On the Theory and Practice of Booking a Bathless Room

Bt Thumbnail DefaultBt Thumbnail Default

Not only will that decision save you money, it can take you to some of the more interesting and historic hotels of the world

You stick a coin into a slot, and the tiny, caged elevator jerks and wheezes its way to the sixth floor, filling you with all sorts of dread about what awaits upstairs. But what awaits is a scene of such splendor as to make you catch your breath.

A glamorous, duplex apartment of Rome, whose owner--a cultivated Florentine--has devoted a lifetime to furnishing its rooms with stunning antiques, the twelve-room "pensione" is a ravishing sight, more elegant by far than Italy's most expensive hotel.

Yet how much does it charge? Approximately $40 a day per person, including two meals: breakfast and dinner. And why so cheap? Because not a single room in it comes equipped with a private bath, but rather the bath is down the hall. Because of that lack, the establishment is officially categorized as a "second-class Pensione," and prohibited by Italian law from charging more.

Now I don't mean to imply that the place just described--with its ultra-glamorous but bathless rooms--is typical of Europe's budget lodgings lacking a private bath. Obviously, it's a very special "find" that I've secreted away for my own stays in Rome.

But I mention that wondrous little inn to make a point: that the occasional willingness to forgo a private bath can lead to the most memorable of travel experiences, at the lowest of costs. When all is said and done, booking a room without a private bath is the one sure way to travel inexpensively overseas in these days of a weak dollar.

In every major city on earth, people by the dozens who have fallen onto hard times, and needed extra income, have converted what was earlier their residence--an apartment, a townhouse--into a tiny hotel. Because the structure wasn't initially designed to be a hotel, it obviously can't contain the intricate network of plumbing needed to physically attach a private bath to each room.

While a great many such places have later corrected the deficiency, the majority haven't, and possess only a single bath (and toilet) per floor, maybe two. And because of that, they're instantly shunned by the great majority of all international travelers, who absolutely insist of their travel counselors that they be put into rooms with a private bath. Result: the tiny, converted lodgings must charge low rates--often a quarter the level of the standard hotel--to attract their clientele.

What's odd about the refusal of travelers to consider such lodgings is that most of us continually live, at home, in residences that don't always possess a private bath attached to each bedroom; we think nothing of sharing a single facility with members of our family. Or more relevantly, most of us work each day in offices or schools where we share such facilities with scores, even hundreds, of other people, and yet we don't regard ourselves as humiliated, degraded, made uncomfortable or subject to hazard by the necessity of doing so.

Yet when we travel, we demand the private bath, and thereby make it impossible to stay (or save money) in some of the world's most attractive lodgings that simply happen to possess no rooms with a private bath. We end up paying four times as much, and yet ultimately enjoy the same bath we could have had by paying less. Let me explain:

In a Japanese "ryokan" (budget inn) lacking rooms with a private bath, taking a bath is a highlight of the stay. An elderly chambermaid ushers you down the hall to a room maintained solely for bathing. Here you first soap and thoroughly clean yourself outside the tub, sitting on a small wooden stool and using lukewarm water from a hose. You then lower yourself into a recessed rectangle in the floor, filled with water so unimaginably hot that the only way you can stand it is by not moving once inside--it hurts when you move. After 45 seconds, about all you can take, you emerge red as a beet and, exhausted, return to your sleeping cubicle where, in your absence, the chambermaid has unrolled a futon mattress onto the floor and placed a small pillow at its head (because you're a Westerner). There, she has also placed a small floor lamp and, invariably, a delicate cup of tea next to the pillow, so that you can read and refresh yourself before falling asleep.

Now I would not exchange the unique experience of a classic Japanese bath, taken at a low-cost ryokan, for all the supposed comforts of a modern, first-class Japanese hotel with a private bath. I wouldn't substitute one for the other even if they were priced equally. But of course, they're not.

What other advantages do you gain by opting for the non-standard, non-traditional lodging when you travel abroad?

Well first, you meet people. Since all the facilities there are communal ones--a single television set around which everyone gathers at night, a single, large table for the morning meal--you have no alternative but to meet people and talk with other guests. Contrast the ease of doing so with the cold, impersonal barriers of the standard hotel, where often it's regarded as "forward" to attempt to strike up a conversation in the lobby.

And you meet a better class of people, the kind without rings in their noses for the commercial travel industry to pull. Adventurous, spirited, intellectually-curious people. People from Australia and the Middle East, cost-conscious types from Canada and South America, people who opt for the unpretentious lodgings, indigenous to their nations, that bear such names as "pension," "b & b", "canal-house hotel," "ryokan", "hostel," "locanda."

You not only save money on the accommodations element of your trip, but instantly learn (from your fellow guests) about other inexpensive facilities of the city: the local transportation, the free swimming pools, the cheap nightspots. And then you visit these places, or use those facilities, in the company of your hotel friends. The entire coloration and dimension of your holiday take on a different, and rewarding, intensity.

Next time you travel overseas, consider a room without a private bath. These days, it's often the key to affordable international travel.

Related Content