by Laura C. Reeder
I’d like to think I’m different from the common notion of a postcard-buying, tour-taking, rubber-necking, full-fledged tourist. I stay away from the big photo-op spots, and when I’m visiting somewhere new, it’s my primary goal to attempt to blend in. Nevertheless, I have yet to set out for a destination without a plan as to where I’m staying or a thought for where I’ll be going next. So when I discuss traveling with some of my backpack-loving, hostel-staying friends I feel like I don’t know the first thing about travel. I don’t know all the local hot-spots and I don’t make a habit of shacking up with 10 or 15 people in camp-style bunk beds. I guess I’m just not experienced, or hip, or adventuresome enough. But many people my age are.
The cornerstone of this hip, in-the-know traveling culture is the hostel. Hostels are the way to go when searching for a unique and budget-friendly travel experience, especially if you are a student or a twenty-something looking for a laid-back international atmosphere. Many young travelers – and many older ones for that matter – have fully embraced this unglamorous, but always interesting, mode of globe-trotting. But who is at home in hostels and who would be happier in a Holiday Inn?
Hostels have been around for a very long time, and a basic misunderstanding of them would lead one to the conclusion that any rudimentary bunk room, with a certain amount of upkeep and a certain amount of respectability, could be considered a hostel. In reality, there is no accepted hostel ‘look’ or size – a hostel can be anything from a room in a private home to an entire building in an urban setting – and this is part of their appeal. They are places that offer an alternative to the luxury and sameness of the chain hotel. Cheap and basic, they have an established place in the world of travel. Hostels can be found all over the world, from Anchorage to Ulaanbaatar and everywhere in between. The difficulty is not finding one. It’s liking it once you get there.
Laura Kasinof, a junior at New York University, has stayed in hostels in many areas of the world, including Ireland, Crete, and even Mongolia. Sometimes she stays with friends, and sometimes she stays alone. She enjoys exploring the hostel culture, which she explains is different than the experience of merely treating a hostel like you’d treat a cheap hotel. “A lot of people stay in hostels but don’t get into hostel culture. There is a difference between the two. Hostel culture is hanging out in the basement, [the] bar, talking travel. Basically I love hostels because everyone is so into traveling and likes to talk about it all the time. So it suits me.” Kasinof epitomizes the sort of traveler who thrives on the hostel way of life. She wants to know as much about other people’s experiences as possible, and she knows that a hostel is just the place to share a few drinks and a few travel stories.
Robbie Tunon, a junior at Pennsylvania State University, views his hostel stays from a different perspective. He spent a summer back-packing through Europe, and his stops included hostels in such places as France, Italy, and Austria. When asked what one should expect from a hostel stay his reply was, “Sleeping! Sleeping is the only thing you should do. There is no reason to do anything else but sleep, re-pack, and shower.” And showering is an option. He is obviously from the camp that views hostels as nothing more than a place to rest your weary head. Despite their differing opinions on the worth of a hostel stay, both these students have the same opinion on who you’ll find in the neighboring bunk. Tunon puts it best when he explains, “There are tourists, and there are travelers. It is a mindset. Even the bad for a traveler can be made into fun.” This doesn’t mean that hostels are bad. They’re just not for tourists. Kasinof reaffirms this point when I ask her if you’re likely to meet young, savvy travelers in hostels. “More like young awesome backpackers. But definitely travelers. Not tourists.”
I can’t yet claim to be an experienced traveler. But I figure that anyone can try a hostel stay as long as he or she approaches it with a positive and flexible attitude. Booking is easy. Kasinof suggests websites that make the process of choosing a hostel quite doable. Sites like these also provide helpful background information on hostels, as well as answers to frequently-asked questions such as, is it safe to stay in one alone? Kasinof would answer with a resounding yes. In some cases, though, it is good to get answers to questions like these before finding out firsthand. Check out the particular hostel and see if anyone has posted comments or given advice on its pros and cons.
It’s also good to check up on what’s best to bring and what’s best to leave at home. This may be one of the major dividers between the tourists and the travelers. As Jeannine Castelbuono, a junior at Pennsylvania State University who studied abroad in Spain remembers, “It just wasn’t what I’m used to. I’m used to picking my purse to match my shoes to match my outfit. We traveled with only one change of clothes. I’m used to staying in nice places with my parents and this was just a bare room with beds and lockers.” That’s the thing about making it in a hostel. You’ve got to be content with the bare minimum. And although this may seem daunting at first, most college students have probably roughed it at some point during the school year, whether they realize it or not. We’ve all pulled all-nighters, gone without showers, and even slept on couches or floors during those especially fun weekends. So don’t dismiss a hostel stay at first glance.
All those travelers who have used hostels over the years can’t be wrong. There’s something about that mode of traveling that is very appealing to someone with the right attitude. Anyone can start down the traveler’s path by way of booking a stay in a hostel. There’s nothing wrong with checking into a hotel in the middle of the night if the hostel doesn’t quite suit after all. Just remember the mindset that surrounds the bunk beds and communal bathrooms of the hostel community: hotels are for tourists.