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I’ll level with you here – my first hostel experience was exactly like a kid on a gap year. I had just graduated from college and two of my best friends and I managed to scrounge up enough cash to get to London for a week, but we were on a really tight budget.
We’d heard of hostels, but only in the terrifying, horror movie kind of way. Nonetheless, we started doing some more research, reexamined our budgets again and decided it was pretty much a hostel or a tent in the park. Since the latter was illegal, we hostelled it.
My first experience in a hostel was at the Astor Victoria in London, and I really could not have asked for a better time. The spot was perfect – right around the corner from a Tube stop. They had a simple breakfast included (to give you an idea of how much of a budget we were on, we would eat toast or oatmeal there for breakfast and make PB&J sandwiches to take with us for lunch, we only bought dinner every day). Everyone had lots of great advice about what to see and do. The girls who shared our room with us were super friendly and interesting.
If you can handle camping, you can stay in a hostel. Even the grossest hostel I was ever in – I’m looking at you, Peru – was still not worse than camping. The main thing is that you have to know what to expect.
It’s totally reasonable to be insistent about:
-Your safety – the bedroom door should lock. And if your roommates bring in anyone you think is unsafe, you should report it immediately.
Things you’ll just have to roll with at a hostel:
-The state of the bathrooms. Yes, you will want shower shoes. And Tinactin, just in case.
-The odd smells wafting up from the kitchen at all hours.
-Roommates who get up at 4 AM, speaking very loudly in foreign languages while applying 8 tons of make-up in the glare of a make-up mirror brighter than the sun (granted, for a really good tour, this might be you).
-Weird noises at all hours… earplugs or your iPod help a lot here.
After my first experience with hostels, I was sold. I’ve stayed in them all over England and Ireland and most recently in Peru. Several of my best memories from traveling are all the other people I’ve met just hanging out at the hostel in the evenings.
So where is my proof it’s not just for gap year kids? Aside from the fact that I’ve come across travelers of all ages in different hostels, my own dad has stayed at one with me. He’s actually the one who proclaimed it “just like camping.” And while it was totally sufficient for our needs, it was far from the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.
When in Rome…
If you’re American, it helps to know that Europeans view hostels as an acceptable form of accommodation. I’ve actually paid top dollar for a hotel in Amsterdam, only to find out that I’d been in several nicer hostels. There are also an increasing number of hostels offering private rooms. A good hostel website will have all of this clearly listed.
Most hostels have the number of beds in each room listed, as well as whether there is a bathroom in the room or not. If not, you can expect conditions pretty much the same as a college dormitory.
Another great thing to check is that lots of hostels list what type they are – family friendly, youth, etc. There are even hostels springing up geared toward the retirement-aged crowd.
The two best websites for booking hostels and checking their reviews are Hostelworld.com and Hostelbookers.com. Prices vary pretty widely, but I’ve booked rooms for less than $10 a night to around $40 – they are always better than the nearby hotel prices. Happy traveling!