Each time I arrive

You grab your pack from the luggage area and set foot for the first time in some new strange place. What do you do now? Many of us have termed this: “The Struggle”. When you arrive at a new place, you have no idea where anything is located, what it is going to be like, or even if you are going to enjoy what the place has to offer. It may be raining outside or getting dark and you need to somehow find a place to stay for the night. Finding accommodation is my first and only priority when I arrive in a new place. Everything else is secondary and can wait until after I have my room for the night. The last thing I want to do is be in a strange city without a place to sleep safely and store my pack.

Locate accommodations: You are first confronted with a choice: either find the local tourist agency or use your guidebook’s map to find the area where the backpacker accommodations are located.

Tourist agencies are preferable since they have the latest accurate information that is relevant to you. There are a couple of ways to find out where the tourist agencies are located. The first is to consult your guidebook. If there is a tourist agency in the area, your guidebook would definitely have it. Tourist information is usually located in or next to a train station, airport or bus station. The international symbol for tourist information is a green or blue circle with a lower case ‘i’ in the middle. If you still can’t find it, you can always ask someone for directions. If you do choose to go to the tourist agency, travel there as fast as you can. You will be competing for rooms with all of the other tourists and backpackers who have also just arrived.

At the tourist agency, you can ask for a free map of the local area and where the budget hostels are. The maps in your guidebook are very much watered down and do not show all the street names. The tourist agency map is usually a better map that can easily be folded up and stored in your pocket. Most of the time, the tourist agencies have a list of places to stay in the city complete with phone numbers, addresses and prices. This is usually more up to date and comprehensive than your guidebook. The tourist agency can also phone around for you and check for room availability and rates. Sometimes, for a small fee, they can reserve you a room while you walk over to your accommodation. This is a nice feature during high season when the budget hostels tend to get filled up quite quickly.

You can always use the map from your guidebook to find the inexpensive hostels. Often they have descriptions and contact information for the few hostels they checked out. This list is not complete or accurate since the book was most likely published a year or so prior, and a lot of things can change: prices, contact numbers, hostel closures/openings, etc. If your guidebook doesn’t have a map or a write up of the local area, and you can’t find the tourist agency, there are still places that can help you. If you can, find the most expensive hotel in the city, I prefer a three star or higher, and ask for a map of the city. Even though you are not staying at the hotel, more often than not, they will give you a map for free and give directions on how to get to the inexpensive hostels.

Often the locals will try to help the best that they can, but the knowledge of the “cheapest hotel” may escape them. They have never bothered to stay in a hotel in their own city. They can probably point you to a nearby hotel, but it most likely will not be the cheapest.

As the last resort, you can try ask a local, a tout, or take a taxi, but this is sometimes a little risky. A taxi driver is motivated to make money so sometimes they take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner in their city. They can do this one of two ways, either drive you around for a bit and inflate the fare, or take you to a hostel or inexpensive hotel that gives them a commission. Always insist on having the cab driver use the meter. A lot of the time, when they say, “good price for you”, it actually means, “good income for me.”

A tout is a person hired to find tourists and backpackers and direct them to a list of hotels that pay them commission. They sometimes will put you on the right transportation and call ahead and reserve a room for you. This sounds great but you are going to pay for the extra service. If you ask for a hostel that is not on their list, they will tell you (may insist) that the hostel is either full or not good to stay at. Translation: Why would I put you in a hostel that doesn’t pay me any commission?

I avoid taking taxis and using touts if I can. On the way to the area, I always try to notice and read all the signs and shops that I pass. You are going to have to come back this way when you leave. And if you are going to be staying in this part of town, it is nice to get a feel for the neighbourhood and what services are offered and any points of interest.

Choose a place: Once you find the hostel area, walk around. Budget hostels are usually grouped close together in certain sections of towns. It is convenient to walk to a couple of them and compare prices and standards and pick the one that is best suited to your liking.

Check in: When I decide to check into a hostel, I usually pay for two nights on the first day. That way, I am not worried about losing my room the next day and can sleep in if I am tired. If they ask for my passport, I let them have it to take down the relevant information but I always make sure I get it back. I never let it out of my sight.

Get a bed: I prefer to sleep on the lower bunk in a dorm room. If, for some reason, I have to get up in the middle of the night, I don’t want to have to find that little ladder to climb down to the floor in the dark.

Secure my gear: From the top of my packsack I take out my sarong, Packsafe™, waterproof bag, bathroom kit, and sleep sheet. Using Packsafe™, I lock all of my zippers to the Packsafe™ mesh and wrap the entire wire mesh around and secure it to my bed. I throw on the water proof bag around my packsack and slide it under my bed if possible or under the sheets. That way my pack looks like a big back blob and is wrapped up in a steel mesh attached onto an immovable object. I take my sarong and attach it to the bottom of the top bunk, effectively creating a curtain. More often than not, my sarong is still damp from using it as a towel that morning and needs to dry out. Lastly, I unroll my sleep sheet on the bed and stick my shaving kit under my pillow for later use that night. This entire process takes me around five minutes.

Small walkabout: I then take a walk around the neighbourhood. I like to get a feel of my new surroundings. I don’t go very far, just enough to know where some of the major routes are, pick out some points of interest, and generally familiarize myself with the local area. If there is a grocery store near by, I stock up on some groceries for the next few days.

Socialize: When I arrive back at the hostel, I go to the common area or kitchen to quickly make some friends and hang out for a bit. Other backpackers are great to hang out with, and, those that have been there for a few days, can give you some valuable pointers on some good places to check out.