how to find the perfect place to stay | A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELLER'S GUIDE
NOVEMBER 1 2020 | IN ETHICAL TRAVEL, ACCOMMODATION
Finding Perfect Accommodation as a Responsible Traveller
I've spent 2 nights in jail in Ottawa.
It wasn’t for being rude, although in Canada that’s definitely an offence worthy of being arrested, eh? I was staying in the old Carleton County Gaol - a jail converted into a hostel! It's always a cool thing to talk about when people ask me about my trips to Canada, and everyone wants to know more.
I'm sure that you all know that where you stay can literally make or break your holiday. Maybe you want to make new friends, but perhaps having a quiet sanctuary to retreat to at the end of a busy day is more important to you. Either way, you have to pick the place that’s going to be perfect for you. If you want to spend the evening quietly reflecting on a day of amazing sights, it sucks to find out that you’ve booked into the area’s loudest party hostel.
One of my favourite parts of a trip is planning where I’m going to stay. I’m that person with a dozen tabs open on their computer, simultaneously searching 5 different sites to find the perfect place to sleep. The sense of triumph I get from finding the perfect home away from home is hard to beat.
I’ve slept in a tent on Hawaii (literally the only way I could afford 4 weeks there), and ended up camping in my car in the rain. I've fallen asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping against the hull of a boat. I've sent a prayer of thanks to the god of earplugs when staying in hostels. These days, I stay where the parking is good! Basically, I’ve tried a lot of different types of accommodation.
One of the other things you should know about me is that I adore interior design. I’m not saying that AirBnB was created just for me to be nosy, but I’m not NOT saying that either! I always love staying in other people’s houses, and I’ve had a lot of great decorating ideas from places I’ve stayed. I’ve even got an entire Pinterest board dedicated to soothing interiors.
In my past doctoring life, I attended a whole lot of conferences around the world so I’ve used a lot of hotel accommodation over the years. Some places were hidden gems, and some left a lot to be desired. Here’s where you get to benefit from my mistakes and see where I look to find the perfect place to rest my sleepy head after a day of really boring work stuff exploring.
So here we go, in no particular order, Cat’s hot tips on finding the perfect place to rest your weary head (is it weird that I’m referring to myself in the third person? Probably).
Finding ethical accommodation with Airbnb
How to stay responsibly with Airbnb
Responsible travel is all about supporting local communities and making sure that the money you’re spending goes back into the local economy. Whilst it’s pretty reasonable to assume that a site built on a sharing economy would do just that, you might be surprised to discover that’s not always the case.
At one point there seemed to be an article coming out every few weeks about how Airbnb was destroying cities, but most of the evidence was anecdotal. The only really robust evidence was recently published in the Harvard Business Review, and this does confirm that absent landlords lead to increasing rental prices locally.
The worry is that there are some places where local people are being priced out of the rental market as a result of Airbnb. How? Well, in a nutshell, big corporations buy up entire buildings and then instead of renting them to locals, they stick them up on Airbnb at a much higher price. It means that there are fewer places for local people to rent, which forces them out of areas that used to be residential.
That, in turn, has a knock-on effect in the local economy. Businesses that depend on people living in a place, not just passing through (think local grocers, restaurants, hardware stores and bookshops), suddenly no longer have a local community to supply. The result? They can’t pay rent themselves, and their business goes under.
Now I know that all sounds rather doom and gloom, but I’m not here to tell you not to use Airbnb (that would be pretty hypocritical of me). Instead, I’m going to help you make wise choices when you’re searching for somewhere to stay on the platform!
8 Things to Consider when Booking an Airbnb
- Where are you going?
- Some cities, such as LA, NYC and Amsterdam, have taken matters into their own hands to ensure that locals aren’t disadvantaged by huge companies taking over the rental market. If you’re going to one of these places then your Airbnb is unlikely to be causing problems.
- Share your space
- Picking a room in someone's house is probably the best way to make sure that you’re not pricing locals out of their own rental market.
- How many listings does the person have?
- Book a place that’s run by someone with only 1 or 2 listings – if they’ve got a property empire on Airbnb then they’re not helping anyone.
- Read the user profile
- I aim to always book with someone who has an actual photo of their face and an “about me” that actually talks about them, rather than their 3 other properties.
- Read the reviews
- The best way to find out if the place you’re staying supports the way you want to travel is to read what other people have to say about it!
- Look at the photos
- If a house looks like a home then it probably is. I know a lot of people who put their places up temporarily when they’re out of the country for a couple of weeks, and their property listings show that there’s stuff in their houses. Somewhere that looks like a hotel probably is, and won’t have anything in the way of cooking supplies, which is a major bummer if you’re planning on self-catering.
- Book a local experience
- These are hosted by members of the community and often there are some really cool things to do. My favourites are cooking classes and walking tours.
- Pay it forward
- Airbnb has some pretty great initiatives that get nowhere near the same press as the negatives. Take OpenHomes for example, where you can offer your space for free to someone who needs temporary housing. If you don’t have space then you can donate to help fund stays for other people.
How to use Airbnb to find the best place to stay
When I’m travelling solo I love the option of staying in a room in someone’s house aka the AirBnB purist method! If you’re going to do this then it’s really important that you read through the reviews carefully. You need to find a host you’ll be comfortable around and that you’re likely to have things in common with.
When you’re looking at a listing you can click on the person’s photo to be taken to their user profile. You’ll find a little bit of information about them here, in addition to any other properties that they’re responsible for. Every review that they’ve received is also on this page, so it’s a really great resource.
The main benefit of staying with locals is that you get insider info about all the great things to do in the area - a recommendation from my host is how I ate some of the best tacos of my life in LA. Some hosts also offer to make you dinner, which can result in a mindblowing meal, like the one I enjoyed in a converted courthouse in New Zealand.
If you’re not a fan of sharing then there are plenty of options where you can rent out a whole apartment, or even a house, ensuring that you get the place to yourself. Although it may not be the cheapest option around, you usually get a full kitchen and laundry, which can be great if you’re on a longer trip.
The listing page has all the information that you need to make a decision about whether you’ll be a good fit for the place you want to stay. Check the amenities section to see whether there are things like free parking and wifi. The sleeping arrangements are always clearly displayed (check the reviews to make sure that everything is as advertised).
One thing that may make you hesitate is the fact that you don’t get an exact address until after you’ve booked on Airbnb, but I’ve always found the little maps of the neighbourhood to be pretty accurate in telling me whether the place I want to stay is in a decent area (I sound like a broken record, but the reviews will help too!).
Always check the cancellation policy before you book since you don’t want to go booking somewhere that will charge you the full amount if you’re not sure that you’ll make it. I also think that it’s a great idea to drop a note to your host when you book to say hi and introduce yourself.
If you’re a first time user then you can sign up using my exclusive discount code, which will give you AUD 46 off your first trip.
The Responsible Travellers Alternative to Airbnb: Ecobnb
Ecobnb is pretty tiny compared to the giant that is Airbnb, but they’re doing all the right things. They have 10 pillars of sustainability, and the property has to meet at least 5 to be accepted for listing on the site. Criteria range from recycling, renewable energy sources and local food to the property being accessible by public transport.
When you search a listing you’ll be taken to their home page which gives you loads of information to help you decide whether to stay. To find out how sustainable Ecobnb considers the property to be you look at the number of leaves they’ve been given. Don’t confuse this with a star rating!
Also on the home page, you’ll find out how many of the 10 eco-sustainability criteria the property meets, along with a map, amenities and reviews. If there’s something listed here in an area that you’ll be visiting then I’d highly recommend supporting this platform for helping properties that are doing lots of the right things.
Boutique hotels for ethical travel
So you’ve decided that you actually want to stay in a hotel. Why not make it one that you’ll never forget that's also committed to a responsible travel ethos. Whenever I mention boutique hotels, people have a tendency to tell me that they can’t afford them. Well, I have news for you, some of them definitely won’t break the bank!
If you want to stay in a treehouse in the Basque Country, an incredible Riad in Marrakech, or a monastery in Spain, then these are the best options for you. Although they may cost a little more than other accommodation in the area, it’ll be for the sake of a night (or nights!) you’ll never forget.
One of the things that I really like about boutique hotels is that they’re small, and tend to be locally owned with an emphasis on money staying in local communities. Although you might not get the same points benefits as staying in a big chain, you can feel better about the way that you’re choosing to travel.
Here are some of my go-to sites to find boutique hotels:
Mr & Mrs Smith
This company only lists places that their team has visited and vetted. One of the things I love about these guys is their emphasis on finding out the eco-credentials of their properties. They also investigate whether their featured properties are involved in community efforts or employ local staff. Each year they award the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards, which champion the most eco-friendly and community focused properties.
Perhaps you’re interested in the world’s sexiest bedrooms or hotels that actually give back to their local communities. Personally, I’d like to stay in every one of these properties that has a cookery school on site.
Sad news if you’re not in Europe – that’s the only place that this family-owned business focuses on. The emphasis here is on hotels that champion all things local. Every featured property has to commit to sourcing the food offered to guests from local, independent producers. It's basically the responsible traveller's dream. I genuinely believe that I am going to source my accommodation for my next European adventure entirely through their list of hidden gems or ethical places.
i-Escape have a portfolio of about 1500 properties, with the majority being owner run. This is great because it means that your money will be staying in the community. I’m a big fan of the thorough reviews that they provide for every property. Properties are categorised into recommended lists. I search the eco-properties first, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I also check adult only (because I like peace and quiet) and dog-friendly (because doggos). There’s something here for most budgets, and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to stay in this place in the Atlas mountains.
If you’re looking for boutique on a little bit more of a budget then this is the company I’d choose. They even have a feature list of more affordable properties that they recommend. It’s a little harder to establish the criteria they use to select their hotels, but the selection is a great place to start.
This is exactly what it sounds like – a company specialising in the most unusual hotels in the world. Although this is more of a search engine than a company specialising in the all-round experience, you can definitely find some unique experiences here!
Paradores and Pousadas
This is one for anybody visiting Spain and Portugal. The Spanish Paradores were established by the state, with the first hotel opening in 1928. The hotels are often located in converted castles, fortresses, monasteries and other historic buildings. The state maintains the buildings, and your room fee is used for the upkeep of the property, as well as making a contribution to the local economy. The Posadas are the Portuguese equivalent, although they are no longer state-owned.
I wish that I had perfect eco credentials, I really do, but sometimes I just want convenient. Assuming that Air BnB and the boutique options don’t throw up anything that I fancy, this is always the next place that I look. Unfortunately, they don’t have any easy way to work out whether somewhere is doing good locally, so you’ll need to use your best guess.
Booking.com have a huge number of hotels and holiday rentals, and if you travel often then you can become a “Genius” which unlocks additional bonuses and discounts.
One of the best things about the site is their excellent filter system, where you can hone in on areas that you want to stay in, check whether there’s free wifi or parking, and remove anything you don’t want from the properties you fancy.
I’ve always found the reviews to be pretty spot on – any property that receives more than 9/10 is usually outstanding. The site will show you popular properties, let you know what percentage of accommodation is already booked in the area (an incentive to hurry up and book if you’re an epic procrastinator like me), and also offers free cancellation for a lot of properties.
The site is easy to use, and they do offer options for flights, car rentals and airport taxis, although I’ve never used those features. Book using my link and you’ll get 10% off your stay.
I think that there’s this common misconception amongst travellers that all hostels are for people who just want to party. Whilst there are definitely some that I would avoid, there’s a rise in boutique hostels. They’re really more like cheap boutique hotels, and if you take the time then you can find some absolute gems.
Hostelworld is a great place to start looking for amazing hostels to stay in. Their annual HOSCAR awards recognise the most amazing hostels around the world and are a great place to start looking for your next wallet-friendly stay. Again, determining whether these hostels operate under sustainability guidelines is a little difficult.
What’s the best place to book accommodation with good sustainability practices?
In my opinion platforms such as Airbnb, Ecobnb and the boutique hotel websites with their filtering capabilities are the easiest ways to find out what options you have for eco-friendly accommodation in your destination. If you’re prepared to take your search offline then the Lonely Planet, Bradt guides and Moon travel guides are really great resources to find out about what’s available. I love a physical book that I can annotate, and I’ve got battered guidebooks from around the world.
Word of Mouth
This is probably the most underrated method of them all! I try to find people who are experts in the area that I’d like to visit and then ask them where they’d recommend that I stay. Alternatively, find tours groups that have a focus on ethical travel and see where they stay.
Intrepid and G Adventures are both tour agencies with a real focus on supporting local. You’re unlikely to have the same networks and resources that they do, so use them to your benefit! See where they’re staying and then put your detective hat on and do some exploring.
Google things like “community tourism + destination” or “locally run accommodation + destination” and see what pops up. You might be surprised at where you find to stay the night!
One of my favourite memories of all time is sitting on top of a mountain at a community campsite in eSwatini and watching the sun set over this incredible view. It’s a place that I only found thanks to Carla at Blue Sky Society who incorporated it in one of her Journeys With Purpose in early 2019.
Hopefully, this helps you to get going with your mission to become a more sustainable traveller no matter what sort of accommodation you prefer! If you’ve got any helpful hints or tips for your fellow travellers then I’d love to hear about them. Drop a comment below or come and find me on my social channels.