Friday, March 8, 2013

Where to lay your head?

With the closure of the largest (and best located) hostel in Winnipeg last year, I’m left wondering where budget travellers are going to stay this summer.  The loss of the 120 bed facility is nothing to be taken lightly. We are constantly being told how things like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are going to draw people to our city, but what good is it if we can’t offer them a place to stay? Not everyone can afford to (or wants to) stay in a hotel. Hostels are especially perfect for solo travellers, and I personally have stayed in them all over the world. They offer socializing opportunities not found in most hotels, the chance to pay for a bed instead of a whole room and usually have kitchen facilities where you can make a meal or two, saving yourself even a few more dollars.

Right now Winnipeg has only one other "real" hostel, Guest House International, on Maryland St. The Hostelling International (HI) was also located on Maryland before it moved to its now defunct digs downtown. Part of the reason for the move to the larger location is that for years prior to the move both hostels found themselves needing to turn business away in the summer due to lack of space. Now, while it is true that you can generally make reservations for a hostel, what happens for those folks who are on less of a strict itinerary? 

It appears that there is another place that is billing itself as a hostel, the UWinnipeg Downtown Hostel however it has limited availability during the winter months. Now, to be fair, the demand for dorm bed space in Winnipeg is mostly limited to our summer, which is why I think the HI hostel had trouble making ends meet - 120 beds would have been jammed in July and desolate in December. The problem with this UWinnipeg hostel is that the prices for anything less than a month are quite high - $58/night, $37/night if you book for a week and then a very reasonable $20 or so a night if you book for the month.

I'm not quite comparing apples to apples as the UWinnipeg facility offers private rooms but I think the average young (or young-at-heart) traveller is going to much prefer the $29/night dorm bed at Guest House International.

So what are the other options?

Well, potential visitors to Winnipeg could try Couchsurfing ( there are currently 819 Winnipeggers on that site who might be willing to let one or more folks stay with them. If you're unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it's this in a nutshell: People create a profile telling the world a little about who they are, where they live, what languages they speak and if they have a spare "couch" for a visitor. This couch could be an actual couch, an air mattress on the floor, a tent in the backyard or even a spare bedroom with ensuite! Users set the levels of who/when they might be willing to entertain visitors, for example a female could specify that she's only willing to have female guests, or a person could say they could only host one guest at a time. Users can also set their status to things like "yes, have couch available" or "travelling" and even "not right now (but can hang out)". 

This is my bed. This post was an excellent excuse to show it off
I've not personally used Couchsurfing when visiting somewhere yet, but I have had people come an stay in my spare bedroom. It's a really interesting way to meet new people. Generally, with Couchsurfing the idea is that it's free, although you may want to buy your host a coffee or dinner as the situation warrants.

Another option is AirBnB, which currently has 32 listings available in Winnipeg. AirBnB is a little like turning your spare bedroom into a hotel room. Or even renting out your entire house or apartment. It also might just be an airmattress in the living room. Again, users set the parameters and even their rates. Currently in Winnipeg rates range from $35 to $150 a night. I checked out a few of the cheaper options and it seemed common that the $35 was for one person with an additional $10 charge for extra people (depending on how many sleeping spaces were available).

AirBnB really intrigues me as a concept, and they even offer up to $1,000,000 insurance policy for theft/damage done to the home. My biggest concern when considering to be a host is how it might impact my current homeowner policy? I just haven't found the time to look into it properly yet as a homeowner - but as a potential guest it seems like a great idea!

Both the Couchsurfing and AirBnB have a review system so you can really get a sense before you book for what sort of experience you might be in for. They also offer something a hostel generally doesn't - a chance to interact with a local on a one on one basis.

All I know is Winnipeg is likely to be extremely short on budget accommodation this summer and in a city that is desperate to attract visitors we can't afford to turn people away.

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