As a solo backpacker in my early 20s, hostels were an invaluable component of my budget travel strategy. This was back in the dark ages, long before online booking sites, so I accepted the hostel reviews in guidebooks like Let's Go as the gospel truth. They never once steered me wrong. Despite having a minuscule budget, I always had a clean, safe, friendly place to stay.
Fast forward 10 years and I was suddenly part of a couple. I had slowly drifted away from the hostel world and long-haul backpacking in favour of shorter road trips. My new spouse and I embraced emerging travel tools like hotel bidding sites, and we often found gorgeous rooms whose prices rivalled the cost of two hostel dorm beds. In Honolulu, for instance, we successfully blind bid on a 4-star hotel and were thrilled to pay just $90 a night -- not too shabby when dorm beds would cost us about $30 each!
But even with private balconies and plush beds, I found myself missing the hostel community. I missed meeting new friends and the endless resources designed for budget-minded travellers. I missed the funky properties, and I was craving a bit more personality in my accommodations. But I'd been deterred by hostel horror stories of wild roommates and hoards of school groups. And, frankly, no one wants to be the weird old person, boring everyone with tales from your glory days! I wanted to reconnect with the hostel world but I needed the right place and the right hostel.
I got that opportunity in Sydney, Australia. I was eager to soak up the beauty and energy of downtown, but I knew harborfront hotels cost a small fortune. Actually, make that a large fortune -- some were advertised for over $1000! If there was ever a time to see if hostels could work for an adult couple, this was it! Thankfully, I found everything I was looking for -- along with some important lessons on hosteling for "grown-ups".
First, a quick lesson in hostels. There are two key categories every traveller should know about.
The first is independent hostels. These are individually owned and operated and the standards can vary widely, from gorgeous boutique posh-tels to cockroach-infested hovels. And while there are incredible properties out there, this is also where you're likely to find intense parties and a very young crowd. The name of the game here is research, research, research. Do cleanliness and security ratings shine? Does "social" mean well-organized walking tours and a friendly dining room with free cookies? Or does it mean generous travellers who are always happy to share their beer and drugs?
The second category is hostels that are part of the Hosteling International network. Hosteling International is a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to spreading cross-cultural understanding and building healthy communities by bringing people together. Any profits earned are put back into the organization and used for everything from renovating older properties to hosting community events.
Yes, you can still find "party hostels" at HI properties, but it's much less likely. In fact, you're more likely to see young families and feisty seniors than hardcore party animals. When in doubt, we always chose HI properties, and so far they have always been clean, secure, and welcoming -- and we haven't felt like weird old people hanging around a group of young whippersnappers!
I've stayed in some mighty big dorm rooms in the past, swapping just about every ounce of privacy in favour of low, low prices. But as a self-declared grown-up, I'm willing to spend a little bit more now to ensure my comfort and peace of mind. And my spouse agrees!
Private rooms are the way to go. Similar in standards to a 2-star hotel, you'll get a room all your own with a locking door. There may be one double bed, two twin beds, or even a bunk bed. You can expect decent mattresses, towels, fresh sheets, and duvets that are nicer than in the general dorms. In all the private rooms I've stayed in, there's always been at least one other piece of furniture in the room, like a desk or dresser. And in some rooms, I've even had a television, a coffee station, gorgeous murals, and even houseplants and a bouquet of flowers. Not too shabby!
Whether or not you'll have a private ensuite washroom depends entirely on the layout of the property. If this is a priority for you (and I argue that it's well worth seeking out and paying a little extra for), do your research in advance. In general, historic properties rarely have private ensuite washrooms thanks to the limitations of their layout and older plumbing networks. But you should always check just in case! And newer builds almost always offer at least some of their private rooms with the option of a private ensuite washroom.
A clean, comfortable, basic room at an affordable price is reason alone to visit hostels. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many hostels are exceptional properties. Some have tremendous historical significance (like HI Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, which is a former military barracks), while others are incredible environmental leaders. YHA The Rocks -- the property I stayed at in Sydney -- is actually one of the greenest buildings in Australia!
This willingness to respect history and the environment is what permits organizations like Hosteling International, in particular, to operate in some of the most exclusive parts of town where traditional hotels wouldn't be a good fit. My private room in Sydney had a phenomenal waterfront view of the Opera House and was built on stilts to protect an ongoing archaeological dig -- a priceless experience unavailable anywhere else.
Private rooms, special buildings, and a low, low price -- what could be better? Try a second layer of savings. Many hostel properties include breakfast and even dinner. At Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria, I feasted on a huge free pasta dinner during one of their regular community nights. Other properties offer free tours, movie nights, complimentary bike rentals, yoga classes, and lending libraries. A clean bed is the just the beginning of the value here.
And while it doesn't exactly sound all that exciting, most hostels offer laundry facilities. This rather mundane feature is a lifesaver if you've been travelling for a while, especially if you only pack one carry-on bag. I've done laundry at privately run hostels in Vienna and Denmark, stopping for a drink at their bars while the rinse cycle was in progress (see - some of those super social hostels aren't so bad after all). Hostel laundry is always much more affordable and accessible than the alternative of tracking down a laundromat halfway across town.
Of course, the best thing about any property isn't the great deal you scored, the wonderful view, or the free breakfast. It's the connections and memories you make when you're there. Social travellers will greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet with likeminded new friends from around the world, and solo road-trippers will be grateful for some new company. As one part of a couple with varied sleep schedules, I love my morning conversations with other early birds around the breakfast table -- and I don't feel bad about going to bed early knowing my spouse has plenty of entertainment onsite. And more reserved travelers will enjoy hostels equally well. You can be as social or as reserved as you like, especially when you choose a private room.
I don't stay in hostels every time I travel, but including them in my broader plans has greatly enriched my travel experiences. My wallet is a little heavier thanks to the great prices, and my heart is a little fuller thanks to many memorable experiences.