This is a guest post by Barbara Wiebel of Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.
When I explain to people that I usually stay in hostels during my travels around the world, the initial reaction from most baby boomers is astonishment verging on horror.
“Aren’t they filthy?”
“Don’t you have to put up with a bunch of drunken twenty-somethings who party all night long?”
“Are they really safe?”
Due to the number of budget hotels and motels available in the US and the lack of a backpacker culture here, hostels have never really caught on like in other countries; only about 100 of the 31,752 hostels listed in the Hostels.com are located in the United States. So these kinds of questions are common here.
My preference for hostels began out of necessity. As a corporate dropout determined to recreate herself into an independent travel writer and photographer, I had to watch every penny. I set out on my first round-the-world journey in early 2007. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a reservation at a cheap hotel for the first two nights, it didn’t take me long to find the backpacker district and switch to the cheaper digs. Although I worried about unclean conditions, bugs, and being kept awake by boisterous hostel mates, my accommodations were always clean, bug-free, and fairly quiet.
During this first trip, I opted for private rooms with bathrooms rather than dorms with shared baths and showers. (That they even have private facilities is one of the best-kept secrets about hostels. Most people I tell are shocked.)
It’s now four years later, and I’ve become so enamored with hostels that I rarely stay anywhere else. This year, for the first time, I decided to stay in dormitories rather than private rooms. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t be accepted. I envisioned a bunch of twenty- and thirty-year-olds thinking, “What’s this old broad doing in our dorm room?” I soon discovered that this fear was only in my mind. I’ve developed wonderful friendships with people of all ages from staying the dorms.
Every hostel offers different sleeping arrangements. Some have dorms with up to 16 bunk beds, although eight- and four-bed configurations are much more common. Guests can often choose between same-sex dorms or mixed dorms. I’ve slept in both and never felt the least bit uncomfortable. Many hostels even offer family rooms for up to four people.
One of the biggest hostel secrets I’ve discovered is that you can book a two-bed dorm room, and unless it’s a holiday or other high-traffic time, you’ll almost always have the room to yourself. For some reason, hostels hesitate to book a second person into a two-bed room if they have alternate beds available.
Hostels are safe, well staffed, usually well located, and generally offer a free breakfast. Most offer metal lockers to secure your possessions while you’re away for the day, but be sure to bring along your own padlock. While more and more are providing bath towels, many still charge extra or don’t have towels available, so it’s a good idea to carry a camp towel with you. Most hostels offer common rooms for relaxing and socializing with other travelers, as well as fully equipped kitchens where you can refrigerate groceries and prepare your own meals. Some have laundry facilities and travel libraries where travelers can swap books. A few I’ve stayed in even had hot tubs, barbecues, and beaches at their front doors.
Despite the persistent stereotype, I’ve never been kept up by drunken partygoers. For the most part, my dormmates have been delightful and considerate. As for creepy-crawlies, I’ve never even seen a bedbug. Hostels in general are clean, some more than others. To ensure the cleanliness of the facility, be sure to read customer reviews before booking. What we think about hostels comes from antiquated notions of what hostels looked like back in the ’60s and what we see on TV or in movies.
Used by solo travelers, married couples, and friends traveling together who range in age from late teens up to seventy-somethings, hostels offer a marvelous, eclectic experience, but the biggest benefit for me is that I can stay on the road longer. These days, I measure the cost of everything against the price of a bed in a hostel dorm. Their cheap prices let me stay out on the road longer.
After years of working at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, baby boomer Barbara Weibel walked away from corporate life in 2007 to pursue the only things she’d ever wanted to do: writing, photography, and travel. These days she discovers the world, one culture at a time, for nine to ten months each year. Follow her journey at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.