It seems not everyone is as fond of hostels as I am. And if you’ve not had much experience of them, I can see why you might be put off. For a start, you may not fancy the idea of sharing a dorm with a load of inebriated strangers. I appreciate that’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea.
In fact, you probably find the very word ‘dorm’ off-putting. After all, aren’t dorms those places where hormonal students are filed away in bunks and left to fester? Not really the image you want in your mind when you’re planning a relaxing holiday.
Then there’s the price. In these dubious economic times, you’d think we’d all welcome the idea of staying in the world’s most exciting cities for next to nothing. But something about those prices makes people suspicious. If it’s that cheap, then surely it must be awful, they muse, as visions of stained carpets and flea-bitten mattresses flash past their eyes.
I suppose it doesn’t help that the word hostel still carries connotations of homeless shelters. I don’t imagine the Hostel horror trilogy did much for their reputation either. I’m not saying anyone believes they’ll be ritually tortured if they stay in one, but still, it plays to people’s notions of safety — if you’re naturally cautious about the dangers of travel the last thing you want to do is to share a room with strangers.
So, as I said, if you’ve not had much experience of hostels, I suppose your misgivings are understandable. But if you haven’t experienced them, I’m here to tell you that you’re missing out.
I’ve stayed in hostels all over Europe — from Brasov and Budapest to Venice and Vienna — and I can honestly say I’ve not yet had a bad experience.
What’s more, I don’t think I’d be as fond of travelling were it not for hostels. To me there’s something wonderfully implausible about them. In these days of premium prices, it’s a miracle we can pay a pittance to stay in the heart of Amsterdam, Berlin or Rome.
The catch? Well, every hostel room I’ve ever stayed at has been scrupulously clean. The staff are usually friendly — in keeping with the general bohemian atmosphere — and there’s almost always a nice crowd.
Hostels are user-friendly too — how many times have you wished your fancy hotel had free internet, a shop where you can buy toothpaste, or a kitchen where you can make yourself some lunch?
It’s true, you may have to sacrifice a little privacy, but even that’s not always the case, as many hostels offer double rooms that still work out much cheaper than hotels.
As for their reputation for being 24-hour party houses, this is perhaps the biggest myth of all. The truth is hostels crop up everywhere — not just in cities but also in rural areas such as the Lake District or Black Forest. Here you’ll find the clientele is broad, with backpackers happily rubbing shoulders with travelling families and elderly hikers.
And while many hostels are basic, plenty are actually pretty spectacular, from customised villas in the Italian countryside to fragrant pine cabins in the Alps.
Most importantly of all, hostels are social. They’re a terrific way of ensuring you meet other travellers, and experience a destination through their eyes as well as your own.
Of course, you could always have more luxury if you splurge some money. You can sequester yourself in a plush hotel, or maybe even hire an apartment or villa. After all, you’re not a penniless backpacker any more.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with spending money on travel. It just strikes me that what money really buys is greater degrees of isolation — part with enough cash and you can see the world without having to interact with anyone.
But isolation and luxury — typically anti-hostel qualities — heap pressure on the traveller: to have the perfect holiday; to enjoy your money’s worth; to be constantly, blissfully happy in each other’s company.
Hostels come with no pressure, just a very real prospect of fun. I know they’re not for everyone. But are you absolutely sure they’re not for you?
Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)