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Hostels: Not Just For Backpackers Anymore

By Jim Fortney, Editor, Big World Magazine

Perhaps it's the lack of TV in the room. Or the communal-style seating in the dining hall. Or the (gasp!) friendly interaction between guests. Either way, many Americans have traditionally been frightened off by the concept of a hostel.

Truth is, hostels can be quite foreign to travelers accustomed to plastic-wrapped motel rooms or properly prissed B&Bs. But for those the least bit open-minded, hostelling can open up a world of cheap, fun, and friendly travel for travelers of all ages. Whether you’re a long time traveler or just out of school and ready to see the world, consider staying in a hostel -- you may never sleep in a regular hotel again.

HOSTEL HISTORY

The hostel is a mainstay of budget travel for most of the world, but many Americans will look at you askance if you should even say the word. The movement's barely made a blip on the American travel radar, yet throughout the world, the international hostelling movement is a recognized way to travel cheaply, meet new friends -- and kick back for a bit. And isn't that what travel's all about?

Hostelling got its start in 1907 when a schoolmaster in Germany opened up his building to travelers willing to take on a chore or two in exchange for free accommodations. The idea took off, and soon schools -- and custom-built hostels -- were adapting the idea as a way to enable young people to see the country without spending a fortune. Soon, a European-wide organization was promoting these hostels as a path toward world peace via social interaction.

Perhaps it didn't exactly achieve world peace, but the hard work of the movement's founders fostered a vibrant worldwide coalition of national hostel organizations, all dedicated to providing low-cost, meaningful ways for travelers to see the world.

WHAT IS A HOSTEL?

Modern-day hostels are a varied lot: some are bright and welcoming places you won't want to ever leave, and others -- mostly independent hostels in major cities -- well, let's just say they're a cheap sleep.

Hostels are as unique as their owners, but what differentiates a hostel from a hotel is usually that most facilities are shared with other guests: bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens and such. Although private and family rooms are often available, standard rooms are usually dormitory-style, with a few bunk beds in each room.

It's not the quietest arrangement, but with overnight prices ranging between $8 and $15, for most people, it's worth it. The close contact with strangers might be awkward for some, but it's a great way to meet a new friend while you're far from home. You'll undoubtedly pick up some tips about what's going on in the next town, maybe find a traveling buddy -- or maybe find a pal for life.

While hostels are great for people on a budget, and it’s what usually draws people into their world, they're so much more than that. Aside from the priceless social interaction, hostels serve as all-purpose travel centers of a sort, renting bikes, holding events, or advising what's going on nearby.

And while you won't need to do chores in most hostels -- some in Germany still demand it -- you will probably be expected to clean your own dishes and maybe bring your sheets to the laundry room. I suppose you could say in that regard it's just like home, eh?

 

HOSTEL TYPES

Most hostels belong to one of the various national Hostelling International branches, although a growing number -- frustrated by the bureaucracies of such associations -- choose to go the independent route. Many people look for a hostel that is affiliated with one of the various Hostelling International (HI) organizations: HI/American Youth Hostels, Youth Hostels Association of Great Britain, etc. Their blue triangle logo is usually an assurance of clean and safe (although often somewhat institutional) lodging, and usually provides for a convenient network if you want to make reservations for the next night at another HI hostel. You'll also get a discount if you're a member of your country's hostelling organization.

 

INDEPENDENT HOSTELS

Independent hostels, on the other hand, are a bit more freewheeling. Some, such as St Christophers' in London, have a bar on the lower level, a spa on the roof, and slick murals throughout. They're simply fantastic.

Others, frankly, are real holes in need of maintenance and security, and can be pretty scary places that taint the entire concept of hostelling. Unless you know a bit about an independent hostel, it's probably best to stick with the "Blue Triangle" ones: sight unseen, they're a best bet.

Hostel memberships can also get you discounts at museums and other attractions overseas; it's the budget traveler's version of the AAA card in North America. To get a membership, contact your local or national YHA council -- or sign up abroad. It'll cost around $20 to sign up, and your card is good worldwide. Your card will also serve as your ticket to a number of terrific activities at the local council level. Many hostel chapters in North America hold travel clinics, environmental clean-up days, or camping parties. You don’t even need to hop on plane to get your membership’s worth in most cases.

 

NOT JUST FOR THE KIDS

Don’t be put off by the "Youth Hostel" terminology. True, you'll definitely find an emphasis on youth at most hostels worldwide. From the schoolkids on holiday in the cafeteria to the rave flyers in the lobby, you might feel out of sorts if you're over 45. But the very fact that you're in a hostel at all means that you're more open-minded than most folks your age, and you'll earn points just for that alone.

Although some German hostels originally restricted membership to those under 26, there is no age requirement to join a hostelling group or stay in a hostel. In fact, if you're a senior, you'll often get a discount!

And hostels can be a great alternative lodging option for families, who will often meet others with children, too! Some hostels are even designed with families in mind, with game rooms, TVs and cafeteria food that’s kid-friendly!

 

HOSTEL GUIDELINES

While many hostels operate no differently than hotels (check in, check out, you’re on your own), some hostels have specific regulations and rules that you should be aware of before you pay for your bed.

  • Curfews. Some hostels -- are we're talking about Germany, again -- have curfews: if you're not in by midnight, you're not getting back in, chump. That shouldn't pose a problem for most weary travelers, but if you know you'll be out late clubbing, just ask the clerk for the front-door key. In most small town hostels it shouldn't be a problem. Larger city hostels usually don't have curfews.
  • Check-in, check-out. Some hostels have mandatory lock-out times during the day to discourage travelers from using the hostel as a flop-house. That means that you’ll need to be out sightseeing after breakfast and not return until late afternoon. This can be a problem for some weary travelers who just want to hang out for a day. The lock-out can also affect your check-in, check-out times. If you arrive in town late morning, you may not be able to check in or get a bed for a few hours, no matter how long your flight was.
  • Duration of stay. Some hostels have a set maximum duration for your stay, from three days to two weeks. If your time is up before you’re ready to go, you can always move to another lodging for a night or two and then come back a day later and start over.
  • Reservations. Some hostels don’t take reservations. It’s first-come, first-served. Popular hostels in popular destinations can fill quickly, so it’s always good to plan to arrive early in the morning to get a bed for the night. If you arrive late in the evening, you might find the hostel full.
  • Bedding. Most hostels provide some sort of bed covering (a blanket), but it’s always a good idea to bring a sleepsheet. Many hostels provide sheet rental for a couple dollars a night. Save your money buy buying (or making) a sleep sheet. Basically, it's like a sleeping bag made out of a sheet and it keeps you, the bedding, and the blankets nicely separated. A good idea if you are particular about who might have slept on that bunk before you. It’s also a good idea to have a travel pillow or pillowcase.
  • The opposite sex. Some hostels, again, particularly in Europe, have co-ed rooms. If this makes you uncomfortable, just say so, and they’ll place you in a room with others of the same gender. If you’re traveling with a spouse or partner of the opposite sex, you may very well have to spend the night apart if you’re in a hostel that has no private room, or strictly maintains a separation of the sexes. Traveling is tough on a couple -- the time apart might just do you both good, so relish it.
  • Safety and Security. Though most rooms will have locks, you’ll be sharing your space with people you don’t know. Many hostels provide you with a safe to store your valuables. But like any public facility, crime does occasionally occur. Be observant, be smart, and follow your instincts. Don’t invite temptation by leaving your passport or spare cash lying about.

FINDING HOSTELS

While you're planning your trip, first check to see what hostels are in your destination. In addition to searching GoNOMAD’s LODGINGS LISTINGS, check Hostels.com http://www.hostels.com which lists most every hostel known.

Paul Karr's "Hostels" series (published by Globe Pequot Press) makes for a great planning aid as well with concise, opinionated reviews. And, if you join one HIAYH, you can get a free booklet listing all the member hostels worldwide. You can book a reservation at any of thousands of hostels by visiting the GoNOMAD Hostel Finder here.

With the name of the hostel and a few minutes on a search engine, you should be able to get a general feel for a place -- and maybe even make reservations online. For more options, search for the best hotels worldwide.

 

 

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