Help me find a hotel a short subway ride away from a conference in Philadelphia
September 18, 2009 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Every hotel room within a mile of my upcoming Philadelphia conference is booked. Where can I stay that has easy weekend, weekday and evening public transit access to the University of Pennsylvania campus, specifically Jon M. Huntsman Hall at 3730 Walnut Street, Philadelphia? What do I need to know about using public transit to get back and forth? Must be safe after dark. Bonus points if it's affordable, as I'm paying for this out of my own pocket.

My travel dates are Oct. 17 - Oct. 21, an apparently there's a much larger conference that's overlapping and eating up all the close-in hotel rooms during that time. I'll be arriving as early as 8 a.m., and leaving the conference as late as 9 p.m., and coming and going on weekdays and weekends both.

In the ultra-cheap realm, I found Apple Hostels, 32 Bank Street, which appears to be on a SEPTA line that connects directly to my conference. It looks like a pretty touristy/historic neighborhood, which leads me to guess that it's safe. But I've never been to Philly, and don't really know the ins and outs of anything.

I'd love advice on how SEPTA works, too. I've ridden subway systems in a number of systems, and most aren't too difficult to figure out. But SEPTA's Web site talks about tokens, which I've never used anywhere.
posted by croutonsupafreak to Travel & Transportation around Philadelphia, PA (16 answers total)
Just to prevent a bunch of questions. Are you totally against couchsurfing?

Also: have you contacted your own conference organizers? They might have a list of folks hoping to share their hotel rooms.

Finally: check the Craigslist ads for short-term rentals. I've actually found some great deals that way in other cities.
posted by barnone at 4:10 PM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: I'm not totally against couch surfing, but I've never done it before, the logistics and the awkwardness factor both make me nervous. Plus, won't the hours I'm keeping potentially bother some folks.

I have contacted the conference organizers. They are not able to help me with finding a room.

Craigslist is a great idea, thanks barnone. The only problem is that if I see something on craigslist, I still won't know if it's near or far from the event, in a safe neighborhood, or has good public transit.

Coming from ultra-safe Portland, I've heard things about "certain parts of Philly" that make me nervous about staying in an unfamiliar and unvetted neighborhood.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:17 PM on September 18, 2009

I've never stayed at Apple Hostel, but live a couple blocks away, so am pretty familiar with that block. In fact, I've been apartment-hunting in along that street. It's a little grungy and dirty and students-who-like-to-party, as Philly's schmancy restaurant and douchey-young-people-meatmarket district is right around the corner, but there will be plenty of people around. Your main housing issue if you live there will probably be noise and stepping around drunk people or piles of vomit.

SEPTA is old-school. The tokens are $1.45 each and look like quarters with a copper stripe down the middle. You can buy them form machines (at the big stations), people in wee booths (at all stations, but only from about 7 AM - at least 6:30 or so). During rush hour, you will want the westbound Market Street line, and they come through the stops in Old City to University City about every four or five minutes. Take your token, drop them into the slot on the turnstile, wait for it to beep, and walk through. Alternatively, you can feed two dollar bills into the turnstile and walk through.

The main thing is that subway service gets a tad sparse at night. Also, Philly's stations are old and not the best-maintained/there is the occasional homeless bum, so if you have as low a skeeve factor as your question suggestions, you may want to look into taking a taxicab back or checking the bus schedule.

Philly: not very scary at all. And the Franklin Malt Shoppe will be right around the corner. And there are a couple of not-terrible cheese steak places on Market Street, too.
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:34 PM on September 18, 2009

During rush hour = During morning rush hour

Suggestions = suggest.

posted by joyceanmachine at 4:35 PM on September 18, 2009

Wow, I've never actually seen all the hotels booked in Philly like this -- crazy!

One place to check, which is on Penn's campus, is the International House. Seeing as you are a conference attendee at Penn, I am pretty sure you qualify. IH is a block away from Huntsman Hall.

If you do end up finding a place in Center City, the Subway-Surface Trolley stops at 36th and Sansom a block north of the Penn Bookstore. Really easy to get to. You can transfer at 30th 15th, or Juniper to the EL and take that closer to your hostel, or just walk from Juniper. It's not far.

Locals tend to have different comfort levels regarding various neighborhoods, but as far as Penn and Center City are concerned, only normal city awareness is required.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 4:44 PM on September 18, 2009

I have stayed at that Apple Hostel. Overall the neighborhood felt safe, and there were lots of folks out and about at all hours of the night.

The biggest difficult I found is that "old town philly" features "streets" about 5 feet wide; Bank Street is such street. Across Bank Street from the hostel was a multi-story dance club which played incredibly loud music until 2-3 AM each day of my stay there (the bass shook the beds). This was in 2001, so you may want to check with a local regarding the continuing existence of this club.
posted by holyrood at 5:28 PM on September 18, 2009

I'm not familiar with the Apple Hostel but the dance club holyrood mentions is probably the Bank Street Five, which burned down a few years ago and as far as I know has not reopened. The area is called Old City and is very safe. Lots of restaurants and bars, and lots of people on the sidewalks in the evenings. As a single woman it's one of the parts of center city I feel comfortable walking alone at night. Bank St is less than a block from the Septa subway line that runs along Market St. It's actually called the El because farther north and west it becomes an elevated train. But for the stretch you would be taking it, it's a subway.

If you take that subway line, get on and off at 34th St., not 40th., even if it looks a tiny bit closer to your conference. I've taken the train to 40th St, but only during the middle of the day when there's lots of people around. Note that if you're returning to the hotel late in the evening, the subway isn't going to have a lot of people, especially the 34th St station. Personally, when I'm returning to center city at night I take the Chestnut St. buses.

You can also take the subway surface cars others have mentioned - they can be a little tricky to find where to catch them (for me at least) but you can ask someone for help if you need. They're like trolley cars, and for the stretch you'd be taking them, they're completely underground.

Besides the hostel, there are lots of hotels in center city that are close to Market St, where the subway runs. Several are near the convention center at 12th St, and several on South Broad St which is very safe and busy and convenient to the bus and subway.

Mostly anywhere in center city is safe. In the University area, as long as you stay more or less on the campus you'll be fine.

Tokens are easy - you can buy them at the subway stations (other places too - maybe their website lists locations). The big advantage to tokens is they save money. If you pay cash the fare is a lot higher, and you have to have exact change.

I've been all over center city and the University area for years, feel free to contact me if you have questions about specific locations.
posted by daikon at 5:56 PM on September 18, 2009

First of all, anywhere you could find hotels or hostels in Philly is nowhere near sketchy, nor, honestly, is most of Philly. I don't know what Portland is like, but for the most part exercise normal urban caution (no ipod, be curtious but quiet to strangers who acknowledge you, etc.) I don't know what "certain parts" you were alerted to, but since your conference is at Penn I assume you ran into someone who knew it was in West Philly, where tourists irrationally fear, because SW Philly has some crime riddled areas, but "West Philly" is actually several dozen neighborhoods everywhere west of a river in the middle, many of which, including mine, are extremely lovely.

But this doesn't answer your question.

I would try the international house as mentioned above, which may be tight since students are back, but generally has some rooms. It would be within walking distance of your conference. Here are some bed and breakfasts you could try:
Castle B&B
The Carriage House
Gables B&B
Inn Between Bed and Breakfast (get it?)
These wouldn't show up in a hotel search, and are in nice, transit friendly neighborhoods. As for the Apple Hostel, if you are a nightlife person, that area, known as Old City, is the historic area, but also has has all the schmancy restaurants and bars, and is generally where most of the yuppies live, so if you are squeamish about our fair, nice, city--go for it. It is also very close to transit.

As to that, first, yes SEPTA is dirty. Life is dirty, SEPTA is no different. But the exposed concrete, slightly grungy look we're going for is far from trash all over the place. It's palatable. The city is a grid, so if you get yourself a map with transit, it will be decently easy to read. For the most part, you will probably be sticking to the east/west transit. From the Apple hostel, you would catch the Market-Frankford line (about a block away) going westbound. The station should have a token machine. Get off at 30th street station, and you can transfer free to the trolley (The green line with green signs) going westbound. You may take any numbered trolley to the 37th Street stop, which drops you off in the middle of the campus around the corner from Hunstman Hall. If you stay in one of the B&B's, you can take the trolleys Eastbound to 37th street station, a short ride and a route I walk to and from for work when it's nice. Their aren't many places to get tokens there, but the system also takes $2 exact change if you don't get a chance to pick some up. Many of those B&B's are on or near Chester, which runs the number 13 trolley. It can be picked up at the corner of any block on Chester, and the Eastbound will bobviously be on the eastbound side of the street. If you stay in another B&B not near Chester, there is another trolley on Baltimore Avenue that will be extremely close, which is where most of the commerce is and also the number 34 trolley, which works the same. (Should you choose to stay in this neighborhood, we are very nice people! Feel free to ask us questions!) The I-House, like I said, is about 3 blocks from your conference.

Was that too detailed? I tried to provide everything I could think of, as a someone who has visited a city and been lost and nervous myself. (Feel free to PM me if you have specific questions. I like to be helpful, and would love to give more directions.)
posted by itsonreserve at 6:03 PM on September 18, 2009

Trolley=subway surface others were talking about. Forgot only locals call it the trolley.
posted by itsonreserve at 6:07 PM on September 18, 2009

BTW, the 10 trolley does not go to 37th street. It's not the end of the world if you catch it, because it leaves the subway on 36th street, a few feet from Market Street. You can just get off there, and be OK.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:54 PM on September 18, 2009

A little on top of what everyone else is saying --

Just finished school at Penn (yeah yeah, fuck Penn, I know, I hated the place) and the SEPTA el and trolley are generally mostly empty after the evening rush. As far as my experiences went, it was safe (I mean, I'm here, aren't I?) but if you're one to get skittish about being the only white (and yes, I'm guessing based on your sn) guy in the car and it's like 10pm, then you should probably consider the bus or a cab.
posted by the NATURAL at 7:52 PM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: This is all very helpful, thank you. I'll try calling some of those bed & breakfasts tomorrow - I suspect it's probably too late on the East Coast tonight. Sadly, the one that has online reservations is already booked during my upcoming trip.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:12 PM on September 18, 2009

I went to Penn and frequently take the bus/subway/trolley now from West Philly late at night and never run into any difficulty. Huntsman is right in the center of campus -- it's quite safe and there are bicycle cops and carts and lights all over the place. If you get a lunch break, try the carts under the 38th St. Bridge. Delish.

I suppose if you're skittish, the bus is your safest bet -- but, with no traffic, a cab to CC is going to cost you tops 10-12 bucks.
posted by melodykramer at 9:28 PM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Argh. What IS this big event that's overtaking Philadelphia in mid-October?

I think it's going to have to be the hostel or one of the B&Bs. (Although the two B&Bs with online reservation systems have no room.)

Searches of Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and Hotwire now yield only two sets of results: hotels/motels that are an hour away, by transit, from my event, and those that cost $400/night or more.

I did a bit of research into couch surfing, and it sounds like a pretty bad fit for introverted me. After a long day of training and networking, the last thing I want is an obligation to chat, party or tour with an enthusiastic stranger. The only thing worse would be sleeping on a couch instead of a bed.

Philly craigslist has no short-term rental section. I did searches of vacation rentals and sublets/temporary, and found one possible option - not knowing any of the neighborhood names or understanding how close they might be to my destination is a bit of a hindrance. If I hear back from the one person I e-mailed, I guess that's an option.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:10 PM on September 18, 2009

You might find a deal for Club Quarters through whichever institution is hosting your conference (example rates and contact info). They are in the Rittenhouse Square area, which is central to more or less everything.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:52 PM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Hmmm. Club Quarters is booked. The B&Bs are booked. Now the hostel appears also to be booked. It may be couch surfing after all. Meh.

Thanks for trying all - and for the couch surfing suggestion in particular, barnone.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:26 PM on September 19, 2009

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