Hostels: Cheap and cheerful

If your traditional thinking is that hostelling is an inexpensive way to see the world but belongs to backpack-toting young people in hiking boots – you’re in for a treat. Hostels open their doors to everyone, regardless of age – teenagers, university students, families — and ageless retirees.

“Thirteen per cent of our members are over 55 years of age,” says Toby Pyle of International Hostelling-USA, the largest organization in the U.S. “And their numbers are growing every day.” 

Whether staying in the U.S. or in one of Hostelling International Canada’s (HI-Canada) establishments, you can depend on affordable (although distinctly no-frills) accommodation.

Costs: $9-$36 per night
Hostel rates per night, per person, across Canada and the U.S. run from $9 to $36 for members, although more elegant hostels in some of the top tourist areas can run as high as $60. For example:

  • The hostel in Banff charges $59 a night for a private room with two beds and private bath. On the other hand, the more Spartan Calgary hostel charges just $16 for basic accommodation.

Hostel International’s compact guide, Hostelling Noh America (free to members), lists the addresses, rates and facilities of the 79 hostels across Canada and the 142 in the U.S.

World-wide membership

  • For $35 per year, your Canadian membership is valid around the world, allowing access to 4,200 hostels in 68 countries. 
  • HI-Canada card-carriers also receive substantial travel discounts for bus travel (10 per cent off Greyhound Canada fares), car rentals, restaurants, museums and attractions. 

Non-members are allowed to stay in hostels in Canada and elsewhere but are usually charged $4 more per night. Be aware: If beds are limited, members get first choice.

“North American hostels offer clean, safe, comfortable accommodation,” says Greg Brockman of HI-Canada. “We have strict guidelines on keeping each hostel clean and comfortable. It’s community living, giving travellers a unique opportunity to meet other travellers of all ages and to learn about the culture and attractions of each area.”


Facilities, amenities

  • Most North American hostels have separate dormitory-style facilities for men and women
  • Many also provide rooms for couples or families if reserved in advance. 
  • All have secure storage areas or lockers. 
  • Most have cafeterias or cook-it-yourself kitchens and common areas for eating and socializing. 
  • Beds come with blankets and pillows. Guests are responsible for their own towels and bed linens. 
  • Many offer extras such as laundry facilities, travel libraries – even hot tubs, swimming pools and barbecues.

On the downside, keep in mind some hostels still have nightly curfews and expect overnight guests to help with basic clean-up chores. Read the guidebook carefully for rates, facilities and, as importantly, any restrictions.

Many hostels across North America, especially in major urban areas, are accessible to handicapped people. Many also offer more than just a “cheap sleep” – providing special programs and activities such as historic and architectural walking tours, natural history lectures and sports activities.

Growing popularity
It’s estimated more than a million people across North America will be hostelling this year as the demand for inexpensive accommodation continues to grow. Historic buildings, renovated and upgraded for the hostelling market are particularly appealing: a lighthouse on the California coast, a former jail in Ottawa, a beachfront hostel in Vancouver’s Jericho Park, or a beautifully renovated heritage building in downtown Victoria.

Hostelling across North America can be a unique and comfortable experience, but it can be a different story in Europe. My daughter, a university medical student, spent five weeks last summer travelling from Amsterdam to Budapest and back again, all on a Eurailpass and staying in hostels.

Most, she says, were really nice, but as she put it: “A few were dumps, particularly in Eastern Europe. Her best advice to CARP members planning to hostel in Europe is to study one or two good hostelling guidebooks, such as Lets Go Europe, Lonely Planet’s Western Europe on a Shoestring or one of the Frommers’ guides.

Some pre-trip reading can avoid uneasy nights. For more details call (toll-free) 1-800-663-5777 or visit HI-Canada’s website.