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Hostel vs. Hotel: A Good Option for Travel on the Cheap?



Whether you're intimidated by the high cost of hotels, or eager for a more social travel experience, an old-new travel option is undergoing a renaissance: hostels. Originally called youth hostels, these cut-rate hotels were formed to enable young people to tour the world on the cheap.

Today, hostels are booming. Thousands of idiosyncratic, affordable hostels have cropped up in the world's major cities, and along some of the more intriguing back roads. Hmm, on the Indonesian island of Bali, €3 (euros) ($5) per person brings us a small bungalow on the beach ....

And while the typical hostel traveler is young, flexible, and adventurous, booking over the Internet reduces the element of chance for those who have higher standards for accommodations. Many hostels are run by nonprofit national organizations, which are now members of the nonprofit umbrella group Hostelling International, which tries to assure minimum standards for more than 4,000 hostels in 80 countries.

Hostels resemble basic hotels without the marketing budget, stodginess, and injection-molded, gilded Greek goddesses in the lobby. Hostels range from cheap, grungy backpacker accommodations to fairly nice hotels.

Despite the broad range, the constants are low cost and a predominance of young travelers, which translate into a louder, more social, less formal atmosphere. You may find a bar in the lobby (especially in Europe), but neither concierge nor bellhop. In return, you may find staff who actually seem to like budget travelers--itself a reason to choose hostels.

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Many hostels control costs with dorm-style accommodations, but single or double rooms, sometimes with private bath, also may be available. And while privacy concerns are probably the biggest worry about hostels, they have not daunted the travelers advised by Jill Wermuth, a 20-something agent at Educational Travel Centre in Madison, Wis. "There are some people who probably would have objections about privacy, but those are the ones would who would not consider hostels in the first place," she says. "I have yet to hear someone come back with a horrible hostel experience because of lack of privacy."

And while a shared room can translate into worries about luggage theft, most of the hostels we "visited" on the Web offer secure storage and/or lockers in the room.

Getting acquainted

Once upon a time, the standard way to "choose" a hostel was to stagger up to the door beneath a heap of luggage, hoping for a room. Now, hostel-finding can be done on the Internet, where online booking services list features and prices, along with photos. We used several of these services to sample hostels in some major tourist destinations.

Hostels are ideal for young people who want to travel on the cheap.

Hostelling International showcased a number of hostels in Barcelona, Spain. The Center Rambles hostel, for example, "has 200 beds in shared dorms of three, four, five, six, eight, and 10 beds and offers free Internet access, free breakfast, free sheets, cable TV, laundry, air conditioning, central heating, luggage storage, safe boxes, lockers in the rooms, towel rental, travel library, free city maps ... It's open 24 hours every day all year." All this costs €22 ($29) per bed, per night.

Hostel World lists the Grand Trunk hostel in Vancouver, Canada, where a single room with shared bath includes many of the perks just listed, for $24 per night. Dorm rooms start at $13 per night.

At Hostelbookers.com, we fantasized a trip to the Greek islands, and found Villa Alexandros, on Andros Island, which offers a private studio for two, with private bath and balcony on the Aegean Sea, for €40 ($52.40) per room. In New York City, the service listed a couple of dozen hostels in Manhattan, with prices from $15 to more than $50. For better or worse, hostelbookers.com mixes budget hotels with its hostel listings.

So who's it for?

While the hostel movement started with youth hostels, the range of facilities continues to expand, says Justin Deitchman, managing editor of Student Traveler magazine. "They could be for anybody, there are so many different types out there, from run-down super-budget places on up. They are good for anybody who is willing to forego the benefits of fancy hotels, willing to share a room with somebody they don't know."

Hostel-finding can be done on the Internet, where online booking services list features, prices, and photos.

Although rooming with a stranger may seem intimidating, "You get to meet a lot of interesting people from all over the world," Deitchman says. "It's a more social atmosphere than a hotel, and there are a lot of benefits."

Single travelers should take notice, Wermuth adds. "You come home at night and have people around who are your own age, doing the same thing. I do recommend hostels for the right people. For students, when they travel to Europe, that's where they stay."

And for nonstudents? Certainly, it would help to like young people and appreciate their combination of higher energy and lower concern for convention. Wermuth, who stayed in hostels during her early 20s, says, "It was a lot of fun, a good atmosphere, really convenient, good prices, we were impressed. In Berlin, there was a crazy community atmosphere ... it's easy to meet people."

Hostels are ideal for young people who want to travel on the cheap, she stresses. "In general, they are for backpackers, not for most families, but there were some families who stayed with their kids. It's mostly people 18 to 30; that's who they would be best for."

The constants are low cost and a predominance of young travelers.

But as hostels expand, hotel prices rise, and the Internet simplifies advance inspection and booking, hostels may continue to gain ground among travelers who are more concerned with cost and travel experience than convention, privacy, and propriety.

Elder hostel: a hostel of a different stripe

Although most hostels cater to youth, Elderhostels cater to the opposite end of the spectrum. The nonprofit Elderhostel organization says it lists more than 8,000 "all-inclusive learning adventures in all 50 states and more than 90 countries abroad." Far from providing mere accommodations, Elderhostel focuses on "learning experiences for almost every interest and ability. History, culture, nature, music, outdoor activities such as walking and biking, individual skills, crafts, study cruises."

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