GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE
Hostels: Not Just For Backpackers Anymore
By Jim Fortney, Editor, Big World Magazine
Perhaps it's the lack of TV in the room. Or the communal-style seating in the dining hall. Or the (gasp!) friendly interaction between guests. Either way, many Americans have traditionally been frightened off by the concept of a hostel.
Truth is, hostels can be quite foreign to travelers accustomed to plastic-wrapped motel rooms or properly prissed B&Bs. But for those the least bit open-minded, hostelling can open up a world of cheap, fun, and friendly travel for travelers of all ages. Whether youre a long time traveler or just out of school and ready to see the world, consider staying in a hostel -- you may never sleep in a regular hotel again.
The hostel is a mainstay of budget travel for most of the world, but many Americans will look at you askance if you should even say the word. The movement's barely made a blip on the American travel radar, yet throughout the world, the international hostelling movement is a recognized way to travel cheaply, meet new friends -- and kick back for a bit. And isn't that what travel's all about?
Hostelling got its start in 1907 when a schoolmaster in Germany opened up his building to travelers willing to take on a chore or two in exchange for free accommodations. The idea took off, and soon schools -- and custom-built hostels -- were adapting the idea as a way to enable young people to see the country without spending a fortune. Soon, a European-wide organization was promoting these hostels as a path toward world peace via social interaction.
Perhaps it didn't exactly achieve world peace, but the hard work of the movement's founders fostered a vibrant worldwide coalition of national hostel organizations, all dedicated to providing low-cost, meaningful ways for travelers to see the world.
WHAT IS A HOSTEL?
Modern-day hostels are a varied lot: some are bright and welcoming places you won't want to ever leave, and others -- mostly independent hostels in major cities -- well, let's just say they're a cheap sleep.
Hostels are as unique as their owners, but what differentiates a hostel from a hotel is usually that most facilities are shared with other guests: bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens and such. Although private and family rooms are often available, standard rooms are usually dormitory-style, with a few bunk beds in each room.
While hostels are great for people on a budget, and its what usually draws people into their world, they're so much more than that. Aside from the priceless social interaction, hostels serve as all-purpose travel centers of a sort, renting bikes, holding events, or advising what's going on nearby.
And while you won't need to do chores in most hostels -- some in Germany still demand it -- you will probably be expected to clean your own dishes and maybe bring your sheets to the laundry room. I suppose you could say in that regard it's just like home, eh?
Most hostels belong to one of the various national Hostelling International branches, although a growing number -- frustrated by the bureaucracies of such associations -- choose to go the independent route. Many people look for a hostel that is affiliated with one of the various Hostelling International (HI) organizations: HI/American Youth Hostels, Youth Hostels Association of Great Britain, etc. Their blue triangle logo is usually an assurance of clean and safe (although often somewhat institutional) lodging, and usually provides for a convenient network if you want to make reservations for the next night at another HI hostel. You'll also get a discount if you're a member of your country's hostelling organization.
Hostel memberships can also get you discounts at museums and other attractions overseas; it's the budget traveler's version of the AAA card in North America. To get a membership, contact your local or national YHA council -- or sign up abroad. It'll cost around $20 to sign up, and your card is good worldwide. Your card will also serve as your ticket to a number of terrific activities at the local council level. Many hostel chapters in North America hold travel clinics, environmental clean-up days, or camping parties. You dont even need to hop on plane to get your memberships worth in most cases.
NOT JUST FOR THE KIDS
Dont be put off by the "Youth Hostel" terminology. True, you'll definitely find an emphasis on youth at most hostels worldwide. From the schoolkids on holiday in the cafeteria to the rave flyers in the lobby, you might feel out of sorts if you're over 45. But the very fact that you're in a hostel at all means that you're more open-minded than most folks your age, and you'll earn points just for that alone.
Although some German hostels originally restricted membership to those under 26, there is no age requirement to join a hostelling group or stay in a hostel. In fact, if you're a senior, you'll often get a discount!
And hostels can be a great alternative lodging option for families, who will often meet others with children, too! Some hostels are even designed with families in mind, with game rooms, TVs and cafeteria food thats kid-friendly!
While many hostels operate no differently than hotels (check in, check out, youre on your own), some hostels have specific regulations and rules that you should be aware of before you pay for your bed.
While you're planning your trip, first check to see what hostels are in your destination. In addition to searching GoNOMADs LODGINGS LISTINGS, check Hostels.com http://www.hostels.com which lists most every hostel known.
Paul Karr's "Hostels" series (published by Globe Pequot Press) makes for a great planning aid as well with concise, opinionated reviews. And, if you join one HIAYH, you can get a free booklet listing all the member hostels worldwide. You can book a reservation at any of thousands of hostels by visiting the GoNOMAD Hostel Finder here.
With the name of the hostel and a few minutes on a search engine, you should be able to get a general feel for a place -- and maybe even make reservations online. For more options, search for the best hotels worldwide.
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