Hostel or hotel? These days, it's getting hard to tell. Once the dormitory-styled domain of the 25 and under set, more and more hostels have been expanding their offerings and their target demographic. That means more privacy, modern perks and a wider variety of options for people of all ages.
Why are they becoming more popular and more deluxe? In part, it's due to economic demands and a changing clientele. People of all ages are looking for quality accommodations at a budget price.
"The credit crunch is having an impact," Hostelworld spokesman Aisling White told the UK Guardian. "A new generation of young 'flashpackers' are looking for more luxury, but at the other end, 'grey gappers' are using them too. They used hostels in their youth but want more comfort now."
More than just a bed
Though hostels are becoming more like hotels, many offer experiences that go beyond than the "usual" accommodations -- but without a high price tag. For example:
- Get some fresh air. The Slane Farm Hostel is located on a working farm in Newgrange, Ireland. About an hour outside of Dublin, this hostel is ideally located for exploring the towns in Boyne Valley and their attractions, including the historic Hill of Slane, Trim Castle and Loughcrew (one of the oldest known graveyards in the world). This hostel also hosts a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, cycling and golf. If dormitory-style accommodations aren't your style, there are family rooms available and private cottages located on the grounds.
- Go to jail. At the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel you'll be sleeping in a former jail cell in the heart of Canada's capital. Don't worry: it's been converted to more comfortable accommodations with modern amenities like laundry facilities, a walk-in fridge, cable TV and internet access. You can also sleep in the prison hospital, or rent the "Warden's Quarters" for a private apartment stay. In addition to being minutes away from Ottawa's many attractions, the hostel houses its own museum about prison life. (Other former-prison-turned-hostels can be found in Stockholm, Sweden, Christchurch, New Zealand and Ljubljana, Slovenia.)
- Get away. For a taste of the Scottish Highlands, try the Rua Reidh Lighthouse near the village of Gairloch. This remote seaside location features private rooms and the common areas include a conservatory and two sitting rooms with log-burning fireplaces. You can even rent binoculars to watch the local wildlife, including dolphins and sharks in the summer months. Walking trails in the area take you to nearby beaches or for a scenic view of the cliffs. (Lighthouse hostels can also be found throughout the United States.)
- Go alternative. For an alternative to hostels and hotels, Hostelworld offers homestays throughout Asia and a variety of other inexpensive options like eco-lodges in India, beach huts in Cambodia and Thailand, and even a tree house in the Philippines. See their feature Alternative Hostelling in Asia for more information. (Some places may not be suitable for all travellers.)
Other unusual hostels include houseboats, railway cars, gypsy caravans and mills. There are even hostels located in castles throughout Europe, though many offer more in the way of dormitory accommodations than private rooms. Like boutique hotels, hostels are becoming destinations in their own right.
Tips for finding the right one
How can you tell if a particular place -- or hostelling in general -- is right for you? Start your search with the right frame of mind and remember that hostels keep their prices low by sticking to essential services. Room service, a front desk open 24 hours, luggage porters and many other features simply aren't feasible. Hostels are open to everyone, so they may not be the ideal setting for an adults-only vacation.
Here's what to look for:
- Location: Believe it or not, you can find hostels in some of the world's busiest and most expensive urban centres as well in rural settings. Where you book will depend on what kind of experience you're looking for. Maybe you want to be close to all the attractions, or have easy access to public transportation, or perhaps you'd rather be out in the country within walking or cycling distance of historic villages and scenic landscapes. If you're staying closer to home this year, hostels are available in Canada and the U.S. too.
- Accommodation type: Some places are more upscale than others, but dormitory-style accommodations aren't the only option. Private rooms for singles, couples and families are also widely available, and many places offer family suites, apartments and guest houses. Many rooms are now equipped with ensuite showers and bathrooms. Hostel booking engines will let you search based on accommodation type.
- Amenities: Do you require laundry facilities? Or need occasional access to a phone, a fax machine or the internet? Want to watch a little TV? Amenities vary from place to place, and may be available in common areas rather than in your room.
- Age restrictions: In general, hostels are open to all ages but many still give priority to people under the age of 26. Booking in advance and travelling during off-peak times (i.e. autumn instead of summer) can ensure you get the accommodations you want.
- Family-friendly: Pets and children are allowed, but not everywhere you go. Some places have restrictions on under-age travellers if there are bars on site.
- Meal preparation facilities: Part of the budget travel experience is preparing your own food, though some places do provide breakfast. Find out what facilities are available for cooking, and if the hostel is close to a grocery store or market. Also look at the size and number of facilities in relation to the number of beds offered.
- Accessibility: If you have any special needs, it's best to do some thorough research about the facilities beforehand. Not all places are accessible for wheelchairs or baby strollers.
- Activities: Depending on the location, a hostel may be just a place to rest your head or it might include other activities like renting a bicycle, an onsite museum or art gallery, or outdoor sports. A note of caution: if you're looking to avoid a "party atmosphere", pay careful attention to the descriptions of onsite activities. Watch out for anything targeted to "youth" or "students."
- Linens: Do you need to bring your own "sleep sheet" and towel or are linens provided? More and more hostels are providing these services, but some will charge a small fee.
- Hostel rules: Are you required to vacate the premises during the day? Leave at 9:00 am? Be in your room by a certain time of night? Find out what rules are in place and decide if they conflict with your plans.
- Membership required: Many places require a membership to Hostelling International, or they may charge an additional fee if you're not a member.
- Where are belongings kept: Most places have lockers and safety deposit boxes, but you may want to pack light and leave your valuables at home.
Ideally, you want to find out as much about the hostel as you can before you book. Read the hostel's website, and call and ask questions if necessary. Many sites feature photos, video, podcasts and traveller guides. When in doubt, reading what other travellers have to say in online reviews can help you get a sense for what the place is like.
If you have specific requirements or you're looking for a certain atmosphere, you might need a little extra help. Hostelling International recommends contacting their National Office in the country you plan to visit for recommendations.
Looking for a place to start? Try hostel booking websites like Hostelworld.com, Hostelling International and Hostels.com. In addition to booking engines and detailed information about individual hostels, you'll find information on what to expect, what to pack and answers to any questions you might have.
The hostel experience isn't for everyone, but it certainly has changed over the years. For budget-minded travellers looking for something different, they're worth a little investigation.
The Guardian: Luxury hostels target flashpackers and grey gappers
About.com: Youth Hostels for Seniors and Baby Boomers
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