Hostels 101

“This is a brief overview about hostels and what to expect. This excerpt came from a publication called “The Hostel Handbook.”

The youth hostel movement was started by Richard Schirrmann, a German school teacher, taking his students from a coal mining city on weekend outings to the countryside for fresh air and interaction with nature. This quickly evolved into an international peace movement with hostels as places where students and other young people from different countries could get to know each other on a student’s budget – usually on the rough. The original concept included an ethic for moving on one’s own steam – hostellers were expected to walk or bike to the hostel.

In these early hostels there were often age restrictions, strict curfews and other rules imposed on the youths by hostel “wardens”. Indeed, some vestiges of these rules can be found in hostels today. However, not often, and not in North America. In fact, the word “youth” is rarely used in hostel names or regulations.

Hostelling has been transformed into a different concept that is best typified by the paramount hostellers of today – the Australian and New Zealander backpackers; intrepid travelers with a travel ethic quite different from that of North America. A young person is expected to take time off and travel – A two year trip is short.

The reality is this: suppose you have $5,000 and a lot time – you have taken a year off school and worked for a while and are taking some time to travel. You could spend this amount in a few weeks at expensive hotels and restaurants OR you could stretch this money and travel for…oh, two years. This is where modern hostelling fits in.

Today, there are no age restrictions and few rules. In fact, the HI-USA offers many services and programs for senior hostellers. The “Elder Hostel” movement has created its own version of hostelling.

The hostel “warden” has been replaced by an owner or manager who wants to provide the three S’s: shelter, shower and security. The hostel is an incredible alternative to staying in the more expensive motel or hotel. The heart of hostelling is shared: the bedroom (or dormitory), the kitchen, and the bathrooms. The beds are usually bunk beds and the top bunks may be the only one’s available. Some places have segregated bathrooms, some not. It may be difficult for some people to enjoy hostelling and maintain high degree of modesty. On the other hand, the hostelling population is accustomed to sharing space and generally privacy isn’t and shouldn’t be an issue.

Hostellers usually provide their own bath towel. It is a good idea to travel with a sleeping sheet. This is a kind of sleeping sack – required by Hostelling International locations. Otherwise, it is a good idea to travel with at least a single large sheet. This can be used as bed linen in a pinch. Many places provide bed linens – some free – some for a small one-time charge. Many hostellers travel with sleeping bags and many hostels don’t allow them for sanitary reasons.

It is best not to have preconceptions about the site and the services at a hostel. Wait and be surprised. AND keep in mind – you are not paying for a five star hotel and it won’t be one.

Most hostels will not accept local residents. Many hostels limit their population to various groups. For instance, some hostels accept only international travelers; to check in you must have a passport and, perhaps, an on-going ticket to prove you are traveling. One reason for this is that the goal of the hostel is to provide low-cost accommodation for international travelers. If the beds are filled with local people, this goal cannot be met. Some places require American Hostellers to prove their international traveler status by showing travel documents, passport, etc.

If you have never stayed at a hostel be prepared for some things:

Services and hours are limited to keep costs down. As you speak with other hostellers you will find that they might change a lot of things but not if it raised the price.

Many hostels are small places and the staff is limited. Be aware that going too a hotel’s desk at 1 AM would be ok. Knocking on the manager’s door at 1 AM is not. He or she may have closed the hostel office at 11 PM and will open it again at 8 AM. Be considerate and remember the hours.

Americans will meet mostly international people with perhaps a more objective view of the US and its foreign policy – listen and you will learn a lot! – that is what hostelling is all about, But be prepared for some critical views.

It’s a balance – you lose some privacy and certain comforts, but you have a rare opportunity to meet other people. If you like to travel because you like to meet people, then you will like hostelling!

Most hostellers are not located in the “high rent districts”. Many are located in minority communities for the lower rents. These communities are usually very safe and have their own special things to offer you.

Finally, you may be used to more privacy, services and creature comforts than hostels provide. Take a cue from the other travelers and appreciate the atmosphere, info on low-budget fun things to do, and the interesting people you meet.