Do you have this problem, too? I love to travel, but have limited resources. I’m not interested in staying at fleabag dumps just so I can travel, but if I pay $200+/night for hotel, then I can’t travel as much as I want to. There’s got to be a happy medium, right? My preferred lodging is clean, centrally located (or close to public transportation), and under $150/night. It’s not as easy as you might think to find places like this.
So imagine how happy I was a few weeks ago to discover a website called Darn Good Digs, that provides recommendations of just such places all around the world. These hotels are nominated by travelers and trusted travel bloggers and are researched by the site owners prior to inclusion. Hotels cannot pay to be included in the listings. I really liked the concept of this site and connected with Michael Gonchar, who runs Darn Good Digs with his wife Allison, to interview him about how this site came about and how it can help travelers.
SF: First, Michael, tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.
MG: Allison and I both work in education. I was a history and literature teacher in the New York City public schools for several years, and now I mentor teachers and coach principals in new small public high schools. Allison coordinates an early intervention program in Brooklyn for children aged zero to three. We are both travelers at heart, though, and spend a good amount of our free time planning new trips and reading about the world.
SF: You’ve both done some solo traveling, correct? Any observations about the benefits of solo travel?
MG: Allison spent six weeks traveling around Vietnam on her own, and I spent three weeks traveling around Portugal solo – this was all back before we met each other. Both of us had amazing experiences on those trips – we met cool people and saw wonderful sights. We both learned something about ourselves and the world along the way.
SF: What was the genesis of Darn Good Digs?
MG: We have stayed at some pretty amazing places over the years – places that took us considerable time to unearth in guidebooks, travel magazines, or online. Each time we starting planning a new trip, we were frustrated at how much time it took us to find new places to stay on our limited budget that really excited us. Sometimes I would do Google searches with two or three or our past finds – to see if anyone else put these spots together in a list. Nobody was doing it, and one day we decided we would create our own list of amazing places to stay. That was how we first launched Darn Good Digs – with 10 of our favorite places to stay for under $150.
SF: Your site focuses on establishments that have rooms for under $150 a night even in high season that are also locally-owned. Why the emphasis on locally-owned hotels?
MG: We believe in locally owned businesses for two reasons. First, we think we have a more authentic travel experience when we stay somewhere original. We often get to know the owners or the other guests. Each hotel stands out from the next – they don’t blend together in our minds like a franchise hotel might. The second reason is because we want to support high quality independently owned businesses. We think they make the world a more interesting place. Too often in the United States, you can travel from one town to the next and find the same exact bookstores, restaurants, and pharmacies. We don’t want the whole world to look the same.
SF: Who writes the reviews for these “darn good digs”?
MG: We started darngoodigs.com with ten reviews of our favorite places, but then we realized the only way we could make our world-wide list of extraordinary hotels was to tap into all the travelers on the web. We asked travelers to nominate their favorite places using our nomination form, and then we research all the nominations. We choose the best of the best to edit and post as “Darn Good Digs”, and then we select many of the other nominations, to post verbatim, as “Traveler Favorites”. At this point only about fifteen of our reviews are from our own travels – the other 80% are from savvy travelers and travel bloggers from around the world.
SF: Tell me about the Nominate-a-thon—how does that work?
MG: We started the Nominate-a-thons as a way to make the nomination process more fun. For our first nominate-a-thon we gave away a travel bag, and for our current one we are giving away two prizes: the Rough Guides’ Earth Bound photography book and a Rough Guide of the winner’s choice. We give three raffle tickets to each traveler who nominates their favorite digs, and one ticket for anyone who signs up for our newsletter. Then on December 18th our four year old son will pick the winners from a separate bowl for each prize.
SF: Do you have a vetting process by which you verify that the information you’ve received via nominations is accurate?
MG: When we started the nomination process we knew we would have to be very careful to post only genuine reviews, and not reviews by hotel owners and PR agents. Just as importantly, we want the hotels on Darn Good Digs to stand out from run-of-the-mill budget hotels, so we needed to establish a high level of quality control. The result is a very rigorous “vetting” process, where we literally can spend hours researching each review. A few of the tools we use are online hotel review sites, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and travel forums. We also are heavy users of our amazing public library system in New York City, where we can search in all the guidebooks and travel magazines. If a place definitely meets all our criteria, then we post the review as a “Darn Good Digs”. If it meets some of our criteria, or if there is a lack of clarity or information, we will post it as a “Traveler Favorite”. Less than 20% of the nominations we receive eventually become Darn Good Digs.
SF: What is your one favorite “darn good dig” that you’ve stayed at and why?
MG: That’s a tough one. Certainly one of our favorites is Vento di Rose, a three bedroom bed and breakfast perched below the medieval town of Monterubbiano in Italy’s The Marche region. For starters, the breakfasts were unbelievable and truly exciting each morning – not to mention substantial enough that we were encouraged to wrap our leftovers for lunch. The other stand out was the incredible hospitality of the innkeepers, Emanuela and Emidio, who allowed our two year old son to help out in the garden and who invited us to join a toast to their friends who just got engaged. We loved our three week trip in Italy, but Vento di Rose stood out as magical.
SF: How can Darn Good Digs help the solo traveler, and vice versa?
MG: Darn Good Digs can be a great resource for the solo traveler who is looking for original places to stay without wanting to spend a lot of money. The $150 price is the maximum, but we have places that go down to about $10 a night, like the Mayoka Village in Malawi. We recommend that travelers visit Darn Good Digs first, before they go to larger sites to do their travel planning.
As far as solo travelers helping us, we’re always looking for new nominations. We’re trying to build a guide to the best small hotels, b&b’s, and hostels around the world for budget-minded travelers, and the only way we are going to do that is if travelers continue to nominate their favorite digs.
SF: What’s your long-term vision for Darn Good Digs?
MG: We want Darn Good Digs to become an invaluable resource for budget-minded travelers looking for cool places to stay. We hope to build a guide of hundreds of the best digs, so that when someone wants a cool hotel in Boise or Bhutan, we have it. We’re getting there, and we’ll pass our one hundredth review soon, but it takes time. We are also in the works of giving visitors the option to make inquiries or bookings through out site.
SF: Is there anything else you’d like my readers to know about Darn Good Digs?
MG: Please join our Nominate-a-thon and nominate your favorite digs. And if you haven’t done so already, please sign up for our quarterly newsletter or subscribe to our blog so you can be part of our endeavor to build a guide to the best original small hotels, b&b’s and guest houses for budget-minded travelers.
Thanks again, Michael, for sharing information about Darn Good Digs with us. Readers, if you’ve ever stayed at a great under $150/night locally owned hotel, B&B or hostel, please be sure to submit it to Darn Good Digs. The best way to grow this useful resource is for all of us to contribute. And I know I’ll be checking their site before I travel anywhere from now on!