By Ken Hegan for MSN

So today I was going to tell you about the insane Karosta prison hotel in Liepaja, Latvia.

Back in the day, Karosta was a brutal naval jail run by the totalitarian Soviets, KGB, and wartime Nazis. Hundreds of inmates were executed here. But now Karosta’s been turned into a hotel & museum that still looks like a prison.


Damp and rotting, it bills itself as “unfriendly, unheated, uncomfortable and open all year round.” Lucky tourists pay 12 Latvian Lats ($23.49 CDN) to be treated like a convict for the night. When you arrive, guards (played by actors and former prison guards) fire a gun overhead to warn you what happens if you escape.

To give you the authentic feel of Communist era wretchedness, you sleep in a cell on an old stained mattress, eat your stale rye bread that’s served through steel bar doors, and get verbally abused by prison guards (who also order you to exercise and clean up) if you don’t follow a strict code of conduct. Your toilet is a hole in the ground.

So instead of beautifully-renovated prison-turned-boutique rooms like in this Netherlands hotel, the Latvian prison hotel remains authentically old school awful.

This has to be the laziest and cruellest idea for accommodations since a pregnant Mary was told to go sleep in a manger. So I’m not going to talk about that (much) today. Instead of promoting the abuse of willingly masochistic tourists, I’d much rather highlight a positively elevating travel experience called OpenAirplane.

OpenAirplane is a brilliant new startup that offers you short-term, Zipcar-style plane rentals. Launched on Monday, it offers small rental planes at airports in New York, L.A., Chicago, San Jose, Kissimmee, and Detroit. The goal is to make renting airplanes as easy as renting a car.


Here’s how it works:

1) Book your plane at OpenAirplane online or on their mobile app. Pick your plane, dates, and flight times, them enter your credit card to reserve your plane.

2) Then simply show up at the airport to pick up the key.

Xbqaxrmisnb89mfa6yvsOkay, yes, you have to do a little more than that. For starters, you need to provide government I.D., insurance, a successfully-passed medical exam, a pilot’s license (hooray) and you have to pass a fresh flight test every year, which is twice as often as required by the FAA.

Now, some of you may whine and quibble about that hassle. But I believe that having a trained pilot at the controls of a flying chunk of metal and spinning engine blades is a good thing for the rest of us on the ground.

“My co-founder and I are both pilots, we’ve both been renters,” said OpenAirplane’s co-founder, Rod Rakic, to Mashable.

“We know it kind of sucks that when you leave your home base, your pilot certificate and your credentials turn off, because when you don’t have rental privileges, it takes half a day and hundreds of dollars to turn those credentials back on.”

To discourage bad renters, the rental company will “rate” how you treat its plane, much like a host rates a guest on OpenAirplane is not like Car2Go, alas, so you can’t rent from one airport and drop it off at another. You have to return it where you found it. If you don’t…well, you could end up in a Latvia prison.

Bottom line: if you’re a pilot who likes to travel off the beaten flight path, OpenAirplane is a convenient way to see the continent.

Apparently six aircraft companies and flight schools have already signed up with OpenAirplane, nine more have made verbal deals, and 50 more are in the works. If all goes to plan, OpenAirplane rentals will eventually be available for pilot tourists around the world.

If you have (or will get) your pilot’s license, will you use OpenAirplane for your travels?

— Ken Hegan


VIDEO: watch this promotional video for Karosta Prison and check out more photos here

Read more of Ken’s travel stories here

Twitter: @KenHegan

Photos courtesy Karosta prison and OpenAirplane