Last fall, my sister, Hannah, and I went on a four-week-long backpacking trip through Europe. As two twenty-somethings with a thirst for adventure (and a lot of money saved up), we knew that we were at the perfect point in our lives to embark on such a trip. We ended up traveling to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and Austria. I wish I could say that our entire trip went smoothly, but life doesn’t always go as planned.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” And a lot of the time, this saying rings true. But for anyone who’s ever gone backpacking or traveled on a budget, you’re probably aware being cheap doesn’t always have to mean sacrificing comfort, cleanliness or safety. In fact, you can find some really nice hostels and Airbnbs for under $30 per night in many popular cities.
For the first half of our trip, all of our accommodations were cheap but still clean and pleasant. So when we eventually made it to Brussels, we figured the two-star hotel we’d booked would follow in these same footsteps.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
From the moment we stepped outside the train station, Brussels gave us a bad vibe. We definitely didn’t feel as comfortable as we had in Dublin, Edinburgh or London. The part of the city we were walking through seemed a bit run-down. Drivers didn’t pay attention to pedestrians, and we kept feeling as though we were being leered at by passers-by. After walking for about a mile, I was relieved when we finally made it to our hotel and checked into our room.
At a glance, our small, first-floor room looked pretty nice. The walls were painted green, and there was a flat-screen TV on the wall. We also had our own private, attached bathroom—something we didn’t have at any of our other accommodations. We proceeded to set our backpacks down on the floor near the foot of our twin beds and discussed our negative impressions of the city.
After browsing for a bit on our iPhones, we discovered that we were staying in the sketchiest part of town. Our hotel was only a couple streets away from the red light district. All of the creepy vibes we had picked up earlier were not imagined.
Hoping to relax a bit, I turned on the TV but was disappointed to find my viewing options were limited to ten static-filled channels. To make matters even worse, the skylight in our room was propped open by a wrench bolted to the wall, thus allowing the chilly 60-degree breeze to infiltrate our room. I tried fiddling with the large heater situated below the TV, but it was broken. Fed up, I decided to take a long, hot shower, hoping it would warm me up and wash away my stress.
A little later, our hunger forced us back out onto the streets in search of food. We ended up walking a few blocks around the area but couldn’t find any restaurants (or even just a fast food joint) to grab a bite. Still tired after a long day of traveling, neither of us was up for walking too far, so we popped into a small store and bought whatever we could find. That evening, we had chips, soda and a bag of croissants for dinner.
At around 9 o’clock, I was tired and ready to go to bed. The smell of cigarette smoke and the sounds of laughter that passed through our open skylight made me feel extra vulnerable. But even with an anxious mind, I managed to fall asleep within a few minutes.
It was only a couple hours later I awoke to Hannah shouting there was something inside our room. She turned on the bedside lamp and said she thought she saw a mouse scurry away. I was confused and groggy. With the lights turned on, we also noticed there was a large spider in the corner of the room. In the moment that we were discussing whether or not the spider was what Hannah had seen, we both saw the head of a mouse poke up through a hole in the floor near the heater. It was immediately clear to us a mouse had come into our dark, cold room to eat through the unopened bag of sweet croissants we’d left sitting on the floor.
We didn’t know what to do. Neither of us had ever been in a situation like this before. We were disgusted and horrified.
We quickly slipped our shoes on and went outside. The hotel was split into two sections, so we had to walk down the sidewalk to get to the main building.
When we entered, we noticed an old man standing near the front desk. Hannah calmly told him that we had seen a mouse in our room, and his immediate reaction was to say, “A mouse? Oh no no no….” Here we were, standing in the lobby in our pajamas, and this guy wasn’t even taking us seriously.
After waiting for him to check in a couple of backpackers who had just shown up right after us, he finally agreed to come check our room. We showed him the hole near the heater and explained what we had seen. He bent down to look around the area.
“Mr. Mouse!” he exclaimed in a cartoonish tone, before shooting a smirk at us.
I stared back without any expression. He then asked for some tissue paper, so I quickly retrieved some from the bathroom and handed it to him. He proceeded to kill the big spider that had been sitting on the wall (the only nice thing he did for us), and then stuffed the rest of the paper into the hole. In his mind, our problem was now solved. Hannah tried asking him about changing rooms, but he firmly replied that every other room was occupied and then walked out. Hannah and I were both in shock.
We made up our minds that we would brave out the rest of the night in our room. All of the four- and five-star hotels were at least a twenty-minute walk away, and neither of us felt comfortable walking around at midnight. We moved the food that was in our room out into the hall, and turned on the lights and TV. Hannah also booked a four-star hotel that we would check into the next afternoon.
For the next couple of hours, we tried sleeping but we kept waking up due to our mounting anxiety. At this point, I didn’t think our situation could get any worse, but then Hannah pointed out a bug on the wall. I wrote it off as just a regular bug.
But a few minutes later, another one was crawling on her bed. Hannah was now convinced that our room was infested with bed bugs, but I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted nothing more than to sleep. The two of us got out of our beds and stood near the bathroom door. I then looked over at my pillow and saw a bug crawl over it and back under.
Once again, we put on our shoes and hurriedly ran to the main building, except this time, the door was locked and no one was at the desk. The hotel was supposed to have 24-hour assistance.
Upset and angry, we returned to our room, and Hannah read up some more on bed bugs. We ended up having to move all of our belongings into the bathroom. Still feeling safer in our room than outside, we decided to stay in the bathroom for the remainder of the night.
This entire night had turned into the worst night of my life. We both felt so miserable and even contemplated ending our trip early. In order to prevent spreading bed bug infestations, you have to wash and clean everything that may have come into contact with them. The thought of doing that was so stressful, but we knew we’d have to suck it up and try.
In the early morning, we packed up all of our belongings and told the girl working at the front desk about the mouse and bed bugs. Similar to the man from the night before, she came off as rude and uncaring. She told us that she couldn’t give us a refund, and we’d have to come back later in the afternoon to talk to the owner. We assured her we would do so and then walked out. Our next stop was the laundromat, a place where Hannah and I spent the majority of our day.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. After getting all of our laundry done, we returned to the disgusting two-star hotel and talked to the owner (who was much more understanding than the others), and he gave us a full refund. That night, I slept soundly in my bed in a different hotel, no longer worrying about mice, bed bugs or an open skylight.
After leaving Brussels, Hannah and I continued on to have an amazing second half of our trip in Germany and Austria. And the greatest thing of all is that we didn’t bring any bed bugs back home with us.