Monday, September 28, 2009

Secret Airport Sleeping Nook

Last night, after renting an SUV in Las Vegas for $23, I turned in the car and started heading to the East Coast. The red-eye flight I had hoped to take was overbooked, so I found myself stranded overnight at an airport somewhere in the American Southwest. I was safely inside security (having had a boarding pass for the overbooked flight), so it was logical for me to sleep there and take a better flight east in the morning. (See How to Sleep in an Airport.)

Unfortunately, all of the airport seating had fixed armrests as shown above. I can sleep on these seats if necessary (by wrapping myself around an armrest in the fetal position), but it's not my best sleep. I can also sleep on the floor if I need to, but in open areas it makes me feel too vulnerable and obvious.

I cased out the concourse and found no great sleeping sites until I stumbled upon the scene above. It's the same fix-armrest seating, but look again! What's that behind the seating?

It's an abandoned customer service desk! As airlines have cut back in the past year, you find a fair number of these unused facilities. I poked around and found that the door was locked, and there were no computers or other equipment in the desks.

What a perfect campsite!

I felt much better sleeping on this floor than out in the open. (Privacy is nice when you can get it!) No one was going to notice me unless they were as curious as I am, and the small amount of trash on the floor indicated that the cleaners don't come back here often. If security found me, the worst they would do is ask me to move—and there's virtually no security inside security anyway!

I had two blankets with me. One of them I folded up and used as a mattress. It turns out this was just enough padding to allow me to sleep soundly. And I did! I got a solid 7 hours of sleep! (I credit my rigorous physical conditioning.) I woke on my own schedule and boarded the eastbound flight I intended—flying First Class, no less.

Good things come to those who are adaptable!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Case Study: Mobile Lodging in Las Vegas for $23

As an airline flyer who can only fly standby, my life is full of plotting and planning. What happens if I can't get on the flight I want? What will my alternative transportation be? Where will I sleep? Should I take an open flight from one city only to risk being trapped in another? Like playing chess, each decision I make now has ramifications later in the game, so I have to be thinking many moves ahead. At this moment (3pm), I am sitting in the airport in Denver wondering how I will lodge myself in Las Vegas tonight if I happen to get there. I have to do some heavy lifting tomorrow in Las Vegas, so I have arranged to rent a minivan at 7am. Once I have the minivan, then I have my lodging. (See How to Sleep in a Car.) However, the lowest rates on the minivan start tomorrow, not today. I am hoping to catch a flight to Las Vegas tonight, but if I get there, I won't have lodging until tomorrow morning. I'd like to get a good night's sleep tonight, so what do I do? Option #1: Hotel. You can often find good hotel rates in Las Vegas, but not tonight. This is a Saturday night, the peak visitor night in Las Vegas, so there is no way I can find a room within my budget. Even if I could, it hardly seems worthwhile to check into a hotel for only a few hours. It might take an hour (and some money) to get from the airport to the hotel tonight and an hour to get away in the morning. If I get to Las Vegas at 9pm and pick up the minivan at 7am, I wouldn't have much time to sleep. Option #2: Sleep at the Airport. I know the Las Vegas airport concourses are open all night. If my flight arrives at 9pm, I can simply remain inside security (where no one ever bothers you) and sleep until morning. (See How to Sleep in an Airport.) This is option is free, and I have all the equipment I need: warm clothing, blanket, earplugs and eye mask. The only trouble with this option is that all the seating in the Las Vegas airport has fixed arm rests. There is no comfortable padded seating you can lie flat on. I can work around this by curling around the armrest in the fetal position. I can get some sleep this way, but it's not my best sleep. I'd like to avoid it if I can. Option #3: Call on Friends. I could, in theory, call on friends in Las Vegas to put me up for the night, but I almost never do this. I may stay with friends on social occasions, but not when I just need a place to sleep. Since homelessness is my chosen lifestyle, it doesn't feel right to take advantage of respectable mortgage payers in this way. Plus, I would still have the problem of Option #1: It would take me an hour to get there and an hour to get away. Option #4: Camp Away from the Airport. I could leave the airport and find a secret place to camp for the night. This gets logistically complicated, however. Under cover of darkness, it is fairly easy to find a place to sleep in any city without rain, but the ground is hard in Las Vegas, and I would need an air mattress. Getting one requires a pilgrimage to the Evil Mega-Mart™ by public transit. This is not a realistic option on such a short time frame. (Sleeping in the airport would work better.) None of those options are great, so I have had to get creative. I mentioned that I am renting a minivan tomorrow at 7am. Minivans are usually frightfully expensive compared to regular sedans, but I managed to snag a good rate. If I changed the pickup date to tonight, I would lose that rate. So what's the solution? Eureka! I'll just rent another car for the night, solely for the purposes of sleeping. Thanks to rigorous physical conditioning, I can sleep comfortably in the back seat of the smallest rental car. (I do it in Europe where all the rental cars are small.) While room rates in Las Vegas get high on the weekends (due to the influx of Southern Californians), rental car rates get low. Since my rental includes a Saturday night, I can get an economy car for only $23, including all taxes and fees. (Insurance is covered by my credit card.) So if I manage to get to Las Vegas tonight (which depends on the airline gods), I will proceed to the same rental car company I am getting the minivan from (Alamo). I'll rent the economy car, sleep in it, return it in the morning, then pick up the minivan. Brilliant! Since I won't go very far from the rental car center, the gas needle will still show "Full" on the economy car and I won't need to buy any fuel. In addition to lodging, a rental car also provides—at no additional charge—transportation, so I could pick up bedding if I needed it. (I probably won't need it because Las Vegas is still warm in September.) In most cases, a $9 sleeping bag from EMM™ is sufficient. Spending $23 for a good night's sleep is generally within my budget. It's about comparable to a youth hostel. I hate to spend more than that, but I can swing $23. Furthermore, I would be getting more quality sleeping time in a rental car than I would in even the finest Las Vegas hotel, since I'll get to my car quickly and drop it off quickly (faster than checking in at the Four Seasons). BTW: I only rent from Alamo Rent-A-Car when they are available. I like the low rates, the opportunity to choose my own car from the lot, and the lack of additional "holds" on my credit card. Alamo makes fine sleeping cars, and I recommend them to all homeless people! UPDATE8PM The travel gods have been kind to me. Beyond kind! Not only did they see me to Las Vegas, but they gave me a free rental car upgrade—to an SUV! Yes, I paid $23 for the rental of a car that I assumed would be similar to the one shown at the top of this entry—a tiny Chevrolet Aveo or similar. However, when I got to the lot (where you usually choose your own vehicle), no Economy cars were available—and no mid-size or full-size cars either. So the attendant let me have an SUV, a Ford Escape (pictured below). Not only is this a spacious sleeping car, but it may mean I won't have to rent the minivan tomorrow! The SUV could handle all my "heavy lifting" needs. This just shows you that if you're right with the Travel Gods, all sorts of good things will come your way!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My Own Private Island (Free Sleeping in Maine)

This past Labor Day weekend, I spent four days living on my own private island in Maine. I hadn't intended so much luxury on my $15/day budget, but that's how things worked out.

I chose to head to Bar Harbor (Acadia National Park) for the long weekend mainly to get some work done. I had a book to read and writing I wanted to do. Normally, I would go to San Diego for this, but I was already on the East Coast and had an appointment in Boston after the holiday, so the long flight to San Diego didn't make sense. I needed another place I could work in peace for a few days. Mount Desert Island wouldn't seem like the first choice, since it was a pricey tourist haven with no university library, but the town of Bar Harbor had enough to make up for it: (1) a FREE local bus system, including service to the airport, (2) FREE Wifi in the town's two main parks, (3) FREE A/C power on almost every lamppost in those parks, and (4) plenty of wild woods for FREE camping. The weather forecast was also as nearly perfect as you can get in Maine: daytime highs in the 70s with no chance of rain.

I had visited Bar Harbor the year before (and several times as a kid), so I knew there were virtually unlimited areas to camp. Camping without permission was no doubt illegal virtually everywhere (given the high density of tourists), but in practice it's easy and harmless. With so much forested land, there are always places you can hide a small tent. Only a car would give you away, and I had none.

I prepared from my trip by purchasing my lodging at a Sports Authority™ store in Boston...I needed a new tent to replace one I had jettisoned elsewhere. I consider these $25 tents disposable. I'll use one until it breaks or is inconvenient to haul around. Then when I need another, I pick it up at one of the mega sporting goods stores, where there's almost always a $20-30 tent on sale. (Big Five Sporting Goods™ is another good source.) In this case, the only reason I needed a tent was for protection from the bugs, which Maine is notorious for.

I landed in Maine with just the basics: my computer and camera in my backpack and my new tent and a mummy sleeping bag in my satchel. I flew into the local airport in the evening and took the free bus to Bar Harbor downtown. When I got there, it was dusk, and I immediately started thinking about where I would bivouac for the night. My default plan was to simply walk out of town until I found woods to camp in, but I soon as looked out at the harbor I got a better idea.
There was a causeway to a forested island across the harbor. (The causeway was apparently the "Bar" in "Bar Harbor".) Great! I would blend in with the other tourists, cross the causeway and camp on the island, at least for the night.

As I was walking across, I figured that the causeway was tidal, since there was nothing growing on it. I knew it was probably covered with water at high tide. However, I didn't recognize at the time just how tidal it was.

Here was the first resident I met on the island....
There were no humans. The island was quite large (68 acres I later learned), and I figured I would avoid detection by going substantially off the main trail and camping there. My rudimentary tracking skills told me there were deer crisscrossing the island but that humans stayed primary on the main trail.
I pitched my $25 tent on the edge of a natural meadow and tucked myself in for the night. It was curious to be the only human on the island. I could hear several deer passing noisily a few yards from my tent. (Deer are not the silent creatures you might suppose. They sounded like they were loudly blowing their noses.) Nothing about being here spooked me until I thought a bit more about the deer.

Lyme disease! It's the scourge of New England. The disease is transmitted not by deer themselves but by the deer tick. If you get bitten by one, you could fall into a Sleeping Beauty lethargy that can be life-threatening. I got a little concerned until I googled it up on my BlackBerry. It turns out Lyme disease is not a major problem in Acadia National Park, although officials still warn visitors about it. The first night I slathered myself with bug repellent (which I find repellent myself), but after that I simply inspected my pants for ticks each time I walked through the grass to my tent. I found none, and in fact no bugs at all bit me whilst in Maine.

There was a tide chart posted at the start of the main trail, so I knew when the next low tide would be, and I guessed I would have three hours on either side of the low to enter and exit the island. In the morning, I took my time waking up. I thought my tent was secure from possible discovery, so I left it in place, then I wandered down to the causeway.

There wasn't any! I had missed my tidal window. It turns out I could only count on about 2 hours of dry land on either side of the tide. The tidal swings in Maine can be huge—in this case about 11 feet, which had thrown off my judgment the night before. I was now trapped on the island for another eight hours!

Fortunately, I had a book to read and enough food and drink to get by for the day. I wanted to read the book, but now nature was forcing me to. I lay in my tent all day reading. In the late afternoon, I started to hear human voices on the trail just about two hours before the low. I still had a few chapters left to read, however, so I did not depart from the island until just after the low. I had things I needed to do in Bar Harbor, including recharging my devices, buying some food and uploading some photos. By the time I got back to the causeway, it was well after dark and the causeway was already partially flooded.

I calculated that I had no option but to cross it anyway, since all of my camping gear was on the island and there was no way I could afford legitimate lodging in this town. I walked across the dry part of the causeway, and when I got to the water, I just kept walking. (I was prepared to sacrifice of another pair of $12 Wal-Mart sneakers.) I had to use dead reckoning and memory to try to stay on the causeway in the darkness until I got to the island. (Kind of exciting, actually!) When I reached dry land of the island, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I was alone here.

The island is called Bar Island and it is part of Acadia National Park. About a dozen tourists a day venture beyond the causeway and follow a short trail to the high point of the island, where they can view Bar Harbor. Camping is no doubt prohibited here, but there were no signs saying that. One sign called this a "fee area", and I hadn't purchased a regular park pass, but I wasn't worried about that either. The only way I would be caught was if there was a park ranger inspecting bags on the causeway or if a ranger thoroughly patrolled the island during the four-hour window. Both possibilities seemed highly unlikely. As in most national parks, rangers patrol where there are people, not where there aren't.

Having got into the rhythm of the island, I stayed two more nights there. In the morning, I crossed to the town, spent 12-14 hours using their free power and internet services, then crossed back in the evening. (A fourth night, I camped near the airport so I could take an early flight out.) I shopped at the small local grocery store every day, and my only other expense was $13 for a lawn chair, which I sat on at a park while I computed.

After four nights in the woods, I probably smelled like a moose, but I got a lot of work done. I could have visited Acadia National Park on the free bus system, but I had done it before. Instead, I read a whole book and even started writing one of my own. (I wrote this sample book chapter in a single day as I sat in a seafront park.)

Unlike San Diego, I don't think I could have stayed her indefinitely, partly because of the risk of discovery but mainly due to Maine's fickle weather. Still, I got my money's worth out of Bar Harbor and have nothing to complain about.

Here are my photos from Bar Harbor from both this visit and my earlier one.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
Released from San Diego.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Manhattan for $20/Night

New York City is famously expensive to visit. It's tough finding a hotel room under $150, so what would you think about staying in Manhattan for only $20 a night? I did it last night! I not only survived but was quite comfortable. No, I didn't sleep on a bench in Central Park. I stayed at a youth hostel in Harlem.

I had an evening social engagement in Midtown. I probably could have stayed with friends in the outer boroughs, but since I knew I would be coming in late, I didn't want to be an imposition. Instead, I went to about a week ago to see what they had available. After scrutinizing the listings and the reviews, I chose Hostel 99 in Harlem. The lowest priced bed was $18.95 in a dorm of 14 beds, but I chose to go First Class and reserved a room with only 6 beds for $21.95.

When I was growing up, Harlem was thought of as a slum. This may have been true in the 1960s but not today. It's now a dense and diverse residential neighborhood indistinguishable from any other in Manhattan. I felt no great risk in walking there, even late at night, but I did feel a little apprehensive about the accommodations. What could I really expect for $20?

In fact, I expected very little. I only wanted a safe place to sleep. I needed a padded horizontal space to myself, hopefully larger than a coffin. If I could get some WiFi and an AC outlet for my computer, that would be icing on the cake. Being accustomed to hostels elsewhere, I was prepared to accept some quirks and the usual initial shock factor. ("I'm going to be staying HERE?!")

The location of the hostel on 129th Street in Upper Manhattan was beyond walking distance to any attractions in Lower Manhattan but an easy subway ride there. The hostel also turned out to be easy to reach by a city bus from Laguardia Airport (M60—always a sardine can), which stopped at 125th Street. (Warning: You need $2.25 to catch that bus at Laguardia, and it must be in quarters!) After a 5-minute walk from the bus stop, this is what I found at the given address....
The hostel is the 3-story brick building on the right. Here is the entrance....
Notice there is only "99" on the door with no indication of a hostel inside. It is a good bet most of the neighbors don't know it exists. This is what you would expect in a hostel in urban America. It wants to attract well-behaved foreign visitors and not local lowlifes, who would turn this sort of cheap accommodation into a drug-addled Skid Row. There have to be barriers, real or perceived. Some New York hostels explicitly exclude locals. (For example, you may need both a passport, to prove your worldliness, AND an out-of-state driver's license.) Hostel 99 doesn't have these restrictions, apparently relying on its anonymity to protect it from the surrounding neighborhood. Since most guests make their bookings through HostelWorld and similar websites, there is no need (or desire) for walk-in traffic.

Immediately inside the front door (which is unlocked), there is a registration desk, manned 24 hours a day...The registration desk occupies what was once the foyer of a 3-unit apartment building. There is one large apartment per floor. The upper two apartments and part of the ground floor one are used for dorms (with the 2nd floor reserved for women and the other floors mixed gender). The public kitchen and dining area is on the ground floor, and in the basement is a TV room/computer room.

The apparent assumption by the owners is that they can make more money by renting $20 beds to a lot of travelers than by renting the apartments as apartments. Naturally, they will want to warehouse as many bodies as they can every night while keeping all of their costs low. Their major cost has to be the labor required to keep this place running 24/7. It has to be a tough business model!

It was mid-afternoon when I checked in. My assigned bed turned out not to be in a 6-bed room as I reserved but a bunk in a 10-bed dorm occupying the living room of the third floor apartment (as pictured at the top of this entry). I wasn't informed of this change and didn't know about it until I reached the room, but I was also charged less than I expected and was happy to have a lower bunk, so I saw no reason to complain.

Or at least I thought it was a 10-bed dorm. After I got back from my social event, this is what I found....With three mattresses on the floor, it was actually a 13-bed dorm! (Probably the "14-bed" dorm offered on HostelWorld.) That was my shock factor for the visit. While I have no objection to cramming a lot of people into a small area, which is what all hostels do, mattresses on the floor seemed to have broken an unwritten rule. When you book a "bed" online, you should reasonably expect a mattress AND a bed frame not in the direct flow of foot traffic.

At the time I came here to sleep, the room was dark, and I sensed the mattresses and the bodies on them only by ESP. I used the light from my BlackBerry™ to navigate from the bathroom to my lower bunk. (Yet another use for that universal device!)

Another problem was inadequate showers and toilets. This single bathroom on my floor served 30+ people (although there were more toilets on other floors)...None of this fazed me for long, since these problems had already been well documented in the hostel's customer reviews at HostelWorld. I was not there as a building inspector, only to spend a safe night as cheaply as possible. For that, there must be compromise. There were no door locks or security to speak of, but my follow travelers were mostly foreign tourists, more than half of them woman, and I felt no safety issues. The hostel was also very clean and reasonably well maintained. In spite of the load conditions, it wasn't a slum or Hell's Kitchen tenement, more like dense military barracks.

Breakfast in the morning was free and consisted of oversize muffins and croissants from Costco, toast, coffee, milk and the usual unidentified orange-colored breakfast beverage (UOCBB) found at other hostels. It was served (or you served it to yourself) only between the hours of 9 and 10 AM, which seemed to be a
sort of capacity control to prevent too many people from eating it. I had a big muffin that would probably have cost me $3 on the street, so I didn't feel cheated. Here was the kitchen/dining area at breakfast...While space was at a premium in the upper floors, there was plenty of it in the basement...There was a big-screen TV but little furniture. There were also pay-per-use computer terminals, available for 10-cents a minute....Some travelers may grumble about having to pay for internet, but I have no objection to the hostel making some money on sundries like this. The WiFi was still free, and it was strong throughout the building. I found myself a luxurious little corner in the basement where I could work....That's all I really need: power, WiFi and a dim place to sit. Noise isn't an issue, like from the TV, because I always carry foam earplugs with me. (It's a marvelous noise-canceling technology even better than the electronic kind!)

My bed itself was bigger than some I have slept in, and the sleeping function was accomplished successfully (with no memories of it retained). By the 11am check-out time, I was gone from the hostel and heading out of Manhattan.

Was it $20 well spent? Certainly! In terms of my practical needs, a $200 hotel room couldn't have given me much more. (And they often make you pay for WiFi!) There was no mint on my pillow, but they're fattening anyway.

It wasn't pretty, but it did the job. When I come back to Manhattan, I wouldn't mind staying there again.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,