Hostels in US
January 12, 2005 12:19 PM   Subscribe

What do you know about hostels? I have never stayed at one and am thinking of taking an Amtrak train from Chicago to Glacier Nat'l Park for a week. Please post your experiences, good and bad.

Due to graduate with my Bachelor's in May, I want to treat myself and possibly my 7 yr old son to a train trip up to Glacier National Park. Not having a lot of money, I am looking into staying in a youth hostel. Are they safe, or should I just fork out the money for a hotel?
posted by cincidog to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (21 answers total)
I have never had a bad hostel experience. Ones that challenge my comfort level a bit, sure, but for me that's the point of traveling alone.
I like that they have kitchens. It saves a lot of money to be able to make pasta and salad or whatever in the kitchen instead of going out.
However, I don't know if I'd stay in one with a 7 year old, but I suppose it depends on the 7 year old.
posted by librarina at 12:44 PM on January 12, 2005

I've spent time in hostels in the U.K./Europe and Africa. They can range quite a bit, and especially in Europe you can often find hostels that are geared toward families. Others can be dingy, dirty, and feel very seedy. You should be able to find online reviews--or maybe even a published guide--once you have a tentative itinerary. You can sometimes get more private rooms for a higher rate, otherwise you'll be in a large room (probably with several sets of bunk beds).

You'll probably want to bring your own sheets/sleeping bag, and possibly a small pillow. You'll also want shower shoes, a container for toiletries, a padlock (you'll usually get some sort of locker space with your bed, which can often be padlocked for extra security), and a quick-drying towel (either a thin regular towel or you can get special towels geared for swimmers). Eye masks or ear plugs might be a good idea as well, as is a headlamp or small flashlight.

If you find well-reviewed places I'd say go for it--you'll save money and it can be an interesting, colorful experience.
posted by handful of rain at 12:46 PM on January 12, 2005

I've had great times in hostels. You do have to like people, and you're going to meet a range of them. Be aware of theft, which is a possibility in hostels.

In Montana, I had a great stay at the Bozeman hostel.
posted by Miko at 12:51 PM on January 12, 2005

Depends on the hostel, really. I stayed at one in Toronto with private rooms and a shared bath, where you can actually lock your stuff in the room, I've stayed at some with large communal rooms. Most will have a locker option of some kind in any case.
If they belong to Hostelling International you can usually be sure they're safe enough (in terms of your personal safety, not necessarily your goods).
posted by Kellydamnit at 12:56 PM on January 12, 2005

I second the guidebook opinion - go to a bookstore or library, grab a bunch of guides, and take some notes on their collective opinion. Guides like Rough Guide, Lonely Planet , and Lets Go are usually geared for the more budget traveller and have good sections on hostels.

On a slight tangent, I'd highly recommend getting a sleeper cabin if you have the means. I had some great experiences travelling with my father on Amtrack overnight trips, the cabins are great for kids. No need to get any fancier than the standard two person cabin, which is pretty much the size of a bunkbed.
posted by true at 1:02 PM on January 12, 2005

I second the Hostelling International. I've stayed in their hostels in many countries in Europe, and have seen the two in my town. Some have been more family friendly than others, but we found them all to be exactly as described on their website. Additionally they were all clean, safe, and staffed by friendly folks. Not that other hostels wouldn't be, but some of the non Hostelling International hostels that I've stayed in were less than honest on their websites (although, sometimes they undersold themselves due to over-popularity...)

The last time I took Amtrack (~1991) I spent 19 hours next to a drunk who only got moreso. The sleeper cars may have been nicer, but the "steerage" seats were cold, uncomfortable, and full of steerage (myself included). YMMV
posted by togdon at 1:26 PM on January 12, 2005

I got bed bugs in New Orleans.
posted by glibhamdreck at 2:01 PM on January 12, 2005

I got bed bugs in Tallinn once. Having stayed in dozens of hostels all over Europe, North and Central America, and gotten bedbugs only once, I call it good odds.

The absolutely worst thing about sleeping in a hostel is getting stuck in a room with a snorer. But for the money saved, it's worth it.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 2:16 PM on January 12, 2005

They're a quite cheap to stay in, usually have a limit to how long you can stay (3 days was the cap in Monterey, CA) and quite reasonable cleaniness wise. Use of the kitchens is nice, although it was only open for a few hours in the morning and starting at around dinnertime in the evening. If you will want to show up around noon to take a nap, you'll be out of luck. Reserve a family room if you can, sleeping in a big room with other people on creaky bunks is just not conducive to getting a lot of rest.
posted by hindmost at 2:28 PM on January 12, 2005

GNP in May will still be under umpteen feet of snow. Heck, in the middle of August there's still snow up there.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:29 PM on January 12, 2005

Hostels are generally good, but the adage holds: you get what you pay for. You won't get more than a single bed (except in rare cases, and definitely not in the US, and it'll cost about as much as a cheap hotel room). You won't get a private bath.

Hostels that I've stayed at in the United States (though colored by hostelling in Canada, Western Europe, and Israel) is that they're safe enough and often convenient to attractions / in good parts of town. They're full of international tourists and perpetual travelling types. They're comfortable, but mostly to sleep and shower in -- I've never spent the day bumming around in my hostel. Though it is done. Especially when there's a bar / internet cafe / restuarant attached.

You can expect a room filled with bunkbeds with crappy mattresses. The room will have beds for 4 to 12 (14 ?) people in it. It will have tile floor, no decorations, and maybe no aircon. Sometimes there will be a bathroom in the room, shared by all occupants. Sometimes the bathroom will be down the hall (though there's sometimes an in-room sink). Lockers either come with, or can be included for some small amount per day. Sheets (and crappy pillows, blankets) are included, but towels are not, in most cases.

There won't be many children in a hostel, but there won't be too much trouble to get into either (unless hearing some foul-mouthed aussies or brits is trouble). There might be boardgames or even foosball or pingpong in a common room. Usually there's just a tv. And old magazines.
posted by zpousman at 2:30 PM on January 12, 2005

Depends. Harper's Ferry, VA (really Sandy Hook, MD) had a drunken caretaker that was fired shortly after we stayed there on a bike trip. However, right across the river in Bear's Den we stayed in a former hunting lodge that was donated to AYH and that was a great building with super folks running it. I was a little scared in Washington, DC, but we had a room for our group and it worked out OK.
posted by fixedgear at 3:08 PM on January 12, 2005

I'll also second what other's have said, with this additional caveat:
In my experience, the hostels (run by HI, by the way) in central ("downtown") areas of large North American (especially in the US) cities - are crap. They have been uniformly dirty, loud, and one in SF felt extremely unsafe. Otherwise - great experiences! Often (and the HI guide will tell you - it's worth joining just for that) you can get a private room for more than the bunk, but waaaay cheaper than a motel/hotel room. As usual, YMMV.
posted by dbmcd at 3:12 PM on January 12, 2005

I've had great experiences in Boston (Back Bay) and in Toronto also, as well as other places. Do what the other posters do - the HI guide is fantastic.

The private room is not a bad idea either, ive done that with 2 people before.
posted by jare2003 at 3:29 PM on January 12, 2005

I had my first hostelling experience last year in Iceland and was dreading the communal experience but it really wasn't that bad. Be prepared for very early risers/dirty stop outs crawling in at all hours if you decide to stay in a dorm.

We stayed at the local Salvation Army hostel which was the cheapest and most central location. The downside was that even tho I was with my platonic male friend, there were no mixed dorms so it was a bit difficult trying to arrange times to meet, especially when we were on early excursions. Being night owls and wanting to experience the Reykjavik nightlife we got a bit of a reputation for being the rebels in the otherwise 'Christian' environment. Having said that, we couldn't have asked for nicer hosts. The accommodation was very basic and didn't have to wait too long to get a shower in the shared facilities down the hall. The bonus of staying in a hostel is meeting a wide variety of characters from all walks of life and the many tales they tell.

I can certainly see myself staying in many hostels on my travels again so I'm sure it will be an exciting experience for both of you.
posted by floanna at 4:20 PM on January 12, 2005

I have never stayed in an American hostel, but if you're alone I would have to say avoid Hostelling International hostels. They usually don't have the social atmosphere that a lot of independent ones have, and a lot have ridiculous curfews and closing times. A few I stayed in were closed (meaning you had to be out of the hostel and couldn't go back in) from 9am to 6pm and midnight to 6am.

Having said that, is what I used all summer in Europe. For most popular hostels, they usually have a website review, an owner's description and a lot of comments from people who've actually stayed there. The general tone of the user comments seemed to be spot on 99% of the time.
posted by borkingchikapa at 4:33 PM on January 12, 2005

Just to reiterate what five fresh fish said:

In May, Glacier National Park will still by snowed in. Logan Pass on Going to the Sun Road rarely opens before mid-June.
posted by event at 8:00 PM on January 12, 2005

I second bringing your own sheets. I sewed some together to make a sleep sack. Cuts down on worrying about critters, for one, and two, it's nice to have one's own bedding in unfamiliar places.
posted by goofyfoot at 11:48 PM on January 12, 2005

Stayed at a Quaker hostel in D.C. The Quakers were nice, but the first night I was there, a disturbed, drunken man came in, renouncing the world, and angrily demanded that I answer for its sins. I befriended him because he had the aura of someone who might otherwise kill me. "So this is why hostels are cheap," I remember thinking.

It turned out he had been in a seminal 1977 punk band and had interesting tales to tell. On the other hand, I realized the place had no lockers, and I was afraid my laptop would get stolen. So I slept with it under my arm, and only fitfully.

By the third day, after the man had woken me at 1 a.m. to tell me excitedly that he was going to Detroit and was going to take me with him, I got the hell out of there and went to a hotel.

So that is my mixed experience in an American hostel. Did better in the UK.
posted by inksyndicate at 11:56 PM on January 12, 2005

Response by poster: Great stories. Thanks, all. Based on what you all say, I wouldn't mind staying in one, but I am having second thoughts about staying at a hostel with my 7 yr old son. I can't wait to see Glacier Nat'l Park. I have heard awesome stories about it. I am thinking July or August. Don't want do be there in winter, for sure.
posted by cincidog at 4:02 AM on January 13, 2005

There's a great hostel in Boulder, CO, and another -- probably even better -- one in Glenwood Springs, CO. I recommend them both very highly.

(And for what it's worth, I also had a fantastic hostel experience in Cork, Ireland, in 1991.)
posted by *burp* at 6:55 AM on January 13, 2005

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