Our car was rife with exhausted tension when we rolled into the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary in desperate need of a place to stay.
It was 4am.
We had been driving for over twelve hours since leaving Prague that afternoon. We were lost and we had no idea where we were going to sleep… but it was looking like Hotel Panda (as we had grown fond of calling our car when the seats were cranked back and the three of us would pass out for a few hours in a gas station parking lot) yet again.
Brent and Hilton looked to me.
“Didn’t you have hostels in mind along our route?” asked Brent.
I had been the one suggesting we try to stay in hostels along the way. They’re my go-to for cheap accommodation and a great way to meet other travelers and receive information about the area. When I traveled in South America, I got into the habit of rarely booking a hostel in advance, though. I would just roll up to a new city, find some wifi at the bus station or nearby coffee shop, hop online and pick a promising address to point a taxi towards.
But the Mongol Rally was a new type of travel for me.
One that sometimes involved driving with no clear destination, other than “towards Mongolia”, and frequently arriving in cities at bizarre hours when wifi is difficult if not impossible to find. We were sticking to the outskirts whenever possible in an effort to get in and out of cities without hours of hectic traffic, so hostels and hotels were not in abundance.
On the perimeter of Budapest, the roads were dark and we squinted at signs in Hungarian, trying to decipher neon scrawlings that might have been hotels but could have also been bars, grocery stores, barber shops, or just about anything else that we didn’t need.
At one particularly dark point, I spotted a blue sign with a picture of a bed, pointing down a road that didn’t really look like a road.
“BED!” I yelled from the back seat, prompting Hilton to slam on the brakes in front of a suspicious opening in some roadside woods.
The three of stared down the eerie path, back at the bed sign, and down the path again.
“That doesn’t look like a road to a bed,” muttered Brent.
But the picture of the bed was most definitely pointing down the dirt path, with low hanging trees casting clawed shadows along the dirt.
“Its where the sign is pointing,” I offered.
“Yeah, but that looks straight up Blair Witch,” he countered. Then after an extended pause, “Alright… I’ll check it out.”
Hilton handed him a flashlight with furrowed brows.
“We’ll keep the engine on in case you come running back.”
Hilton and I leaned forward, our eyes locked on Brent as he crept down the path, following the headlights of our car and sporadically pointing the flashlight into the trees hanging down from above him.
This isn’t right, I thought, but kept quiet — hoping I hadn’t just sent my friend into a satanic gathering up ahead with a “bed” for whatever weary traveler happened upon the sacrificial ceremony.
Just moments after he faded from sight, he was back — walking quickly and shaking his head.
He fumbled with the door handle and hopped back in, slamming it shut.
“Yeah, there’s no beds down there. There’s some creepy noises, but definitely no beds.”
So we continued on, the tension turning from quiet to slightly hysterical. We laughed at Brent’s Blair Witch expedition with the nervous energy that clearly questioned what the Hell we had been thinking.
Just as Hotel Panda was looking imminent, we saw it.
I rubbed my eyes in the parking lot, leaning forward from the back. It couldn’t be.
But it was. Ahead of us was an actual “Hotel Panda”.
Our nervous laughter turned into disbelieving joy as I hopped out to inspect — crossing my fingers that a small hotel on a quiet road would have twenty-four hour reception. A “Hotel Panda” had to be our good luck charm.
There was a buzzer on the side entrance, and just as I rang it, I spotted a figure curled up on the lobby couch, tossing off his blanket at the sound of the bell.
He rubbed his eyes as he fumbled with the lock to let me in, but before I could apologize for disrupting his sleep, he was ushering me inside with a smile.
“Welcome to Hotel Panda! You need room?”
We lucked out that night, stumbling upon a hotel on a quiet street at 5am that was actually willing to take our sorry asses in. But the experience prompted me to be a little more proactive about my research. I can’t say we improved a whole lot, but we did start checking out accommodation in advance and writing down an address or two to mark on the maps.
So, some tips for the road tripping, 4am travelers who need a place to sleep…
1. Have a city map. Our giant country maps that we’d grab from gas stations along the way were pretty worthless once we hit big cities.
2. Do your research. Hostelbookers.com is a great place for some preliminary research, even if your route isn’t specific enough to book in advance. You can at least find recommendations and have a list of addresses that you’ve located on a city map to keep in mind.
3. Don’t drive until 4am. Seriously. There’s no reason to kill yourself for the extra distance you’ll cover, because you’ll probably end up sleeping in the following day, defeating the progress you made by driving in the middle of the night. Stop and look for accommodation when reception desks are still open and you don’t have to wake up a sleepy night shifter. Then you’ll be ready to rock after sleeping through the night and hit the road bright and early!
Hotel Panda saved us in Budapest. But we’d still spend some sleepless nights in our own Hotel Panda further down the road…
What are your tips for finding accommodation on road trips? Do you prefer hostels, hotels, camping, or sleeping in the car with your head on the steering wheel? Let’s hear it!
*This post was sponsored by Hostelbookers.com, but all opinions and ramblings are, of course, my own.