Even for the most experienced travellers, the world of accommodation can be a minefield to navigate. Granted, the days of arriving in a new city and having to take your chances on a confusing list of hotels and hostels which may or may not have beds available are largely gone – but the process of choosing the right place to stay has, arguably, been made even more complex through the sheer magnitude of comparison sites, reviews, blog posts and social media buzz. Everywhere is vying to get your attention and, let’s face it, not everywhere is deserving of it!
We try to cut through the noise by sticking to a fairly basic set of principles when choosing accommodation wherever we go. Firstly, we are not luxury travellers and are more than happy to go for the budget options wherever they exist – so, we try to keep costs down. Secondly, we’ll always try to stay at a guest house, home-stay or equivalent – big chain hotels are not an option unless there’s a good reason!
We prefer staying at these sorts of places for a few reasons – one of the main draws being that you actually get to meet and know the folk who run the property. The local insight, stories and general conversation is a lovely way to get your first feel for a new city or country – and a great host can often make for some of the best memories of a place. Here’s a list of some of the stand out hosts from our travels so far!
Emir from Rooms Mahala – Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Our 2015 trip through the Balkans threw up some great budget accommodation options, but ‘Rooms Mahala’ – at the princely sum of £4 per night for a private room with shared bathroom – was comfortably the cheapest. What it lacked in luxury (the presence of curtains, for example), it more than made up for with the hosting from the lovely Emir, who owned the property and lived in the adjacent flat with his family.
During our two night stay, Emir happily gave us a local’s tour of Sarajevo, treating us to the most delicious Bosnian coffee in a hidden-away cafe high above the city, and showing us sights that we’d never have known about or found otherwise. Emir’s status as superstar host was confirmed when he drove back from his evening dinner/social event downtown to rescue us when we thought we’d been locked out – as it happens, we just weren’t pushing the door hard enough. If he was annoyed or exasperated at these two hapless Brits, he didn’t show it – graciously letting us back in, giving some instructions on how to properly shove the door wide open, and then heading back to continue his evening.
Rooms Mahala appears to have stopped taking bookings, but you can read more about our Sarajevo stay here.
Alex from Hin Yerevantsi – Yerevan, Armenia
We visited Yerevan, the increasingly trendy capital of Armenia, back in 2018. It’s a wonderful city, and our stay was made all the better for choosing to book a room at Hin Yerevantsi, a small boutique hotel located a stone’s throw from all the main sights and spots of city center Yerevan.
The hotel was run by a young gentleman called Alex, whose ability to be available at all times of day – from an early morning breakfast to arriving late in the evening – was seriously impressive. Alex offered the definition of professional 5 star service – providing advice on tours, sights and more; and making some seriously good omelettes at breakfast to boot. Nothing was too much trouble, and Alex’s hosting was certainly the best we came across on our travels through the Caucasus.
Alevtina from Near Bolshoi Theatre – Moscow, Russia
If you let it, Moscow can be an expensive city to stay in – a seriously expensive city. This is hardly surprising, given the wealth and status which flocks to the Russian capital, but it does mean that finding reasonable accommodation in the city centre which won’t bankrupt a budget traveller can prove a tricky task.
Thankfully, we stumbled across the very literally named ‘Near Bolshoi Theatre’ – no prizes for guessing where this one is located! NBT is a tiny guesthouse comprising of two rooms, which are nestled into the corner of the owner’s flat. Guests have their own shared space near the entrance, with a small but well equipped kitchen and plenty of Russia-themed souvenirs and pictures, and the rooms are a very generous size considering the price.
The owner, Alevtina, is absolutely lovely. The most generous and welcoming host you could ask for – a perfect find in a city the size of Moscow, which certainly has the potential to feel quite anonymous and disconnected. From the moment we arrived, we were showered with drinks, fruit and snacks – far more than we could ever have hoped to finish. Every morning, Alvetina would gently insist that we take supplies with us to keep us going during the day – we felt like we were being taken care of in the middle of this vast city, meaning that this guest house has remained a memorable highlight of our trip.
Mesa from Elite Guest House – Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Another entrant from the wonderful Bosnia and Herzegovina – this time, the beautiful town of Mostar in the South of the country. Like Sarajevo, Mostar is a melting pot of cultures, religions and all that comes with it – a place of beauty which still bears the scars of the 1990s conflict on every street.
Mostar was one of the absolute highlights of our Balkans travels, and our welcome from Mesa at Elite Guest House is one of the warmest we’ve ever had. Being the thrifty just-graduated-and-have-no-money travellers we were back then, we’d booked the cheapest room available – a small twin – and were happy with our choice. However, upon meeting us and realising that we were, in fact, a couple, Mesa immediately insisted on upgrading us to a two bedroom apartment (!) entirely free of charge – so that we could have a double bed.
Even as upgrades go, this was above and beyond the call of duty – a very generous gesture. We sat down with Mesa and talked at length about Mostar and Bosnia, learning about his earlier football career and being reassured that, whilst we were staying at the guest house, we would be treated like family. As Mesa put it – “if someone hurts you, they hurt my family” – suffice to say, we knew we were in safe hands. It’s always a big plus to know that there’s someone local who’s got your back just in case something doesn’t quite go to plan.
Owner from Bed & Breakfast Oltas – Prizren, Kosovo
Prizren is a charming old city – nestled among mountains and rolling hills, it is considered the cultural heart of Kosovo, and was a great addition to our Balkans itinerary.
We could only spare one night here, and accommodation options were pretty thin on the ground. We ended up going for the economical option of Bed & Breakfast Oltas – a perfectly pleasant and wonderfully retro B&B. The highlight of our room was, without a doubt, an early 1990s desktop computer stood proudly on the desk – alas, age must have caught up with it and it refused to entertain the idea of being switched on. The bathroom light suffered from a similar affliction, leading to some enjoyable gymnastics as we tried to balance phone torches on whatever surfaces we could find.
Novelty room set-up aside, the B&B was run by a lovely gentleman whose knowledge of English was very limited, but could speak relatively fluent German. We knew our degrees would come in handy one day! He let us know the timings for breakfast, and we sadly informed him that we needed to leave at 5am the next day to catch a bus to our next destination. We conversed a little more, before heading off to explore Prizren.
The last thing we were expecting to see just before 5am, as we staggered half-asleep down into the lobby expecting to make a quick and subtle exit, was the owner sat at reception waiting for us with two bags bursting with bread & fruit. Having failed miserably to buy any food for breakfast the night before, we could have hugged him. Again, this was the definition of going far beyond the call of duty, and shows the value of choosing somewhere with a great host!
Winnie from Cozy Rooms JKIA – Nairobi, Kenya
Our final addition to the list is from the wonderful Kenya. I (Matt) had just finished an amazing trek up Mount Kenya with my brother James. After 5 days of camping and mountain huts, burning through baby wipes and roll-on deodorant at the speed of light, we were both very ready for a real bed and warm shower!
We’d be flying back from Nairobi to London a couple of nights later on an early departure, so fancied grabbing accommodation fairly close to the airport – we’d heard all about the infamous Nairobi traffic jams! There are a wealth of big name hotels to choose from within a stone’s throw of the airport, but it seemed a shame to finish our stay in Kenya by sleeping in a big anonymous Hilton. After a bit of research, I found Cozy Rooms JKIA – a lovely home-stay run by super-host Winnie; who has two rooms available in her own apartment as well as an entire private apartment on the floor above.
From the moment we booked, the communication with Winnie was second to none – far more hosts should use WhatsApp to speak directly with guests! Winnie cooked the most delicious breakfasts and dinners for us, staying with us during meals to enjoy great conversation and swap stories – we learnt a lot about Nairobi life, and it must be amazing to have travellers from all over the world coming to stay with you. The arranged transfer to the airport was seamless, and we left feeling very lucky that we’d chosen to stay somewhere that felt like home!
A memorable host can make a huge difference – if you’ve got any standouts, please do leave a comment!