Saturday, April 11, 2009

How to Sleep in a Hostel

A relatively spacious room with only four beds in the Square Caulaincourt Hostel in Montmartre (the heart of the Paris tourist district). My rent (3/09): €22.50/night (about $29).

When I am traveling in Europe (always on a microscopic budget), I sometimes camp in fields or sleep in rental cars, but mostly I stay in hostels. For the uninitiated, a hostel is shared bunkroom accommodations for a very low price, generally $20-35/night. The concept really doesn't fly in America, but it thrives overseas. For me, it often means the difference between traveling and not traveling, because there's no way I can afford a standard hotel room.

For the benefit of naïve Americans, I'd like to go through the basics of what a hostel is and how it works. (You can also check out my tour of a Typical Hostel in Lisbon.)

Generally speaking, Americans are creeped out by the idea of shared accommodations. 90% of the Americans I know seem uncomfortable with the concept and would probably freak out even worse at the reality. In most cases, you are spending the night in a room full of strangers, sometimes even of the opposite gender. How do you protect your stuff? Where do you change clothes? It seems so strange—and dangerous! There's a horror movie franchise about gruesome killings at a hostel and no doubt a porn movie or two, yet in practice it all works quite well once you are used to it.

Americans think they need a huge dedicated space all to themselves, with antiseptic sterility, a mint on their pillow, distant staff and minimal human interaction. Suit yourself! If you insist on traveling First Class everywhere (or even Second Class) you're not going to see much of the world.

Back when I first started hosteling in the 1980s, most hostels were non-profit, run by local hosteling associations. You would travel with your hosteling membership card and your hostel directory and would follow the book's instructions to the one hostel in each major city. Reservations were awkward and usually had to be made by mail. If you didn't have one, you just prayed they would have space for you.

The internet has changed all that. Now there are a number of hostels in every major city, most of them for-profit businesses. The price hasn't changed much, but the variety of options has expanded dramatically. Now you can make an on-line reservation as late as the day before and be assured a bed. Just to know you'll have an economical place to stay relieves an enormous worry of traveling to a new country.

The major catalyst for the change is a website called Check it out! This is the primary worldwide website for researching and reserving hostel beds. It is an example of the best things the internet can do! Not only can you look up hostels and reserve a bed, but you also get unbiased reviews from people who have recently stayed there. HostelWorld has also become the de facto policing agency for hostels, since travelers will avoid places with bad reviews from other travelers.

HostelWorld has actually created hostels where none previously existed, because it gives small hotels the means to market dorm accommodations. It has also encouraged entrepreneurs to turn just about any space into a hostel. Often hostels are located in the floors above shops or down hidden alleys. Hostels aren't particularly pretty to look at, but they're usually clean, safe and centrally located, and can be much friendlier than a hotel. They efficiently accomplish the job done of giving you a place to sleep, recuperate and plan your next move.

HostelWorld lists both the traditional non-profit hostels (under the umbrella of Hosteling International) and the newer for-profit ones, and no one who runs a hostel can afford not to be on it. From the individual hostel listings, you'll get far more information than you'll ever find about any traditional hotel. In my mind, this obviates the need to carry any kind of travel guidebook with you. (Why carry Lonely Planet™ or Let's Go™ when you can look up everything you need on the internet?) As long as you have a good hostel to stay in, you can decide where to go from there by asking other travelers or by using the hostel's wifi or computers to look things up.

Why don't hostels work in America? Maybe it has something to do with our relentless profit drive, our poor management of personal space or our destructive nature. If you opened a European-style hostel in an American city and didn't put restrictions on it (like limiting it to foreigners or college students), it would soon be overrun by druggies and lowlifes from the surrounding neighborhood and crime would overwhelm it. That's not the case in Europe, where people are used to living cheek-to-jowl and are relatively civilized about it (save for the Brits arriving for soccer matches).
STOP PRESS! After a survey of HostelWorld, I've revised my position in the next entry: Hostels DO Fly in America!
What does a hostel look like? That can vary widely. Typically, it's a small converted hotel. The management has turned all or some of the hotel rooms into dorm rooms by replacing the single bed with several bunk beds. (HostelWorld will tell you how many people per room.) From a business point of view, this can be quite crafty. Yes, the owner is only getting only $20-35 per bed, but if he can pack six people into a room, it could be more profitable than two people at the full rate.

Hostels can also occupy just about any other kind of space. In Stockholm, there's a hostel in a 747 jet, on a sailing ship and in a prison. You can stay in lighthouses in Northern California, New Brunswick or Ireland or in a "UFO" in Ireland. Most hostels, however, are not nearly so dramatic. A typical commercial hostel might be on the 2nd floor of a retail block in a city center (like the hostel in Toronto where I am writing this).

So, are you prepared to sleep on a bunk bed in a room with five strangers, possibly on the top bunk? Just getting into the top bunk might be a challenge (as you can see from the photo from Paris at the top). You might have to relearn the skill from your youth, but if you can do it, you might save enough money to travel longer than you normally would.

They don't call them "youth" hostels anymore, although the demographic is generally skewed toward travelers in their 20s. Retirees use them as well as mid-lifers comme moi. You have to have the "young" attitude of being really flexible, since you'll have to adapt to the people you room with and to the unique circumstances of each hostel. If you can pull it off, you'll probably find the experience much richer than the Hilton™ (Paris or otherwise).

Perhaps the most important thing you'll get in a hostel is networking and a social life, which is extremely difficult in a standard hotel. In a hostel, you will meet people; there's no choice. You may not meet many locals, but you'll connect with travelers like yourself from all over the world. To me, this is so much more meaningful than staying at the Sheraton, visiting the Eiffel Tower and Louvre on the Gray Line tour, then flying home.

So what exactly should you expect at a hostel the first time you stay at one?

First, you will review the offerings on HostelWorld and make your reservation there. (There are other hostel booking sites, but this is the biggest and, as far as I can tell, the only one worth visiting.) At peak travel times you want to make your reservation early; in the off-season you can wait and do it just before you leave. (There is a small non-refundable deposit, and if you fail to cancel in a timely manner, you could be charged a one-night fee as a no-show.)

In the hostel description, there will be instructions on how to get to the hostel from the airport or train station by public transportation and a little footwork. Although, the directions are usually brief and technically accurate, you have to expect that the hostel will be very difficult to find. You'll have to follow the directions exactly! It's probably not on a main street with a big neon sign but hidden down an alley with a very small sign. (A safe alley, however, since this is Europe!) Many times I have wished that I had printed out or written down the instructions, because finding a hostel in an old European city is often like running a rat maze.

When you first arrive at a new hostel, there is usually a shock factor to overcome. ("I'm going to be staying HERE!?") Many hostels are tiny shoebox operations in places you would never expect to find lodging (like a converted 2nd floor office or warehouse space). You'll get over it in a few minutes, but when you first arrive you have to be prepared for almost anything. Even the photos on HostelWorld and the unbiased reviews by previous visitors may not prepare you for the environment and humble appearance of the facility. You can be sure the amenities listed on HostelWorld will actually exist, but they could be found in a very rudimentary package. Unlike the hotel industry, there is usually no attempt to dress up the hostel product to make it visually appealing (even when the hostel has a slick website). It will probably make a college dorm look palatial!

Once you find the hostel, there will probably be a front desk similar to a small hotel. You can be assured that the staff there will speak English, at least well enough to check you in. Many hostels have a period during the day when the bunk rooms are closed for cleaning, so you may not be able to actually occupy your room until a certain time in the afternoon (usually specified on HostelWorld). However, you can usually check in as early in the day as you want and leave your bags.

The amenities of most hostels include a kitchen (if mentioned on HostelWorld) and a common room with a television. The kitchen will usually have all the basic supplies you need for cooking: pots, pans, dishes, etc. (but you should read the HostelWorld reviews for more clues). There will also probably be some standard condiments and dried pasta left behind by other travelers, so you can put together a meal there for very little. There will also be a semi-sanitary refrigerator where you can store any perishables you buy. The kitchen is an enormous advantage over a standard hotel: If you are staying for several days, you can cook your own meals and dramatically lower your food costs!

The common room is where there is usually a TV blaring and fellow travelers sitting around doing nothing productive. This is a good place to meet people. (I also happen to enjoy watching TV in a language I don't understand. It's essentially the same crap as in America, so I know what is being said almost by telepathy!)

The common room will often have computers for free internet use by guests. These computers are usually adequate for simple tasks but rarely work very well, and you may have to fight others for them at peak times. A more critical amenity for me is free WiFi™ for my own laptop, and I carefully analyze the HostelWorld listing to make sure it is available, reliable and truly free (and preferably available in the dorm rooms). In Europe, unlike the U.S., there is virtually no free WiFi in the air in public areas. You're faced with paying for it by credit card through commercial providers—at a price approaching that of a hostel bed—or staying at a hostel and getting it for free. I see it, you are essentially paying for a day of WiFi and getting free lodging thrown in!

At hostels, there may be lock-out times and curfews, which should be listed on HostelWorld. Typically, the bunk rooms are closed for cleaning between about 11am and 3pm, and there may be a time late at night when the front door is locked. (Normally, you wouldn't worry about these late lock-out times, except that American visitors to Europe are usually jetlagged upon arrival and could actually be out 'til 2 am!)

Linen (sheets and blankets) is usually provided free of charge, but you need to analyze HostelWorld to be sure. There may be a deposit required for linen or for the room key, returned to you when you check out.

Note: Most hostels do NOT accept credit cards, so you'll have to bring cash. Local currency is easily obtained by using your bank card and pin at any ATM (almost always available at the airport).

Free breakfast is a common amenity at many hostels. This is a simple "European" breakfast consisting of carbs and little else, but you might be able to tank up half your calories for the day. The self-serve breakfast usually consists of rolls, toast, jam, cereal, milk, coffee and an unidentified orange-colored liquid. (See my Lisbon Hostel tour to see a typical breakfast bar.)

Shower and bathroom facilities are usually shared. They may be in your room or you may have to go down the hall. (On HostelWorld, they will say "en suite" if the toilet and shower are attached to the room.) You should bring your own soap, because you probably won't find any in the shower!

On HostelWorld, you can choose your housing configuration—that is, the number of people in the room and their gender. Generally, the larger the number of people in the room, the lower the price. Sometimes, especially during the off-season, you may reserve a dense room and expect the worst but then be given a room essentially to yourself. On HostelWorld, you can often reserve a "private" room for two or more which is like any other hotel room but cheaper, or you can choose a room with up to 20 beds. (I've even seen 36 beds in one bunk room!) Personally, I always choose the lowest rate - period! - and if I end up with 19 other disparate travelers, that just makes life more interesting.

Gender? The available room genders are male, female and mixed. Which one are you? Yes, "mixed" means male and female strangers sleeping in the same room! In America, that would be the recipe for some kind of porn and/or slasher flick, but Europeans know their personal boundaries much better than we do. You'll have to figure out these boundaries on your own. At times, I have been in a mixed bunk room of 16 people and wondered, "Where do I change clothes?" This may require going down the hall to the bathroom—and even there your privacy might seem limited. (For the record, I have never seen anyone of any gender naked at a hostel.)

I think this stark functionality and relative lack of privacy is a good exercise for Americans. It makes you realize you don't have to live in an antiseptic plastic bubble like most of us do. You may return home with a better sense of economy and simplicity of living.

Security is something to always keep in mind, but I don't regard it as a major worry. I have absolutely no concern for my physical safely at a hostel, and I wouldn't even if I was a young female traveling alone. I'm a little more concerned about my valuables. I almost always carry those on my person—camera, computer, passport, etc.—and I leave in my room only things I can afford to lose. (In Europe in general, the risk of violence is miniscule compared to the U.S., but the risk of theft is about the same. Personally, my only experience with theft was a pickpocket in the Paris Metro, who I thwarted.)

Some hostels provide lockers for guests, but you usually have to bring your own lock (a small luggage lock because a standard-size Master™ lock might not fit). They may also have electronic door keys similar to standard hotels, so no one can walk into the room who doesn't belong there. I have always felt comfortable about the integrity of my roommates after I talked to them, but since the guests are a broad cross-section of humanity, you can never be sure.

Some other hostel notes:

—Always be courteous to the hostel staff, who can be grumpy at times. Although being in this city may seem romantic to you, to them it's just a job and they're usually paid a pittance.

Power sockets are not as common in Europe as they are in the U.S. For recharging your electronic devices, you may or may not find a socket in your room, but you will certainly find one in the common room. If you check your device's power adapter, you'll probably see that it accepts BOTH 110 volts and 220 volts. In that case all you need is a plug adapter, not an actual voltage converter. It is much easier to find this adapter in the US than in Europe. (The Evil Mega Mart™ sells a universal one in their luggage section for $10.) Since I have multiple electronic devices to charge, I also bring a US branching cube.

—In keeping with European custom, any taxes are included in the price (just like the prices for products in stores), so the balance that is quoted on HostelWorld is exactly what you will pay (i.e. there is usually no "sales tax" or "room tax").

—You can find hostels almost anywhere in the world. Canada has them in most major cities (non-profit ones through Hosteling International-Canada). Also see my revised note on Hostels in the U.S. The only place hostels seem to be lacking is certain tightly controlled tropical islands where the economy depends on charging tourists $300/night.

—Before you reserve a hostel via HostelWorld, always try to Google for the same hostel by name to see if they have their own independent website. This might give you some additional info. (Be forewarned however, that these websites are usually far prettier than the property itself. For example, the hostel I'm staying in now: It's an adequate place, but there's total disjoint between website image and the concrete reality.)

—European hostels are usually located in the center city, which makes them easy to access by public transportation but not by car. (Parking will probably be a nightmare!) When sightseeing by car, there is an alternative: Hotel Formule 1™, a budget motel chain owned by the same French conglomerate that owns Motel 6™. Formule 1 makes Motel 6 look palatial, but it's got what you need: simple rooms that sleep up to 3 with toilets and showers down the hall. These motels are concentrated in France and neighboring countries, and they are usually located in the semi-rural outskirts of cities. Formule 1's are sometimes accessible by public transit, but they mostly cater to the driving crowd. Like hostels, Formule 1 locations can be very hard to find, so you have to pay close attention to their cryptic directions. The neighborhood is often industrial, and it's not as romantic as a charming pension in the country, but if you just need a place to sleep (which is usually the main issue), Formule 1 is a whole lot easier. (Here's a list of a few more European budget chains that I know nothing about.)

So... should you stay at a hostel? That's up to you. Frankly, it's probably not the cup o' tea for most of your standard-issue, raised-in-the-bubble Americans. They'll stay at the Hilton and leave American soil approximately once in their lifetime. For me, though, there's no issue. Just add it up: (1) a safe place to sleep, (2) protection from the elements, (3) a social venue, (4) free WiFi, (5) free breakfast, (6) a place to store your stuff, (7) a place to recharge your electronics, and (8) usually within walking distance of tourist sites. Pretty darn good deal for $20-35/night!

Have I covered everything? Telegraph me if I haven't and I'll try to address it here.

For a photo tour of one European hostel, see A Typical Hostel: Lisbon, Portugal.

Also see the next entry: Hostels DO Fly in America!

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173.
This entry was released from San Diego, 4/11/09.
Revised in Toronto, 5/3/09.
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