After more than twenty years of value-focused travel, I'm finally saying a fond farewell to hostels - for the most part. Here's why.
Even before I had my final hostel stay, I knew it would be my last.
The previous couple of hostels I stayed at brought roller coasters of emotion. One, set in a gorgeous historic location, was clean and friendly but offered bare-bones dorms with whisper-thin mattresses, a single stingy pillow, and squeaky wooden bunk beds. My bunk was positioned in the centre of the room, without a single wall at my disposal for leaning or privacy. The muggy, warm room and back-aching bed made sleep impossible and I cringed every time I moved, fearful my squeaky bed was keeping everyone awake. It was a rough night – and a rough morning as I tried to be as quiet as a mouse, packing up my computer to escape to a nearby cafe for a bleary and bright conference call. While I was waiting for my call to connect, I found clarity in my exhaustion. For the first time ever, I sacrificed my two remaining nights of prepaid bunk accommodations in favour of relocating to a private bed and breakfast room.
I spent an extra $300 I wasn’t expecting but when I finally got to my snug room and sunk into the plush, squeak-free mattress, I nearly wept with relief – and guilt. Who was I, giving up an otherwise great-on-paper hostel just because my bedding wasn’t as sumptuous as I would like?
I didn’t have long to contemplate my feelings, for a month later I was due at another hostel, this time on a pre-arranged trip with a friend. To my enormous relief, the mattresses were new, the temperature control was top-notch, and the modern bunk beds were devoid of squeaks. We warmed to the other girls in the room, giggling over face masks and chatting about international politics. I was reminded of why I loved hostels, and how the right room had made all the difference in the world to me when I first started backpacking.
In the communal kitchen one night, a man was frying up peppers, garlic, onions, and tomatoes to top a bowl of egg noodles and ground meat. He had the look of a long-time traveller and this was clearly an old faithful meal, quick and cheap, with ingredients available at any corner store, easily prepared in any kind of kitchen. I looked at him in envy. This was the life I once wanted, the one I was certain I was destined to have. I’d travel the world, further and deeper than most, and humble living would be my lodestar. I’d thrive in a sorority of hostel sisters, eschewing all worldly temptations (translation: fancy coffees, irresistibly cute bakeries, and quirky sandwich shops in tiny alleys, basically everything I adore). My trips would be measured in months and even years, not days or weeks. I would travel slowly and thus cheaply and enrich my life with visits to free museums, galleries, parks, and community events. At that moment, in that hostel kitchen, watching that man with the well worn Teva sandals and the soft, faded shirt, I was looking down a portal to a parallel life that could have been mine. It was like getting a glimpse behind door number two when you choose door number one.
And then it was gone, mostly in a wave of annoyance that there were no hairdryers in the communal bathroom.
Time had marched on and so had I. I was done with hostels. Or, at the very least, hostel dorms. Even when the beds weren’t squeaking and the pillows were extra plump, I craved privacy, space, and extra comfort. Marriage, a need to write at nights, and a rapidly decreasing tolerance for tomfoolery had already contributed to decision. However, there was one more trip on the horizon, a multi-night stay for an event where the hostel was really the only viable choice. I decided, with a kind of grim enthusiasm, that this would be my hostel dorm room swan song.
As my travel dates approached, I swung between sickening anxiety, convinced that my upcoming stay would be even worse than the night of the squeaky bunk and I would be trapped in a multi-day adventure with no sleep and no suggestion of relief on the horizon. On the flip side, I tried to look at the situation as a kind of homecoming. This is how I found travel. Hostel dorms were an integral part of my life and my career. But both had evolved and moved on. It was time to honour the past and end on a fond, sentimental note – and not in a pique of frustration over a missing hair dryer.
In my earliest days of travel, armed with an unlimited Eurail pass and a fat paperback copy of Let’s Go Europe, I planned my itineraries around towns with hostels honoured by the coveted Let’s Go “thumbs up” designation. It was a system that served me extremely well. I honestly didn’t care if I spent the night in Tours or Orleans, Geneva or Zurich. I did care that my accommodation budget, by far the biggest expense category of my trip, was serving me in every way possible. That “thumbs up” designation meant everything. It symbolised a bunk that was a bit cheaper than the competition, a kitchen which turned out a better-than-average breakfast, a program director who went the distance offering free tours and activities. And it was the secret to my success of never having a trashy room, a disastrous bathroom, or a hovel of a party den. While every long term traveller seems to have a story for the ages of an unmitigated disaster, all of my hostel visits were ultra-frugal successes. In fact, they were downright cozy. I rarely had a hostel which was less than exemplary.
It’s this sense of coziness that still tugs on my heart when I think about hostels. I loved everything about them and I was proof that hostel life didn’t have to be a string of sorried tales and dirty sheets. And I love them still – but that love is now more theoretical in nature.
My last hostel dorm stay was in many ways the very love letter on which I wanted to call it a night. The beds were the homiest I’ve ever had, with little curtains enclosing the lower bunks for extra snug privacy. Ample plugs, personal night lights, and spacious lockers rounded out the room, while an onsite cafe, courtyard, library, and yoga room checked every box. But on the first night, what I assumed was an all-girls room was clearly not and the unexpected presence of an admittedly very polite young man was jarring.
By night three, two young women took the room and all the available floor space, as their giant suitcases exploded and covered the floor with half eaten boxes of food, designer skin care serums, and artfully distressed skanky clubwear.
On my final night, my bunkie checked out 12 hours earlier than expected. Somehow, the explosion twins must have clued in to her early departure and took advantage of her yet-to-be refreshed bunk to invite an unexpected male guest to crash in the room. In hindsight, I suspect what happened is that they ran into someone who had an early morning flight. In lieu of paying for a hostel room, he had chosen to bide his time in the common room until a fortuitous connection with the messy sisters likely resulted in them saying “Why sit on this chair all night when you can crash in our room?" I had a fitful sleep, alternating between thoughts of “what the hell is going on” and “I’m WAY too old for this!” When my unexpected, unauthorized roomie left before dawn, I breathed a sigh of relief – and readied myself to similarly depart a few hours later. This was it, my last dorm visit. In a way, I was grateful for our mystery crasher as he saved me from developing any unnecessary sentimentality for the room’s otherwise fine points.
I’m cautious about never saying “never” to hostel dorms again. I’m aware that there are many places in the world where a hostel is really the only available option. I also know there might be times when I really just need a bed for all but a few hours and a frugal dorm might be tempting. I’m also hesitant to issue a brash “never!” as I’ve had excellent experiences in many private hostel rooms and can envision possibly using them again (though now that they’re approaching hotel-level pricing and often lack hotel-worthy bathrooms, maybe not.)
But I now know for sure that my days of making hostel dorms my first choice and choosing them for multiple-night stays have firmly come to a close. I'm old. I'm impatient. But still, I feel sad and sentimental. This was my travel foundation. I built my brand of affordable, cozy travel on this hill. But what can I say? Sometimes a girl just wants a room with a good hairdryer and no unexpected stray men.
Farewell, dorms. We had a good run.
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