This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
What comes to your mind when you think of hostelling? Here’s what I thought — I pictured a run-down place, maybe tucked behind a train station, that catered only to backpackers. The average age of a hosteller would be about 22, and the amenities would include a bunk and an overhead light with a pull-chain. Pretty dismal, huh?
Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I was so misinformed. But I figured that if I was totally wrong, I might not be the only one. So I’m here to set the record straight and let you know why you should consider hostelling.
What Changed My Mind?
I recently had the opportunity to tour a hostel in my hometown of San Diego. I was part of a group of travel writers invited by the HI San Diego, Pt Loma hostel (HI = Hostelling International) for a barbecue dinner and tour. Mostly out of curiosity, I attended. That’s when I learned just how wrong I had been about hostelling.
#1 The hostel wasn’t a dive!
It was seriously a super cute cottage-style home in a residential neighborhood of Pt Loma (which isn’t a cheap place to live!). It was less than a mile from the beach, close to a grocery store and library, with easy access to public transportation. A beautiful shaded patio welcomed us with trendy furniture and firepit, comfy hammock, ping pong table, BBQ and more. There was a beautiful and well-supplied kitchen, dining room, TV room, and even laundry. Rooms were nice with posturepedic beds, and the bathrooms were spacious and clean. There were even private rooms, and sometimes the private rooms have ensuite bathrooms.
#2 I Never saw any backpackers
That’s not to say that backpackers do not use hostels. It’s just that the guests I met and talked to were from all walks of life and all ages. Some were staying at the hostel for a business trip. Some were there on a family vacation. A couple with a young child were there as well. One guest was visiting family nearby who just didn’t have a guest room. An older gentleman in a wheelchair was working on a research project and visiting from England. There was a group of young adults who were traveling together and had enjoyed some beach and downtown activities, but were getting ready to move on to northern California.
#3 More like a family?
Just like this hostel was in a home, I felt like the guests were more like a family. Guests seemed to enjoy talking to each other and getting to know each other. They participated in group activities that the hostel planned…like downtown tours or trips to the beach. There were even pizza nights and other events at the hostel that drew people together. They prepared meals in the kitchen and sat down and ate together. And they shared stories and travel tips. I learned this is the focus of Hostelling International — to bring people together in an accepting and safe environment.
Now I Had to Try Hostelling
I was so intrigued with my visit to HI USA Pt. Loma that I decided my husband and I would try a hostel stay. I booked two nights in a private room at the HI Los Angeles Santa Monica. This is a much larger hostel than the one in Pt. Loma, so I figured it would be a great opportunity to learn more about hostelling.
I can tell you we had a wonderful stay. The Santa Monica location could not have been better! It was literally only two blocks from the beach and the famous Santa Monica Pier. One block in the other direction was the 3rd Street Promenade. And only four blocks away was the light rail station, making it incredibly easy and inexpensive to go into downtown Los Angeles for a tour led by a hostel volunteer.
Our room was small but quite comfortable, with a desk, plenty of electrical outlets, beds with awesome mattresses, a television, a place to hang clothes, and art on the wall. There was a private bathroom around the corner, and a larger bathroom with private showers (and blow dryers!) just a few doors down. Oh, and soap and shampoo were provided, as well as all of our bedding. Gone are the days when a hostel stay might require you to bring your own sheets.
Staff at the hostel were so friendly and helpful. We got good tips for where to eat, suggestions for cheaper parking, and all of our questions about Santa Monica answered. A light breakfast was provided every morning along with free wi-fi. There were many opportunities to interact with other guests…at shows in the evening, on the tour of Los Angeles, while eating breakfast, or just lounging in one of the many seating areas.
Something else I really liked about this Santa Monica hostel was that it was built to incorporate a historic building, the Rapp’s Saloon (and former city town hall). It was a wonderful way to preserve history, and the space is used to host community and hostel events.
Here’s another surprise! I’m 56 years old, and I thought my husband and I would be the oldest guests in the hostel. I was wrong. In fact, there were several guests older than us, who looked like they were really enjoying themselves. It was good to see people, young and old alike, interacting comfortably with each other.
Why You Should Consider Hostelling
Why not experience something new? You might really like the “family” atmosphere of hostelling. Sometimes, it is just plain fun trying something you haven’t done before!
#2 To Save Money
Our private room was about $120 per night. Hotels within 2 blocks of the Santa Monica hostel average $250 per night. If you are staying in a dormitory room with bunk beds, you’ll save even more. And if you are really looking for a bargain, grab some friends and participate in HI USA’s “Give Back” program during the months of January and February; you can stay at a hostel one night free for every two hours of volunteer service you provide in the community — details here. Remember that with a kitchen, you can prepare your own meals for additional cost savings.
#3 Meet People, Learn More
I’m a social person, so I appreciate being able to meet people from different places, cultures, ages, etc. A hostel has more of a community feel — like a “we are all in this together” feeling. Everyone was friendly — holding the elevator open when you’re coming with your luggage, chatting while waiting in line for breakfast, or getting a group together to go on a tour.
#4 Great Locations
I’ve visited three different hostels now. I stayed in the Santa Monica hostel and toured both the San Diego, Pt. Loma and the San Diego, Downtown hostels. I’ve already told you about the Pt. Loma hostel — less than a mile from the beach! The San Diego, Downtown location is just a few blocks from the Petco baseball stadium, the San Diego Convention Center, and the waterfront, and it’s in the heart of Gaslamp Quarter. I’ve been amazed at the great locations for these hostels and many more throughout the country. Did you know there’s even a hostel inside a lighthouse near San Francisco? There are currently over 50 HI hostels in 20 states, plus a whole world of global hostels available. My experiences have only been with HI USA. I have not visited any other hostels yet, but I am encouraged to try more!
#5 Programs, Tours, Activities
Every hostel that I visited posted fun activities and tours. Most are free or just a nominal charge. The Pt Loma location hosted a Movie Night Under the Stars, Yoga, and a Farmer’s Market trip. They also had surf boards you could check out.
The San Diego downtown hostel has a trip for hiking Cowles Mountain, a Coronado Island tour, American Junkie Night, and a tour of Balboa Park. They also sponsor special art programs and display local art for sale throughout the hostel.
And at the Santa Monica hostel, there was a poetry reading with the community, a Getty Museum trip, the downtown Los Angeles tour, and a Venice Beach tour. Wherever you are, your hostel will help introduce you to the area and help you learn and have fun, too. (And not put a dent in your wallet — our downtown Los Angeles tour only cost a few dollars for the light rail train.)
Are There Any ‘Cons’ to Hostelling?
This was a question that was still on my mind, so I actually asked a few of the guests staying at the Pt. Loma hostel. This is what I learned:
“Sometimes there will be a loud snorer in a shared dormitory room, or someone will come in late and be kind of loud getting ready for bed, so be sure to bring earplugs.”
“There are times when you might have to wait a few minutes to take a shower.”
“Breakfasts are pretty basic — don’t expect a full spread!”
“Unless you’re in a private room, you won’t have much privacy.”
Of course, there’s a trade off. But when you think of the additional opportunities a hostel provides and the potential for huge savings, any negatives pale in comparison.
The most important thing that was never expressed was feeling unsafe. I was glad to hear that HI hostels do a good job of keeping their guests and their belongings safe. Lockers are provided for securing your items, and people who are not staying in the hostel are not allowed to go beyond the front lobby.
What You Should Know About Hostelling with HI
- Priority goes to those who are traveling. For that reason, HI requires you to have traveled at least out of the county in which you live. We had no problems staying in the Santa Monica location, but would not have been able to stay at a San Diego hostel.
- To allow as many people as possible access to hostels, you might be limited to a certain number of days you can stay in any hostel within a year. For HI USA, it is 14 days.
- Many hostels have membership requirements. HI has a membership with an annual fee of $18 per adult, or $3 per night. Youth are free. A lifetime membership can be purchased for $250 USD. Membership gives you access to all of HI’s hostels worldwide, plus discounts at affiliate hostels, and fees go towards creating transformative travel experiences through the hostels and their programs.
- HI maintains some of the highest standards in the hostelling world. When they say they are ADA-compliant, for example, they really are.
I hope I’ve convinced you to consider hostelling the next time you travel. And if you already have, I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please share in the comments below…