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When I was invited to attend a conference in Austin, Texas, I planned to stay a few extra days and see the sights. My lodgings cost only about $31 a night, breakfast included, and they were clean and quiet.
They were also shared. As is my wont, I stayed in a hostel.
Once known as “youth hostels” and geared mostly toward the young traveler, these institutions appeal more and more to frugal adults. Accommodations vary: Some have private rooms and semiprivate rooms, others mostly large dorms filled with bunk beds and lockers. You might share a bathroom with three people or a hundred.
But the price is certainly right. The average price for a North American location in 2013 was $28.56 per night, according to the WeHostels blog. Some sample prices: New York City, $32.30; Boston, $30.73; Los Angeles, $31.42; Miami, $38.49; Toronto, $26.20.
Maybe you’re convinced that you couldn’t stand to sleep in a room with strangers. I used to think that. Then I gave hosteling a try and found it surprisingly comfortable.
Sharing the room is like being at summer camp — a group of strangers bunking together. They get along amiably enough and sometimes even form short-term friendships.
I’ve stayed at three hostels in the U.S. (Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City) and two in the U.K. (London, Cardiff). The rooms aren’t luxurious, but they’re comfortable enough, and, depending on the site, you may score extras like free walking tours, free dinners and maybe even free beer.
Sites like Hostelbookers.com and Hostelworld.com can direct you to lodgings across the U.S. or around the world. They don’t charge booking fees, they guarantee the lowest prices, and they can be accessed through cash-back shopping sites to add a small additional layer of savings (up to 2 percent).
Do your homework
Speaking of additional savings: My annual membership at Hostelling International, a group encompassing 4,000 hostels worldwide, gets me a 10 percent discount on lodging.
Even though the HI fee is only $28 per year ($18 for those 55 and older), you might want to hold off joining until you’re sure that hosteling is for you. After all, a single bad experience – drunk roommate, long wait times for a shower – might have you deciding that a hotel is worth the cost.
Thus far I’ve had positive experiences, partly due to luck (no drunk roommates yet!) and partly because I read reviews on Yelp and on hostel websites (yep, some negative reviews do stay up).
Travel blogger Audrey Bergner avoids any hostel with a rating lower than 75 percent: “What better way to get an idea of the place than by reading what previous guests had to say?”
Some communal perks
Frugal travelers will appreciate the free breakfast offered at some hostels, usually things like cereal, bagels, toast and juice. The Austin hostel also set out pitchers of pancake batter and an electric frying pan.
Coffee and tea are usually available around the clock. I use the free teabags to make iced tea – much cheaper than buying the bottled kind – and, sometimes, to disguise the taste of certain cities’ water supplies. (Yo, Philly!)
Most hostels have kitchens, some of them quite sizable. If you’re on a budget and plan to cook a few meals, check the “free” or “shared” shelves in the fridge and cupboards before you shop. I’ve seen spices, pasta, oils, dried fruit, tortillas, breads, canned goods, flour, sugar and – of course – ramen noodles.
Some sites provide free snacks or meals, usually in conjunction with special events like movie nights or social hours. It’s always a good idea to ask about affordable restaurants nearby (sometimes the front desk even has coupons) and also where to buy groceries or toiletries.
At the New York hostel, I posed this question to a staffer: “If your mom came to town, where would you send her for a slice of real New York City pizza?” The employee said that while the place right across the street was OK, another place three blocks north was to die for. Soon I was in a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria eating a slice the size of a pillowcase; a fine, authentic NYC lunch for $2.50, and one I might never have found on my own.
Just about every hostel these days has Wi-Fi, and it’s likely to be free. Your hostel room may not have many outlets, so bring a powerstrip if there’s space in your suitcase. You’ll be able to charge your equipment in a timely way and you’ll also make new friends, i.e., the people who will consider you the dorm hero because you made it possible for them to replenish their batteries.
But won’t you get bedbugs?
This question invariably gets asked when I mention that I stay in hostels. Somehow people have equated “inexpensive” with “dirty and disgusting.”
Sure, it’s possible that I could encounter Cimex lectularius at a hostel. But I could also meet the little biter in a regular hotel. John Barcay, senior scientist at a company called Ecolab, told USA Today that “most chains have experienced bedbugs.” (To learn how to look for signs of the critters anywhere you sleep, see “How to Avoid Bedbugs – and How to Get Rid of Them.”)
Again: Read the online reviews and make sure they’re current and substantive, with regard to bugs or anything else. A vague “Had a great time!” from 2008 doesn’t tell you much. But a recent post about music and noise from a nearby nightclub could convince light-sleeper you to look elsewhere.
The Apple Hostel in Philadelphia is one such place, so close to a nightclub, in fact, that you’re offered free earplugs when you check in. These could also come in handy if your roommates snore or have telephone conversations/Skype sessions into the wee hours.
Physical accommodations matter, too. For example, the Apple Hostel is a tall, narrow building with lots of stairs up to the dorms. If you have joint problems or other health issues, it could be hard to carry a suitcase up several flights. Read the hostel’s description of its layout, but read the reviews carefully as well.
(For the record: I stay at the Apple Hostel every time I visit the East Coast, and I’ve always had a great experience.)
Tips for travelers
Personally, I feel most comfortable in all-female rooms. In an article on the WeHostels blog, frequent traveler Jessica Festa says that women-only rooms “can give females more privacy and keep them out of any uncomfortable situations that may arise in a coed dorm.” Bonus: You can get dressed right there vs. going down the hall to the bathroom to escape the male gaze.
That said, I’ve had some awfully trusting (read: naïve) young women as roommates. They plug in their electronics to charge and leave the room, don’t bother locking their lockers, and leave suitcases, backpacks or even purses open and unguarded.
Personally, I wouldn’t do any of those things. You simply have no way of knowing who’s light-fingered and who isn’t. Of course, items get stolen from hotel rooms, too. Wherever you stay, be a smart traveler and guard your belongings.
Hostels have lockers in the rooms and sometimes out in the hall (there may be a small fee for using those). Bring your own lock or you’ll wind up having to buy one from the front desk. Consider a combination lock if you don’t want to worry about keeping track of a key.
A few more tips for travelers:
- Bring a small flashlight or download a cellphone flashlight app. This comes in handy if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, or if you come in late and the room lights are out.
- If you have mobility issues, specify a bottom bunk when you make a reservation. (Not every dorm room has bunks, but it definitely pays to ask.)
- Pack shower shoes, to guard against the possibility of athlete’s foot. Ask if there’s a fee for towels; I brought my own when I visited the U.K.
- Light-sensitive? Bring a sleeping mask in case the person in the upper bunk has her reading lamp on, or in case a clueless roommate turns the overhead light on late at night.
- Take advantage of hostel perks. Every free walking tour or free pizza-and-beer night means more money in your travel budget.