Oh, Paris, we meet again. And not precisely under the best circumstances.
Not having a place to sleep had always been a latent fear as a traveller. It was always in the back of my mind, lurking. But I was too much of a control freak to leave anything to chance. After a year of travelling non-stop, I had always had my accommodation sorted. Until a few weeks ago.
I had always had in mind what to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling. But I had never had the chance to test that knowledge. I’d had an amazing time in Sweden and Denmark. However, after my little tour through Scandinavia, I decided to meet with my boyfriend in Tours, France. We spent a week together and then we travelled to Paris. He was going back to Ireland and I was going to try something I had always wanted to do: find a place at Shakespeare and Company.
Shakespeare and Co: The Tumbleweeds
My journey to find out what to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling started at Shakespeare and Company. For those of your unfamiliar with Shakespeare and Co, let’s just say that it is the hipsterest place you can find in France. It has appeared in numerous artsy movies: from Woody Allen’s midnight in Paris to Linklater trilogy “Before Sunrise”.
This sort-of-indie bookshop is in the heart of the French Capital. It sells new and used books, has a lovely and over-priced coffee shop and also offers what it is called the “Tumbleweed Programme”. This is a volunteering opportunity mainly for writers. It gives you the chance to work a few hours in the bookshop and in exchange you can sleep for free in the facilities. The only condition is that you should read a book a day while you stay there and write a short autobiography about yourself.
Doesn’t it sound awesome? For obvious reasons, I had been yearning to volunteer there. However, there was a plot twist. You can’t book in advance. According to the website, it works under a “first comes, first serves” premise. And, even though I did send an email enquiring about my stay, I never got an answer. That’s why I decided to risk it. And it was a big mistake.
Homeless in Paris
I had spent my first three days in Paris in an Airbnb with my friend Pau. We decided to meet for a University reunion with another friend, but on the third day I decided I was going to the book shop and see if they had any space for me.
Granted. It was not the best time of the year to do so. In the middle of June, Paris was on its peak for the summer season and tourists seemed to multiply on the streets. Nevertheless, I kept optimistic and Pau and I went to pay a visit to good old Shakespeare.
Shakespeare and Company is very close to Notre Dame and it is offers a gorgeous view. I asked one of the staff members about the Tumbleweeds and he directed me to the main desk where a girl was on duty. I inquired again and let’s just say that she was beyond rude.
She told me that she was not in charge of the programme and that I should wait for Octavia. When I asked when could I found her, she shrugged and said that could be around 4:00 PM, but there was no guarantee. She refused to give me any sort of information about the logistics of the programme and when I told her I needed to see if there was any chance to stay, she laughed and said they were full for the night. I tried again to find out if they were to have any vacancies during the week and she bitterly laughed again, like I had just asked the most ridiculous question in the world, before saying “Of course not, people stay for weeks, they just don’t leave any day”.
I did not know how the Tumbleweeds’ programme work. And I was there to ask for information and all I got in return was a condescending answer. So I was there, with an inept staff member, a 20 kg suitcase and nowhere to sleep that night.
What to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling.
Being blunt here. Not having a place to sleep while you are travelling is often the result of bad planning. After almost a year on the road, it had only happened to me once, and it was the time the UK border control interrogated me and made me lose my connection to Northern Ireland.
However, this time I was aware that I could have prevented my situation if I had though ahead. However, it was too late to change anything. I was in Paris, the tourists’ capital, in the middle of the summer and every hostel, hotel and Airbnb was already booked or completely out of my budget.
That’s why I decided to share with you this quick guide of what to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling.
1. Go personally to the hostel/hotel
Knowing what to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling might be a bit tricky, since the stress and fear can interfere with your thinking. Your first resource might be the internet, but it is not as reliable as it seems. The booking engine or even the website may say that there are no places available, but after months and months of working in hostels I’ve discovered that sometimes this isn’t true. There might be last-minute cancellations, no-shows or the place might even have an extra bedroom that it is not yet advertised online. In any case, it is always worth it to know some doors and personally ask at the reception desk if they have anything available. Even if they don’t, they might be able to call directly to another hostel and double-check for you.
2. Travel to another city
It might sound ridiculous, but Europe is so small that you can travel to a completely different place in a matter of hours. Big cities are popular and finding last-minute accommodation might be challenging, but if you agree to get out of your comfort zone, you can easily take a train to a town nearby and fin better and cheaper options to stay the night. In the middle of my misadventure, my friend Pau even suggested to catch a flight to Barcelona with her, since it will cost the same than a hotel room and I could crash at her place for free.
Don’t discharge the possibility and look for hostels in the outside of the city. You might get surprised with the results.
3. Use your contacts
What to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling? Ask your friends for help! Even if you don’t directly know anyone in the city you’re staying, there is a chance that someone you know, knows someone living there and willing to help. Advertise your situation in Facebook or make some calls to people you who might be of help. My friend Gina was staying with her sister in the north of Paris. Even though they lived in a very small place with possibly no room for me, she kindly offered me a place in case I exhausted all of my other options. I did manage to find accommodation for the night, but I’m still grateful with Gina for the offering.
4. Go to the airport
This is one of my last options, but I always have it present. Whenever I wonder what to do when you have nowhere to sleep while travelling I remember that airports may not offer a bed and a shower, but they are relatively safe places to spend the night if needed. My mum and I were forced to crash in an airport bench in Los Angeles, and although it is uncomfortable and you have to hug your luggage while you rest your eyes, it is still better than the streets. There are plenty of people spending the night there as well and you have security guards, vending machines, toilet access and probably WiFi.
5. 24hr café
Just like with the airport, this is a good enough option if you don’t mind pulling an all-nighter. There are a few places that open 24/7 or until late hours. Regularly you can count on McDonald’s, but you might find some other (better) options. Here you can pump yourself with caffeine and greasy food while you decide your next move indoors. There’s usually a WiFi connection and possibly a bunch of people with the munchies, but at least this way you won’t feel alone. Again, it is better to stay inside a place than on the streets.
6. Make an investment
This is usually my last choice. Nevertheless, if everything else fails, I always make sure to have some back-up emergency money in case I need to book a room out of my budget. I seldom find myself in need of doing this. However, if the place you are is too insecure or you are so tired and fed up and the only thing you want in life is a nice bed, don’t discharge the option of paying a little extra for some comfort.
So… How did my Paris trip turned out?
I learnt the hard way, but I figured out what to do when you have nowhere to stay while travelling. In case you were wondering, in the end I managed to find a bed in Louvre Youth Hostel. Which is, officially, the worst hostel I’ve stayed in. And believe me, I’ve stayed in many.
I won’t complain much, since it was better than sleeping in the airport. But the place was expensive (nearly 40 euro for a bed in a 4 bed dorm room). It was also dirty, it didn’t have hand wash in the bathrooms and the floors were sticky. I had to pay extra for using the WiFi (and it only worked in the lobby, not in the room), there were no locker rooms to store my belongings and the staff was rude. Also, they overbooked our room and at 2 am we found out that we were 5 girls in a 4-bed room. The only good thing I can say is that it was super centrally located. But that’s as far as it goes. I wouldn’t recommend it to absolutely anyone, but it saved me from homelessness.
However, during the three extra days I spent there, I got the chance to re-visit the city. I had already been there 10 years ago, so this time I was able to go to the not-so-touristy places. If you are curious, you can check this guide with 75 Paris hidden gems and secret tips from Salut From Paris blog for some out of the box ideas of where to go and what to eat.
Oh, and by the way. I ended up going to Shakespeare and Co. again and talking with Octavia (the Tumbleweed manager). She was an absolute delight and she said she was really sorry for not being able to offer me a place, but she was overbooked. She invited me to try again next time I visit Paris. But, if I’m completely honest, I think I’ll keep my distance for a while before returning to the city of lights.
That’s all for now. I’ll write more about Spain, Scandinavia and Switzerland soon!
I guess I’ll see you on the road.
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