching for my purse.
She waved it away. With a wink, she said, “Don’t worry about it.”
This type of thing, while not frequent, happens occasionally. When locals realise that you are genuinely on a budget and don’t have money to spare, they are more willing to help you whether it’s bartering down more than they normally would or letting you off the hook for a telephone fee.
You get fitter
Luxury hotels with their three-course meals and rich desserts are just killer when it comes to my figure. I’m a Taurean through and through which means I have an almost sensual relationship with food. I love pasta and potatoes and cheese and bread and cake and chocolate.
Budget travel precludes such indulgences, meaning I feel much more healthy on the road. And then there’s carrying a backpack a third of my weight and walking miles instead of taking a taxi – it all adds up. I won’t be getting a six-pack anytime soon but I won’t be getting diabetes either.