Top 10 alternatives to a hotel
How addicted are you to Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy towels? Does room service and a mini bar make you feel secure? Or are you tired of paying through the nose for a hotel room with the personality, human warmth and value for money of a bedpost? I’ve written before about tips for saving cash while travelling, but here’s something more specific: our recommendations for cheap family accommodation, ways to stay that offer something a little different…
1 The Guest House (or B&B)
I’ve always been a bit snobby about Bed & Breakfast (B&Bs). Living in the English Lake District I’ve driven past countless chintz curtains with imaginary landladies frowning behind them. But the rise of the boutique (or sometimes just better) B& has made my ideas outdated; down the road from me in Arnside, No 43 has swept the board with awards and with recommendations from national newspapers based on high standards of service, design and view.
The obvious advantage of a B&B over a hotel is the personal touch of the owner. And some have more of a personal touch than others. On a recent stay at Bracondale Guest House in Blackpool, owners Keith and Neil gave us welcome drinks, organised a game of roulette for the kids, invited us to bring our fish and chips in rather than sitting on the prom in the cold, and sat up drinking wine with us for most of the night. (At the kind of price you pay for a bottle of wine in a supermarket.) They even had a hot tub. And they topped it off with a gigantic breakfast. There are millions of Keith and Neil’s across the world. Check them out before you make the kind of judgement I did.
2 Hosted apartment
Any family with more than two children will know how expensive a hotel can be; especially in a city. And especially in the UK, where I have found them less willing than other European countries to provide family rooms where you all squash in and share beds. Renting a whole apartment can be a much cheaper alternative. And if you are reluctant to lose the concierge service and the free map on arrival, you should check out one of a handful of sites that offer hosted apartments. There are several benefits to booking a hosted apartment. You are renting it from a real person so you have the help of someone on the ground who really knows the area.
Yet once you have gleaned the information you need, then they disappear, leaving you to enjoy their home. (Or in many cases 2nd home.) And it’s a real home, equipped with the things you actually need when travelling as a family. Like scissors for cutting the rind off bacon, snipping at a roll of sticking plasters or removing the price from emergency socks. Like kitchen roll for cleaning bike chains and sorting out wine spills and sick. Like a washing machine for purging the baby’s bib. As eating out is one of the big expenses of travel there’s a clear financial advantage to having a kitchen. And catering for the fussy eaters becomes less stressful. You also won’t have to fight other families for a high chair or worry about the mess. There is room and privacy to discipline anyone who misbehaves, (our toddlers were disappointed to discover apartments in New Zealand had a naughty stair too) and you won’t need to fret about tantrums disturbing anyone in adjacent rooms.
You are usually able to communicate with your host directly, in advance, which is useful for sorting out logistics and itineraries. As well as a comfortable night’s stay, our various hosts have helped us out with booking vans, storing bikes, finding embassies and family friendly cafes, and parking the car for a whole month for free. The facilities available on the premises are clearly listed on the booking sites, with an option to search for what you actually need. (We always instantly rule out anywhere without internet access.) And you can also find yourself in some extraordinary locations. This summer we rented an apartment formerly owned by a former ballerina and papal secretary, overlooking Heroes Square in Budapest. We could never have afforded a hotel in this location.
There are several search sites that offer a comprehensive range of destinations and accommodation. HomeAway is a big player in the market and has been going since 1996, with over 500,000 customer reviews under its belt. Airbnb, invented by two young San Franciscan residents who began by putting up guests on lilos on their apartment floor, now has a foot in the door of homes in 34,000 cities. (Who knew that many cities even existed?) You can rent anything from one room to a whole island through this online site.
If you are planning to visit Europe with your family, one booking site worth checking out is HouseTrip. It has over 200,000 rental properties and a substantial percentage of those are whole houses or apartments. “Our site was started by people with experience in the hospitality industry instead of high tech entrepreneurs,” says Ryan Levitt, Global PR Director for HouseTrip, “And this makes a difference. We have a hospitality training centre for hosts and a loyalty programme for customers – if you book 10 nights you get one free.”
An article in The Guardian voted Housetrip the best online apartment rental site for families. (Airbnb was also recommended.) I ask Ryan if he can recommend a good deal for my family; “Budapest is one of the most affordable cities for a family break. And if you’re looking for somewhere to go this New Year, then Barcelona is great value,” he says. Even at the magic hour on New Year’s Eve this Spanish city can beat other destinations for affordability. “At the stroke of midnight, they eat 12 grapes.”
While admittedly its nice to take over someone’s apartment while they’re not there, don’t rule out a family room in a shared house. If you are a large family you might balk at getting your children to behave at someone else’s breakfast table but if you do your homework first, and check they are happy to have five kids and a toy puppy rampaging up and down the stairs, then you might find you really do feel at home. We are still in touch with our New Zealand hosts from eight years ago who made us delicious apple pie and got us a slot on local TV. And we had the most memorable Christmas dinner in the home of a Finnish family. Yes the children hated the salted fish. But the hot tub afterwards more than made up for it.
3 Home exchange
The best thing about a house exchange is it is free. It also provides peace of mind that your house is occupied while you are away. Did you see the film The Holiday starring Cameron Diaz? She did a house swap with Kate Winslet. There were clear added benefits to that one; ie Jude Law. You are probably not going to get Jude Law thrown in with your deal. Unless you house swap with Jude Law’s wife or Mum. And even then…! But putting Jude law aside, exchanging your home with another family ensures you get a fully functioning family home. It’s can be a bit of a lottery, but if you choose carefully and read the small print then you might strike holiday gold. Choosing the right search engine for you will help; if you’re a broadsheet reader then using The Guardian site may enable you to hook up with another broadsheet reader.
Obviously a certain amount of trust is required between the two parties doing the swap. But sometimes it is good to trust the universe. And some of those it works for are quite angelic about the initiative calling it a ‘life swap.’ Let’s hope not a wife swap though. Anyway there are loads of sites offering to match-make on the house front; try HomeExchange.com or Love Home Swap which has 46,000 properties on its books. Or download The Holiday for inspiration.
This isn’t a bed for the night, it’s an education. There are just two drawbacks; one night is never enough, and farmstays can be more expensive than a B&B. On our last farmstay, at Posestvo Trnulja on the Ljubljana marshes in Slovenia, we hung out with the donkeys and goats, learnt about hemp farming and ate a five star organic breakfast (which wierdly included donkey salami.) It was well worth the cost. If you’re in the UK check out www.farmstay.co.uk
There’s nothing like falling asleep to water lapping under your bed. Not literally! I mean under the boat. And it’s easier to book a boat than you might think. There are plenty of websites that can hook you up with a narrow boat holiday, like WaterwaysHolidays.com. Or you can deal directly with the owner yourself. My sister in law has a narrowboat rental business, and it’s not just a commercial enterprise. Her philosophy is to show people there is another way of living. A carbon lite, outdoor life that most of us might not consider.
Want to go bigger? If you’ve experience, how about chartering your own boat, or joining in an organised group sailing holiday? (Check first that they are family friendly- you don’t want to end up on a booze cruise around party islands with two toddlers and a granny in tow.) If you have money in your pocket there’s always a cruise; there are more last minute cruise offers available than you might think if you are able to go off season. And cruises aren’t just a hop around the Med these days. You can even float to Antarctica to see the penguins.
If you get seasick then one option is to go for a boat that’s moored in a calm place. We stayed on The Joker Boat in Liverpool, which has since been joined by The Titanic and The Yellow Submarine. And a recent online search of The Balkans threw up an old fishing trawler that had undergone a full makeover.
You probably don’t need me to tell you how much the Youth Hostel Association has improved in recent years. After £10 million pound spent on hostel refurbishment it now offers some quality family experiences. You can book a room to yourselves; some come with roll top baths, four poster beds and bridal suites. YHA York even has its own gallery. Their shared kitchen makes them more competitive than a hotel and they aren’t necessarily stuck out in the countryside either. Check out the YHA youth hostel at St Pancras for a cheap bed in London or the Stay OK chain in Amsterdam where you can have your meals cooked for you. But if you do want to get away from it all, there are some incredible wild hostelling experiences. In Iceland, they are an inexpensive way to experience glaciers and geothermal wonders, and at Black Sail and Ennerdale in The English Lakes, it’s as peaceful a night’s sleep as you’ll get anywhere. At the opposite end of the spectrum some city based hostels have learnt from the glamping craze and are offering posh sleeps; check out Liverpool’s Hoax which opened in the summer.
Eco pods can often be found on campsites. Compared to a hotel room, they are cheap, cheerful and basic. You will need to bring your own sleeping bag and camping mattress. We find them easier than camping; you don’t have to spend time messing with poles and pegs and in the rain you stay dry. Ours came with a heater that kept us toasty warm all night. They are also good for kids party sleepovers. Check out these video of our pod party in Silverdale here.
If you like the idea of a pod but want to go a bit more upmarket then a traditional shepherd’s hut is an atmospheric way to enjoy the outdoors. Check out the Herdy Huts in the Lake District’s Langdale Valley. They come complete with wood burning stove and memory foam mattresses.
8 Glamping site
A campsite where you don’t have to put up your own tent is surely favourable to one where you do? There are all manner of these springing up around the world, with all manner of tents including teepees and yurts, bell tents, treehouses, safari tents and even vintage American airstream travel trailers. Check out www.glampingsite.com for properties from Africa to South America.
9 Bunk barn
I have mixed feelings about bunk barns. In the winter, once the fire has gone out, they can get so cold you can’t feel your toes. But on the other hand they are often in some fabulous locations. And you quite often get it to yourselves. We stayed in one for Christmas last year and there was nothing like waking up in a stone building with the mist rising above the lake and a stocking hanging above the gently burning embers of the fire.
In every good top 10 there is always a wild card! You might struggle to persuade your spouse to come, but the kids will be there like a shot and there’ll be no problem with double booking or poor service. And contrary to what you might think, a cave can be a very atmospheric stay. Line it with tea lights and enjoy a camping stove dinner. But do ask first; locals will be able to tell you whether camping is allowed and whether it is safe. One advantage; it is free. And you can be absolutely sure that a bed in a posh hotel will never be free.
What are your favourite ways to stay and keep it cheap? We’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas or your own. Do leave a comment below.