Europe Stories and Tips

Experiential Travel V - So You Want to Hostel

Burg Stahleck Photo,

This is a condensation of a piece that I wrote some years ago and have just finished this update. I wrote it to prove that if you can afford to take a vacation in the US, you can afford to vacation in Europe. I originally wrote it with a budget of $1000 for two weeks including airfare, food, lodging, public ground transportation, and admission fees. The figure has gone up to $1200 at today's prices. What makes it all possible is hosteling. If you already know that hosteling is not for you, don't bother reading any farther unless you have children who are thinking of trying it. If that is the case, you may learn something and have your fears assuaged.

I started hosteling for the same two reasons that most people do: it is cheap, and allows me to travel alone without being penalized with a "single supplement" charge. Plus, I don't have to look for someone with whom to travel to eliminate that charge. Those are still the main reasons for hosteling. Then, as I traveled in Europe, I found that it was easier carrying a pack on my back than a suitcase in my hand. Even today, with the roll along suitcases, I still prefer a pack. I have learned to travel lighter (much lighter) as well.

Today, I can think of no better way to travel than hosteling. Age makes no difference. When I was in my 40's, I was generally the oldest person staying at a hostel. Now I am in my mid-sixties and I am seldom the oldest.

There are many reasons to hostel, but it is not for everybody. For every advantage I can probably think of a disadvantage and I will do that for the sake of argument a little later. For now, let's look at what hosteling really is.

History ...

The movement was born in the early 1900's in Germany and has advanced throughout the world since. Britain became active in the 1930's and the US followed shortly after. In the beginning hostels were housed in schools when they were closed on weekends and holiday breaks. The hostelers paid a cheap price to sleep on straw mats and in return were required to do a few light chores. Today, the chores are gone, the bunks are more comfortable and the prices, while higher, are still a bargain. Today's hostels are located in renovated hotels, old nursing homes, farm houses and barns, even castles.

Hosteling International (HI)...

This is the international organization to which over 4,000 hostels in 60 countries belong (the largest). HI hostels must meet certain requirements above and beyond normal building codes. Membership is required (inexpensive). Even if you are not a member, you can get a "welcome card" at reception which entitles you to membership after six nights at any participating hostel in the world, each night of which is charged an additional €3. If you belong to HI USA, you are automatically enrolled in HI. From either of the websites below, one can check on international hostels throughout the world. Many HI hostels today have no curfew, or at least provide a way of getting in after reception is closed. See www.hihostels.com or www.hiusa.org.

A note about age restrictions in Bavaria. In the recent past, adults over the age of 26 were not permitted in the Bavarian DJH (HI) hostels. That has been relaxed and if space is available adults over 26 are accepted for an additional €3 charge.

Independent Hostels ...

These hostels are "for profit" and are slightly more expensive. They may serve alcohol and have smoking areas. Their rules are somewhat more relaxed, usually have 24 hour reception with no curfew, often have en suite toilet/shower facilities, and frequently have mixed gender dorms. They are often located closer to the "old city" part of town, and many times are "party" hostels. Breakfast is usually extra. For those who go to Europe to experience the party side of the countries, the independent hostels may be a better choice because of their locations close to the tourist areas of cities, their relaxed rules, and their 24 hour reception. Web sites for these hostels are found at: www.hostelworld.com, www.hostels.com, and www.backpackeurope.com.

Why Hostel? ...

This part is more subjective and and there is lots of room for argument. From my experiences, I prefer hostels that are part of Hosteling International. My favorite hostels are German, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Swiss. The availability in Europe is huge, and in Germany alone, there are over 600 hostels. More and more hostels are opening in what were the old Iron Curtain countries. I rank German and Austrian hostels above the others because they have so many family programs in their facilities. To me that means that there are lots of very fussy mothers staying in these facilities so they are usually spotless and the dorms are "gender specific." The bunks are usually better constructed and comfortable, breakfast is usually included, and they are more quiet at night.

Disadvantages to hosteling ...

Hosteling is not for everyone. It will be a bad experience if you:
1. Must have private toileting and showering. If it is a problem for you, you may "get used to it" like others say, but you probably won't get comfortable with it.
2. Are uncomfortable sleeping in a room with strangers, and sometimes in mixed gender dorms. Communal sleeping arrangements do not make for a romantic vacation.
3. Must have absolute quiet in order to sleep. Ear plugs and eye shades help, but getting stepped on by the person in the upper bunk at 3 AM is still a problem.
4. Constantly worry about theft. Other than pick-pockets, theft is seldom a problem, but if you worry anyway...
5. Hate smoking and smoke. Find out first if the hostel allows smoking, and where.
6. Must have lots of amenities. You can get assistance and suggestions at hostels, but if you need concierge service...
7. Are not comfortable in such a setting. Just general anxiety. Remember that it is YOUR vacation. Don't let someone talk (or bully) you into doing something that is uncomfortable for you. If you know that you won't enjoy it, don't do it.
8. Are very concerned about personal safety. Hostels are very safe, as are most European cities, but if you are concerned...
Personally, I do not have a problem with any of the above. All I do in a hostel is sleep. Even in bad weather, I leave the hostel for a museum or other indoor attractions. However, if you have big problems with any of the above, you really need to look for a hotel or B&B that suits your needs. It is your vacation, you're probably paying for it, and you should be comfortable. Nothing else matters.

Advantages of hosteling ...

First is the most obvious: cost. The amount of savings is huge. Next is convenience. As soon as you learn how to use the public transportation systems, being a couple of miles away from downtown is no problem. Besides, the hostels that advertise being close to the train station are frequently in fairly seedy parts of town (that does NOT mean unsafe, however). Basically, it is convenience versus cost. Many hostels have member kitchens where you can prepare your own meals and save even more money. There are lots of other conveniences such as internet and laundry facilities as well.

Last is camaraderie, and next to cost, this is the biggest advantage to hosteling. In any hostel there are people your own age from many countries with whom you can make friends, learn from and about, and share adventures. If your plans are loose enough, you might join them in going to their next destination. I have life-long friendships with people I met in hostels. Going further, there is safety in numbers. While European cities are very safe, many people, young and old, do not like to be alone on city streets. Hosteling provides that kind of safety net. All you have to do is take a group walking tour and you are bound to strike up a conversation with another tour member. Easy! From there you each find out about the other person's home country. I encourage people to get to know travelers from other countries, and that is much more easily done in hostels than in hotels. There are many more advantages, but for me, those are the most important.

For all the reasons that I mentioned, hosteling can be a great way to spend a vacation. It can also be a nightmare. Most people that I know that do hostel would not travel any other way (of course there is the fact that they may not be able to afford any other way). What is most important is that the ultimate goal of any vacation is to have a good time. What you need to enjoy your vacation is up to you.

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