Hostels without receptionists? Without security? Without anyone but some lady who comes in once in a while to scrub the floors and change the sheets? Tristan Hicks discovers that flashpacking has been taken to an entirely new level.
My little bike rolled into an indistinct town in southwest Poland about an hour before sunset. I’ve had a problem with running into the “foreigner tax” a few times recently – halfhearted attempts to charge me weekend rates during the week because proprietors think I don’t know any better. So I quit going door-to-door to check prices and now have taken up different strategies.
The best method is to ask English-speaking locals (if any can be found) where to find cheap beds. This doesn’t always work (because who stays in a hotel in their hometown?) but when it does, it pays dividends. Some of the worker housing here is cheaper than hostels in Southeast Asia.
When I can’t find a linguistic cohort, I lean on an internet-translated Polish website which has cheaper offers than the international booking sites. I show up with a screenshot of the dates and prices listed and bam, magically the foreigner tax disappears.
Strategy two was in motion as I circled a commercial building looking for the hostel. 77 zloty ($21) isn’t cheap for Poland, but it’s a good chunk less than any of the alternatives in this town. After ten minutes I found it, a small inkjet sign hung over a frosted door that had a phone number printed on it.
No bell. Knock knock knock. A thin young woman, cigarette in hand, and an elderly cleaning woman answer. No English. Unusual for a hostel. I show them the photo of the price and the room I want. I am swallowed by a wave of Polish and hand gestures. The older woman calls someone and hands me the phone.
“You are at the hostel?”
“Did you make a booking?”
“No. It said online you have rooms available. Can I reserve a room for one night?”
“Okay. One hundred zloty.”
“XYZ website said 77. Can I have the room for 77?”
“Okay. For that price you must book online.”
This was unusual. Booking sites take a small cut from each purchase. Why not just take the cash and pocket the difference?
I logged onto the Polish booking site and noticed there was no button to enable me to pay for this hostel. So I went to an international site which pegged it at 90 zloty. More expensive, but still cheaper than other places in town. My card wouldn’t work though, for some reason. I called the owner.
“My card didn’t work. Can I just pay in cash?”
“That is a problem. Let me think about it….”
“When will you arrive at the hostel? I can just pay you then.”
“I’m not coming. Email me your passport information. You can give money to the cleaner.”
“How much money should I give her?” I was hoping for 77 but expected her to ask for 100 again.
Score! Not sure how I did that, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve accidentally haggled down a price. Five minutes after the call, I received a text message with the codes for the front door and my room. Then the gears in my head started turning. What kind of hostel has no reception? No regular staff?
This system is some kind of genius from a business perspective. A zero-staff hostel is dirt cheap to operate. No expenses if it runs empty besides rent, utilities, insurance and the cleaning company. No paying staff to sit around waiting for guests to arrive.
But frankly, this place feels cold. Most of us stay in hostels not only to save money but to take a break from the road. It’s a social thing. A place to meet friendly staff and like-minded travelers. Without a doubt, the best hostels I’ve ever known were created as passion projects by former travelers. This location is the opposite of that – a carefully calculated financial investment. And frankly, if I wanted isolation, peace and quiet I would just stay in a hotel.
Is this the future of travel? I certainly hope not. Automated hospitality is a bit too futuristic for my taste. Booking online. Getting the door codes by text. Automatic lights in every room. Cameras everywhere. Trying to remember to bring your phone when showering so you don’t forget the code and get locked out of your room. I think I’ll pass on this concept. Let’s hope the market agrees.
For now I plan to relax in my room and think suspicious, conspiratorial thoughts. Although the “hostel” certainly doesn’t have that kind of vibe, this kind of setup could be well suited for stays of the more short-time variety. Why was the owner so little interested in my money? What kind of five-room hostel has a cleaning lady tidy up just before sundown, nine hours after check-out time? Why did the chain-smoking young woman put on heels, hop in a taxi, return forty minutes later in another man’s car and go straight to the room?
I guess I’ll find the answer to this mystery when the hour is up.