Hostel Environments: Eight Bedtime Stories

By Karin E. Tanabe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

The water in the shower went from cold to colder. I had forgotten my flip-flops, so I was sure to contract a rare foot fungus in seconds. And was it just a case of double vision or were there two pairs of feet in the bathroom stall next door?

It was my first (and only) night at Stockholm's Gustaf Af Klint, a "boat hostel" rocking on the waves of the Swedish capital's picturesque harbor. After weeks of hostel life during my overland trip from Hong Kong to Paris in summer 2004, I had fallen asleep to symphonies of international snoring, been awakened by the unmistakable sounds of passion and waited in long lines to take cold showers. Despite it all, I was having a fantastic time.

My first hostel stay in Europe was at the bright and airy Hostel Erottajanpuisto in Helsinki. Still smelling like mutton and yak's milk from a stint in Mongolia, I handed my money and Hostelling International card to a clean, welcoming Finn and prepared myself for the luxuries that 20 euros ($25.50) could provide. Rested and exuberant to be in the land of Nokia phones and cow's milk, I staggered toward the communal kitchen, where I saw yards of yellow police tape.

"Haven't you heard?" asked a fellow traveler behind me.

Heard what? That it was illegal to eat breakfast in Finland?

"A woman died here last night," said the girl, pointing to a policeman down the hall. "She was on her way to the hospital. She was 80 years old." It was a stark reminder that youth hostels are not just for the young. Though most patrons are between the ages of 18 and 30, I have never stayed in a hostel where there was not at least one person over 40, looking to stay forever young while saving a buck or two.

The International Youth Hostel Federation, or Hostelling International (HI), runs about 4,000 hostels -- defined as a "good quality budget accommodation that offers a comfortable night's sleep in friendly surroundings at an affordable price" -- in more than 80 countries, accounting for more than 35 million overnight stays a year. Rates generally run about $10 to $35 per person a night. Private hostels outnumber HI-affiliated ones and fall into the same price range. Some hostels boast single and double rooms, but snoozing next to strangers in dormitories is still the principal type of accommodation available.

HI emphasizes cultural appreciation, environmental awareness and creating communities of individuals, regardless of background, income or the last time they took a shower. But I stayed in hostels for a simple reason: I had very little money.

Along the way, I discovered that there are many different types of hostels, each with a distinct personality. There are 24-hour party hostels, family hostels, student hostels, age-restricted hostels, dormitory-style hostels and hostels with private rooms, hostels where you sleep soundly at night and hostels where you need earmuffs. But like many things in life, it still comes down to the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

· Beijing Far East International Youth Hostel, Beijing

No one staying at the Beijing Far East International Youth Hostel leaves as planned. And why should they? Situated in a maze of narrow streets where locals play mah-jongg on the sidewalks and gossip in public bathrooms, the Far East is within spitting distance (an appropriate term in Beijing) from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Across the street from a clean, reasonably priced hotel affiliated with it, the hostel was once the home of a warlord. It now houses budget-minded travelers for $6 a night.

The Far East has everything you'd want in a hostel: an abundance of group space, indoors and out; a knowledgeable staff; a vibrant, sociable atmosphere; and only four people to a room. The staff can help arrange trips to the Great Wall as well as tickets to the Beijing Opera or martial arts events.

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