Time To Trade Up

Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Travel Writer

Rrrrrumble, rrrrrumble.

One hot, sticky August night on the Spanish coast my husband and I were trying to sleep. The open window of our budget hotel room let in an intermittent breeze off the sea. Unfortunately, it also let in the groans, rumbles and shrieks of garbage trucks and tour buses on the street below.

Wide-eyed at 5 a.m. and cursing the bus station a block away, we got up and closed the window. The rumbling and shrieks were instantly muted, but the tiny, airless stucco-walled room quickly became suffocatingly hot. At 8 on Sunday morning we finally gave up trying to sleep and headed down to the beach for a cold dip in the sea. As the sun rose lazily over the sleepy, whitewashed town, I reflected on the contrast between the languid silence and the cacophony that woke us up.

Nearly every traveler I know has had a moment when the epiphany strikes: It’s time to trade up. Suddenly, you realize you’re too old —or too stressed out — to deal with leaky tents, uncomfortable mattresses or whatever else had previously sufficed.

This realization is usually, though not always, a function of age. For some I know, it’s also a function of having children, needing to disconnect more thoroughly from a high-power job or accommodating a physical issue. But the hotel clerk in Tossa de Mar knew what the deal was. “Sois jovenes?” she chirped when I made the reservation. “Are you young? Then I’ll give you the top floor — better views, but no elevator.”

We mumbled an assent, though I wondered how far into your 30s you still qualified as young, and ignored the protests from my bad right knee as we climbed to our — admittedly romantic — top-floor room.

But that weekend in Tossa de Mar, a Catalan resort town full of modest — and modestly priced — hotels, I realized we were too old to keep sleeping at the cheapest digs possible.

It had, frankly, been coming for awhile. There were the nights we’d woken up with aching backs, sore from eight hours on an atrociously worn-out mattress at the hotel we’d booked for a romantic weekend getaway. We’d try to ignore the back pain, but waking up with sore joints spoils the mood.
So does frigid cold. Think the Amalfi Coast is romantic in October? It is, by day, when the sun shines and the air is scented with lemons. But not at night in an unheated budget pensione, where you wrap yourself in three layers of clothing to stay warm at 50 degrees.

Every traveler has his or her style, and mine was always budget. I wouldn’t call myself a frugal traveler, exactly; it’s just that, with a limited budget, I had my priorities. Choosing to splurge on dinners out and afternoons shopping, I prided myself on being a no-fuss, minimalist hotel type. Clean sheets, a place to crash for eight hours before rushing out to explore all day — who needed anything more, really?

As it turns out, my husband, Oggi, needs more. A lot more. He’s a minimalist type at home, so it never dawned on me that he might, secretly, be the breakfast buffet type. He’d grown up in a poor Eastern European country, persevering through 36-hour bus rides and crashing on floors. I always just sort of assumed he’d be on board with my no-frills hotel routine.

He was, for awhile. But it turns out that, on his rare weekends away, he likes to loll around in bed, flipping the remote. That’s hard to do if you’re renting a bare-bones room with no television. “And I’m never taking the bus again,” he growled as we stood in the ticket line at Tossa. Commuting, that’s fine; come Saturday, he wants the freedom of a rental car, cruising down the highway while Chopin blasts.

I dragged my remarkably good-humored mother through countless cities’ worth of cheap hotels in her fifties, but a decade later, she’s laid down the proverbial law: No more uncomfortable beds, and no more threadbare bathrooms, either, thank you very much. She wants a bathmat, hot water, plenty of fluffy towels, and a spacious shower area. In cramped, retrofitted Europe, that rules out nearly the entire low end — and it’s time for me to respect that, if I want her company.

Ironically, even as rustic kibbutzim and campgrounds have been going upscale and adding amenities, the low end of accommodations is actually getting lower. Couchsurfing, the website-slash-movement that allows users to crash free on each other’s futons, is exploding in popularity – and not all of its users are college kids, either.

But I’m officially too old. I loved my four-day odyssey from Bloomington, Ind., to Los Angeles by Greyhound bus — the nights spent staring out the window at prairie lightning storms in Oklahoma, the days of random conversations with seatmates from Terre Haute. I arrived cramped, sweaty and exhilarated by my showerless tour of America.

But I was 18 then. Next time, I’d rent a car. 

A budget hotel in Tossa de Mar, on the Spanish coast, was hot and noisy, at least for one couple

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