Hostels have long appealed to cash-strapped young travelers by offering cheap accommodations and a communal atmosphere. One of those factors is still appealing in the pandemic era — a good deal never goes out of style. But in the age of masking and social distancing, packing into a room filled with strangers to sleep en masse appears to be a riskier bargain.
With travel still recovering from the coronavirus-induced crash of 2020, hostels around the world are struggling. New Zealand alone lost almost 200 hostels over the course of the pandemic, according to the country’s Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association. This November, online booking platform Hostelworld announced reservations in the first half of this year declined 73 percent compared to 2020. While the short-term outlook for hostels is extremely challenging, Hostelworld is starting to see customer demand return in regions where travel restrictions have eased, the company’s CEO said in its 2021 Interim Financial Report.
Like a lot of young people on a shoestring budget, I turned to hostels when I first started traveling by myself in my 20s. I have tried nice ones (and horrible ones) in Boston, Bali, Berlin, Porto, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei and New Delhi. Until recently, the last hostel bunk bed I squeezed into was in Tokyo during the summer of 2019.
After trying luxury hotels, midrange ones, motels, Airbnbs and a camper van in the interim, I ended my hostel hiatus to see what they’re like during the pandemic. Because I am fully vaccinated, boosted and not in a high-risk category for severe covid-19 infection, I was comfortable taking the risk of sleeping around strangers. So on a recent trip to Jackson, Wyo., I checked into Cache House Bunkhouse, a basement hostel just off the town square. Here’s what I found.
Originally a bunkhouse in the 1990s, Cache House opened in its current iteration in January 2020 as a high-design upscale hostel, or “poshtel” if you will. It is located under its sister property, the Anvil Hotel, which is where my Lyft driver dropped me off on a cold — but not typically Jackson cold — December afternoon. Cache House guests check in at a plexiglass-barricaded front desk in the Anvil lobby, where you can also get espresso drinks and read the local daily newspaper.
Once you get your key card, it is off to the basement, where you will find a lounge area and shared rooms with a mix of 50 bunk beds in twin, full and queen sizes. The rate for my queen bunk bed was $80 for the night, although prices can drop as low as $40. Two guests can share a queen bed rental as long as both people register and pay the same rate. The building is not wheelchair accessible by legal standards; there is an emergency exit ramp, but it’s steep. Cache House cites the age of the building as the issue. Everything inside the hostel is ADA-compliant, however, including some of the lower bunk beds.
The bunks have staples of hostel living, including built-in lockable storage and privacy curtains. Extra poshtel touches include custom-designed wool blankets, outlets, individual fans, reading lights and ergonomic ladders. Around the corner from the bunks, guests can access 11 private bathrooms with fancy toiletries and hallway lockers. Being a hostel in a ski town, Cache House lets guests store ski and snowboard equipment in a storage room in the lobby.
According to its website, Cache House takes more coronavirus precautions than installing plexiglass at the front desk.
The hostel says it reduced occupancy levels to space out guest beds, but I still had someone in the bunk right next to mine. It also advertises more frequent cleanings using hospital-grade disinfectants (plus extra disinfection of the 25 most touched areas); circulating fresh air with a state-of-the-art ventilation system; stocking the place with hand sanitizer stations; and requiring masks for all staff and guests in common areas (unless actively eating and drinking).
Are measures like this enough? I asked Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, about the safety of staying in a hostel during the pandemic.
“Having traveled in hostels when I was younger, I know that they vary so widely,” Gonsenhauser said. “There are certainly hostel environments that represent a significantly higher risk than a hotel or than an Airbnb.”
For example, Gonsenhauser said, staying at a hostel with private rooms will pose fewer threats than staying at one with a bunch of ward-style bunk beds. Would wearing a mask to sleep help reduce some of that risk?
“I don’t think it would be safe to sleep with a mask on,” Gonsenhauser said, instead suggesting travelers who want to bunk at a hostel get fully vaccinated ahead of travel to increase their protection and make sure their hostel has coronavirus mitigation strategies in place.
After check-in, I schlepped my luggage down the stairs, through the dim-lit hallways and to my bottom-level bunk bed. On a Wednesday during the first week of December — with the fall travel season all but finished and ski season yet to swing into full gear — there didn’t seem to be many other guests. A few puffy winter jackets hung from bunk coat hooks, and some light shined from behind privacy curtains.
The place had the most spacious and luxurious hostel sleep setup I have ever seen. The bed didn’t make the same squeaking, creaking noises a hostel bunk normally makes when you flop on it with your weary traveling body. I stashed some of my things into the drawer locker under the bunk and went back out to explore the town.
I came back from a long day of gallivanting and set up shop in the hostel’s communal area to charge my phone before retiring to my bunk. The space had mid-century modern furniture and a table of guide books, a far cry from the ones in other hostels I have frequented where you would find a bar or basic kitchen, and inevitably a group of backpackers flirting with each other or playing cards.
After I mindlessly zoned out on social media for an imperceptible amount of time, another hostel guest entered the room. It felt like a wild animal sighting. We said hello to each other, and she sat down at a table to unpack her takeout dinner. We continued to sit in our tandem silence, me listening to the sound of her crunch on chips, her probably wondering why I was wasting my time in Jackson on my phone.
I needed to take a shower but was too tired and lazy to haul my belongings to the bathrooms and back. Instead, I splashed some water on my face and called it a night. In the morning, I would learn that the showers are fantastic, much cleaner than what you would normally find in a hostel.
Sleeping next to strangers
Because I haven’t spent a lot of time sleeping around random people during the pandemic, crawling into my bunk to go to bed was a nerve-racking end to my day.
At home, hotel rooms, or private Airbnbs, you don’t have to worry about how much noise you’re making. In the hostel, I couldn’t stop thinking about how loud the zippers of my duffel bag were, the inordinate cracking sounds my phone charger made while forcing it into the socket, whether my crisp sheets rustling were making an annoying swooshing that could wake up my neighbors (if they were already asleep). Could they hear me tapping on my phone, too?
Because I was paranoid about the noise, and the idea of undressing while hunched over in my ceilinged bunk was exhausting, I opted to sleep in the clothes I wore all day. As I shut my eyes, I could hear the muffled voice of a guy talking on the phone in the distance.
But I fell asleep, and woke up well-rested in the super-comfortable bed. One drawback: All the wood paneling made it feel like a very spacious coffin.
In the morning, I did my best to pack up quietly and creep out of the Cache House bunk hall. There seemed to be more coats hung up than there were when I went to bed, but I didn’t run into anyone. I went upstairs to the Anvil lobby, left a tip for the housekeeping staff and got a coffee on my way out.
As far as pandemic concerns go, I had felt safe during the stay despite the communal nature of the place. Part of that was because it felt like a shoulder season — or slow period — ghost town in there; had it been bustling with strangers, I may have had more coronavirus anxiety.
Without free-flowing international travel, particularly for the young, budget-sensitive demographic, hostels will remain at risk of extinction. A future without them would exclude too many people from the privilege of travel. Hopefully the efforts to reduce capacity and keep things sparkling clean in hostels — along with the continued efforts to get more of the world vaccinated — can save the accommodations that enable so many people the opportunity to see more of the world.
More spring travel tips
Trends: Cheaper spring break | Cool all-inclusives | Let ChatGPT plan your day | Is it safe to go to Mexico? | Book a free night in Sicily
The basics: Tip without cash | Traveling with kids | Decide where to stay | A pre-trip checklist of house chores | How to get your passport | Plan a ski trip | Eat without feeling terrible | Budget for your next trip | Plan a cheaper Disney trip
Flying: Fly like a decent human being | How to set airfare price alerts | Flying with an injury | PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. CLEAR | Can I fly with weed? | AirTag your luggage | Airport parking 101 | Deal with airport crowds | Why Stalk airfare after booking
Driving: 9 tips for road tripping with a baby | Try the Airbnb of rental cars | Rent an EV | Do I need an international license to drive abroad? | Avoid big rental car fees
Greener travel: Bike to the airport | How environmentalists travel | How to find ‘greener’ flights | Make your travel better for the planet
Pets: How to travel with pets | Why the pet fee? | Pet flying 101 | Alternatives to flying with your pet
In case of emergency: Manage airport disasters | Your flight is canceled | How to get a human on the phone | What to do if your car gets stuck | Find your lost luggage | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | Deal with a bad hotel room | When you’re bumped off your flight | If you get rebooked without your family | What are my rebooking rights? | Recover a lost item at TSA, the airport or your flight