I find one of the most enduring delights of travel is the chance to meet new people, and experience even familiar places in a way that’s new and different.
Sometimes, this means eschewing traditional hotels in favor of guesthouses, where you have a chance to interact with the hosts or other guests in a way that would be otherwise impossible.
Sometimes the guesthouses are small and family owned. Sometimes they’re part of a larger chain, that offers private rooms inside hostel settings.
But what they all offer is a shared sense of community. And you’ll usually save money as well, compared to any hotel above the flophouse level. The website Booking.com is a good place to look for small properties, and you can also find them on sites like Hostelz.com or Hostelbookers.com.
Here are five of my favorite places, but if I missed yours, send me an email and tell me about it:
1. Denali Mountain Morning Hostel and Cabins, Alaska. I was stunned at the exorbitant prices for food and lodging around Alaska’s famed Denali National Park, so I was delighted to find this affordable option. Built on a rushing creek just outside the national park, this rustic cabin complex feels like the real Alaskan outdoors without the price tag of the posh wilderness resorts. There’s a clean shared kitchen in a log cabin, where I met scientists doing research in the Arctic, as well as a woman who worked with penguins in Tasmania. We stayed in the tiny Yanert cabin, with one bunkbed and one twin bed, and saved a fortune by cooking our own food. Yanert is $102 per night, which is a bargain in this pricey region. If I ever went back, I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. They also offer dormitories and canvas tents by the creek. Learn more: denalihostel.com
2. “Experience Nubia” Bet el Kerem guesthouse in Aswan, Egypt. Many people skip Aswan when they plan their trips to Egypt, but it was one of our favorite destinations, largely because of this charming guesthouse. The service was more akin to a five-star hotel than a simple house, because the entire staff seemed determined to make your stay a wonderful one. Our room was a little odd and funky, but we didn’t care, because we were too busy enjoying the fabulous rooftop deck, the great meals, the delicious hibiscus tea that turned me into a devotee, and the chance to meet interesting people from all over the world. We were on the “wrong,” i.e. local side of the Nile, so it was an interesting ferry ride with the local populace across the river to hit the main tourist drags. The owner arranged camel rides, guided bike rides, a boat trip up the Nile cataracts and more. He even showed us where we could swim in the river safely. Expect to pay around $50 per night. Learn more: betelkerem.com
3. Vida Tropical guesthouse, Alajuela, Costa Rica. This small, simple house isn’t much to write home about, and it’s not in an elegant neighborhood, but it’s friendly, comfortable and very close to Juan Santamaria Airport, Costa Rica’s largest. We’ve stayed here three times now, on our way to and from the San Juan airport, and it’s a safe, inexpensive, affordable waystation. Last visit, over the breakfast table, I met a woman from Belgium and a French Canadian couple who’d been traveling for a year. After breakfast, they helped us find a taxi to take us up to the nearby Poas Volcano. The rate includes a breakfast cooked to order in the morning by the friendly housekeeper, and also the advice and help of the English-speaking manager. There’s a pocket-sized back yard with a resident bunny. It’s a short taxi ride to the airport, which helps for those early-morning flights. I recommend the upstairs rooms. Rooms around $55 per night. Learn more: VidaTropical.com
4. Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta, Cusco, Peru. When I first started researching places to stay in Cusco, I was taken aback by the prices for cozy bed-and-breakfasts. I wasn’t about to pay $200 per night for a room. Luckily, I found Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta, which is located a few blocks from the main tourist district, in an old family-owned mansion. My two traveling companions and I paid a total $40 per night for a suite of two bedrooms and a sitting room, filled with antiques, and also had the use of a shared kitchen, which came in handy when we needed to make coca tea to fight altitude sickness. The guesthouse was in a modest business district with inexpensive shops and restaurants, too. Learn more: hostelrecoletacuzco.com or visit Booking.com
5. HI-Sacramento Hostel, Sacramento. Now, before you start grumbling that you’re not staying in a hostel, ask yourself this: When was the last time you slept in a private room in a Gold Rush-era mansion in downtown Sacramento? The Llewellyn Williams Mansion was built in 1885 by a Gold Rush millionaire, and you can stay there, near the state Capitol, while you explore the region’s attractions. The mansion has elegant shared parlour, dining room and a huge, clean kitchen where you can cook your meals, or just rustle up a snack. Big front porches have couches designed to encourage guests to linger. And the area is filled with good restaurants and shops. Old Sacramento and the river are a short walk away. Private rooms run $62-109 per night. Learn more: norcalhostels.org/sac
Did I miss your favorite guesthouse? Send me an email and tell me about it, with details, and maybe I’ll include it in a future column!
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