Everyone’s been waxing poetic about the joys of hostelling lately. Hostels are cheap, they’re ubiquitous in the Western world, and they’ve got cachet with the I’m-No-Tourist- I’m-a-TRAVELER™ community.
But for me and other travelers with pain, hostelling is a mixed bag at best.
As a working travel writer (please read here: deeply broke), what I love most about hostels is the price. At $15-$25 per night for a bed with a mattress indoors, I know of few lodgings that can beat hostels for budget traveling. (Camping With Pain will be a separate post.)
These days, some hostels really give good value for the money. I particularly like the Redwood Hostel on the northern California coast—the newer wooden bunk beds gleam, clean, fresh smelling sheets and towels are included, and the location (in the midst of the redwood forest, across the highway from the Pacific Ocean) can’t be beat.
In addition to gender segregated and co-ed dorm rooms, many hostels offer one or two private or “family” rooms. At $50-$100 per night, that’s not much better pricewise than a cheap motel, but they offer more privacy and comfort for me if I’m not feeling well. So I’ll choose based on what I know of the motels and hostels in any given area. Some hostels are pits, some are gorgeous. Hidden Villa Hostel in tony Los Altos, California boasts the best of sustainable architecture set on an organic farm and ranch that backs onto the hiking trails of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the other hand, the Downtown San Francisco hostel sits adjacent to the dirty and dangerous Tenderloin, and seems to bring a lot of that neighborhood inside. Especially the smell.
I might pick a hostel over a comparable motel if I’m feeling sociable. I love chatting up hostel owners, who tend to be passionate about their regions and great sources of information about where to eat, what to see, and how to do it all cheap. They’ll know little about how to work around a chronic disability—disabled folks aren’t usually a hostel’s bread-and-butter clientele. But if I want a companion or four to hang out with, it’s easy enough to hook up with fellow travelers for a night out or a night in, cooking in the ubiquitous hostel common kitchen and chatting in the living spaces.
Hostel kitchens build in another big cost savings while traveling—food. I often prefer to cook many of my own meals on the road—it’s a great way to sample the best of local farmer’s markets and cook-at-home specialties while saving money, and the pinch of fridge space and dash of stove time make that possible.
There’s nothing to cap a pain-ridden travel day quite like drunk people staggering loudly into my dorm room in the middle of the night, turning on the lights, talking for a while, then crashing into the bunk above me and proceeding to snore until dawn. And in a $20 hostel dorm bed, this happens. Staying out late drinking and clubbing, then failing to respect the sleep of dorm-mates is part of hostel culture. As the sick one wanting quiet sleep from midnight on, I’m the odd one out, not them. Expecting a bunch of strangers to cater to my medical needs…isn’t reasonable and doesn’t work.
In a hostel I don’t have any control over temperature in my room. I can ask the staff to adjust the thermostat, but that’s about it. And it’s not like most hostels include fluffy comforters to snuggle beneath. Granted, more hostels offer bedding included with the price these days. (Check that before you arrive, or you could get a nasty surprise!) But I must lug around an extra blanket and my own pillow to guarantee a reasonably comfortable sleep. And if I can’t sleep, I can’t travel successfully, period.
Hostels don’t have private bathrooms, and I hate dealing with hall bathrooms in the middle of the night in a hostel or hotel full of strangers. At best I feel unwarm; at worst, unsafe. Of course there’s nothing so comfortable as a bathtub—I’m lucky to find hot enough, clean enough stall showers in almost all hostels. Cheap shower shoes are friends of hostellers the world over.
It’s a rare hostel that boasts a working elevator, and if I’m not feeling well I’m not able to slog bags up and down stairs. Urban hostels often have several flights; rural hostels tend toward uneven ground with hills. Even if US accessibility requirements have been ostensibly met, I usually need some extra energy to negotiate your lodgings.
Almost always, hostelling means more physical strain than staying in a motel (though less than camping). Stuffing luggage into lockers, climbing stairs, climbing bunk bed ladders, making my own bed, washing dishes, and getting around the property must all be factored in to a hostel stay.
I’ve been to some repulsive hostels–dirty, smelly, and dangerously located
Sanitation in any given hostel depends on how good the staff is and how much the operators care. It’s almost never great, and it can be terrifyingly bad. If you’ve got serious food allergies, look at the pots and utensils in a hostel kitchen with suspicion—it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s been on them, and how well (or otherwise) cleaned they’ve been.
Need a comfortable mattress to get a good night’s sleep? Good luck. Hostel mattresses run from reasonable to wretched. In the private rooms, I see a lot of futons. I find old futon mattresses only a little bit less comfortable to sleep on than linoleum.
Got allergies, scent sensitivities, light or sound issues? Tough. Chances that you’ll convince the 3-7 strangers in your room to conform to your requirements are slim to none. Hostels cater primarily to young, fit, backpackers who like their nightlife. Travelers staying in hostels may drink, smoke, and do drugs in the room or on the property—it’s part of hostel culture. This means that it’s really a bad idea to advertise that I take narcotic painkillers. I don’t talk about them, and I keep them secured day and night.
The Bottom Line
I can’t usually stay in hostels. I’ve got too many needs that hostels just can’t meet, such as guaranteed quiet while I’m sleeping and private bathroom facilities. Your mileage may vary—if you can manage hostels, they are a great way to get out and travel on the cheap. But before you book your hostel beds, think hard about what you really need to be baseline comfortable when you travel. There’s more than money at stake; the physical cost of travel can be high for travelers with pain, and staying in a hostel puts me over my budget for pain.