Feb 212013
 

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.

"Dunsborough YHA hostel near Perth, Western Australia"

Dunsborough YHA near Perth, Western Australia

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.

"Dunsborough Beach near Dunsboroug YHA near Perth in Western Australia"

Dunsborough Beach, Western Australia

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).

"Sydney YHA, Australia"

Sydney YHA, Australia

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!

"Sometimes when you stay in hostels, you have lovely views like this one in Sydney, Australia" Sydeny youth hostel"

View from Sydney hostel

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.

Blog:  Lis’s Travel Tips
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  7 Responses to “Are We Too Old to Stay in Hostels?”

  1. I know I am a guy but this is still a good question to ask both sexes as we get older and travel.

    Let’s face it – hostels have come a long way since the 70s. Most are cleaner, well managed, good bathrooms, free WiFi, and security. As an older traveler, we probably can afford a little more than the 20s backpacker so we can save money on a hotel and get a cheaper room at a hostel that’s either private or semi-private.

    However, as we get older our perspective, comfort levels, and preferences change. What if you are not a very social person and want a little peace and quiet? I really think this is a budget vs personality vs travel style issue. And all three of those change or develop more as we get older.

    • I don’t think my preferences have changed a lot as I’ve got older – maybe I’m not old enough to know yet? I’m still fit enough to climb to a top bunk, maybe that makes a difference 🙂 I do admit though I generally travel with my partner and we then get private rooms.

      The sad thing is that hostels aren’t as social as they used to be – we have the free WIFI to thank for that!

  2. Interesting. I’m 66, and other than a very brief flirtation with hostels in my late teens, I began using them about 3 years ago, not from a desire to do so, but because I, well, kind of fell on hard times. So far I’ve only stayed in hostels in UK and Spain, and my experience is not vast. However: (1) I hate dorms; not because I resent being disturbed by others so much as I don’t like the onus on me not to disturb others. (2) I was very, very surprised to realize that there are plenty of folk my age, or almost, using hostels. I’ve never felt “out of place” on account of my age at least. (3) Did feel out of place staying at the YMCA in UK – not at all the cheery, friendly place I expected, and of the hostels I’ve tried so far, the least clean. (4) Having stayed several times in one hostel, trying both dorm and private room I realized that a local chain hotel offered me more warmth and comfort and was, actually, friendlier for the same price – except that I had to pay for internet access.

    All in all, my feelings are mixed. I like variety, and don’t mind lack of comfort too much (depending on what I’m doing), so I will definitely continue to use hostels, but I will research more carefully in future.

    • It’s well worth checking reviews on TripAdvisor Linda – they often have reviews for hostels – and if you read them carefully and ignore the nutters who expect chocolates and a turn-down service for $40/night – you generally get honest opinions. I must say I wasn’t that impressed with hostels in Europe – in my last off-season trip, the hotels were cheaper if I booked a day or two in advance

  3. I would stay in that Dunsborough Hostel in a flash. More than 30 years ago we lived in Perth and loved Dunsborough. I bet it has changed a lot. Backpacking through Europe in those days we always stayed in YHA hostels. Do you remember you had to do a job designated by the hostel manager! Gone are those days. The last hostel I stayed in was an Auberge in Montreal in 2010 and it was the best experience. However apart from ourselves and one other couple older than us, the rest of the guests were all under 30. We had a private room and shared bathroom. As you say hostels are usually in interesting buildings and this one was a restored warehouse, in a word “atmospheric”. It was my favourite accommodation experience in 3 months on the road. We find Airbnb and others provide good rooms in local areas and we have used them in recent years. I love that experience and have only one complaint – there is nobody to talk to! In that respect hostels are the best. Thanks for the interesting article Lis.

    • Thanks for your comment Jan. I would say you wouldn’t recognise Dunsborough or Perth if you havne’t been there for 30 years – I can’t think of anywhere that’s changed more quickly outside of some of the boom cities of Asia. The hostel in Dunsborough wouldn’t have changed at all – expect when we stayed the managers were a gay couple – I doubt that would have happened 30 years ago in WA !

  4. I always look for a hostel bed before a hotel bed when I’m traveling on my own dime. I love hostels. I love meeting people from all over and hostels are much cleaner and brighter than they used to be when I first started traveling in the mid-80s.

    The hard part I have now with staying in hostels is that they take reservations. I never travel with reservations or credit cards, so it makes it much more difficult to be a serendipitous traveler.

    Tip for staying in a dorm room: A good set of earplugs! I carry a pair wherever I go.

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