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Upstairs, a young woman wrapped in a robe steps out of the shower and walks slowly down the hall, drying her hair. She smiles briefly at a young man, also clad in a robe, who heads for the open shower door.
Downstairs, the aroma of fresh pancakes steals into the lobby where two older women are hunched in deep concentration over a computer. In a quiet corner, a middle-aged man with a gray ponytail balances motionless on one leg as he performs his morning Yoga ritual.
A visitor steps to the reception desk and a young clerk smiles. “Welcome to our hostel.”
* * * * *
Did the word “hostel” surprise you? Did you imagine hostels to be the province of the young, the cheap or the unwashed?
Times have changed, according to Sharon Miller of Live Life Travel. In a recent newsletter, she reports the image has changed—and cleaned up.
“Unfortunately, a few bad hostels have ruined the reputation of all hostels worldwide. We have all heard stories of the hostel with bed bugs, or other creatures, or the hostel where people were robbed or worse. In most countries, especially in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, hostels pride themselves on their cleanliness and safety. . . .”
We outdoor adventurers find the notion of staying at a hostel appealing. Saving money while meeting new people from all over the globe generally trumps the inconveniences of sharing bathrooms and bedrooms.
What is hostel living like? Here’s what fellow hostelers shared:
Would you share your room or bathroom with a complete stranger of the opposite sex?
In many hostels outside the US, it’s the norm.
At Rollo’s Cabinas in Santa Catalina, Panama, for example, Karin, 26, from Berlin, rented a room with two beds for the week. She was the only occupant the first night, but the next day when she returned from sightseeing, she was startled to discover Norm, 30, from San Francisco, in the other bed!
“At first I was surprised, but I’m from Europe so I’m used to it. We just decided who’d sleep where and whose things went where and that was it.”
Mixed gender sharing isn’t for everyone, however.
Mary Ann, 50, from Australia, wasn’t happy when she checked into Tranquilo Backpacker Hostel in San José, Costa Rica.
“I’m a single, mature traveler but they insisted I pay a double rate if I didn’t want a roommate,” she explained. “I told them I’d share if it was another female, but they said they couldn’t guarantee it would be. So I’m paying $40 per night for my privacy instead of $20 if I shared.”
Generally hostels in the US are more sensitive to male-female sensibilities. The St. Moritz Hostel in Aspen, Colorado rents its three-bed rooms only to persons of the same gender. Bathrooms are also designated for men and women.
Colleen, 58, from Pennsylvania, stays there for six weeks every summer during the A spen Music Festival.
“Since I’m there for six weeks, sometimes I have a roommate, sometimes not. And I’ve never had more than one roommate, even though there are three beds. The management is really considerate. Regardless of whether there’s someone with me in the room or not, I am charged only one-third the triple rate.”
Most hostels include some kind of breakfast. Tranquilo Backpackers mixes up huge bowls of pancake batter and guests fry their own on the gas stove in the large kitchen- dining area.
“I don’t know how to cook, so I walked to McDonald’s ™ instead,” confessed Pete, 64, from New Jersey.
Karin and Norm drank coffee or tea with toast and fruit at Rollo’s.
Downstairs at St. Moritz, Colleen enjoyed the breakfast buffet: platters of fresh fruit, packages of hot and cold cereal, pastries, milk, coffee, teas including herbals, and hard-boiled eggs. “There’s a toaster and microwave, too. And my room has a mini- fridge so I buy things at the deli or grocery and heat them up downstairs for supper.”
Most hostels let you store groceries, dated and labeled with your name, in their fridge. Cook them up in fully-equipped communal kitchens. But wash up afterward!
Inspect both the room and the bedding before you check in. Turn the covers down and examine the sheets for bedbugs, little dark spots that jump when you touch them.
“I bring my own sheets and pillowcase,” advised Mary Ann. “I take off the hostel’s sheets, check the mattress then put on my own.”
“I found bedbugs only once,” said Pete. “I had just lain down and felt something prick me. I checked and sure enough, there they were. The management wouldn’t do anything, so I checked out immediately. I asked for my money back, too, but since I’d used the shower, he gave me back only half. OK by me, as long as I didn’t have to sleep there!”
Never leave money, credit cards, airline tickets, passports, jewelry or other valuables out where anyone can see them. “It’s only sensible,” says Pete. Either utilize the hostel’s safe or lock your valuables in your luggage.
Everyone who stays at hostels tells of friends made and experiences shared. “I’m emailing a friend I made last summer,” says Colleen. “She came to Aspen for a medical convention, didn’t even know there was a Music Festival going on, and we ended up going to concerts together every night.”