Friday, March 25, 2011

Travel Tips: Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part II)

In Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part I), I tackled the subject of youth hostels and described how they can provide cheap accommodation in addition to some really memorable travel experiences.  Growing up, youth hostels were my family's accommodation of choice, but I understand that they're not exactly everyone's cup of tea.  Part II is for those who prefer a bit more personal attention and privacy, but still relish the chance to stay in unique locations and possibly save a few pennies.  Perhaps this segment should be titled 'Sleep Fairly Cheap in Europe" because the pensions and bed-and-breakfasts I'll cover here are usually a bit more pricey than hostels, but still cheaper, and more full of character, than your average hotel.

The quaint pension where we stayed in Valetta, Malta

First of all, you may be wondering what exactly is a pension.  The term is more commonly used in Europe than the US and usually means a family-run establishment that offers private rooms and minimal services.  Most pensions offer breakfast, some offer supplemental full meal service, but a few others simply allow for the use of the room and linens with no additional service supplied.  Usually, though not always, the price is reflective of the level of service provided.  Pensions are often used for longer lengths of stay, though many will allow visits as short in duration as a night or a weekend.  Finding listings will require a bit of detective work but there are sites out there to help you, such as for locations in the Czech Republic, or in Germany.  Often, the best way to discover sites is to simply do a Google search on 'pensions and bed and breakfasts' in the country or city of interest.

Bed-and-breakfasts differ from pensions in that, while some locations offer additional service, it is usually only the morning meal that is included in the daily price of the room.  Some bed-and-breakfasts are basic, but the term is increasingly used by more upscale accommodations because of its connotations of charm and personality.  You should be aware that not all bed-and-breakfasts, therefore, will be a bargain!  What you can count on, however, is a unique experience that will likely be much more personal than a stay in a hotel.  Finding a bed-and-breakfast is a little easier, thanks to Europe-wide sites such as and the International Bed and Breakfast Pages.

As with most unregulated forms of accommodation (this includes unrated pensions, bed-and-breakfasts and private hostels), word-of-mouth and guest reviews are critical in securing a location that suits your needs and will make your stay enjoyable.  It is recommended that you do your research prior to arriving in-country, as many locations will allow you to make advance bookings online or over the phone, which will save much time and possible confusion.  Be sure to check the location (is it downtown? near public transportation? within walking distance of food and shops? close to historical or cultural attractions?) and read any user reviews available.  Policies for changes and cancellations will depend upon the individual owner so make sure you are aware of your particular agreement.

Matt and I stayed in a lovely pension during our visit to Malta this past summer (pictured in the photo above).  During our four days there, we got to know the owner - a 90-something-year-old Maltese woman who insisted that we call her 'Annie' - who gave us shopping tips, sightseeing advice and shared stories from her life and from Malta's fascinating history.  Our visit was certainly enriched by the tales she told as she served breakfast each morning.

Pensions and bed-and-breakfasts may be the perfect choice for you if you're looking for a highly personalized experience and a chance to interact with the locals on a one-to-one basis.  As we experienced in Malta, many owners are happy to make sightseeing recommendations and to help with travel arrangements at no extra cost.

Does the thought of staying in a pension seem sweet, but a little too spendy?  Are you more comfortable amongst the local flora and fauna? Well then keep checking in for my coming segment on camping in the third and final part of the 'Sleep Cheap in Europe' series.

Or check out Part I, where I discuss finding and booking a hostel and the experiences you are likely to have during your stay.

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