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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

Hitting Town
The Anxiety of Inspired Travel
Paul Otteson

Is your international travel experience a little… thin? Ah, well, experience doesn't come packaged with that handy Moon guidebook or new purple GoreTex—you have to get it one mile at a time. If the face staring at you from the mirror is that of a travel rookie or might-as-well-be rookie, you're in for an education. But that's what you want, right? An education—a real one. In truth, "education" is an inadequate word for what travel potentially offers. "Revolution" might be better.

To earn that personal revolution, you have to challenge yourself a bit. I'm not talking about the kind of challenge where you head out into the desert for 40 days carrying only a spoon. Just the kind where you include some freedom and uncertainty in your travel plans, enabling yourself to seize opportunity and follow inspiration. To do so, you need to avoid rigid itineraries, overscheduling, and fixed reservations… which, in turn, can lead to anxiety.

Looking at it one way, the freer segments of your trip will feature peaks and valleys of anxiety. Examples of valleys include the low-anxiety activities of snoozing in a hostel bunk or zoning out in the lounge car of a slow train. Stress peaks when you face times of decision-making in difficult situations, especially if the strategies you're used to at home don't work well on the road.

It's no surprise that anxiety and amazement often go together when you travel. Get off the train in Manhattan's Grand Central Station with the wonders of the Big Apple right outside the door and you can't help but be amazed. At the same time, if it's getting late in the afternoon and you don't have a reserved room for the night, that amazement has an edge.

The primary challenge facing most travelers when they arrive at their next destination is finding a place to sleep—a home base. The inspired traveler may not have reservations when she hits town, but she needs tools, skills, and a plan. If you expect to be dealing with some uncertain arrivals as you travel, you should have your own repertoire. Consider some of the following strategies:

  1. MEET PEOPLE WHILE IN TRANSIT—Just behind you on the bus there may be someone who has the perfect answer for your town stay. Maybe he knows a great hostel that's sure to have an extra bed. Maybe she's visiting a long lost relative and thinks you'd be welcome for a night. Maybe he lives in town himself and would be glad to host you. Maybe she's just winging it like you and would be delighted to have an adventurous partner for a few hours (or more). Consider looking for likely confederates before you arrive. Just look around, smile, and say, "Hi, I'm…"

  2. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS—Guidebook paragraph "A" includes phone number "B" which leads to a "Yeah, we've got beds" "C" and on to matching bus schedule "D" with map coordinates "E". Voila! Use the many well known and easily available tools to repair any anxiety you feel popping up in a strange town: guidebooks, maps, telephones, internet kiosks, schedules, gps devices, palm pilots, etc. If it's getting late or it's a touristy time of year, use your tools before you leave the station, depot, or airport.

  3. VISIT THE TOURIST OFFICE (duh)—I say, "duh", but there are plenty of travelers who rarely or never step into these centers of information and assistance. They're found in virtually every airport, rail station, and central district in the major cities and tourist centers of developed nations. They're found in many other not-so-major places in lots of not-so-developed nations, too. In a great many tourist offices or bureaus, staff members not only have information about all the local lodging options, but they can book a bed for you right on the spot—everything from a hostel bunk to a luxury suite to a home stay with a local family.

  4. STOP A COP—Officials feel officious, authorities authoritative. A sizable percentage of people in civic uniforms will help maintain the good order of their communities and their general aura of importance by seeing to it that you find a place to sleep. Not always, I know, but at least, if they steer you anywhere, they probably won't steer you wrong. Besides, the local authorites tend to be attentive to the local realities and will know all the neighborhood options.

  5. ASK A GROUP—It seems to me that when I address a question to an obviously associated group of people, the laws of collaboration take over and answers develop. Groups are not intimidated by lone, needy transients. Do you see a freshly reunited family looking for a cab? How about a group of sailors waiting for their luggage? Walk on up with a smile and say, "Excuse me, but is there a hostel near…"

  6. CHANGE YOUR PARADIGM!—Does it have to be a hostel or hip budget choice? Cities almost always have more cheap hotels, B&B's, guest houses, etc., than they have hostels. The catch is, you might have to pay a bit more. But that's a possibility the prudent spontaneous traveler includes in his plans! Pay that premium for the first night, then find a cheaper spot when you have time and assistance the next morning. Besides, that private room and nicer bed might be just the treat you need.

Okay, but what about if all these safe and friendly options aren't cutting it. Maybe it's too late for the tourist office. Maybe the city is a little sketchy and the transit crowds are gone. Maybe the language barrier is really a barrier.

In fact, maybe the inspired traveler has botched it, inspiring him or herself into a truly high anxiety situation. What do you do if it's late in the big ugly city and you have no place to lay your weary head? There's no nice list of easy answers for this one, but here are some things you might consider:

  1. CAMP OUT—Camping "on the sly" is one of my favorite pursuits, though not for more than two or three days running. Take the last bus to the edge of town and camp in a pasture. Crash in a thicket in a city park, garden, or vacant lot. Don't forget cemeteries, school yards, sports fields, floodplains, and rail yards. If you slip in at dusk and out at first light, who will notice or care—though don't be a damn fool and set yourself up for danger. Don't forget that lots of towns and cities have campgrounds that can usually squeeze one more walker in. Campgrounds are often the match of hostels when it comes to meeting fellow travelers. Nothing that you have to pay for is cheaper. If you have a bedroll on your back, you can always find a spot to unroll it.

  2. HANG OUT—Consider where there are public places open all night, indoors and out. Big hotel lobbies, stations, depots, airports, town squares, all-night cafes, truck stops, hospital emergency rooms, shelters, etc. You can wander, sit, watch, nap, and wander again, throughout the night. Hey, if it's routine you wanted, you would have stayed home.

  3. FIND BENEVOLENT AND CHARITABLE PEOPLE—Temples, missions, monasteries, churches, shelters and all of their relatives may have beds available for the traveler. At the least, there may be people within who will assist you with energy and pleasure. There may be odd rules and expected donations but so what? If you need a place to stay, you need a place to stay. Besides, some wonderful stories may be born in such places. Guidebooks often mention possibilities. Try them out.

  4. CRASH AT THE STATION—I cannot and do not sleep in stations or depots, but lots of people do (where they're not booted out). Just walk through one at night and look around. If you find a spot that seems safe, quiet and unlikely to provoke the authorities, score. Travelers who might otherwise sleep outside head for the stations when it's raining. When I pack a tent, I stay out of doors—it's even easier to camp on the sly when it's raining since you're harder to spot and less likely to be hassled. There's nothing quite like catching a needed shower in the rain at night in a Bulgarian cemetery. I've heard more than one story about station crashers waking up to missing cameras. I'm sure station crashers could tell me some good ones about on-the-sly campers.

  5. GET OUT OF TOWN—If you can't find a place to stay in town, leave. City X may be uninviting or sold out, but suburb A has a half-empty hostel, town B has a nice policeman who will steer you to his cousin's pension, and village C has a pleasant meadow half a kilometer from main street. Best of all, they are all stops on the train or bus lines. You can even snooze as you roll through the night, enjoying the classic time saver of combining transport and sleep-time.

If you're really feeling 'out there', head to the nearest friendly-looking bar, look for a friendly-looking barfly, and make a friend. Who knows where that could lead? The sky might be lightening with the dawn before you even think about sleeping, and then it's a new day. Problem solved!

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com