By Lis Sowerbutts
The first time I ever stayed in a hostel I was 17 on my first “overseas” trip to Nelson, New Zealand. A friend and I over-packed and took the ferry from Wellington for a few days in our final year of high school. It was a bit of a disaster. Before the trip we were BFF, as the kids say. Afterwards, we’d discovered just because you get on with someone doesn’t mean you can travel with them.
But I had discovered hostels on the trip. At the time, the late 1970s, hostels were the only option if you didn’t have the budget for a hotel. Particularly for a solo traveller who didn’t want to pay the same price as two, a dorm was perfect. A few years later, I took out a life membership of International Hostelling (as they are called these days) and I still use that membership.
But frankly, I came to discover, hostels sucked. I hostelled in Australia, Canada, the US, UK and Europe. Hostels would only let you stay a maximum number of days (3 or 5). Hostels locked you out during the day, even when the temperatures were sub-zero in Canada, so you wouldn’t “waste” your time by actually staying inside or in bed! Hostels required you to do chores, which was tricky when you had a bus to catch, and seemed very, very inefficient. I remember thinking, “Why don’t they just pay someone or give a free night for the people who need to save money?” And if you weren’t a member of International Hostelling, forget about staying at all!
Why This Boomer Likes to Stay in Hostels
Fast forward some (mumble) years. Hostels became popular with backpackers.They no longer locked residents out and they started to provide amenities such as TV and later Internet. What didn’t change is that they are still a good place to meet people and they almost always have large self-catering kitchens and dorms. Many now have cafes and pubs on site. Small dorms are now common. Eight beds is a large dorm, where I recall staying in huge halls that must have slept 30! Where once I thought European hostels were ahead of the game by allowing mixed dorms, now you could get double rooms, even ensuites. Not only are hostels open all day for residents, in major cities they often have 24/7 receptions as well. Hostels have become businesses, and oddly, given the name “youth hostels” (in Australia and New Zealand anyway) they have found their niche with the family and older traveller market.
The first time I took my partner to a hostel was when we were in Brisbane at the start of an around Australia camping trip. We couldn’t camp as we were in the process of buying a vehicle and the gear. We needed to be central to deal with the paperwork involved so we ended up at the YHA (Youth Hostel of Australia) in central city. Why? It offered a better deal for the three of us (2 humans, one 4WD needing secure parking) than anywhere else I could find. The room was on the small side but clean, tidy, and air-conditioned. The clean showers were down the hall in this particular case. It was only after a day or so that my partner finally realised what that the “Y” in YHA stood for! Subsequently, we’ve stayed at hostels several times when we were in large cities or didn’t fancy camping.
I could sometimes get an ensuite room in a run-down private hotel for the same price as the hostel – but why? Why would I give up clean, cheap facilities and amenities such as Wi-Fi, laundry and a free kitchen, for a grubby, run-down hovel? Particularly given that hostels are often in very interesting buildings and locations.
Even camping can be more expensive than staying in a hostel. The YHA in Dunsborough, south of Perth, Western Australia, offers absolute beach front access to the sea. Virtually no other property in ANY price range (and this is a very expensive resort town) offers that. That delightful old house was more like staying at a family holiday home than a campground yet its prices are still (I just checked) about 1/2 what you’d pay in the local campground (comparing a private double to a cabin). If you are travelling solo it’s actually often cheaper to pay for a dorm bed rather than for a campsite (which often has the same rate for 1 or 2 people).
Over the years I’ve stayed in hostels which were boats, watermills, prisons and castles. A few weeks ago I stayed in the new Sydney Harbour YHA which is literally built over an archeological dig. This time I was travelling solo and stayed in a dorm. Out of the four of us in the dorm, I wasn’t the oldest at 50. Looking around the hostel I saw the clientèle seemed incredibly varied and included not insignificant numbers of the over-60’s plus young families.
These days a 5-star hostel will typically offer lockers which have power points inside to charge your iWhatever. The Sydney YHA had individual reading lights and power points and all rooms, including dorms, are ensuite. The only difference from staying at a hotel is that you need to bring (or hire) a towel and your own toiletries.
As a boomer I stay in hostels because they don’t just save me money, they are fun and sociable and often superbly located. $44AUD for a view like this in the photo below – I can live with that!
About the Author:
Lis Sowerbutts has been travelling for 30+ years, initially solo, now often with her partner, who had to develop a travel habit to keep up with her. Lis has published a number of travel books on the practicalities of travelling and is currently working on a memoir about the adventure of driving 35,000 kilometers around Australia with a 1986 Toyota Landcruiser.