Hostel Survival Guide

I made it 30 days in an Eastern European Hostel and came out grinning like a fool!
Contrary to the psycho thriller “Hostel” and also to some people’s outdated opinion of hostels, they provide an excellent and safe option for those traveling on a budget. As far as accommodation goes, they are miles above camping, crashing in your car, or couch surfing. For those of you who aren’t familiar, couch surfing is an increasingly popular activity worldwide in which friendly locals host travelers on his or her couch or spare space for free. Both host and traveler will find each other on the website: http://www.couchsurfer.com where they can view profiles and reviews and decide if it’s a good match. Many people I met during my stay in Belgrade were avid couch surfers, and most of them had great experiences. From Australia to Bosnia to New York City, locals are opening their homes up for free to a traveler in need of a good nights sleep. Check it out!

For a stay longer than a few nights, hostels provide an excellent option, and can be found at a mere fraction of the price of a hotel or short term apartment. The first step is to do your research. I recommend starting on http://www.hostelworld.com where you can search by city, availability, and price point and you can compare hundreds of hostel reviews in one area. Feel free to contact the managers of a few hostels to bargain or ask specific questions regarding your stay. You should also inquire about the type of currency you will be expected to pay with. I came across an unexpected surprise in Budapest when the hostel owners wanted payment in Euros and I only had Hungarian Currency, USD, or Serbian Dinars, and couldn’t find an open exchange office on Sunday. Luckily at my “home” hostel in Belgrade, the management actually was extremely accommodating and offered for me to pay in American Dollars if it was more convenient.

Older generations of hostels were called “youth hostels”. Most people staying at a modern day hostel are “youthful”; however, you don’t need to be a college student to get a bed there. I saw several people in their 40s and 50s while hostelling in Europe, and no one blinked an eye. For today’s hostel; wifi, coffee and tea, bed linens, towels, a locker, and use of kitchen should be the norm free of charge. Anything less than this and you should shop around a bit more. If you’re lucky you can even find ones with laundry service, though in many countries this is still rare. If you don’t crave privacy, you can get a bed in a dorm style room for $10 or so in most large cities. I was even offered a discounted nights’ stay in Budapest in exchange for a positive review on a hostel website, which I was more than happy to provide. I stayed in a 12 bed dorm in a beautiful old, grand, building. The inside was renovated, clean, and decorated in matching Ikea furniture.

If you plan on staying a bit longer, as I did in my month long stay in Belgrade, you can opt for a private room. For $23 USD per night, I was able to get a clean, private, secure room, with all the amenities I could ask for in a perfect location – the heart of downtown. This is a steal compared to any hotel and was definitely worth it. The upside to staying at a hostel is getting able to meet all the zany folks that waltz through the place, staying a few days before heading off to another corner of the world. Perhaps you’ll meet a group of art students in town for an exhibition, or a young couple backpacking through Europe, or perhaps a group of professionals in town for the weekend from London, or a group of university students from Barcelona. I even met 1 American there, traveling with her friend from Seattle, who was a Balkan History major. Not only will you get to link up with all sorts of international adventure lovers and trade travel stories with free spirits, but you can also take advantage of the locals who work at the hostel. These people are generally well versed in the happenings of the city, and can be your best tour guide, offering suggestions for food, entertainment, and night life, and even pin pointing them all neatly on a local map. As for Belgrade, many expats from the country that now reside abroad were astonished when I informed them that Belgrade is now home to dozens of fantastic hostels in the city center. The city has really opened up recently, hosting young travelers and students from all over the world with top notch hostels and being extremely traveler friendly. So if you have doubts that your destination city won’t offer all of this, take a look first. Hostels are springing up all over the globe even in remote locations. Now this is all well and good, but keep in mind it’s a hostel and not a 1st class hotel, so take heed and follow these simple suggestions for ensuring a good time:

• Bring earplugs and wear them. With tens of young people vacationing in your hostel, you’re bound to hear a few rowdy guests returning home from late night debauchery.
• Bring flip flops for the shower! Roaming around barefoot is unacceptable in these types of public places unless you are fine with bringing home an infection.
• Bring a clock. Many cell phones don’t work internationally, and most hostels don’t have clocks in every room like hotels – so it’s a good idea to bring a small clock or watch to keep track of time.
• Lock up your belongings, even if you feel safe. There’s nothing worse than trusting your dorm mates only to find your camera missing the next day.
• Have realistic expectations based on your city. If you’re staying in a developing country, don’t expect 5 start Western style creature comforts.
• Get to know the others staying there, be open to meeting people and linking up for sightseeing and exploring, it’s a great place to make new friends.
• Please don’t be the ignorant American (Canadian, Foreigner, or whatever), by insisting on speaking English and having an arrogant bad attitude – remember, when traveling abroad, you are a guest in that country. Always be respectful and courteous.
• Befriend the people who work there – they will be your best asset in making the most out of your time there and gaining insight into the place you’re visiting.
• Follow the hostel rules, don’t ever forget your keys and clean up after yourself. After all, it’s not your momma’s house!
• If you store food in the community kitchen, be ready for it to go missing. It’s a “common” kitchen and who knows what hungry roommate might be eyeballing your stash of snacks!
• Overall, have fun, go with the flow, get out of your daily routine, and be social! Meeting people from all around the world is one of the most exciting things about staying in a hostel. It’s a good place to exchange ideas, stories, and cultural differences, and to learn about people from all parts of the globe.

At this point, I’d like to take a moment to give a shout out to the fabulous crews at Captain Hostel: Belgrade, Serbia, and the peeps at Maverick Hostel: Budapest, Hungary. You guys Rock! 🙂

Happy Travels to All!

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Don’t make me leave Belgrade!

I leave Belgrade tomorrow and I am so sad.
I really don’t want to leave this place, stvarno. But I have to go. I wish I could stay at least a few more weeks, at least a month, at least 6 months more. Everytime I talk about it, my time frame gets a little longer.
So I wanted to take this moment to say thank you to all the people here who made my stay really significant, enlightening, more comfortable, more enjoyable, or who just made me smile.
For all the people at Captain hostel, Mirana, Dixie, Dusan, and Severin…thanks for helping me with my Serbian homework and making me feel at home!
For all my teachers at my Serbian school, Neda, Katarina, Predrag, and Zeljiko, you guys are a great team! Thanks Katarina, for dealing with my meltdown so gracefully, and to Neda, you are amazing!! Class with you was always a pleasure!
To my other classmates, Natalia, Christophe, and Carolina, what fun we had!! And also to my friend Marta, from Poland, it was great going to concerts with you! Natasha, you were such a great classmate to get through those last few weeks with! And we had so much fun, too! 🙂 Hope to see you all in your own parts of the world at some point, lets keep in touch!
To all the random strangers who offered to help me find my way in Belgrade when I was lost, or offered to help translate for me, or give me a hand in some way, or even recommend a place to go out to. You are good people, Ja volim Serbi. To the guy at the post office who gave me the book, Aleksandar that I met on the street that first weekend, the people at the Kafana by my hostel whom I befriended, the girl from the Grad Ctr who is also a blogger, to the guy who said the Serbs would give me their kidney if I needed it, you guys are awesome and I wish I could stay and foster friendships with you all!!!! And of course, it was great to meet both fellow bloggers I met in Belgrade that are Americans living a Serbian experience, just like me! I can’t believe I’m not alone in this. Wish both of you the best of luck with the rest of your stay here. Thanks for meeting with me!! And keep blogging! 🙂
And to Sonja and Rade, my cousins, thank you for welcoming me with such open arms when we hadn’t even met before. Thanks for your generosity. You are great people and I am so glad I got to get to know you more. You made my stay so much better. Rade, you hooked me up with my DVDs with subtitles, and were so nice to escort me to and from home those few times. And Sonja, you are my favorite Serb here in Belgrade! You have dismantled all the negative impressions I ever had about Serbian women, thanks to a few unfortunate experiences back home, You are classy and beautiful, and I’m glad we are cousins. Thanks for all the endless translations and for being so excited about my visit! 🙂
Also, I must take a minute to apologize to all the people I didn’t get to see, all the friends of family, friends of friends, and others that I wanted to get together with or see more. I wish I could stay 6 months and see everyone! But know that Belgrade welcomed me fantastically! And I really love your city! 🙂 I’ll be back, for sure.
I know I will be back here soon, but it just won’t be the same. Next time, it won’t be as new. Next time I won’t be alone, I won’t live alone, and it won’t be my own adventure. But Belgrade will still be the same. Can’t wait till I return.
Thanks to everyone who finds my ramblings interesting enough to read. Please keep reading! I have tons more material to blog about that I just didn’t have time yet to type up, I was too busy exploring this great city and making every day a day to remember! So please keep on reading, there’s much more ahead…
See you next time, from California! 🙂
Cao!

Budapest in a Weekend

Hero's Square, Budapest

After I arrived at my hostel in Budapest after a freezing cold, sleepless night on the train from Belgrade, I dropped off my backpack in the luggage closet and was out on the streets beginning my day of sightseeing. I discovered a free city walking tour and soon found myself among like-minded foreigners exploring the city. The Danube river flows through the city separating Buda, the hilly, greener, more expensive residential area, from Pest, pronounced “Pesht” by the locals, which is the downtown, traffic filled city center. I stayed in Pest in a perfect location for walking the city. We crossed the Danube on the famous Chain Bridge, which was the only bridge rebuilt to its original Grandeur after destruction. We climbed up the many steps to the Castle, the former royal palace, now empty, to take in the picturesque view, the massive parliament building dominating the landscape. We also saw the gorgeous Mathias church and the FIsherman’s Bastion “castle” before returning to Pesht to learn about the city parks, monuments, and our guides very honest opinion about Hungarian politics and life in a post-communist society. A few of my favorite lines from the guide include: “The government pretends to take care of us, and we pretend to work for the government.” And also, “Tax evasion is a national sport”. At one point we saw a park fence covered in locks with lovers initials written on them, locked on as a symbol of their commitment to each other. During the tour, I quickly made a few friends from Australia that were working in London and taking a weekend break to Budapest. After a much-needed hot chocolate, we all headed to the Jewish Quarter for some traditional Hungarian Goulash, which was probably the best meal I’ve had since coming to Eastern Europe. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling Andrasy Avenue, the Champs Elysees of Budapest, and also visiting the Opera House, Hero’s Square, The Museum of Fine Arts, and finally, the most famed Turkish Thermal Bath in the City: “Szechenyi”, by the Vajdahunyad CAstle. The bath was an open air complex of warm steaming pools surrounded by ancient domed architecture. Old men were playing chess in the water. This certainly gives the impression of experiencing a foreign city, however if you’re a borderline germaphob such as myself, I’d advise you to arrive prepared. I’d recommend bringing flip-flops, a towel, and perhaps a bar of soap for the shower, and oh yeah, a bathing suit comes in handy as well. Seeing as though I had none of these items, I had to improvise, but still enjoyed myself nonetheless.

I returned to my hostel to see the owner giving the guests a sampling of Palinka, which is sort of a Hungarian version of Slivovitza. I passed on this in favor of his homemade beer which was fantastic. A nice end to the day.
The next day I attended a church service at the Magnificent Istvan Basillica Church. This was probably the most interesting part of my cold, wet, weekend in Budapest. The intricately carved candle holders, the ornate paintings depicting biblical scenes, the gorgeous domed ceilings, the ancient stained glass, the marble statues of saints, the incense, the “Holy” water, the lit candles….and the Choir! Wow.
The choir was angelic, and perfectly completed the service, which was full of tradition, ritual, history, and art. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I highly recommend taking a peek inside Basillica if you’re ever in Budapest, especially on a Sunday morning. It’s a spiritual experience.
On Sunday, I decided to forgo the night train, not being able to bear another cold sleepless night in an empty compartment. The trip back, though 2 hours later, was a completely different ride, the train was warm, cozy, with time tables on each seat and even a dining car. This train was light years ahead of the night train I had taken the day before. I spent the 8 hour journey napping, reviewing my Serbian vocabulary, and finishing this piece. Overall, Budapest was what I expected from a European City: basically a living museum with numerous Cathedrals, Monuments, Castles, and beautiful ancient architecture. Budapest is bigger than Belgrade, had a better organized city transport system, less graffiti and less smoking, but for some reason, I just couldn’t wait to get back “home” to Belgrade.
Thanks for Reading!
Cao!

Szechenyi Thermal Bath, Budapest