For more than 15 years, I’ve been staying in hostels during my travels. While this has saved me a small fortune and enabled me to travel longer, it still raises a few eyebrows when I mention my fondness for hostels to my armchair traveler friends back home. Methinks they envision a dirty, flea-ridden “truck stop” for backpackers, or a den of vice and sleaze, or, worse yet, a place of abduction and murder, courtesy of Eli Roth’s Hostel. Perhaps a combination of all three?
As a point of fact, hostels are budget-friendly gathering places for like-minded individuals, couples, and families. Many of my fondest travel memories stem not from the sights I came to see but from the Jugendherberges in which I hung my hat for a night or two or three.
How Hostels Work
Hostels, in their original iteration, are youth-oriented lodgings in which travelers sleep in sex-segregated dorms ranging in size but with four or eight beds being the most common. Travelers share communal baths, have lockers in which to stash their valuables, and are often (but not always) offered free breakfast, something of the basic, bread-and-coffee variety. Many hostels have laundry facilities, and their staff are fonts of knowledge about the city or town in which the hostel resides.
Today, competition and the popularity of publications such as Lonely Planet have brought about something of a renaissance in hostels. No longer is there an age limit for guests (it was previously 25 years, and strictly enforced in regions like Bavaria). Many dorms are coed, and some have en-suite bathrooms. Private rooms are available, and fill up quickly, often by couples or young families. Some hostels, especially in Europe, offer walking tours, bike rentals, and tour booking services. Many hostels in Latin America offer airport pick-ups, and have swimming pools on the grounds. Looking to party? Find the right hostel and you’ve come to the right place. Looking for a boutique experience with duvet covers? That may be an option, too. Are you a female traveler seeking a safe, quiet guesthouse? This, too, is usually on offer.
HI vs. Non-HI
While this is hardly cut-and-dry, the general vibe among the backpacking community is that HI hostels are for the quiet types and non-HI hostels are for the partiers. “HI” stands for “Hostelling International,” a global network of hostels in which the emphasis is on safety and the guests are often student groups, young families, and solo backpackers. Dorms are often sex-segregated, and breakfast is usually included, and served assembly line-style. Many HI hostels enforce quiet hours (after 10 p.m.), like a university residence hall, and some have daytime lock-outs. These “features” tend to give the whole HI name a sterile association…
…but I have also stayed at HI hostels with mixed dorms, lobby bars, pool tables, and gardens. A few, including a scattering of hostels in Australia and New Zealand, include swimming pools or hot tubs. One, in Finnland, included a fully-nude sauna, a testament to how closely the Finns cling to their bathing traditions. Talk about cultural immersion!
What about non-HI hostels? This, in turn, consists of two subcategories: boutique hostels and party hostels. Boutique hostels are perfect for backpackers over, say, 30, who like the hostelling experience but can afford to splurge on private rooms. Boutique hostels are often large houses in colorful neighborhoods. The owners, who live in the house as well, may be young couples, often of mixed nationalities, who want to offer travelers a taste of local life in a friendly environment devoid of the school groups and teenyboppers that sometimes fill the HI hostels. Dorms seldom feature more than six beds per room, and the whole place feels more like a bed-and-breakfast than an actual hostel.
Aside from a few regional hostelling associations, most other non-HI hostels fall into the as-beloved-as-it-is-maligned category of party hostels. These hostels are often large enough to house a small army, and many of them, such as The Generator in London and The Circus in Berlin, are famous and are more alluring to backpackers than the cities in which they are situated. Some are nice all-around, but at most of them the drawcards are the served-until-1-p.m. breakfasts and the massive basement bars, featuring dozens of beers and electronica that thumps until the wee hours of the morning. Although I have met some fun people at party hostels, I generally try to avoid them unless all other budget accommodation is full.
The Reservation Process
Booking engines such as hostelworld.com and hihostels.com are your best option for finding available beds by date. You can also search by room type, number of beds, security rating, and price. Some of these websites charge a booking fee (usually one or two dollars), but if you use the service frequently enough, as I did with Hostelworld a few years back, they may grant you Gold Member status, devoid of any booking fees. Nearly all booking sites require a deposit (usually 10%), and most require 24 hours notice to cancel, minus the deposit in some cases.
One drawback to using these sites is that they typically don’t show same-day availability. If you know the name of the hostel in which you want to stay, you can certainly call or email that hostel directly, although email inquiries don’t always have a fast response rate. The next section, in which I mention a few of my favorite hostels by name, includes their web addresses.
Booking engines have comments sections where you can read feedback by previous guests at the hostels in question. Bear in mind that people’s tastes are subjective; I’ve seen ratings that were wholly negative for the most trivial of reasons; one negative rating was accompanied with a comment being that the guest didn’t like the fact that the old, Eastern European building didn’t have a lift to ferry said hosteler to the third floor reception.
Some of My Favorites
Still not convinced that hostelling is for you? Check out my reviews on what are, perhaps, my all-time favorite hostels (in no particular order). Book your stay today…have an open mind…and happy travels!
Långholmen Hostel, Stockholm, Sweden: If you have ever wanted to spend the night in prison but opt out of the sodomy, a stay at the HI-affiliated Långholmen is for you. The cluster of buildings on Långholmen Island, west of central Stockholm, once comprised a penal colony ruled over by Swedish royalty. Today, the main, T-shaped building functions as a combination museum, hotel, and hostel. One wing houses three floors of upscale hotel rooms; another offers four-bed hostel dorms with prison windows and communal bathrooms. Access to the dorms, however, is via the museum; I startled a family of tourists once when, having slept late, I emerged from my room with bedhead and morning wood, stumbling sleepily towards the bathroom. Do yourself a favor and splurge for breakfast (not included) at the on-site restaurant, which offers one of the best buffet spreads I’ve yet tasted; work it off by strolling the island’s network of trails or, if you feel especially brave, by taking a swim at the nearby beach.
MIJE Maubisson, Paris, France: “Please do not hang laundry from the window, this is a historic building.” So read a sign posted in my four-bed dorm of this atmospheric Right Bank auberge in the City of Light. One block from Metro Hotel de Ville and just steps from the River Seine, you would hard-pressed to envision a better location for a hostel. Something of an oddity, though a common feature for the region: rooms have sinks and showers, although you must walk down the hall to the proper “W.C.” for toilets. Staying here requires 30-day membership in the MIJE network, which features hostels throughout France; you can enroll at the time of booking. It is entirely worth it – during my stays here in 2000 and 2009 the hostel had some of the best pillows I’ve slept on, and a wonderful breakfast of French bread, pastry, juice, and some of the tastiest coffee on the continent.
Dreamer Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia: This is one for the social butterflies. At Dreamer, little attention is paid to the dorms, but the communal courtyard features a wonderful pool, a grill serving up tasty comfort food, and seemingly every kind of alcoholic beverage that originates in South America. Dreamer is located on the eastern outskirts of Santa Marta, and as such it attracts weary travelers returning from jungle excursions and looking to simply unwind for a few days (hence the comfort food). That being said, the history buff may enjoy paying the respects to South American independence hero Simon Bolívar, who once lived in a hacienda just a few blocks from here; the enormous grounds invite exploring and offer ample iguana-spotting opportunities.
Outback Pioneer Lodge, Ayers Rock, Australia: HI-affiliated hostels in Australia and New Zealand are still known by the expired name YHA (Youth Hosteling Association). As it happens, most of these southern hemisphere hostels are gems of the entire system. Even Ayers Rock, in the middle of nowhere, has a hostel…and its one of Oceania’s best. Air-conditioned dorms are like individual cabins, and the four-bed rooms are the same size as queen bed hotel rooms that also dot the premises. A camp store serves fresh meat that you can cook yourself on one of the “barbies” (barbecue grills), and the staff also book sunrise and sunset excursions to not only Ayers Rock (seemingly close enough to touch) but the otherworldly Olgas as well. If that isn’t enough, the resort-sizes swimming pool makes this a great family vacation destination as well. Stay awhile.
Mango Tree Hostel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: As accommodations go, this hostel is nothing special. But in Rio, where the beauty is sometimes overshadowed by the petty crime, safety is a premium, and this hostel, with its high walls and security gate, offers an oasis of security in the middle of Ipanema, one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods (and surely its most famous one). The beach is just two blocks away, as is the city’s terrific metro, featuring stations that double as works of modern art. At Mango Tree, you can book favela tours and paragliding flights, or simply enjoy a caipirinha or three, sleep it off in air-conditioned dorms, then dig in to a hearty breakfast of fruit, cheese, and yogurt, served late into the morning. Guarantee: watermelon never tastes better than when eaten in Brazil.
HI Point Reyes, Point Reyes National Seashore, California: To borrow an old expression, the thing that makes HI Point Reyes such a great hostel is location, location, location. A 40-minute drive from San Francisco along, first, the Pacific Coast Highway, and second, the entry road to the National Park Service-managed Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Hostel sits behind dunes off of an access road to one of California’s most pristine (and deserted) beaches. Deer graze on the slopes and you are within spitting distance of both Point Reyes Lighthouse and another California landmark, Muir Woods, of Return of the Jedi fame. Accommodations are basic and – like other NorCal HI hostels – you may be asked to perform a chore, such as sweeping the floor, but the hosts are amiable and it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful setting.
Ram Bhawan Kautilya Society Residence, Varanasi, India: This travelers’ retreat is not branded as a “hostel” persay, but with its dorm lodging and free breakfast, a hostel is exactly what it is. Located just steps from one of Varanasi’s ghats, stairs leading down to India’s holiest river, the Ganges, this spiritual, multistory residence doubles as the headquarters for two Varanasi culture-fostering NGOs. Travelers will love its hammocks, rooftop terrace (those views!), basic breakfast, and stunning vegan lunch of lentils, hummus, naan, spinach, and all the rice you can eat. I met some wonderful people here, including host Meenakshi, and could have stayed longer. Added “India-only” bonus: the sound of monkeys swinging from balcony to balcony in the middle of the night!