I like to think of myself as thrifty, always on the hunt for a bargain or a sale. Iâ€™m the sort of person who uses a coupon just to use it, even if I donâ€™t need the product being offered. So when I planned a weekend jaunt to London with my then-boyfriend, James, and my new friend, Jenni, I wanted it to be as cheap as possible. We were three college students living in a land where the American dollar was worthless, and whatever dollars we had in our bank accounts were rapidly dwindling away.
Using our Youth Rail Cards, I booked discounted seats on the train. Then I researched online profiles of various London hostels. Some were located in sketchy parts of the city. Others required you to pay extra for towels! I made reservations for co-ed rooms at the International Youth Hostel conveniently located on Great Portland Street next to a tube station (towels were provided!).
We planned to leave on a Friday, spending Saturday roaming the city, returning to school late that Sunday. Because I didnâ€™t get out of class on Fridays until 5:00 p.m., we had to catch a late train. I suppose I could have just skipped class, but I happen to be a very studious student, thank you very much.
My always-thinking brain wrapped itself around a plan to save us money on the hostel.
â€œIf we donâ€™t get to the hostel until 2:00 in the morning on Saturday,â€ I mused, â€œwhatâ€™s the point of booking a room for Friday? Weâ€™ll only be sleeping in the room on Saturday!â€
The online reservation form asked us what time we would arrive. I figured the hostel wanted to know so they could be prepared for us, i.e. have our room ready.
Next to me in the library, James watched my every move, stroking his huge sideburns and nodding silently as my brilliant plan unfolded. I figured if he found a glitch, he would tell me. Right? Our relationship was still fresh. Perhaps he was protecting me from embarrassing myself in front of him.
We boarded our first train in Liverpool around 7:00 Friday night, and then caught a connecting train around 9:00 p.m. From inside a heated information terminal, away from the blistering cold, we waited for our connecting train. Jenni tried to buy a Twix from a vending machine, but it ate her pound coin. Finally, the train arrived, and we were off. Virgin makes the most amazingly comfy, spacious, aesthetically pleasing trains, as well as mega-music stores, planes, cola and phones. Whatever Richard Branson touches turns to gold.
Despite such comfort (for so little money), we could not sleep on the train – partly due to a group of rowdy Russian boys drinking beer and playing cards a few seats behind us, but mainly because we were excited about going to London!
With sleep not an option, I looked at myself in the reflection of the trainâ€™s window. Good thing I had showered Friday afternoon instead of Friday morning. I somehow felt less dirty. But dirtiness would be the least of our problems.
â€œYou know,â€ Jenni said to me, â€œI hope they have a room for us when we get to the hostel. Most hostels have a certain check-in time. People could still be sleeping from Friday night in whatever room the hostel people are going to give us for Saturday.â€
â€œThe Web site didnâ€™t say anything about a check-in time,â€ I countered. I explained how the Web site asked for our arrival time. I didnâ€™t add that I am always right.
Londonâ€™s Euston Station was pretty much dead at 1:22 a.m. except for us. We walked outside to the bus stations. The few stars in the sky were frosted over and the smell of bus exhaust met my nostrils. Streetlights flashing red, yellow and green reflected in the puddles of fresh rainwater on the asphalt. Yep. London.
Before leaving for London, I had researched bus times and destinations in hopes that it would make our situation easier when we got there. Well, we spent fifteen minutes shivering in front of numerous bus terminals looking for the bus that we thought might take us to our hostel. It did not.
We enjoyed the ride to the other side of the city with a drunken man who threw up all over the floor. Getting off a bus never felt so good. James popped into an Indian take-out restaurant filled with cops and asked for directions. We hurriedly crossed the street to board a different bus that drove us all the way back. Still unsure of exactly which stop to get off at, we just picked one and ended up walking for a really long time, lugging our heavily-packed weekend bags (we each had two) down empty London side streets that didnâ€™t appear on my pocket pop-up map. Somehow we reached Great Portland Street where we wandered aimlessly for another ten minutes looking for the hostel, which was hidden behind another building, tucked into a far corner, its street number barely visible to the public.
Being the genius Iâ€™ve already made myself out to be, I wore only jeans, a T-shirt, a crocheted scarf and hooded sweatshirt jacket. Hardly the proper attire for weather in the single digits.
â€œHi, we have a reservation for Hahn,â€ I told the night clerk when we made our way inside the hostel.
He shuffled through some papers. Then some others. I saw white envelopes on the desk with peopleâ€™s names written on them, obviously for those with reservations.
â€œI donâ€™t see your name here,â€ the night clerk said. He was a polite old man who liked talking with the youngsters and reminiscing about the old days. But I was tired and cold and wanted my room. â€œWhen is your reservation for?â€
â€œToday,â€ I said.
â€œAh, Saturday. Check-in for Saturday isnâ€™t until 10:00 a.m.â€
â€œThere is a lounge upstairs,â€ the man said. â€œYou can wait up there, if you like.â€
By this time it was three in the morning. What else were we to do? So we walked across the street to a 24-hour convenience store, stocked up on Pringles, sodas and Cheez-its, then shacked up in the hostelâ€™s lounge where Family Guy played on the television. Late at night in a foreign land and we still had all the comforts of America.
Capping the night off with some sleep sounded like a good idea. As we prepared for bed, Jenni grinned. â€œWell, this will be quite an experience.â€ I was glad she thought so. We brushed our teeth in the public bathrooms, kissed on the staircase. Well, James and I kissed. Jenni did not kiss either of us.
We were getting tired and the lounge had only three long tables, a scratchy sofa and several hard, plastic chairs. Being his usual nosy self, James opened a closed door behind the television set, discovering a secret room with a surplus of cushy chairs stacked up along the wall.
â€œWe should take some of these chairs and make a fort or something,â€ James suggested, half-joking, half-serious. At this point, the lounge was empty except for us. â€œIf weâ€™re going to spend the night up here, we might as well make the best of it.â€
So, we created beds out of chairs and our coats served as pillows. We took off our shoes and settled down for the night. Comfy. Everything I expected a hostel to be!
Around 7:30 a.m., I woke up, unable to sleep any longer underneath a vent blowing cold air at me. I put in my contact lenses, put on my shoes. Jenni and James were still out cold, oblivious to the trouble brewing.
The manager of the hostel came up to the lounge area to open up the concession stand. Upon seeing us sleeping there, he asked us what we were doing. No, more like demanded what we were doing.
â€œThis isnâ€™t a bedroom, you know,â€ he told us, me, the only one awake. â€œCould you put these chairs back? The lounge is opening soon.â€
I woke Jenni and James and explained our situation to the manager, how we arrived early that morning, the night clerk letting us come up to the lounge. I expected the hostel manager to show sympathy. This is what traveling college kids did, right? Thatâ€™s what a hostel was for, wasnâ€™t it? The people who owned hostels were supposed to be laid-back, former traveling gypsies.
This guy was just a guy running a business, and he didnâ€™t care about my booking mistake.
â€œCheck-in isnâ€™t until 12:30. You know that, right?â€ he snapped at me in his already sharp British accent.
â€œOh, the night clerk told us check-in was at 10,â€ I said in my nice people-person voice.
â€œPut your shoes back on, please,â€ the manager sneered at James, who was still wearing just his socks.
James muttered, â€œMaybe we should dance naked for you like everyone else here.â€
The manager either did not hear this or chose to ignore us, terribly rude Americans that we were. We were too tired to fight with the guy, so we obliged his wishes and got out of that lounge as fast as we could. After a few quick applications of deodorant, we stored our luggage with the concierge and set off sightseeing. We walked the entire length of Abbey Road, toured the Sherlock Holmes museum and ate deli sandwiches and coffee in Trafalgar Square. The weather was crisp and sunny, the makings of a perfect day.
Around 12:30 we headed back to the hostel for check-in. Jenni was placed in an all-girls four-person room; James and I in a four-person co-ed room. The two of us were relieved to see that we had the room to ourselves. Each of the four bunk beds was untouched. No creepy roommates stealing our bags. Maybe the evening would be nice and quiet.
After showering, we hit up more tourist spots. Nothing like seeing Buckingham Palace in the snow and still only wearing a T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt jacket! By 8:00 p.m., we were pooped. We had been running on four hours of sleep and there was still Sunday. All we wanted was a good nightâ€™s sleep after a relatively good day.
Good day. Not night.
We had been through quite a lot: late train rides, vomit chasing after our feet in buses, freezing in dangerously dark London streets, sleeping on makeshift beds in a ridiculously air-conditioned lounge, getting yelled at by Mr. Snooty British Pants. All we wanted was sleep. And thatâ€™s what James and I did in our room. Until a French couple, our roommates, entered our room at 3:00 a.m., turning on a desk lamp, giggling loudly (â€œElvis, Elvis,â€ they stage whispered) and moving back and forth between their top and bottom bunks. When the French couple left the room, many missed-sleep-minutes later, the desk lamp they had turned on continued to shine hotly in Jamesâ€™s face. Jenni fared no better in her room that night when her three drunken roommates stumbled into bed after some hard clubbing.
Sleep in London seemed out of reach. We saw what we wanted to see, but by the end of the trip, all we wanted to see was a bed.