I love to travel and explore foreign countries and have traveled many countries alone.  As a single female traveler one of the most important aspects of each trip we take is where we stay during our travels.  I can speak of personal experience as I have had some really bad hotel experiences and unsafe locations have totally ruined my vacations for the first day, until I decide to forfeit my money paid upfront, in pursuit of finding more comforting, pleasurable and safe places to stay.

Today most of us spend hours searching online for the best possible accommodation based on location and price point.   Our accommodations are usually chosen based on authenticity, location, comfort, cost, and the way they reflect the local character.   However, even after hours of viewing alternatives, we sometimes end up with a bad choice which totally ruins our experience of a location.  The photos of the hotel and travel websites may look great or the reviews of the properties are good, but something glitches. Seemingly small things, such as the great looking pool in the center of the hotel property is under repair and workers start drilling at 7:00am in the morning, making your stay totally miserable, especially if you have had a long international travel and jetlag.  Or, you just needed that long peaceful weekend to distress alone, reading and writing.

30 years ago there were no travel websites, hotel reviews and smart phones.  The first time I arrived in Chicago 30 years ago I made 2 big mistakes.  First of all I had not made any hotel reservations ahead of time (I was traveling for 2 months with no fixed itineraries) – and I arrived in Chicago at 4:00AM in the morning.  I was from Europe and had no concept of American cities and the potential danger certain neighborhoods could pose.  The airport was dead at that time in the morning, no tourist information was available, and no car rentals were open.  What do you do?  I could not even get a map of Chicago in the airport.

I chose to take the metro, without knowing anything about the city.  Looking at the metro map it seemed that 6th Street would be near the center of town, and I decided this could be a good place to start my hotel search.  I was traveling in style, dressed in red crocodile lacquer heels, a black jumpsuit and a huge red suitcase on wheels.  I was travelling for 2 months through the USA for the first time in my life.  I arrived underground and had to carry my heavy suitcase up all the stairs from 3 levels below.   As I finally ventured up in street level I was horrified as I saw no city center; only a deserted old butcher house area-skid row-where homeless people are sleeping on the street amongst broken glass, rubble and garbage with the burned out ambers of the bonfires of the night.  Downtown could only be seen in the far, far horizon.  What do you do?  I could have ventured downstairs again to take the metro to a different stop, but I would still have no idea where to get off the train.

I decided my best option would be to start walking towards the far horizon of the luring lights of Downtown. I remembered the song “Woman in Red” and filled my mind with great energetic energy while I started walking over broken glass and rubble, careful not to get too close to any of the sleeping homeless people.  The wheels of my suitcase did however betray me with the clonking sound and numerous people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.  Finally after an hour I see a bus and make it stop, but I still had no idea of where to go.  I figured First Street would be as central as I could get as my starting point and I remembered there was a YMCA on First Street, thinking this would be my saving grace.  I arrived around 6AM in the morning, but “Sorry Mam, everything is old out”…..Some elderly people were begging to stay another night as their welfare checks had not yet arrived.  Certainly they needed this roof more than I did.  I asked the reception if they could recommend any place to stay, but the answer was no.   Aimlessly I started wandering down the streets of Chicago, stopping at every hotel asking about any possible vacancies.  A huge convention in town had booked all hotels.  Downtrodden, my feet were blistering, and I desperately needed a shower after my red-eye flight and my long morning hike in heels.  All the hotels along the streets were fully booked, until I finally found a couple of dilapidated brownstone buildings, one of them Tokyo Hotel.  First I went into the adjacent hotel to ask for a room for 2 nights.  The receptionists giggled and told me this was for long term accommodation only…..on my way out I noticed a blue movie bar at the entrance, and although I naively did not know what that was, I sensed discomfort being a single female traveler.

Then I stepped into Tokyo Hotel next door.  The carpet was tattered, the place was run-down, but, yes, they did have a room.  The receptionist had stared me up and down, with her perforated acne scarred face, which felt uncomfortable, but I really needed a room.  “It’s $29 per night.  The room is non-refundable”. Ok, I grabbed the key and stepped into the elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators ever built in Chicago as an old man grey faced man on a stool in the corner of the elevator was pulling old chains, brackets and bolts. Finally the ramshackle lift reached my floor level: “Jump, Mam”.  It turned out I had to jump across a 12”gap and 8 “up to reach my floor.

Finally I reached my room, which only could be described as a “slimy”, tattered room.  As expected, the lock did not work….My heart was beating so fast, sweat running down my back in anxiety, what to do? I pulled an old tattered armchair in front of the door and loaded it up with my heavy suitcase while letting the hot water fill my bathtub.  Time to think – what were my options?  Being an architect I really wanted to explore the great architecture of Chicago and decided to take a risk and explore the city all day, hopefully sleeping soundly at night.  Chicago is an architecture lover’s dream.  I had a fabulous time exploring until I met with a famous architect I had previously met at the American Institute in Rome, and he asked me where I was staying.  Ashamed of my non-prestigious accommodations I hesitated, but he insisted I tell him: Tokyo Hotel. “Oh, no”, he told me! “You must get out of there, no matter what! That place is notorious for prostitution, crime and drugs.”

Shocked, but also grateful that this famous architect truly seemed to care about me, I started my journey back to the hotel.  I stopped at a motel nearby which I had visited earlier that morning, but it was still fully occupied.  When I shared my story to the 2 female receptionists they were horrified and told me they would cancel one of their reservations and give me a room across from the reception where I could be safe.  I was so grateful for the kindness of these 2 women.  30 years later I am still grateful for their extremely kindness.  Now I still had to go back to Tokyo Hotel to get my belongings. While waiting in a long line at the reception desk I overheard an old man complaining about his room service last night: he did not like her….The old lady reminded me of the no-refund policy, but I scurried off to my room to get my belongings almost tumbling over the rolled up worn-out carpets, thinking my life is worth so much more than the $29….and slept peacefully at the nearby hotel the next 2 nights.

After this experience I learned a hard-earned lesson: as a single female traveler safety comes first, no matter how central the location is.  Do your research ahead of time and at least book your first hotel night in advance when visiting a new city.  During the first day of exploration you can always find a better place to stay, if needed, after seeing the place in person.

I just researched Tokyo Hotel online and wish I had found this information 30 years ago:

Per Wikipedia: The Tokyo Hotel, located at 19 E. Ohio Street, was a hotel in the North Loop of Chicago. Designed by architect Ralph C. Harris, it is 15 stories tall, and has 150 rooms. It opened in 1927 as the Devonshire Hotel. Before it closed in 2013, the Tokyo was not aimed at tourists, but rather longer-term residents, and earned a reputation for being home to “prostitution and criminal activity.”[1]

Written by Zia Hansen