Getting down and dirty in the world's cheapest hotel rooms

"And this is the slaughterhouse," explained the amiable woman from the reception desk as she invited me into the vast, malodorous cavern that serves as the luggage store for the summer youth hostel in Boston.

The term "summer youth hostel" may give you an image of somewhere bright and breezy, but, at first sight, the seasonal lodging in Boston has all the bonhomie of a young offenders' institution. As I surveyed the bleak former kitchen, in which a few backpacks were gently decaying, I wondered if my New Year's resolution had been wise.

Halfway through the year already, and everything has been going very badly - partly as a result of my travel-related vow. I found myself in the Boston "slaughterhouse" because of an intention to seek the cheapest hotel or hostel in the world during 2006.

Global economic variations mean that there are huge variations: the price of a cheap bed in London or Paris will be enough to buy you a decent mid-range room in many parts of the developing world. So I have several sub-categories, including the cheapest place to stay in America.

The Boston hostel, on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay area, is a good candidate. It is a former Howard Johnson Inn that now belongs to Boston University. At $27 (£15) a night, it is about one-fifth of the price of a "proper" hotel. And because the hostel serves as a hall of residence for most of the year, the density of backpackers (and their socks) is among the thinnest in the business.

Just three of us shared a space the size of, well, a Howard Johnson hotel room, with a bathroom. My room-mates were two Koreans on an economy tour of the US; they arrived from New York on a "Chinatown bus", costing just $15 (£9).

FOR HIGH-DENSITY snoozing, look no further than Paddy's Palace in Dublin. Few things are more unnerving than booking the ultimate bed in the last available hostel in the Irish capital, shortly before midnight, and walking into the dorm to find it bereft of fellow guests - but with plenty of evidence of multiple occupancy, not least from the socks a-mouldering in every cranny. That is what happened to me in May.

The nine empty bunks were gradually filled in the small hours by long-stay guests who regarded (as I do) a city-centre bed for €18 (£13) as a bargain, but unlike me had been spending the savings on gallons of Dublin's most celebrated product. Next morning, as I devoured the free breakfast, a couple of guests started asking me questions on the assumption I worked there. When you look like a hostel member of staff, it is time to move on.

CHEAPER SLEEP is possible in an EU capital if you head south-east - to the Athens International Youth Hostel, on Victor Hugo Street. My next stop was Room 502, which has a balcony and a terrific view. It also boasts plenty of graffiti. You would not want to show a sensitive female relative around this six-man glorified cupboard. The artwork included a diagram proposing a range of activities involving the Italian women in a neighbouring dorm, and a report on exploits with a female Canadian guest in the very bed I was occupying. A pair of Brits named Ross and Toby left a publicity message for their "Blame the Parents World Tour 2005". Is this the sort of thing that goes on in public school? Another message suggested "Sell the children for food".

More benignly, given the philosophical resonance of the street name, I was urged to "live as though you are going to die today, dream as though you are going to live forever". Perhaps Alain de Botton slept here.

MY GRANDFATHER, who was born in the Scottish town of Forfar 100 years ago today, would have taken all these travails in his stride. Peter Ritchie Calder travelled widely in extremely difficult conditions in the post-colonial world. In 1960, for example, he was sent on a one-man fact-finding mission by the United Nations into the chaos of the Congo.

He flew to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the wake of the Belgian retreat from the former fiefdom of Leopold II, which he described as: "Probably the biggest private estate in the whole of history. If Congo were superimposed on the map of Europe, it would stretch, west-to-east, from Dublin to Warsaw." He evaded poisoned arrows and survived arrest at the hands of the army. His conclusion: the UN "is helping the Congolese to discover their own destiny and, with all the help it can get and give, to work out their own salvation". That salvation still eludes the people of this beautiful, benighted country.

BEING BORN with equal quantities of Scots and English genes is handy during the World Cup; in 1974 and 1978, when only Scotland represented the UK, I was able to take out temporary membership of the Tartan Army (while wondering why Scottish managers always take along a comedy goalkeeper). These days, England fields an entire comedy team, pluckily stealing victory from mighty Paraguay, Trinidad (who were augmented by merciless Tobago) and Ecuador.

You need not be Gary Lineker to realise that Our Boys have, frankly, been pathetic so far. Which makes the behaviour of VisitScotland all the stranger. In the window of the Scottish tourist office in Trafalgar Square is a poster reading "Well done England". Is such disingenuous flattery really going to boost Anglo-Scottish tourism?

At 4pm today, tourist offices and travel agencies will empty for England's latest embarrassing outing against the Algarve All-Stars. But Condé Nast Traveller's Luxury Travel Fair at Olympia continues - including an appearance by Alain de Botton, with his matchless analysis on the art of travel.

He is taking the timing philosophically: "I'm expecting a totally empty house, but luckily we have the football to blame."