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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

Hostels for Who?
Older Hostellers, Couples & Families
Paul Otteson

I get a lot of questions from non-traditional hostelers wondering what hostels are like: Are they safe? Am I to old to stay in a hostel? Am I crazy to take my kids to a hostel? Can my husband and I stay together? Do the curfews apply to people 21 and over? More than ever, the answers vary from hostel to hostel—the standard bunkrooms-for-students version has been modified in many ways. Many hostels these days seem more like hotels, B&B's, retreats, summer camps, college dorms, or other types of lodging.

Still, some things haven't and won't change. It's a rare hostel that doesn't offer bunkrooms, a shared kitchen, and a common space, and hostels remain comparitively cheap everywhere. If you are, indeed, a young traveler on a budget looking for a safe night's sleep and the company of like-minded souls, just about any hostel has what you need.

But what if you are that "non-traditional" hosteller? What should you expect? Here's an overview of some ways that many hostels have grown to accommodate you:

So you're a little older…

I spent my first hostel night in eastern Pennsylvania at a hostel near French Creek State Park. I was 16 at the time, on a weekend bike trip with a couple of buddies. We were three, less-than-sane, helmetless, bug-eating riders with no care at all for the tons of steel that whizzed by as we joked along on the shoulder of the road. Other than the joy of ride and freedom, our secret plan was to hook up with some girls who were getting to the hostel on a trip of their own, and then… well, whatever. Unfortuantely, wild weather pushed in by a hurricane further south messed up our not particularly well laid plans.

I have vague memories about the segregated bunkrooms, boiling up hot dogs in the kitchen, and making fearless phone calls to concerned parents. What I paid little heed to at the time was how well the hostel suited both my trio and the staff who had to handle our youthful mindset. That hostel was, and perhaps still is designed for young, impoverished travelers enjoying some of the earlier miles of their travelling lives.

Oh, but I've gone a few miles since then, and I now look for some other features in the hostels I visit—and increasingly, I find them:

NO CURFEWS—You'll still find curfews at many Hostelling International (HI) hostels, but they're less common at the hundreds of independent hostels and those that are members in smaller associations. If you're trying to engage the evening wonders of a destination without checking your watch, look for hostels that won't lock you out before your chosen bedtime.

OTHER OLDSTERS—"Oldster", as in 'over 20'. Here, you'll encounter the full range of possibilities. As you might expect, HI hostels tend to be skewed a bit to the younger end, especially when they host school groups on weekends or during holidays. At the other extreme, if you hit certain independent hostels midweek in the slow season, you might find a group that has you looking about for canes and walkers. Of course, these true 'oldsters' have stayed young in heart and body because they keep hostelling!

PRIVACY—Is it possible to have the ambience and camaraderie of a hostel, without the sleep-stealing noises of bunkroom traffic, snoring, and late-night chatter? Yes! Most hostels can give you a private room on most nights of the year. Either they have designated private rooms, or they have very small bunk rooms that they'll give to a solo traveler who asks with a smile when the hostel is half full. You'll pay more for those designated rooms—in general, $25 to $50 versus $10 to $20 for a bunk. But maybe your wallet is a little thicker, now that you have some work years behind you. Chances are, your time is shorter too, and you've got responsibilities waiting at home when you return… yeah, well, that's another story.

No matter how old or experienced you are, if you're looking for some of the hostel features described above, do your research! Make sure you have a guidebook that lists the independents and hostels in organizations smaller than HI.

So "you" are now two…

I'm a married man and my wife and I often travel together. While we may enjoy splitting up to pursue personal interests during the travel day, we have no desire to wave goodbye in the evening as we head off to our sex-segregated bunkrooms. The advantages noted for older solo travelers are even more important to couples. Two more are worth mentioning here:

CO-ED BUNKROOMS—If it has to be a bunk, you and your opposite-sex partner can at least be in the same room when the bunkrooms are co-ed—something that's far more common now than it was a couple decades ago. In some bunkroom situations, you can even push bunks together so the smiling eyes of your soulmate are that much closer at the close of the day.

DOUBLE BEDS—"Private room" in a hostel usually means a room with two or more single beds. However, a growing number of hostels now put double beds in their smaller rooms. HI's Marin Headlands Hostel near San Francisco is one of several that use double bed "inserts" that they use to modify single beds or lower bunks when their bookings call for it. What it all means is that it's getting easier to turn those loving eyes into a loving embrace, all as the less fortunate snore away in packed bunkrooms down the hall.

What? Now "you" are three or more…

Now, of course, I'm not just a married man. I'm a married man with a kid on the way. Is the end of my hostelling days fast approaching? No way!

By this point, you should see a pattern emerging. Hostel managers aren't dumb. They see how some of the students who loved hostelling in the past want to keep coming back. They come back as older solo travelers. They come back with lovers. Sure enough, they come back next with kids in tow, and they need the right kind of accommodation.

FAMILY ROOMS—Whether it's a small bunkroom that can be designated for families, or an official "family room" with a double for the parents and bunks for the kids, more and more hostels have rooms ready for your family.

FAMILY FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVES—Many hostels have also become much friendlier about giving a family a corner of a large co-ed bunkroom so all can stay together. Hostels with sex-segregated bunkrooms are quite used to hosting single-parent family groups, as well as those where one parent reluctantly retreats to the one bunkroom while the kids stay with mom or dad in the other. Common areas of many hostels may have books and games that appeal to kids.

BUT!—Families should do their research! Some hostels are still decidedly unaccommodating to families and kids. While great family-friendly hostels can be found anywhere, inquire carefully about urban and seasonal hostels. Some no-curfew hostels and those with bars can be magnets for partiers. Occasionally, would-be hostels attract guests that give them the feel of a flophouse. College dorms and other facilities that are turned into hostels for student holiday periods may have little character and an institutional ambience.

In general, problems are rare for those who plan and research with some care. Good guidebooks will tell you something of the character of a hostel. Smaller hostelling organizations often have standards of family-friendliness that hostels must meet. Besides, one bad hostel night might be a great source of education for budding young minds!

Hostelling is for almost Everyone!

Young or old, poor or not-so-poor, singles, couples, and families—hostelling has grown to welcome you all! Unless you've reached the point where a scuff on your Samsonite luggage or a rude bellhop spoils your day, you can hostel with ease and pleasure throughout the world.

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com