Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where to Sleep in an Airport

The very comfortable overnight accommodations at the Philadelphia airport.

In an earlier entry, I discussed How to Sleep in the Airport. In the entry below, I will review some actual airports as to their sleeping potential. Some of these airports I have slept at myself, while others I have only surveyed.

As I mentioned in the earlier article, the main factors that make an airport "sleepable" are (a) the secure concourses remain open all night, and (b) there is seating without armrests. If you are limber, you can sleep on seating with armrests by wrapping yourself around an armrest in the fetal position, but it's an acquired skill and seating without armrests is far more comfortable. At a nice sleepable airport, you can arrive on an evening flight and simply decline to leave security until morning.

The most critical pieces of equipment for airport (and airplane) sleeping are warm clothing, a light blanket, eye covering and earplugs.

NOTE: If you have check baggage and you fail to claim it right away, it will still wait for you. You might get a call from the airline baggage claim office, but you just tell them you'll pick up your bags in the morning. In other words, free baggage storage!

Here are some specific airports I have dealt with personally. I will revise this list as I gain more experience.

PHL (Philadelphia) - An excellent sleeping airport! (Shown above.) Spent many nights here. The older seating in the B and C gates is well padded and has no arm rests. (A gates have armrests.) Constant CNN and security announcements make earplugs a must! There's a wide variety of food available here at reasonable prices. Only once was I woken by an airport employee—to give me a pillow and foil blanket. Free WiFi™ on weekends only.

PHX (Phoenix) - Another great sleeping airport, with lots of well padded seating and no arm rests on any seating. Food is limited and very expensive so bring your own. Free WiFi™!

MSP (Minneapolis) - I haven't slept here but have surveyed the airport. Looks like a good one for sleeping. Open all night and offers a wide variety of seating and hidden nooks. No free WiFi™.

CLT (Charlotte) - The secure concourses close at night and they kick you out. However, I have successfully spent the night in the baggage claim area (on seating with armrests). A city bus will take you to a Super Evil Mega-Mart™ for supplies. Free WiFi™!

DEN (Denver) - Terminal open all night, but all of the seating has armrests. (Photo below.) As matter of fact, I spent the night here last night! (I'm writing this entry just a few feet away from the scene below.) I eventually found the carpeted floor more comfortable than the seating. (I must be getting out of shape.) Wide food choices both inside and outside security, but generally overpriced. (Big Mac™ is $4.15, but Panda Express™ two-item place is only $6.95.)

The less-than-comfortable seating at the Denver airport.

FLL (Fort Lauderdale) - Secure concourses close at night. An acquaintance says he once slept in in baggage claim, but it seemed too harsh and exposed for my liking. Instead I left the airport and slept on a hidden grassy area nearby. (Sometimes a good option when the weather is tropical and no rain is in the forecast.)

LAS (Las Vegas) - The secure concourses remain open all night, but all seating has armrests. Food is limited and atrociously priced. In the non-secure areas at night, there are usually a few busted-out gamblers asleep, waiting for their flights the next morning. Signs on the entry doors say you can't be in the non-secure areas between 2am and 5am, unless you have a ticket or boarding pass, which is almost an invitation to sleep there if you do. (Still, I would do it only if forced to. Consider the hostel options.)

You probably can't sleep in most small-city airports or in large ones that have separate terminal buildings for each airline, because the terminals close at night. I assume (but have not confirmed) that this is the case at MIA, BOS, LGA, JFK, PDX, SFO and any airport without an airline hub.

In general, a big-city airport with many interconnected concourses is likely to remain open all night, and if it is, you can probably linger within the secure areas without anyone questioning your presence. Of course, once you leave the secure area, you can't get back in without a valid boarding pass, but you don't need one to remain in the secure area once you are already there. (An unexpected side-effect of heightened airport security is that travelers inside security are questioned, since they have already been heavily screened.)

Outside the secure area, you are more likely to be questioned, since the "homeless homeless" have also taken to sleeping in airports. Here are some articles on the airport homeless...
Homeless nudged from airport lifestyle (USA Today)
Airport Homeless: A Long, Pleasant Layover (New York Times)
Clusters of Homeless Settle in Airport Terminals Across the Nation (AP)
'Heathrow is my home': Meet one of the 100 homeless people who live at the airport (Daily Mail)
Google: Airport Homeless
Again, you avoid being associated with them by remaining within the secure areas where the ticketless can't go. Big airports also won't usually evict you from non-secure areas if you have a ticket for a flight the next morning.

When I'm sleeping at airport, I usually have a cover story in mind (bumped from flight, taking another one in the morning, etc.), but no one has ever questioned me or asked me for ID or boarding pass.

At small-city airports, where I know I can't sleep, I will survey the neighborhood beforehand via Google Earth™ for potential camping spots. Small airports often have woods or fields around them. At BHB (Bar Harbor, Maine) I successfully used this method to confirm the terrain, then slept in a grassy hollow a few hundred yards from the terminal. The advantage of camping near the airport is that you don't have to haul your equipment very far, then you can hide it in the bushes until your departure. Wherever there are woods, you are probably going to need a tent to protect you from bugs, but a simple pup tent will do. As usual, you probably want to break camp before dawn to avoid discovery.

I don't know enough about overseas airports to say which ones are sleepable, but the same general rules probably apply. In every big European airport, you are likely to find travelers sleeping in the non-secure areas waiting to check in for flights the next morning. The situation is rarely comfortable, but it is usually safe and might get you by in a pinch. (I did this at the Dublin airport when I couldn't find a hostel.) As long as you have a ticket for a flight the next morning, you are unlikely to be evicted. I would worry a little more about theft however, since anyone can get into the non-secure areas.

A few European airports with big international hubs may have hostel-like "sleeping rooms" available within security, where you can spend the night for a relatively low price. I stayed in one of these at the Amsterdam airport many years ago.

I'll add more airport data here as I collect it.

Also see How to Sleep in an Airport and Free Airport Wifi™.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where to Sleep in a Car

UPDATE (Jan. 2021): See my Car Camping Advice in a Tweet Thread.

In a previous entry, I discussed How to Sleep in a Car—that is, how to physically do it. Now I'll talk about where to sleep in a car—or where to position the car so you are safe during your unconsciousness and won't be disturbed.

The short answer is: You can sleep in a car almost anywhere you would normally feel comfortable parking a car overnight. The primary aim is to not attract attention—from thieves, neighbors, police and security guards.

One of my first experiences in sleeping in the back seat of a car was in Lisbon, Portugal, many years ago. I had rented a car in Madrid—a tiny one—and was touring Iberia, sleeping in hotels and hostels. When I got to Lisbon, I didn't have a place to stay and was totally exhausted from driving, so I parked where I was, on a busy residential street beside a big apartment house. I curled up in the back seat, almost in a fetal position (since it was a very small seat) and went to sleep. It worked! I slept well, and no one interrupted me. All night, people walked by my car, but since I parked in a place where residents commonly park overnight, I was invisible to them. To my knowledge, no one looked inside the car, because they had no reason to.

And what would have happened if someone had looked inside and seen me sleeping? Probably nothing! I wasn't intruding on anyone's space, and no one had any reason to call the police. And if the police had found me, what would they have done? They might have woken me up and asked for identification but probably would have let me stay. I'm a harmless tourist; I don't speak Portuguese, and it's obvious I'm just passing through. What threat am I to anyone?

After this one experience in Portugal, I realized, "Hey, why do I need a hotel at all?" If you have a rental car, you have a hotel!

Almost every city has some sort of ordinance against sleeping in cars on public streets, and most property owners wouldn't want you doing it on their land either—if they knew. The reason, of course, is that if it were allowed, some people would abuse the privilege. They would linger in one neighborhood, be obvious about it and make a nuisance of themselves. No one wants a visibly homeless person living in a car on their street (especially when the observer is slaving to pay for their own home). Our aim, however, is to be completely invisible, which is a whole different game.

Let's say you choose to disobey a local ordinance and sleep in a vehicle where you know it's not allowed. What's the worst that can happen? Will you be arrested, ticketed, fined? Probably not. What is likely to occur is that someone will knock on the window, wake you up, and ask you to move on. That's it!

You judiciously select a parking spot to avoid this inconvenience. If your car is parked in a place where cars are commonly parked for the night, it won't attract attention; no one will bother to look inside, and your sleep won't be interrupted.

Compared to sleeping in a tent or in the open, a car gives you an extra element of security, because no one is going to sneak up on you. If the window is open just a crack, no one can assault you or steal your stuff without making a lot of noise first (by smashing a window). You add another layer of security if you are parked in a busy location with people passing by all night. Any potential thieves will be deterred by the visibility.

I know sleeping in a car may seem to make you vulnerable, but think it through: What are the risks? As long is you park in a relatively busy location and your presence in the car is nearly invisible, there really aren't any.

The key rule to remember is, "Don't park in remote locations." This may seem counterintuitive, because when you want to sleep your tendency is to try to get away from it all. However, if you park on the side of remote road or in an empty parking lot, you are bound to attract attention. Car thieves are going to see this as a prime opportunity, and police and security guards are going to wonder what a car is doing parked way out here. Instead, you want to be in the thick of things, in a relatively busy location where a car parked overnight would be safe and unnoticed.

(The other possibility is to park in an extremely remote location where there is little or no chance of anyone else passing you at night. For example on public land.)

Twice, when sleeping in cars, I have been awoken by people testing the door handles, apparently intending to steal my car. They quickly left, however, when they found me inside it. I have also been awoken by police and security guards. However, in almost all these cases, I was parked in places where wisdom now says I shouldn't have been—where my car stood out like sore thumb. No that I've learned to be discreet, interruptions are rare.

What happens when the police find you sleeping in a car? They may ask for I.D., run it through their database and ask you a few questions. Then they make ask you to move on or they may let you stay. (When they've asked me to move, they've usually told me where I can move to.) What happens when you're woken by security guards? They simply ask you to move off their property. Private security guards don't have the power to demand I.D. Given my choice, I prefer security guards, because the encounter is much less intrusive. Also: Whenever you have contact with police, it creates a local contact record that could conceivably be used against you later. They may let you off with a warning the first time but give you a ticket the second.

If you are driving cross-country, where is the best place to park? Well, you could try the Evil Mega-Mart™. Many EMMs are open 24 hours, and there are usually restrooms just inside the front door. EMM is also a food source if you need it, and a source of cheap sleeping bags, pillows and other camping supplies. In rural areas, EMM is very tolerant of RV's parking overnight in their parking lots, almost encouraging it, so a car parking overnight should be no problem. In urban areas, however, the EMM lots are often posted with "No Overnight Parking" signs, and you are probably best to respect it, because there is usually an active security patrol (the little Parking Nazi in his pickup truck with the flashing light). If you are not sure whether to park there, the key criteria is the presence of overnight RVs, usually in a distant corner of the lot.

Other parking lots are okay if cars are parked there overnight. Truck stops are fine, and certain shopping center parking lots may work. As with urban camping, a site that is secure and comfortable at night may not be during the day (or vice versa), so you may need to clear out of some sites before dawn. (You need an alarm clock to assure this.)

But the most reliable places to park on a cross-country trip are highway rest areas. Here there are free restrooms. There's usually at lot of traffic, which deters random crime, and some Interstate rest areas have active security patrols at night (not usually concerned with busting sleepers). A few rest areas, like many in Texas and Iowa, have free WiFi™.

I've slept in a lot of rest areas, even those marked "No Camping" and "No Overnight Parking" or "Use Limited to 4 Hours." Look around you: You see those big 18-wheelers on one side of the rest area? They are parked for the night, with the driver sleeping in the box behind the cab. Truckers often sleep in rest areas or along the side of highway access ramps, regardless of the posted signs, so wherever you find them, you can usually feel comfortable doing the same. You figure that the authorities won't dislodge you unless they are prepared to wake all the sleeping truckers and ask them to move also.

For example, here's a sign in a rest area on I-95 in northern Florida...

But that doesn't prevent truckers from parking here for the night. (Photo below taken at dusk, and both they and the author remained here all night.)

This illustrates a phenomenon you see throughout society: The law as it is written and posted can be significantly different from what is actually enforced. Often signs and laws are just there for political reasons, to control the dumb mass of humanity or address some grievous abuse in the past. They are tools that law enforcement can use if someone becomes obnoxious, but they may not pay much attention unless someone is complaining. After all, police usually have better things to do than bust illegal sleepers!

Only once have I been woken by a police officer at a rest area. It was in a zone marked "Parking Limited To 4 Hours." The officer simply asked me if I was okay, and that's it. No request for I.D. or anything. I had been there well over four hours at the time, but that didn't seem to be an issue. (On an 8-hour shift, a state trooper doesn't have a lot of opportunity to determine whether you have exceeded the limit.)

Consider the sign shown at the top of this entry, from a Interstate 40 rest area in Iowa. Item #2 says "Overnight Camping" is prohibited. On first glance, that would seem to mean you can't sleep in a car. But now look at #3: You can't stay at the rest area for more than 24 hours. That implies that you CAN stay for 23 hours, which entails sleep. And look: You can stay for more than 24 hours if you have a legitimate need to, like "need for rest." All the sign is really saying is that they don't want you living in the rest area like you owned the place. What does "camping" mean? Let the lawyers argue over it. If you have a legitimate "need for rest," just do it! Isn't that what "rest areas" are for?

When I first started sleeping in cars, I used to hunt all over for the "perfect" place to park, only to have people waking me up and telling me to move. Turns out the perfect place was usually just under my nose: some busy and unromantic parking lot or street side where my car would not be noticed.

Two things that may complicate the parking equation are rain and mosquitoes. Both might require you to drape something over the breathing crack in your window (fabric or plastic). This, in turn, might attract attention to your vehicle. This is something you'll have to work out based on the circumstances and opportunities you encounter. (More than once, I have spend a rainy night under the awning of an abandoned gas station.)

Sure, sleeping in a car is kind of creepy and takes some getting used to, but if you have the skills to sleep anywhere, it can greatly streamline your travels, not to mention saving you a boatload of money.

9 May 2020 — Video from 2015 added.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The World's Coolest Hostel!

Found while browsing HostelWorld.com: The world's only hostel in a 747 jumbo jet...

Jumbo Hostel (Stockholm Airport)
"Welcome onboard the worlds first Boeing 747-200 Jumbo Jet converted into an upmarket Hostel for the discerning traveller! Jumbo Hostel is only a ten minute walk away from the check-in counters at Arlanda airport, perfect for anyone catching an early flight and doesn´t want to get out of bed before dawn to make it to the airport in time. Now you can easily book a night at Jumbo Hostel prior to your departure for an extraordinary experience before beginning of your trip – as well as relaxation.

"Jumbo Hostel offers 25 comfortable rooms with either two bed, three bed or also 4 bed dormitory style. All together, the hostel offers 74 beds; the most luxurious is to be found on the plane´s upper deck which boasts an exclusive cockpit suite with private ensuite bathroom and toilet."
The price for a hostel bed is about US$43, which is high for a hostel, but dirt cheap for Sweden. (Hostel beds in Stockholm itself start at about $30, without breakfast or linen like this one provides.) It's a good deal regardless of the venue!

Also see their official website: JumboHostel.com

Austin Powers, eat your heart out!

BTW: Here's another interesting hostel in Stockholm, aboard a sailing ship: STF/IYHF at Chapman

For the record, I should note that it doesn't matter to me whether I sleep in a 747 or a sailing ship, seeing as I will be unconscious most of the time. While the idea is cool, I don't feel any pressing need to actually stay there. The premium I am willing to pay for the privilege is very low—maybe $10 at most.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Case Study: Free Sleeping in Spain

In May 2008 (before I started this blog), I had a chance to practice my Free Sleeping skills in Europe. I was visiting Barcelona for several days. In the city itself, I was staying in a hostel for about $25/night, which served my needs fine, but I also took an overnight trip into the countryside, where there were no hostels. Being that the weather was fine, I decided to just wing it. I had a sleeping bag with me, so I figured I would work something out.

I don't speak Spanish, and I had never been to the region I was visited, Aragon, so there was an element of excitement to it. I had no internet access during the bus ride (Heaven forbid!) and had no paper maps or guidebooks, so I couldn't scan ahead to see where I might land. It was a little like traveling in unknown lands during the Middle Ages: I would have to work it out as I went along. Western Europe is pretty civilized these days, and I knew I wouldn't be set upon by bandits. The worst that could happen is that I wouldn't get a good night's sleep.

Here is my photo album of my bus trip to Aragon. As you can see, it is a relatively dry land, a lot like Southern California in climate. I was riding on a relatively cheap, government subsidized motor coach from Barcelona, and the bus route ended at Huesca, so I figured that was where I would spend the night. I knew nothing about Huesca, except that it had a population of about 50,000. Having no maps or tourist info, I would have to learn the layout of the place on the fly. (Actually, that can be a very pleasant way to travel! Sometimes, we drown ourselves in too much information.) As the bus approached the city, I took careful note of the landscape. I was looking for a patch of overgrown land within walking distance of the bus station in the city center.

European towns and cities are extremely dense in the center, which arises from their medieval roots. Without transportation other than foot, early residents would cluster together in a thick mass with only narrow streets between them. There is no wild greenery near the center of the average European city so there would be little chance of Free Sleeping in the town itself. However, in medium-size cities like this, the countryside can be very close, often within walking distance. Away from the major metropolises, there are fields and hills where it is usually easy to find a nook to sleep in.

As we approached Huesca, the bus crossed a bridge over the railroad tracks. On one side, looking up the tracks, was the dense city center, but in the other direction were open fields and farms. I knew, then, that I had a strategy: I would find the train station and follow the railroad tracks out of town, under the bridge I was crossing, until I found enough greenery to sleep in.

It was late afternoon when the bus let me off at the Huesca train station (which happened to be the terminus for the bus). I took my backpack and my small rolling suitcase and headed down a road running parallel to the railroad tracks. Sure enough, less than a mile from the train station and just after the bridge, I found what I was looking for: a piece of overgrown field, about 100 feet wide, between the road and a ploughed farm field. It wasn't much, but the grass was tall enough here to hide me from the road, at least at night. I left my suitcase here (containing mainly my sleeping bag) and I walked back to Huesca to tour the old part of the city.

When I came back after dark, my suitcase was just where I left it. I didn't have any ground cover, so I used some newspapers I filtched from the trash at the train station. The matted grass underneath me provided adequate padding. (See Requirements of Sleep.) For a pillow, I used some rolled up clothing.

My next problem, though, was the anticipated Attack of the Mosquitoes. The only camping gear I had with me was a lightweight mummy-style sleeping bag. This would get me through the relatively warm night (probably in the 60s). However, I had no defense against mosquitoes (ubiquitious the world over). I had no tent, no mosquito netting and no repellent. The ground was damp and there was an overgrown stream a few feet away, which seemed like a perfect breeding ground for the critters. Mosquitoes may be small, but they have the power to thoroughly disrupt your night. They are the main reason for using a tent in the summer. I expected the worst, but I had nothing to lose by trying. At least I might get a little sleep between attacks.

I can survive a night with little or no sleep. I've done it before, and as long it is bracketed by solid sleep the night before and the night after, it doesn't usually disrupt my travels. The big problem of not sleeping is just passing the time. It's an exquisite hell to not be able to sleep and not be able to go anywhere either because the sun hasn't come up. Your brain is so frazzled that you can't get anything done on the computer, so you don't have any choice but just watch the clock tick by. Just one or two mosquitoes buzzing around your head will do this to you.

Turns out, there wasn't a problem at all. I lucked out! Not a single mosquito visited me that night (I'm not sure why.), and I had a blissful night's sleep I remember nothing about. I awoke fully rested just after dawn. I packed my sleeping bag back into the suitcase, wheeled it back to the train station and continued my journey. Cost of my night in Huesca: €0 ($0).

What did I learn from the experience?
  1. Always bring a small vial of mosquito repellent. This is available for about $3-4 at the Evil Mega-Mart™ in the States, but like most camping gear it is very difficult to find in Europe.
  2. You can guess at conditions at your destination based on theoretical analysis, but you have to actually go there before can be sure what the conditions will be. (Re: My prediction that the mosquitoes would be bad.) Only reality counts!
  3. Bring a small tarp when you can. It has multiple uses including as a ground cover and protection from light rain.
Other than than, I feel confident that I can land in any European city in the summer with just a sleeping bag and get by (as long as there's no rain in the forecast). It's an adventure. It gets you back to your medieval roots where people walked from town to town on foot and seemed to make do.

Hostels are still the way to go when wandering Europe, but I'll gladly camp again if the opportunity arises.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Things You Don't Need: Indoor Plumbing

An entry today on our sister blog is also relevant to this one...

Indoor plumbing and standardized community sanitation have certainly improved the health of mankind overall, but their necessity in your own life may be overrated. This blog article provides some work-arounds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Return to Camp Site Beta

This morning I made my bed. Aren't you proud of me? This is something I don't normally do, mainly because I don't really own a bed or a place to put one. Even when I did have a bed in a conventional home, I rarely made it, because there were too many more important things to do. Once I got out of bed in the morning, it remained that way until I went to bed at night.

I made my bed this morning for practical reasons. My secret campsite on a hilltop in San Diego is so secure and remote that I feel that I can leave my air mattress in place all day without it being disturbed by anyone. I see no reason to deflate the mattress in the morning only to reinflate it at night. (I use a battery-operated pump for this, but it still takes time.) Since the risk of discovery is remote, I simply leave my air mattress where it is, on the tarps I use for groundcover. I am concerned about sun damage, however. The mattress cost me only about $12 at the Evil Mega-Mart™ but I want to get the most use I can out of it, so I wrap it in blankets when I leave. Voilà—a made bed!

My bedroom is shown above. This photo is part of a full album of scenes from Camp Site Beta which I invite you to tour...

Camp Site Beta (20+ photos)

Rather idyllic, don't you think? As discussed previously on this blog, Camp Site Beta is my second gypsy camping location in San Diego. Unlike Camp Site Alpha, which lasted me only six nights, Camp Site Beta is remote and secure and I can stay there virtually indefinitely. That's right, I've found it: The perfect place to live for free for as long as I want!

Since my last dispatch from San Diego a month and half ago, I have returned to Camp Site Beta three times, for a total of about ten nights. I had expected to stay here longer, but "work" and other missions kept calling me elsewhere.

(Let's see: I drove twice across the country from Buffalo to Las Vegas, drove twice from Miami to North Carolina and once across the southern edge of the country from California to Florida. I passed through Key West and camped in a field near Wal-Mart in Florida City. I slept on a lawn near the Fort Lauderdale airport. I spent several nights in a storage unit in an undisclosed location. I spent several nights with relatives in Boston and Florida and a night with friends in New York City. Oh, and I popped over to Paris (France, not Las Vegas), spent one night on the plane and two nights in a Montmartre hostel and also scouted out some Free Sleeping locations, a la français, for possible future use. I spent two nights in the Phoenix airport plus the nights at Camp Site Beta. That should account for it most of it! This intense but painless travel is possible only due to my one-in-a-million Magic Airpass, but I couldn't have done it I was held down by a conventional home.)

"Camp Site Beta," as I define it, refers to both a vast area of undeveloped land and a specific camping location on that land. The general location is known locally as "East County"—the suburbs east of the city of San Diego. This area consists of approximately 50% developed land and 50% mountainous open space. I don't know yet who owns the undeveloped land, but I assume it is some government entity, like the BLM or the State of California (otherwise, it would already be developed). The land is so vast, going on for miles and miles, that if keep a low profile, I know I can stay forever.

Once I have identified the existence of this land, the next question is where to sleep on it. This decision is made based on operational requirements. The site has to be accessible to public transportation, with a reasonable commute time to the college library where I compute, yet it should also be remote enough that I can feel secure sleeping there night after night and caching my camping gear there when I leave town for weeks at a time.

When you're sleeping, you are, by definition, unconscious and vulnerable. I am not so cynical to think that anyone who stumbles upon me is a danger, but the best security is no chance of human contact at all. I need this campsite only for sleeping, nothing else. I go there, take care of my dreaming business, then leave. As you can see from the photos, Camp Site Beta could be seen as quite scenic, on a hillside strewn with huge boulders with a panoramic view of the valley below. It is the sort of view home buyers would pay top-dollar for, but that's not a factor in my selection of the site. All I care about is my health, safety and getting a good night's sleep.

To obtain this Nirvana, I have chosen a campsite deep inside this land, near the top of a hill that requires a strenuous 20 minute hike to reach. My nightly hike from the bus stop is about 1/2 mile and climbs about 300 feet. (It's about one-third of a Tikaboo if you speak that language.) There's a preexisting trail I follow, but it is very rough, and at a certain point I depart from the trail to a virgin location among the rocks where I have my gear. The trail is difficult enough to follow during the day, but I do it at night (with a flashlight). There is virtually no chance of anyone coming up here at night except me. The long, difficult hike not only separates me from human contact; it also gives me a rigorous daily aerobic workout, so I don't feel I have to work out at the gym. (I just go there to shower.)

One of the nicest amenities of my remote site is that I can sleep as long as I like in the morning. I don't feel that I have to break camp before dawn as I would at a more urban location. I can also leave my air mattress in place, which I would never do elsewhere. When I cache my equipment here, I know I can leave it for weeks and it won't be disturbed.

Aren't I afraid to be out there in the wilderness at night all alone. I often think about that as I am hiking up at around 10 pm. All around me are ghostly rock formations and shadowy bushes that anything could be lurking behind. I think to myself, "Wow, twenty years ago I might have been really nervous about this!" What has happened in the past twenty years is that I've spent a lot of time in the desert, so I know everything out here.

Aren't there ticks, spiders, scorpions, snakes and other sharp and poisonous things? Aren't there creatures that would have me for dinner? Not really. Surprisingly, there is not a lot of dangerous things in the desert. Anything that would hurt you, like rattlesnakes, would much rather get away from you if given the chance. In all my years in the desert, I have seen live rattlesnakes only twice. (Once was a little one near Area 51 and another was a big fat one near the HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles.) Snakes want to get away from you, recognizing you as a big warm creature that could crush them. They don't crawl into your sleeping bag! My evasion strategy is to always see where I am putting my hands and feet before I do it.

There are coyotes passing through the area, no doubt feasting on the domestic cat population, but I'm bigger than them and they know it, so there's no issue there. (Coyotes can make a horrible racket though—with all their howling—and I sometimes have to tell them to tone down the party.) There are no mosquitoes here, since there is no standing water from them to breed in, and I haven't encountered any other biting or stinging insects. Nonetheless, I carefully inspect my camping equipment every night for invaders. The worst I have seen so far is snails.

SOMEBODY has been chewing on the edge of one of my tarps when they are rolled up and cached among the rocks. I don't know who it is or what kind of nutritional value they could be getting out of it, but I'm willing to let it go as long as it stops.

There is plenty of evidence of human visitation here, but it is relatively rare. As you can see in the photos, graffiti artists find the big rocks irresistible, but they seem to come here only during the day. The relative lack of trash (apart from paint cans) means they don't come here to party, just to make their mark. I am unlikely to cross paths with them because I'm here only at night and shortly after dawn. The worst they could do is mess with my camping equipment. However, it is worthless to them, and given the long hike back to the road, they are unlikely to steal it. If they did I could reconstruct it quickly.

Serial killers? I haven't encountered any so far. Frankly, this area would be slim pickings for them compared to, say, a good sorority house at Partyville College. I've never encountered ANY humans at Camp Site Beta (only seen the tents of some other Free Sleepers who live close to the road). Things might change in the summer, but for now, hundreds of acres of land are all mine.

I could die of a heart attack and no one would find my body for months, but that's true of a lot of places. I have left my GPS coordinates with a family member should corpse retrieval be required, but by all measures I'm healthy and not planning on sudden death.

The only real danger—a significant one—is falling and seriously hurting myself on the steep trail. I'm counting on my BlackBerry™ to get me out of that one: I'll dial 911 if I am truly disabled. If I'm knocked unconscious? Oh, well, I guess I'm a gonner, but you gotta die somehow. Once you have eliminated all reasonable risks, you can't live in fear of the rare and exotic ones.

Probably my greatest enemy at Camp Site Beta is the weather. Arguably, San Diego has the best weather in the country, but it does have it. There can be periods of rain and wind when camping is a challenge. Every day I look at the weather report and decide whether camping is feasible that night. If it looks uncomfortable, I might pursue an alternate plan. Lately, that plan has simply been to flee town for better weather elsewhere, since I have the ability, but if I didn't have that option I might rent a car or spend a night or two at a hostel.

I wouldn't say that I "live" at Camp Site Beta. I merely sleep there when my missions don't take me elsewhere. My stay there doesn't usually extend more than a half-hour on either side of the sleep function. As soon as I'm awake and mobilized, I'm heading down the hill to the bus stop. I buy my $5 daily transit pass on the bus, then I might go to the health club for a shower or go directly to the college library to start writing. Since I always have projects I'm working on, I have little time for anything else.

It's Heaven!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bus and Rail Passes

While researching the previous entry, I stumbled upon my old friend, the Greyhound Discovery Pass™. It's been at least 25 years since I last used him but the price has hardly changed: $299 for 15 days of unlimited travel anywhere in the United States and Canada. No better travel deal can be found anywhere on the planet!

The best way to see America is still by car. The trouble with buses and trains is that they often whiz by places you want to explore and you can't take spontaneous excursions off the main route, but if I were a student traveler who wanted to see a lot of the country in a short time, this bus pass is the way to go. It will navigate you between hostels and provide backup accommodations where there aren't any.

Back in my youth, I bought several Greyhound bus passes, usually spending nearly the whole 15 days on the bus. Not your idea of Paradise? Well, if the whole country is virgin territory to you, each new city is exciting, and the adrenalin keeps you going. I used to plan out my my trips with an engineer's precision so as to take Greyhound for everything it was worth. You'd think with the past 25 years of airfare wars and fuel spikes, the old 'Hound would have been bitten the dust by now, but it keeps chugging along—aided, no doubt, by its monopoly position in most of the country. It can't be making much money on these bus passes or on cross-country trips, but it is probably doing well on short hauls where air travel doesn't work and it holds all the cards.

On Greyhound, you whiz by all the roadside attractions, but at least you get a good overview of the country, and you aren't distracted by driving. The front seat is the primo one if you can get it.

An Amtrak Railpass is still available ($389 for 15 days), but it isn't truly "unlimited" (only 8 segments allowed on the 15 day pass) and the routes and schedules have dwindled to the point where it is just the skeleton of a rail system. An Amtrak journey might make a good vacation, but it won't give you anywhere near as many options as bus. You also see tend to see more from the bus (especially if you can get that front seat), because buses travel more varied routes.
A Pet Peeve (if I may digress): Have you noticed that on all those travel shows about train travel, they are always showing the train FROM THE OUTSIDE? Here's the train crossing a dramatic canyon. Here it is skirting the coast. Now we see the train FROM THE AIR as it threads through the mountains. It makes the journey seem so epic and grand, but if you actually take a train trip, here's a clue: YOU'RE TRAPPED ON THE TRAIN! You don't see all those sweeping vistas. You can either look out one side or the other, often through dirty glass. Short train trips can be fun, but for long hauls, it's just another form of transportation: It either gets you there at a reasonable price or it doesn't. If you want romance, buy the video.
In Europe, the old standby used to be the Eurail Pass. Twenty years ago, it was the way to go for North American students on a budget, but its luster has faded. It has gotten too expensive while the number of low-price alternatives has expanded. Today, the 15-day Eurail pass is roughly $449 for "youth" under 26 and $689 for adults. That's train robbery considering the availability of dirt-cheap air and bus services in Europe. Eurolines™ offers all-Europe bus passes for considerably less than the Eurail Pass, but you might be better to just go point-to-point, shopping the internet for cheap air and bus fares and buying them as needed. That gives you more flexibility, lets you change modes (road-rail-air) and allows you to dally in each city for as long as you like.

If I was traveling in Europe for two weeks or more, that's probably what I would do. I would reserve my first hostel at my entry city, stay there as long as it interested me, then do on-line research from there to decide what my next leg should be. (My first online stop would be RyanAir™ to see what ridiculously low airfares they are offering.) Since my own budget is microscopic and I have already seen the main tourist traps, my own journey is likely to be dictated by price. To get to the countryside from a gateway city, there are often some government-subsidized bus routes that are quite cheap, and I have only begun to explore those.

Britain is atrocious! The Eurail Pass doesn't work there, and rail prices are astronomical, enough to blow your budget in an instant. Even a single ride on the Tube will set you back a king's ransom. The only affordable options there are bus and air.

Or, hey, how about a bicycle! I'm serious! In nearly every tourist center, you can find reasonably priced bike rentals, and a bike can give you an angle on a city that you'd never get to on foot or public transit. It's almost better than a car because there is no traffic or parking problems. The $15-20/day might be well worth it!

I've rented bikes for day trips from the hostel, but someday I might try a multi-day trip. It would be a challenge. If you just get on a bike in some foreign city and start peddling, with minimal gear, where would you sleep? That would push Free Sleeping to the limit!

Yours truly in Madrid.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hostels DO Fly in America!

I'd like to retract an observation I made in the previous entry on hosteling: "The concept really doesn't fly in America." Turns out I was wrong. Americans might not choose to use them, but the hostels are there!

A scan of HostelWorld reveals there are far more hostels in the United States than I thought. For New York City alone, HostelWorld lists 47 of them! That's comparable to a European city. There tend to be more restrictions, however. Some require a passport and out-of-state ID, and I am miffed to find that a few won't accept people over 40. (What's the rationale for that? Are we too wild and crazy?)

The bottom line, though, is that you can hostel in New York as easily as in Paris or London, albeit at slightly higher prices (especially considering the 13% city tax). That's a blessing, because New York is otherwise difficult for budget travelers. (The hostel options in New York were very limited in the 1980s, when I stayed at a very creepy one in Mid-Town.)

How about the rest of the country? There are 4 in Chicago, 13 in San Francisco, 7 in Miami, 18 in Los Angeles, 7 in Washington, DC, 5 in Anchorage and 8 here in San Diego. And the list goes on.

Well, I guess that blows away my original thesis. Apparently hostels DO fly in America!

That certainly wasn't the case in the 1980s. Back then there were the AYH hostels and little else (American Youth Hostels, now Hosteling International-USA). I wonder if HostelWorld can take credit. A traveler with a bus pass can apparently do very well in America. There are some significant gaps, and there will probably be long stretches of Middle America where you'll be sleeping on the bus, but it looks like you'll find berths in most of the major cities.

You learn something new every day! I was going to rant about flaws in the American character that prevented hostels from taking hold here, but that's moot now. (I never miss a chance to dis' my country!)

Maybe flaws in the American character prevent Americans from using hostels here. I'll bet the bulk of the guests at American hostels are foreigners who are accustomed to hosteling elsewhere. You haven't heard about hosteling in America, have you? Apparently, that's because it does no advertising and the mainstream media rarely mentions it. Your average American just wouldn't think of it.

But now I've let the cat out of the bag! If you thought you couldn't visit New York City because you can't afford a Manhattan hotel, now you have an option. Now it's up to you whether you can adapt to the hosteling lifestyle.

Update April 12

Now that I know about all the new hostels in the U.S., will I use them myself? I might, but probably not often. Even at $30 a night, the cost adds up. That's over $900/month, about the same as an apartment of my own (which I can't afford). In the U.S., I can usually get a rental car for $30, which gives me both a place to sleep and transportation, so that's what I would probably choose when camping doesn't work.

In San Diego, for example, the weather is usually good, and you can't beat the $0/night I pay at my Camp Site Beta. When the weather turns bad, however, I might be forced into alternate accommodation. My first option is to flee town; the second is to rent a car, and the third would be to use a hostel.

In Europe, the environment is a little different. Rental cars are much more expensive and often less useful than public transportation. Hostels seem a little cheaper and provide free WiFi™, which I can get for free in the States but that you have pay money for in Europe.

Still I could use U.S. hostels for special fill-in situations when I can't camp or find a cheap rental car. (I used them a lot in my student days when I couldn't rent a car.)

How to Sleep in a Hostel

A relatively spacious room with only four beds in the Square Caulaincourt Hostel in Montmartre (the heart of the Paris tourist district). My rent (3/09): €22.50/night (about $29).

When I am traveling in Europe (always on a microscopic budget), I sometimes camp in fields or sleep in rental cars, but mostly I stay in hostels. For the uninitiated, a hostel is shared bunkroom accommodations for a very low price, generally $20-35/night. The concept really doesn't fly in America, but it thrives overseas. For me, it often means the difference between traveling and not traveling, because there's no way I can afford a standard hotel room.

For the benefit of naïve Americans, I'd like to go through the basics of what a hostel is and how it works. (You can also check out my tour of a Typical Hostel in Lisbon.)

Generally speaking, Americans are creeped out by the idea of shared accommodations. 90% of the Americans I know seem uncomfortable with the concept and would probably freak out even worse at the reality. In most cases, you are spending the night in a room full of strangers, sometimes even of the opposite gender. How do you protect your stuff? Where do you change clothes? It seems so strange—and dangerous! There's a horror movie franchise about gruesome killings at a hostel and no doubt a porn movie or two, yet in practice it all works quite well once you are used to it.

Americans think they need a huge dedicated space all to themselves, with antiseptic sterility, a mint on their pillow, distant staff and minimal human interaction. Suit yourself! If you insist on traveling First Class everywhere (or even Second Class) you're not going to see much of the world.

Back when I first started hosteling in the 1980s, most hostels were non-profit, run by local hosteling associations. You would travel with your hosteling membership card and your hostel directory and would follow the book's instructions to the one hostel in each major city. Reservations were awkward and usually had to be made by mail. If you didn't have one, you just prayed they would have space for you.

The internet has changed all that. Now there are a number of hostels in every major city, most of them for-profit businesses. The price hasn't changed much, but the variety of options has expanded dramatically. Now you can make an on-line reservation as late as the day before and be assured a bed. Just to know you'll have an economical place to stay relieves an enormous worry of traveling to a new country.

The major catalyst for the change is a website called HostelWorld.com. Check it out! This is the primary worldwide website for researching and reserving hostel beds. It is an example of the best things the internet can do! Not only can you look up hostels and reserve a bed, but you also get unbiased reviews from people who have recently stayed there. HostelWorld has also become the de facto policing agency for hostels, since travelers will avoid places with bad reviews from other travelers.

HostelWorld has actually created hostels where none previously existed, because it gives small hotels the means to market dorm accommodations. It has also encouraged entrepreneurs to turn just about any space into a hostel. Often hostels are located in the floors above shops or down hidden alleys. Hostels aren't particularly pretty to look at, but they're usually clean, safe and centrally located, and can be much friendlier than a hotel. They efficiently accomplish the job done of giving you a place to sleep, recuperate and plan your next move.

HostelWorld lists both the traditional non-profit hostels (under the umbrella of Hosteling International) and the newer for-profit ones, and no one who runs a hostel can afford not to be on it. From the individual hostel listings, you'll get far more information than you'll ever find about any traditional hotel. In my mind, this obviates the need to carry any kind of travel guidebook with you. (Why carry Lonely Planet™ or Let's Go™ when you can look up everything you need on the internet?) As long as you have a good hostel to stay in, you can decide where to go from there by asking other travelers or by using the hostel's wifi or computers to look things up.

Why don't hostels work in America? Maybe it has something to do with our relentless profit drive, our poor management of personal space or our destructive nature. If you opened a European-style hostel in an American city and didn't put restrictions on it (like limiting it to foreigners or college students), it would soon be overrun by druggies and lowlifes from the surrounding neighborhood and crime would overwhelm it. That's not the case in Europe, where people are used to living cheek-to-jowl and are relatively civilized about it (save for the Brits arriving for soccer matches).
STOP PRESS! After a survey of HostelWorld, I've revised my position in the next entry: Hostels DO Fly in America!
What does a hostel look like? That can vary widely. Typically, it's a small converted hotel. The management has turned all or some of the hotel rooms into dorm rooms by replacing the single bed with several bunk beds. (HostelWorld will tell you how many people per room.) From a business point of view, this can be quite crafty. Yes, the owner is only getting only $20-35 per bed, but if he can pack six people into a room, it could be more profitable than two people at the full rate.

Hostels can also occupy just about any other kind of space. In Stockholm, there's a hostel in a 747 jet, on a sailing ship and in a prison. You can stay in lighthouses in Northern California, New Brunswick or Ireland or in a "UFO" in Ireland. Most hostels, however, are not nearly so dramatic. A typical commercial hostel might be on the 2nd floor of a retail block in a city center (like the hostel in Toronto where I am writing this).

So, are you prepared to sleep on a bunk bed in a room with five strangers, possibly on the top bunk? Just getting into the top bunk might be a challenge (as you can see from the photo from Paris at the top). You might have to relearn the skill from your youth, but if you can do it, you might save enough money to travel longer than you normally would.

They don't call them "youth" hostels anymore, although the demographic is generally skewed toward travelers in their 20s. Retirees use them as well as mid-lifers comme moi. You have to have the "young" attitude of being really flexible, since you'll have to adapt to the people you room with and to the unique circumstances of each hostel. If you can pull it off, you'll probably find the experience much richer than the Hilton™ (Paris or otherwise).

Perhaps the most important thing you'll get in a hostel is networking and a social life, which is extremely difficult in a standard hotel. In a hostel, you will meet people; there's no choice. You may not meet many locals, but you'll connect with travelers like yourself from all over the world. To me, this is so much more meaningful than staying at the Sheraton, visiting the Eiffel Tower and Louvre on the Gray Line tour, then flying home.

So what exactly should you expect at a hostel the first time you stay at one?

First, you will review the offerings on HostelWorld and make your reservation there. (There are other hostel booking sites, but this is the biggest and, as far as I can tell, the only one worth visiting.) At peak travel times you want to make your reservation early; in the off-season you can wait and do it just before you leave. (There is a small non-refundable deposit, and if you fail to cancel in a timely manner, you could be charged a one-night fee as a no-show.)

In the hostel description, there will be instructions on how to get to the hostel from the airport or train station by public transportation and a little footwork. Although, the directions are usually brief and technically accurate, you have to expect that the hostel will be very difficult to find. You'll have to follow the directions exactly! It's probably not on a main street with a big neon sign but hidden down an alley with a very small sign. (A safe alley, however, since this is Europe!) Many times I have wished that I had printed out or written down the instructions, because finding a hostel in an old European city is often like running a rat maze.

When you first arrive at a new hostel, there is usually a shock factor to overcome. ("I'm going to be staying HERE!?") Many hostels are tiny shoebox operations in places you would never expect to find lodging (like a converted 2nd floor office or warehouse space). You'll get over it in a few minutes, but when you first arrive you have to be prepared for almost anything. Even the photos on HostelWorld and the unbiased reviews by previous visitors may not prepare you for the environment and humble appearance of the facility. You can be sure the amenities listed on HostelWorld will actually exist, but they could be found in a very rudimentary package. Unlike the hotel industry, there is usually no attempt to dress up the hostel product to make it visually appealing (even when the hostel has a slick website). It will probably make a college dorm look palatial!

Once you find the hostel, there will probably be a front desk similar to a small hotel. You can be assured that the staff there will speak English, at least well enough to check you in. Many hostels have a period during the day when the bunk rooms are closed for cleaning, so you may not be able to actually occupy your room until a certain time in the afternoon (usually specified on HostelWorld). However, you can usually check in as early in the day as you want and leave your bags.

The amenities of most hostels include a kitchen (if mentioned on HostelWorld) and a common room with a television. The kitchen will usually have all the basic supplies you need for cooking: pots, pans, dishes, etc. (but you should read the HostelWorld reviews for more clues). There will also probably be some standard condiments and dried pasta left behind by other travelers, so you can put together a meal there for very little. There will also be a semi-sanitary refrigerator where you can store any perishables you buy. The kitchen is an enormous advantage over a standard hotel: If you are staying for several days, you can cook your own meals and dramatically lower your food costs!

The common room is where there is usually a TV blaring and fellow travelers sitting around doing nothing productive. This is a good place to meet people. (I also happen to enjoy watching TV in a language I don't understand. It's essentially the same crap as in America, so I know what is being said almost by telepathy!)

The common room will often have computers for free internet use by guests. These computers are usually adequate for simple tasks but rarely work very well, and you may have to fight others for them at peak times. A more critical amenity for me is free WiFi™ for my own laptop, and I carefully analyze the HostelWorld listing to make sure it is available, reliable and truly free (and preferably available in the dorm rooms). In Europe, unlike the U.S., there is virtually no free WiFi in the air in public areas. You're faced with paying for it by credit card through commercial providers—at a price approaching that of a hostel bed—or staying at a hostel and getting it for free. I see it, you are essentially paying for a day of WiFi and getting free lodging thrown in!

At hostels, there may be lock-out times and curfews, which should be listed on HostelWorld. Typically, the bunk rooms are closed for cleaning between about 11am and 3pm, and there may be a time late at night when the front door is locked. (Normally, you wouldn't worry about these late lock-out times, except that American visitors to Europe are usually jetlagged upon arrival and could actually be out 'til 2 am!)

Linen (sheets and blankets) is usually provided free of charge, but you need to analyze HostelWorld to be sure. There may be a deposit required for linen or for the room key, returned to you when you check out.

Note: Most hostels do NOT accept credit cards, so you'll have to bring cash. Local currency is easily obtained by using your bank card and pin at any ATM (almost always available at the airport).

Free breakfast is a common amenity at many hostels. This is a simple "European" breakfast consisting of carbs and little else, but you might be able to tank up half your calories for the day. The self-serve breakfast usually consists of rolls, toast, jam, cereal, milk, coffee and an unidentified orange-colored liquid. (See my Lisbon Hostel tour to see a typical breakfast bar.)

Shower and bathroom facilities are usually shared. They may be in your room or you may have to go down the hall. (On HostelWorld, they will say "en suite" if the toilet and shower are attached to the room.) You should bring your own soap, because you probably won't find any in the shower!

On HostelWorld, you can choose your housing configuration—that is, the number of people in the room and their gender. Generally, the larger the number of people in the room, the lower the price. Sometimes, especially during the off-season, you may reserve a dense room and expect the worst but then be given a room essentially to yourself. On HostelWorld, you can often reserve a "private" room for two or more which is like any other hotel room but cheaper, or you can choose a room with up to 20 beds. (I've even seen 36 beds in one bunk room!) Personally, I always choose the lowest rate - period! - and if I end up with 19 other disparate travelers, that just makes life more interesting.

Gender? The available room genders are male, female and mixed. Which one are you? Yes, "mixed" means male and female strangers sleeping in the same room! In America, that would be the recipe for some kind of porn and/or slasher flick, but Europeans know their personal boundaries much better than we do. You'll have to figure out these boundaries on your own. At times, I have been in a mixed bunk room of 16 people and wondered, "Where do I change clothes?" This may require going down the hall to the bathroom—and even there your privacy might seem limited. (For the record, I have never seen anyone of any gender naked at a hostel.)

I think this stark functionality and relative lack of privacy is a good exercise for Americans. It makes you realize you don't have to live in an antiseptic plastic bubble like most of us do. You may return home with a better sense of economy and simplicity of living.

Security is something to always keep in mind, but I don't regard it as a major worry. I have absolutely no concern for my physical safely at a hostel, and I wouldn't even if I was a young female traveling alone. I'm a little more concerned about my valuables. I almost always carry those on my person—camera, computer, passport, etc.—and I leave in my room only things I can afford to lose. (In Europe in general, the risk of violence is miniscule compared to the U.S., but the risk of theft is about the same. Personally, my only experience with theft was a pickpocket in the Paris Metro, who I thwarted.)

Some hostels provide lockers for guests, but you usually have to bring your own lock (a small luggage lock because a standard-size Master™ lock might not fit). They may also have electronic door keys similar to standard hotels, so no one can walk into the room who doesn't belong there. I have always felt comfortable about the integrity of my roommates after I talked to them, but since the guests are a broad cross-section of humanity, you can never be sure.

Some other hostel notes:

—Always be courteous to the hostel staff, who can be grumpy at times. Although being in this city may seem romantic to you, to them it's just a job and they're usually paid a pittance.

Power sockets are not as common in Europe as they are in the U.S. For recharging your electronic devices, you may or may not find a socket in your room, but you will certainly find one in the common room. If you check your device's power adapter, you'll probably see that it accepts BOTH 110 volts and 220 volts. In that case all you need is a plug adapter, not an actual voltage converter. It is much easier to find this adapter in the US than in Europe. (The Evil Mega Mart™ sells a universal one in their luggage section for $10.) Since I have multiple electronic devices to charge, I also bring a US branching cube.

—In keeping with European custom, any taxes are included in the price (just like the prices for products in stores), so the balance that is quoted on HostelWorld is exactly what you will pay (i.e. there is usually no "sales tax" or "room tax").

—You can find hostels almost anywhere in the world. Canada has them in most major cities (non-profit ones through Hosteling International-Canada). Also see my revised note on Hostels in the U.S. The only place hostels seem to be lacking is certain tightly controlled tropical islands where the economy depends on charging tourists $300/night.

—Before you reserve a hostel via HostelWorld, always try to Google for the same hostel by name to see if they have their own independent website. This might give you some additional info. (Be forewarned however, that these websites are usually far prettier than the property itself. For example, the hostel I'm staying in now: It's an adequate place, but there's total disjoint between website image and the concrete reality.)

—European hostels are usually located in the center city, which makes them easy to access by public transportation but not by car. (Parking will probably be a nightmare!) When sightseeing by car, there is an alternative: Hotel Formule 1™, a budget motel chain owned by the same French conglomerate that owns Motel 6™. Formule 1 makes Motel 6 look palatial, but it's got what you need: simple rooms that sleep up to 3 with toilets and showers down the hall. These motels are concentrated in France and neighboring countries, and they are usually located in the semi-rural outskirts of cities. Formule 1's are sometimes accessible by public transit, but they mostly cater to the driving crowd. Like hostels, Formule 1 locations can be very hard to find, so you have to pay close attention to their cryptic directions. The neighborhood is often industrial, and it's not as romantic as a charming pension in the country, but if you just need a place to sleep (which is usually the main issue), Formule 1 is a whole lot easier. (Here's a list of a few more European budget chains that I know nothing about.)

So... should you stay at a hostel? That's up to you. Frankly, it's probably not the cup o' tea for most of your standard-issue, raised-in-the-bubble Americans. They'll stay at the Hilton and leave American soil approximately once in their lifetime. For me, though, there's no issue. Just add it up: (1) a safe place to sleep, (2) protection from the elements, (3) a social venue, (4) free WiFi, (5) free breakfast, (6) a place to store your stuff, (7) a place to recharge your electronics, and (8) usually within walking distance of tourist sites. Pretty darn good deal for $20-35/night!

Have I covered everything? Telegraph me if I haven't and I'll try to address it here.

For a photo tour of one European hostel, see A Typical Hostel: Lisbon, Portugal.

Also see the next entry: Hostels DO Fly in America!

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173.
This entry was released from San Diego, 4/11/09.
Revised in Toronto, 5/3/09.
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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Free Sleeping and the Internet

As a professional Free Sleeper, I can do without a lot of things. I don't need a bed or a roof over my head, and I can coast by on very little money for food and sundries, but there's one thing you can't take away from me: my CrackBerry™.

I've had mine for less than two months, but it has already become an indispensable part of my operation. As an internet-based lifeform, I'm willing to sacrifice almost anything to remain productive on-line, and the CrackBerry™—excuse me, BlackBerry™—has turned into the critical nexus for most of my computing activities. In the Dark Ages prior to two months ago, I did fine, but now that I can see what I was missing it would hard to turn back.

The BlackBerry™ performs three critical functions: (1) It's a telephone (which is so, like, totally 20th Century, but you still need to have one); (2) It's a mini-computer on its own, running several simple but critical applications; and (3) I can tether it to my laptop for a normal internet connection at roughly dial-up speed. Prior to the BlackBerry™, I was using my cellphone to send and receive simple email messages and hunting down free WiFi™ for my major computing. Now, I still use free WiFi™ when available but I don't have to have it.

Actually, I take that all back! I can get along just fine without my BlackBerry™. After all, I did it for decades, all the way back to my first typewriter in the late 1970s. The advantage of more primitive technology is that it forces you to be more disciplined, and all these newfangled gadgets encourage sloth. Still, technology can open doors by relieving you of the some of the more routine tasks of life. If you can spend only a half hour preparing your food or washing your clothes vs. four hours, you have a lot of extra time for more creative things.

This is illustrated by the many ways the internet makes budget travel and Free Sleeping easier. Here are some of the ways I have used the internet to get a good night's sleep—with or without my BlackBerry™:

1) On-Line Maps and Satellite Images can help me select a campsite. Applications like Google Earth™ and Google Maps™ allow me to survey a city before I even set foot there, identifying potential Free Sleeping locations that I can later check out in person. So far, I have used these products to find discreet campsites in Portland, OR; Key West, FL; Fort Lauderdale, FL and Paris, France. A free Google Maps™ application for the BlackBerry™ puts this technology in the palm of my hand, and it automatically hooks into the B'Berry™s on-board GPS to guide me exactly to the place I saw from above.

2) Hostel Reservations are now easy as pie, thanks to HostelWorld.com. (See How to Sleep in a Hostel.) Back when I first started hosteling in the 1980s, reservations were a complex process involving the mail, and I was often forced into high-priced hotels merely because I didn't know what was available. Now, you can instantly see the available hostels and their rates and make reservations in seconds. HostelWorld has even created hostels where none had previously existed, because it gives private hotels the means to offer dorm accommodations. (Back in the 1980s, European hostels—at least those used by Americans—were primarily non-profit; today they are primarily for-profit, which has dramatically increased the available options.) HostelWorld.com has been optimized for mobile devices.

3) Weather Reports are now easily accessible. When you're sleeping under the stars, it's critical to know what kind of weather is coming at you, and the internet gives you the latest. If tempests are closing in, I can alter my plans accordingly.

4) Public Transportation Routes and Schedules are almost always available on the web. This means I can coordinate them with campsites and places I need to go in ways I never could have imagined 20 years ago. For example, without the internet, I wouldn't have known that you can get from Key West to Miami by a series of public buses, which has saved my ass on at least one occasion. (See "Free Sleeping in South Florida".) A lot of the need for a car is alleviated by simply knowing what public transit is available.

5) Airline and Rental Car Reservations are now easier than ever, and you're always assured of getting the lowest price. It happens that I currently use only one rental company (that one with the fort in Texas), and one airline (the one I'm furloughed from), but the internet still makes it vastly easier to know what's available and to set things up.

6) Unrestricted Worldwide Communication changes the whole character of homelessness. It means I can write a blog entry or shoot off an email from a hilltop in San Diego just as easily as from an apartment in Manhattan. Why, then, do you need the apartment?

In a broader sense, the internet has abrogated the whole notion of the fixed home as an archive location. With all of your data gone "virtual", you don't need books, newspapers, photo albums, filing cabinets, notebooks, desks or office supplies—just a laptop and a BlackBerry™ (and eventually access to a power socket to recharge them).

I may have to mortgage my soul to support my new child. My current monthly communication bill is well over $100, but it's a relatively small price compared to the cost of a fixed residence.

How to Sleep in a Car

UPDATE (Jan. 2021): See my Car Camping Advice in a Tweet Thread.

Note: This article is about how to sleep in a car. See separate article for Where to Sleep in a Car

If you can sleep in a car, you've gained an enormously valuable life skill. Think about it: You can sleep in places where you can't otherwise afford to stay; you're protected from the elements, and the rent is free (provided the car is already paid for). Even if you don't actually sleep in a car, knowing that you can do it means that you can arrive in a new city without a hotel reservation, just a car rental reservation. If you can't find affordable lodging, you know you'll get by. [Text in red are new revisions as on 8/51/13, after I have been sleeping in cars off and on for years.]

Sleeping in a car is a form of "car camping," where you sleep in or near your vehicle (as distinct from backpacking—See Wikipedia). In terms of protection from the elements, a car is about halfway between a hotel room and camping in a tent, and if you just need some sleep it's probably easier than both. (There's no tent to set up and no check-in process to go through.) For example, if you are on a long road trip and just need a few hours of shuteye, checking into a motel may be unnecessarily complicated and rob you of still more sleep during the process of finding a room and moving in. Sleeping in the car may be just the thing!

Sleeping in a car may seem uncomfortable, but mostly it is a problem of perception and adaptation—i.e. the barriers are mainly in your head. Around the world, people sleep in all sorts of odd arrangements, and a car is among the most convenient and comfortable. Security? It's not a major issue as long as you are discreet and choose your location carefully. I will cover site selection in a separate entry, but in general, you can sleep in your car almost anyplace you would feel comfortable parking it overnight. If your car doesn't attract attention, you won't either.

But how, physically, do you sleep in a car? Basically, you just obtain a sleeping bag or other covering appropriate to the weather, find something to use as a pillow and lie down in the back seat. If you're tired, you will sleep, and once you get used to it, you can probably sleep there as comfortably as in a bed.

Sleeping in a car is an acquired skill, however, and it takes some experience to do it elegantly. Below are some considerations for the first-time car sleeper. (Again, these rules tell you how to sleep in a car. In a separate entry, I will discuss where to sleep.)

1) You MUST crack one of the windows so you can breathe. [Wrong! As long as there is just one person in the car, nothing else using oxygen and the temperature is cool, you can leave the windows completely closed all night. I wouldn't think it possible, but it works! Apparently there's enough air to keep you alive. On cold nights, keeping the windows closed definitely keeps the car warmer, but it can make it much too hot on warm nights.] It doesn't have to be much, though: For one person, a quarter-inch opening in one window is sufficient. (It doesn't seem like enough, but I have learned from experience that it is.) If you fail to open a window, you might sleep okay for a couple of hours, but you'll eventually wake up gasping for breath. (It's not like you'll die in your sleep; your body will give you plenty of warning!) A quarter-inch to an inch is a good balance between air circulation, heat retention and security (so someone can't reach in the window). In mosquito-prone areas, you might even make the opening so thin that the mosquitoes can't get in. Same thing when it's especially cold outside: Experiment with how thin you can make the opening. You need some sort of opening in the car, but it is remarkable how little it can be. (Don't worry: Your body will tell you when you need more air!)

2) In warm weather in humid areas, mosquitoes may be an issue. Even one or two in the car can ruin your sleep. You deal with this by draping some sort of light cloth over the window opening. Camping stores or Evil Mega-Mart™ may sell mosquito netting designed specifically for this purpose, but any light, thin cloth or piece of clothing will do. (You may have to open your window a little more for adequate circulation.) Mosquitoes only become active in temperatures above 50°F, and they don't usually become a significant irritant until about 60°F, so you don't have to worry about them in cold weather. Mosquitoes need stagnant water to breed in, so you won't find many of them in the desert. They are also slow fliers and are easily blown away by the wind. I find the mosquitoes are really only an issue in humid, still areas in the summer. You can't really tell whether an area is going to be mosquito-prone until you go there, but you should always be prepared. If you find yourself in a situation where you can't protect yourself with netting, mosquito repellent may get you by, but that's yucky stuff I prefer to avoid. [Hot weather and/or mosquitoes are the one situation where car camping just doesn't work, especially in the Southeastern USA. Cold is no problem because you can always add bedding, but heat and humidity can force you into a motel.]

3) You can sleep in a car even when it is very cold outside, provided you have enough bedding. I have done it in temperatures as low as 0°F/-18°C. (by sleeping in three sleeping bags: one inside the other and a third one on top of me). The car protects you from rain and wind, which are very significant elements in keeping warm. The enclosed space is also warmed by your body heat, so the temperature inside is significantly warmer that the air outside. (That's one reason to keep the window opening small.) One consideration when sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures: In the morning you may have to scrape frost off the INSIDE of the windshield. One nice thing about sleeping in a car is that you can reach over, turn on the car's engine and warm the place up before you get out of bed!

4) Whenever possible, you should consult on-line sources to find out what the weather is expected to do overnight. The key statistic is the overnight low temperature. With experience, you'll learn what kind of bedding you need for various temperatures.

5) The best kind of bedding is a sleeping bag, since you can zip it up around you and eliminate drafts. Basic models at Walmart start at $15 (but I usually get the $20 model). You'll probably get more insulation value by buying two cheap sleeping bags, one inside the other, than one expensive one. The temperature ratings labeled on the sleeping bag are pretty much a fantasy; you'll have to experiment to see what works at various temperatures. In the 80s and above (°F), you may need no sleeping bag at all, maybe just a thin blanket. Between 50s and the 70s, a standard sleeping bag might do. Much below that, you'll probably need multiple sleeping bags. In my experience, there is no degree of cold that can't be addressed passively by adding more layers, but I've never tried to camp in Alaska. [Now I have slept in Alaska in the winter at -10°F, and it worked. See my winter pix from the Alaska Highway. I had two Walmart sleeping bags, one inside the other, covered with a third draped over me. I also wore two layers of thermal underwear and all my clothing. Slept like a baby. Conclusion: Cold is never a problem with enough bedding.]

6) A simple and extremely useful device is a single standard safety pin. A sleeping bag zips up around you, but it can easily become unzipped at night. The safety pin can be used to fix the zipper at the top.

7) Vans, mini-vans and large SUVs may give you more opportunity to stretch out, but they are colder than regular cars because your body has more space to heat. When renting a car, I usually go for a full-size or mid-size sedan as a good balance between space, warmth and cost.

8) In rainy or snowy weather, water is going to come in the window opening. You can prevent this by draping a sheet of plastic over the opening. (In rainy and mosquitoey conditions, you might need both the plastic and the thin cloth.) Alternatively, you might be able to make the gap in the window so small that the rain can't get in. [Not necessary, just close all the windows! The only problem is when the weather is both rainy and hot. Then you're screwed.]

9) Snow is usually no problem! A layer of snow can actually warm the car by providing more insulation. Snow usually happens when the outside temperature is hovering around freezing, so snowy nights are usually warmer than clear nights at the same time of year.

10) If you are forced to sleep in a car in cold weather without sufficient bedding, you can consider leaving the car running and the heater on. I am concerned with unnecessary wear on the engine, so I would be more likely to do it with a rental car than my own. I am not too concerned, however, about carbon monoxide poisoning. Modern cars are well-sealed, and if the heater is blowing air into the car and one window is cracked open, I feel safe. As an added protection, I might gauge the wind direction and park the car pointing into the wind. (People do occasionally die from carbon monoxide poisoning in running cars parked in enclosed spaces like garagesbut it is usually intentional. You have to work at it.) Don't use anything like a gas heater in the car. That's just asking for trouble. It is safer (and probably more effective) to simply keep the windows rolled up. A lack of oxygen and excess of carbon dioxide will wake you up, whereas carbon monoxide kills you quietly.)

11) Very hot weather is the only time car sleeping might not work. You may have to fully open all of the cars windows to be cool enough, which makes you vulnerable to mosquito attack in humid areas. This is when you may be forced to move to a tent or even a motel room. In the desert where there aren't any mosquitoes, you don't even need a tent: You just sleep on an air mattress in the open. (Even when the daytime temp approaches 120°F, desert nights are always pleasant. Heat retention, however, can make the car unusable.)

NOTE: We in the industrial world are so accustomed to air conditioning that we may think we need it to sleep. In fact, nighttime temperatures are usually much cooler than daytime ones, and we need air conditioning only to remove the heat that builds up in buildings during the day. If you are directly exposed to the outside air, you rarely need the A/C. [Summer in the Southeastern USA and similar parts of the world can be a total bitch where your only option is an air-conditioned motel room. I'm tough, but not that tough.]

12) Unless you are very short, you won't be able to stretch out full-length in the back seat. You'll have to bend your knees. Sleeping like this is an acquired skill, and it may take several nights to get used to. I can sleep comfortably in the back seat of ANY car, even tiny ones in Europe. In small cars, you are almost sleeping in the fetal position. You don't have to lie flat to sleep; the important thing is that your whole body is at about the same level.

13) Several times during the night, you'll have to turn over. Your body wants to do this to prevent bed sores on one side, and if you can't turn, you'll wake up. During the day, you can practice how you are going to turn in this tight space. As long as you have two different positions to sleep in (Side A and Side B), you'll do okay. Handles above the doorframe are a nice little comfort feature because you can reach up to them at night to help reposition yourself.

14) While the back seat is usually best, you can sometimes sleep in the front seat. It depends on whether there is a console between the seats and what materials you have to mitigate it. Sometimes, in a car with bucket seats, you can build up both seats with suitcases or some form of padding so you can sleep comfortably across the console.

15) If you have no choice, you can try sleeping in the sitting position (say, if you are in a car full of people or cargo). This is never very comfortable, but it's no worse than sleeping in an airplane. You usually have more reclining space available to you than an airline flier does, so it's more like a First Class seat than Coach. Sleeping for a few hours upright might get you by, but you can never get truly healthy and restful sleep unless your whole body is at the same horizontal level. [I am finding it a lot easier to sleep in the sitting position with the practice of many overseas flights. Today, I can sleep in the driver's seat just fine.]

16) Obviously, you ought to pee before you attempt to sleep. Otherwise, you'll be waking up at night with the urge and possibly nowhere to relieve it. If you need to pee throughout the night, it is usually the result of a caffeine addiction. (See Things You Don't Need: Caffeine.) If you drink less, you'll pee less. If young children can last the night, you should be able to also. [At least you can stop drinking caffeine a few hours before you go to bed.] Before you go to sleep, you want to plan where you are going to relieve yourself in the morning. If you awake before dawn, there may be more options available to you than waking during the day. A pee bottle (or proverbial "pot to pee in") could be helpful, so be sure you have something to use for this. As for—ahem!—solid waste, you should know when in the day it usually happens and plan for it. (An actual restroom is best. Walmart, gas stations or fast food joints are good.) Again, excessive production of solid waste is usually a result of excessive intake.

17) Brush your teeth before you go to bed! Free sleeping is no excuse to ignore dental hygiene. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need water to brush your teeth, just a toothbrush and toothpaste. (I use a battery operated SonicCare™ from Walmart.)

18) You should probably sleep in your regular street clothes (or loose-fitting clothing that looks like street clothes). For one thing, this adds an extra layer of warmth, but you also want to be fully clothed in case you are woken at night by a police officer or security guard. (I'll discuss these potential interruptions in the entry on siting. It's usually benign. The worst they can do is ask you to move elsewhere.) Where possible, your clothing should be loose-fitting and comfortable. Ladies will probably want to de-bra, and gentlemen will want to loosen up "down below" (due to nighttime expansion). To the Free Sleeper, special night clothes or pajamas are an unnecessary vanity.

19) Some kind of sleeping hat is important to curb heat loss through your head. Your body places a high priority on keeping your head warm, so even if you are inside a warm sleeping bag, you could still be cold if your head is fully exposed. A knit winter cap does the trick, but if you don't have one, you can use a spare t-shirt: Just turn it upside down, stick your head halfway through the neck opening, and—Voila!—you have a sleeping cap. It makes you look a bit like an Arabian sheik, but it may be warmer and more likely to stay on your head than a knit cap.

20) Whenever I am sleeping in a position that I regard as unusual or uncomfortable to me, I usually take an aspirin tablet or two before going to sleep. This is specifically for my back (see my blog entry on it), but it also might address other muscular aches and pains before they happen.

21) If you need to get moving at a certain time, be sure you have some kind of alarm clock to wake you. A cellphone alarm will do, but it is very important to know your alarm clock. (Many times, I thought I set my alarm only to discover too late that I had done something wrong.) Greater than the risk of sleeping too little is the chance of oversleeping. Some parking locations that are very secure and discreet at night can be too exposed during the day, so you should consider whether you want to wake up and move on before dawn.

22) Unless you are in a very remote location with little chance of human interaction, when you wake up you probably want to get in the driver's seat and drive away as soon as possible. This gives you the warmth of the car's heater, but it may also address a security issue: When you are awake, sitting up and moving, it is easier for others to detect you. As with urban camping, I don't like to mix venues: The place where I camp is used only for sleeping, not for anything else, like eating or working on the computer. As soon as the sleeping function is complete, I move elsewhere.

Have I forgotten anything? We have yet to get into the social aspects of car sleeping—namely where to do it without attracting attention, but the above should cover the physical issues.

See separate article: WHERE to Sleep in a Car 

9 May 2020 — Video from 2015 added.