One of the first pleasant surprises I encountered is that most are not tucked away in some remote suburb. The Apple Hostel in Philadelphia is located a mere four blocks from Independence Hall, making it a great jumping off point for seeing the city’s historic sites. In Amsterdam, the Flying Pig Hostel (yes, that’s really what it’s called) is only three blocks from the train station, making it unnecessary to spend additional money on a taxi.
Hostel staff exhibit a genuine desire to help travelers enjoy their city, easily transitioning from English to a multitude of other languages. They will also remind you to pack light, as you’re responsible for your own luggage and often have to lug it up narrow flights of stairs. (“It builds character” is how I heard the desk clerk once respond when a young woman with three bags inquired about an elevator.)
“Eclectic” is a diplomatic term to describe the décor. I’ve seen walls painted lime green and purple, furniture ranging from velour couches to faux leather armchairs with stuffing sticking out and a foosball table with a bumper sticker reading “I closed Wolski’s! Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” But who cares when you’re only looking for a place to sleep so you can spend the day sightseeing?
Accommodations vary by location. I have stayed in large, female-only dorm style rooms and smaller co-ed rooms equipped with private bathroom facilities. In Amsterdam, my roommates included a French couple engrossed in watching a movie on their laptop, an attractive young British guy who sounded like Ralph Fiennes and a woman who came in late and stumbled around with her flashlight so much I thought she was trying to re-create “The Blair Witch Project.” This is a cross section of the world’s population you just don’t see by staying at the Marriott; in fact, staying at a hostel is an experience in itself!
In my experience, the main drawback at hostels is the quality of sleep. Earplugs are often provided free of charge, but if you’re a light sleeper it’s just not going to be that restful because people are coming and going at various times. (Midnight to 6 a.m. seems to offer the best chance to catch some zs.) At the Apple Hostel, room lights automatically go out at 11 p.m., but each bed is also equipped with a reading light you could turn on at any time.
However, some amenities provided at hostels are not even offered at hotels — for example, access to a full kitchen, free laundry facilities and complimentary movie nights. And techies that need to be plugged in at all times can take heart; each hostel bunk has its own electrical outlet, and some locations offer computers with free Internet access or Wi-Fi.
Whenever I mention that I have stayed at a hostel, the first question I usually get is, “Isn’t that dangerous?” This may be due in part to the Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth horror movie, “Hostel,” which has undoubtedly poisoned the well for a generation of film lovers. At check in you receive a card or access code for your room, and there is also a secured entry to the building itself with staff available at the front desk 24 hours per day. A locker is provided for every guest, and most hostels will allow you to leave your luggage in a locked room for up to a day after you check out.
As I’m leaving the Flying Pig behind, I’m asked if I want my one Euro deposit back or if I want to donate it to Build Africa. The pulsing world music and spinning disco ball in the lobby remind me, once again, that this isn’t your grandmother’s Hilton.