I didn’t start traveling the world until my mid 20′s, and that is when I decided to make full use of youth hostels. I like to travel, but don’t like to spend money on hotels in most places. I just want a place to sleep and leave my stuff and take a shower, and hostels were the best way to accomplish that. I’d rather spend my money on the travel itself, activities, memorable meals and local shopping. Lodging was almost besides the point. So over the years, I have stayed in dozens of hostels in dozens of countries. I’ve stayed in some really nice ones, and I’ve stayed in some dodgy ones. I’ve stayed in ones that were overflowing with visitors, and some that were practically empty (particularly when traveling off season). I’ve rarely traveled in a country that doesn’t have many different hostels in all the vacation spots.
Thankfully the Internet has made it easier to stay in hostels (along with all the other aspects of travel). I remember reading a news article several years ago detailing how hostelling has changed over the years. Back in the 1960s/70s, most of the people who stayed in hostels were college students (or just post college) backpacking across the world. There was no real easy way to reserve places in advance, and it was incumbent upon the traveler to just show up in the morning and try to see if a bed was available. Many hostels back in the day even had age limits for visitors, topping out at age 26 often. Most of the people staying in hostels took advantage of the communal kitchens and saved money by bringing their own food and cooking. Hostels were a way for groups of young people to congregate and meet.
There are still many of the same qualities in most hostels. Communal kitchens and bathrooms still exist. Recreation rooms still have the games and books, but now have Internet and free WiFi. And you can still stay in multi-bed dorm rooms, sometimes segregated by gender and sometimes mixed gender. But there are some distinct differences in the hosteling experience nowadays. The Internet has enabled travelers to book rooms or beds days, weeks, even months in advance. There are a multitude of hostel booking sites, such as Hostelworld.com, hostelbookers.com, hostels.com, hihostels.com. Most of these sites overlap in their offerings, but you can get all the reviews of different locations and can book online. It’s great for those of us who like to plan our travel itineraries in advance and not just wing it, particularly during high tourist season of a country. Now hostels don’t just offer multi-bed dorm rooms, but also private and even family rooms. Hostels now don’t have an age limit anymore, so you start to see a different clientele. Sure, the vast majority of the hostelers are still college age students, but now there are more budget-minded families and older solo travelers. There are many hostels located in central locations like city downtown, and not just in off the beaten path.
I fall into the older, budget-minded solo traveler category. Sure, I started out hosteling in my mid 20s, but now I am in my mid/late 30s and still going strong. I don’t do it for the communal social experience, because for the most part I keep to myself. I don’t travel to meet new people per say, and would rather not engage in conversations with strangers. That’s become even more so as I get older, and I feel distinctly out of place with the other hostelers. Granted I don’t look my age (I could pass for late 20s), but I’m still VERY aware of the fact that I am often 15 years or more older than the others. Plus there is the draw of all the free Internet to keep my attention occupied elsewhere.
I do find that I wonder if I should keep doing it. All the reasons I started staying in hostels still stand, but I admit the whole communal bathroom thing is getting old, particularly when they are mixed gender. That was the case when I stayed at my last hostel in Shanghai. There was no actual BATHROOM, but rather an open area in the hall that had separate bathroom and shower stalls. I don’t run into that arrangement often thankfully. I always like it when the dorm rooms have ensuite bathrooms, just for the increased amount of privacy. I also will ALWAYS request an all female dorm room if it is offered (not all hostels do), just because I am REALLY over staying in a room with college age boys, both for the smell factor and for the noise factor. I didn’t particularly like rowdy college boys when I was in college, and I definitely don’t enjoy their immature antics now in my 30s.
Right now, the benefits of hosteling outweigh the drawbacks. I can still stay in a place with a bed and free Internet. I wonder if I will still feel this way when I hit my 40s.