To promote the education of all . . .
 by encouraging in them a greater knowledge,
love and care of the countryside
and an appreciation of the  . . .
cultural values of towns and cities
in all parts of the world . . .
to develop a better understanding of their fellow men,
both at home and abroad.
– Hostelling International Mission Statement

One of the things I miss most when not traveling is the hostel scene.  For many people who have never stayed in one, and it seems for Americans in general, the concept of spending a night in a hostel is a bit foreign.  For those used to staying exclusively in hotels or bed & breakfasts, it is certainly a change.

 

There are two main ideals that hostels try to sell themselves on over anything else.  The first is budget travel.  Any hostel will be significantly cheaper than a hotel in the same area, with most ranging from $15-25 per night.

The common room at the Huckleberry Finn Hostel in St. Louis.

The other ideal is socializing.  Almost all hostels are sorted out into dorm-style beds rather than individual private rooms.  The number of beds per room varies from hostel to hostel, though I’ve found most seem to have between 4 beds (2 bunk beds) to 8 beds (4 bunk beds).  Almost every hostel has a shared commons area (living room, kitchen, dining, etc.) for its guests to socialize.

The bathrooms may be where many used to having their own private facilities may be turned off.  The communal nature of the hostel usually extends to the restrooms.  This can be in one of two forms; either a single private bathroom which the guest take turns in (usually more than one in this case), or a more shared bathroom with several showers and toilets in it.  The latter may be more off-putting, but once you get used to the more communal lifestyle in a hostel, it’s a small step to the short amount of time you spend in the bathroom.  And in the vast majority of hostels, the bathrooms are cleaned and restocked very regularly.

My bed at the Swiss 1291 Hostel in New York.

and the rest of the room.

However, the quality can vary greatly from different locations.  The vast majority of hostels that I have stayed in have been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I have only ever had one absolutely awful hostel experience and that was in the city of Heraklion, Crete.  (I intended to tell this story in this post, but it ended up being a longer than I expected and not entirely relevant to hostels as a whole.  Next post.)

The best part of the hostel experience is the people you meet during it.  Whether you’re the American in the random American city hostel meeting the foreigners traveling your country, the American abroad coming across foreign travelers on the same path as you for different reasons, or the American who comes across another random American randomly in the same place as you. Every one is a new story, and is someone who has something in common with you that you wouldn’t find otherwise.

Who are they?  Why did they leave where they are from?  How the hell did they end up here?  All valid questions to ask, and all that most people you meet will be more than happy to answer, and then some.

  • In Athens, I met an American brother and sister traveling the world together in remembrance of their parents who had died in a car crash 4 months before.
  • In New Orleans, two random German guys with backpacks who happened to get on the streetcar I was on, I helped find our common hostel, and we spent the next week hanging out in the French Quarter.
  • In Boston, a lone English traveler who had just finished a “delightfully hellish” 2-month holiday around the USA on Greyhound.
  • In Montreal, the French mining/geology student who could hardly stand Quebec French after 3 months studying at a university there and provided me some wise words on the inherent conflict between relationships and travel.

These are just an example of characters to be met, and that is the true treasure of the hostel scene, and why I truly wish they were more prevalent in the United States.

Sometimes the beds are a little less than desireable.

Many hostels also have a few long-term guests.  Much of the time, these are temporary staff that do work around the hostel in exchange for a free bed.

Other times, they are simply staying indefinitely, as I did at the India House Hostel in New Orleans as I worked at the Crescent City Brewhouse.  Or like a Boston girl I met at the HI Boston, who was staying there until she could find a new apartment.

Then again, some hostels have a limit on the amount of time any guest may be able to stay with them for, trying to maintain the atmosphere of rotating travelers.

Hostelling International

One of the most prevalent names in the world of hostels is HI or Hostelling International.  Usually listed as HI *name of city*, I first thought this to be a single company, a la a Holiday Inn, in the hostel scene.  I’m still not sure of its exact nature, but its hostels are usually held to a higher standard, and usually, a higher price than independent hostels.  They are also run much more business-like.

Not to say I’ve ever had a bad experience in an HI hostel, in fact, they often go above and beyond for their guests.  In HI Boston, there was a schedule of weekly event, including a group museum tours and a brewery tour.  At HI New York, they had almost everything you could imagine; a movie room, courtyard, live comedy show, restaurant, key card access, and who knows what else that I didn’t even notice.

All that said, I’ve found that I personally enjoy staying in independently-owned hostels over HI hostels.  With very few exceptions, I’ve found that they seem to have more character.  The owners and staff are usually amazingly interesting characters to meet and get information from.  And the people staying at independent hostels are the ones who didn’t necessarily rush to the blind familiarity of the HI name, but were willing to try something else.

Of course, that is just my feeling on it.