New Worlds: Places to Stay

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Once you’ve found your way to where you’re going . . . what then? Where are you going to stay once you get there?

Let’s start, as we so often do, at the most basic end: sleeping rough. This can happen because you’re traveling through an area where there are no accommodations for travelers, or because you can’t afford to stay in them, or because the proprietors don’t want you there. If you’re lucky you have some kind of bedroll to put under you and/or a blanket to put over you; without that, the ground is a hard and unfriendly place to sleep, and hypothermia can be a real risk even at relatively mild temperatures. Depending on the environment, you may be able to pad your makeshift bed with some kind of springy boughs or other vegetation (and survival guides can give you more tips on this for different environments). If it’s likely to rain or snow, you hope for a tree or a hedge to keep the weather at least somewhat off you.

Upgrade one step from there, and you’re properly camping. These days it’s relatively easy to carry passably comfortable accommodations on your back, thanks to modern materials engineering, which give us things like lightweight collapsible support rods for tents and ultra-thin, waterproof fabric for said tents, sleeping bags, and so forth. We can easily imagine that futuristic technology will make this even easier, perhaps by adding solar-powered heaters or fans small enough to be worth hauling around the mountains. And of course magic can offer you things like the tents in Harry Potter, where you duck under an unpromising flap to find yourself in a palatial tent-mansion, with all kinds of amenities ready and waiting. But absent those forms of assistance, you’re looking at heavy canvas and the wooden rods to hold it up — not to mention a mess kit for cooking your dinner and other necessities of survival in the wild. Better hope you have a servant or a four-footed minion to help carry the load.

Fortunately for travelers of yore, the business and art of giving people places to stay goes back a long, long way.

Much of this was done by private individuals — the historical and much less formalized equivalent of AirBnB. A person on the road would begin looking for farmhouses as the sun got low in the sky, then knock on doors to ask if they could possibly shelter under the farmer’s roof. Sometimes the roof offered was in the house itself, especially if the traveler could pay; for a high-ranking guest, the master might well vacate his own bed. Otherwise it might just be a spot in front of the fire. A less hospitable host, or one afraid of what the stranger might do, could offer up a barn or other outbuilding, keeping a potential threat well away from the family (and the family valuables).

A more institutionalized version of that might be found at a religious establishment. This was true both in Europe and East Asia; I suspect it’s true anywhere you find large, self-sufficient communities of religious individuals, since most organized faiths agree that charity and hospitality are good things. As with a house, that doesn’t necessarily mean a traveler is welcomed into the bosom of the group; a convent, for example, might have a specific building for housing male guests, where the majority of the cloistered women won’t have to see them. And some groups could be downright hostile toward strangers, whatever their scriptures might say — sometimes (again) out of fear, and sometimes out of sheer miserliness. Not all monks and nuns are nice.

Which is why, in the end, one’s best bet might be the formal hospitality industry. Which didn’t have that name in the past, of course — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Sometimes this was a scaled-up version of Ye Olde AirBnB, as when the local tavern rented out space on its floor, or a few designated rooms, while the family slept elsewhere on the premises. But in areas along major trade routes, or near the docks of ports, you get full-blown professional accommodations: businesses dedicated to offering food and places to sleep for people passing through. Or even whole neighborhoods of that sort, if the traffic was high enough.

This was a risky business. If a traveler skipped out without paying their bill, how could the proprietor ever track them down? New arrivals might carry diseases from other lands into the community. They could get drunk and smash things, or make inappropriate advances toward any women in their vicinity, or turn out to be on the run from something where they came from. But of course the risks went both ways. Travelers were very vulnerable to being bilked, especially in situations where there were no viable alternatives except for sleeping under a hedge. Overpriced food of uncertain quality, beds infested with vermin of various kinds, unpleasant drafts or rooms that hadn’t been aired in far too long — all the ills of modern hotels and quite a few more.

For example, theft was a much greater risk, because the rooms didn’t necessarily have individual locks, and they certainly didn’t have individual programmable safes. The rooms might not even have privacy: outside of hostel situations, these days we tend to know all the people we’re rooming with. That wasn’t necessarily true in the past. And in some cases you couldn’t even assume you’d have a bed to yourself; what you bought was a place to sleep, and if you didn’t have much money or the inn was very full, that place might be “between two other people sharing the same mattress.”

I suspect futuristic versions of cheap accommodations are more likely to go in the direction of Japan’s capsule hotels, where what you pay for is essentially a human-sized locker with a mattress for a floor. If all you need is a place to sleep, it’s the bare minimum at a minimal price — so long as you aren’t claustrophobic, and don’t mind sleeping in something akin to a morgue drawer.

Me, I think I’ll stick with a normal hotel. Even if they do charge too much for the food.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Places to Stay — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Places to Stay - Swan Tower

  2. Which is why you had stories about the strangers who showed up on the doorstep being gods. One way to intimidate people in behaving.

    Inns tend to be a day apart on the road. That’s where the business was.

  3. Don’t forget about workforce “housing,” either, which has a huge cross-influence on traveller accommodations. Seasonal worker (admittedly, this is a mostly post-Renaissance phenomenon — it depends upon a certain intensity of food production and other activities that was quite rare before then, technologically) and maritime worker housing had and has a huge effect on the availability and types of non-rough accommodations available to travellers. They also have a big effect on the types and availability of non-rough equipment for portable/transient housing.

    • Yeah, prior to the Renaissance (and especially prior to the Industrial Revolution), that kind of mobility was much rarer. But you do get it in ports, because those inherently bring large numbers of people into town for a limited amount of time. Less in the way of camping equipment, though — it’s stuff for repairing ships instead.