If you pay US$100 (Rp1.4 million) for a room at a luxurious hotel (or more likely your company does), you can rest assured that every amenity will be laid on, such as plump folded towels and scented toiletries. Not to mention little extras like a welcome drink, a dinky chocolate wafer placed fussily on each pillow, and room service provided by a smart young professional. You will certainly feel pampered regarding some of your more imaginative needs.
Not so if you’re a cost-conscious backpacker paying substantially less for a room at a third-rate hotel (guesthouse, hostel, and flea box), in which case your towel might be a threadbare dishcloth, your wash kit consists of a thin tablet of odourless soap, and your room service provided by Norman Bates’ mother.
At this bottom end of the market, as a budget traveller happy to be buried under a pile of rucksacks in the back of a minibus coming into a town, what basic hotel room features can you sacrifice to shave another few dollars off your room rate?
My attitude is that even spaceships have windows, so I don’t see why my earthbound hotel room should be without one (even if just like a spaceship’s there’s nothing to see out of it). It’s no fun to dream that you’re being shaken awake by a member of a cave rescue team at eight in the morning until you’ve turned the light on, which buzzes and flickers as though annoyed at being disturbed. If you don’t mind this, windowless rooms are cheap. But they’re usually small as well. You’ll feel like you’re sleeping in a packing crate or that Count Dracula has the better deal waking up in a coffin. Besides, if you’re in a windowless room, you really are at rock-bottom. My advice would be to buy a tent and pitch it in a park, or to go home.
There is a hotel in Sweden made entirely of ice. Guests can chip bits off the bedside table, presumably, to put in their drinks from the minibar. In Indonesia of course, if you checked into an ice hotel, you’d be checking out in no time as the walls rapidly melt around you. Air conditioning in any hotel is important for obvious reasons, especially in a country where the temperature can reach 40 degrees Celsius. Wrap yourself in tin foil at that temperature and you’d bake like a turkey. A common problem is that air conditioner units, especially the window type found in the oldest and crappiest hotels, can be noisy. In the worst cases, they sound like a tractor and help only farmers sleep soundly. The alternative is a fan room. Turn off the light and pretend it’s a cooling ocean breeze.
While a minibar in a major hotel will be handsomely stocked with assorted beers, juices, fizzy drinks, and miniatures – as though managed by upscale supermarket Kem Chicks, the one in your downmarket hovel might comprise a few beers and Pepsi, a flask, and packets of Indomie – as though managed by the local Alfamart. Here’s a tip: replenish the minibar from the local shop before you check out the next day and you’ll avoid paying mini bar prices too.
Do you really need your own bathroom? Few people have an ensuite bathroom at home, so it’s actually a luxury to not have to trot down a corridor to answer the call of nature. However, you’ll appreciate the facility if like me you have ever woken up in a new hotel room in the middle of the night with a bursting bladder, unable to remember where you were, or even the layout of the room, and had to feel your way around the walls searching for a light switch with one hand, your other hand clutching your crotch to stem the flow of urine, then have stumbled upon the bathroom, you suspect, and relieved yourself directly onto the tiled floor, only to discover later that it was the hallway. To avoid this ignominy, keep a couple of empty plastic bottles handy by the side of the bed. You can discreetly empty them before checking out of the hotel in the morning (this can be done when you go out to buy the replacement beer for the minibar).
If you ignore the chemical and microbiological hazards of even the cleanest swimming pools (you may as well kiss the bare butt of everyone who’s been in the pool that day before you), then you can happily take a swim in your hotel pool, or even relax on a sunbed and dream of heaven. Heaven, in this case, could be the most luxurious and expensive hotel room in Jakarta. If the price for one night was shared between occupants willing to pay US$10 (Rp140,000) each, around 1,573 of them would be stuffed into the spacious room. A good few of those would fit on the bed in the master bedroom, which could be almost twice the size of a normal king-size bed. A few others could fit in the most opulent bathtub. Dream on, backpackers.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay travels across America attempting to fix “horrid hotels, awful inns, and bad bed and breakfasts.” While Michelin awards stars, Ramsay awards expletives. Imagine his reaction where he has to sample the dives of Java, finding one five-expletive hotel after another. He invariably complains about the food as he spits it out. I fondly recall this one particular iconic hotel in Bandung, where breakfast, delivered on a tray by a man who looked as historic as the building, was two cold boiled eggs in Bakelite egg cups, two slices of bread along with a knob of Blue Band margarine, and a small glass of tepid sweet black tea – items that would have gobsmacked Gordon Ramsay. The hotel recently got remodelled with the attachment of a modern tower to its old Dutch edifice, charming both inside and out.
Finally, finding a cheap rundown hotel in Jakarta these days isn’t so easy, especially since the demise of Jalan Jaksa. Five years ago, those in the hospitality industry predicted that a hotel boom in Indonesia would lead to lower room rates. There’s certainly been a boom – walk around the Thamrin area and you’d think you’re on a giant Monopoly board in the late stages of a game where all houses had been exchanged for hotels. Many are boutique hotels. But cheap? Not in everyone’s book.