Please help me overcome my aversion to staying in hostels.
July 21, 2008 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Please help me overcome my aversion to staying in hostels.

I want to travel more. Unfortunately, funds are a bit tight, so staying in expensive hotels is out of the question. I understand that there are hostels serving the lodging needs of people like me, people whose horizons exceed their incomes but I'm not sure if those would be appropriate for me. I'm older than the usual age profile for hostel travelers. For that reason, I'm not sure if I would be welcome. I also have a fairly negative attitude toward hostels; I tend to view them as grubby, shady establishments filled with odoriferous, America-bashing hippies and iPod-snatching thieves.

But I recognize that my prejudices are not based on any real experiences, good or bad. I would like to open my mind a little bit and consider hostels as a possible travel option. I'd like to hear what your experiences have been and whether you would recommend them as places to stay for someone who isn't going to be making partner or winning the lottery anytime soon.

So what is it like to stay in hostels? Do they welcome people over the age of 35? Are they clean and safe? Is it possible to use them just as places to sleep? (I'm not really into the idea of hostel-as-party or hostel as a place to hangout.) I need a bed, access to a bathroom, and a place where I can lock up my stuff. Anything beyond that is gravy.

And in the event that you tried hostels and found them lacking, what sorts of budget alternatives would you propose?

Thank you very much for your time; I look forward to your answers.
posted by jason's_planet to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you planning to go? I'd imagine the experience varies widely from country to country and continent to continent.
posted by desjardins at 10:08 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: READ THE REVIEWS!!!! That will make the difference between staying in a lovely place and staying in a scummy, dirty, dangerous place that infests your luggage with bedbugs. There are books that review hostels, and TripAdvisor, and lots of sites that come up when you Google "hostels". Read reviews from several sites in case a particular place is stuffing one of the sites.

In my experience, at least half of hostels rent private rooms for about 2-3 times the cost of a bunk bed in a shared room. It's not as cheap as a bunk bed, but it's still cheaper than a hotel, with more privacy.

Although hostels mostly attract a younger crowd, I'd estimate that about 25% of the people I met/saw in hostels were over the age of 25, some even in their 60's and 70's.

Why don't you try overnight trips to the hostels nearest your house for a start? Then if you find that you absolutely can't stand it, you can just leave and drive home and you'll know that bunking in hostels is not for you before you're far from home and stuck with them.

If hostels still make you nervous you might look into host (Servas etc.) or homestay programs, where you stay with a family in their home in their spare room (sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee). You're still staying with strangers but you get your own room and you're exposed to fewer strangers at a time.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:12 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have stayed in hostels as an early-thirtysomething [a while ago] and found them fine, a little noisy and with long lines for the showers. Sharing big rooms with a lot of people was hit or miss but you couldn't beat the price. In a few countries I've been to, notably Australia and Canada, there were sort of midrange student hotel type places which were like YMCA sorts of places, a little spendier than hostels but with private rooms, sometimes a bathroom down the hall. These accomodations don't exist in quite the same way in the US, at least not so readiy. A few examples are the Neill-Wycik in Toronto or the Y on the Park in Sydney.

I don't know how you feel about strangers, but I've had good luck with and Hospitality Club as far as finding ways for mutually agreeable visiting. You stay in private homes and can return the favor even if all you have is a couch or floor space.
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer:
Nobody is 'not welcome'. There are some hostels that are definitely geared towards younger, wilder crowds, and I'd suggest you avoid these (because you probably wont enjoy them as much). There are many others though.

What is it like to stay in hostels? It's great. You get to meet a wide range of people and stay there fairly cheaply. Yes they welcome people over 35. Some are clean and safe. Some are filthy and unsafe. You can use some of them just as a place to sleep, while others will be more of a place to pass out unconscious in your room over the bar.

I think the key for you is to do a little research before picking a place to stay. Places like the Generator in London (I worked there for a few months) and the Kabul in Barcelona are not what you're after. Late nights, loud noise, mostly a young crowd and not much rest. These are both huge hostels though, and most smaller ones would suit your purposes.

As for the impression of people older than the young 20-something crowd... I met a fantastic German who was a fascinating person, I also met a disgusting English guy who was hitting on every girl in the place. Yes, they were both older, but the key difference (wait for it) is how they acted. If you are open and not a wanker, then you'll be fine.

You will find oderiferous American-bashing hippies and i-Pod snatching theives. You will also find 17 year-old house leavers, just-graduated lawyers and biologists and accountants, perpetually partying dreadlocked alcoholics, stoned hoardes, quiet wallflowers, intelligent people from all countries and backgrounds, middle-aged mildly psychotic former child stars, narcissistic Australians who have a fight with their girlfriend at 3am, philosophy professors who engage you in debate over a ping pong game, Egyptian waiters who never serve pancakes the same way twice, Canadian rock stars who invite you on am impromptu flight to Italy, Chilean bartenders who cartwheel down corridors and believe that they (and they alone) know the secret to love, Contiki tourists who have a camera full of photos that correspond perfectly with those in the brochure, Argentinian writers who've lived in the hostel for years, mad Italians who try to find you a job and then send you on the wrong train so you have to hitch hike home and sleep on the beach for a few days, American frat boys who are stunned that you aren't impressed by their biceps, a Thai restraunt owner who is seeking a partner for his daughter back home, a New Zealander who does handstands and explains everything in terms of evolution, and you'll even find people like yourself.
posted by twirlypen at 10:21 PM on July 21, 2008 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as a person went to a hostel in Maui, I found it to be exactly what you were seeking. I got a single, cost me $50 a night for a private room with a shared bath. I'm in my late 20's, but pretty much bald and bearded, so I look older. I didn't find them unwelcoming, but didn't make friends terribly.

Clean? Somewhat. Safe. Never felt terribly frightened, although physical stature and appearance play some part in this. The rest? I didn't feel terribly good about leaving my stuff in the room, but everything else was alright.

I didn't use it as a hookup spot or a party, even though many were. It was a cheap hotel, and after all was said and done, 4 days, 3 nights in Maui, $800, including plane ticket, rental car, room, food, and $100 for 6 bottles of wine. The price made the trip all the sweeter.

I do agree with desjardins though, this will vary completely from hostel to hostel.

Also on preview: I agree with twirly on the mix of people. 20-somethings were the norm, but not an overwhelming majority. There were enough older people who didn't mind a little mess and were looking for a cheap place to stay.
posted by zabuni at 10:26 PM on July 21, 2008

Response by poster: Where are you planning to go?

A whole bunch of places. Los Angeles, Gothenburg, Indonesia, Greenland, Papua New Guinea. . . a whole bunch.

I'd imagine the experience varies widely from country to country and continent to continent.

No doubt.

READ THE REVIEWS!!!! . . . Read reviews from several sites in case a particular place is stuffing one of the sites.

Well, I did check out which people recommended in the other hostel threads. It seemed pretty comprehensive. But if, as you say, I should use several sites in order to be thorough, which other sites out there would you recommend?

In my experience, at least half of hostels rent private rooms for about 2-3 times the cost of a bunk bed in a shared room. It's not as cheap as a bunk bed, but it's still cheaper than a hotel, with more privacy.

Although hostels mostly attract a younger crowd, I'd estimate that about 25% of the people I met/saw in hostels were over the age of 25, some even in their 60's and 70's.

Thank you. This information does help.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:27 PM on July 21, 2008

I've only been to three+: two in Germany, one in NYC. If you do your research online beforehand you should be fine, except you'll have to overcome the inherent weaknesses of all hostels: less-than-stellar bathrooms, sleeping with strange people, spartan presentation. I've never had any bad experiences(*), but do what I didn't and bring a lock!

(*) Well, actually, I arrived in NYC at 8a in the morning sleep-deprived on a Greyhound. Wishing for death, I tried to check in very early at the hostel and they wouldn't let me. Tried to sleep in the TV room and they kicked me out until check-in time. This is the travel industry's fault for inventing check-in times.
posted by spamguy at 10:32 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: and have reviews. You can also find hostels guidebooks on Amazon, and budget travel books like Lonely Planet have hostel reviews too.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:34 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: (IME) In Scandinavia, hostels are for everybody: the hostel I stayed in in Gothenburg featured more families than backpackers, and they offered different levels of services. You won't stand out at all there.

which other sites out there would you recommend?
I've used hostelworld and hostelbooker. Lonely Planet is useful as well, check out the Thorn Tree forums on their website.
posted by jacalata at 10:47 PM on July 21, 2008

Best answer: I stayed in the Mekka Hostel in Helsinki and the Circus Hostel in Berlin, at age 41, and not much for socializing with the crowd, and I had a private room. They were both fine.
posted by matildaben at 10:47 PM on July 21, 2008

I can tell you that if you're coming to LA, the one on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood is noisy/ crazy and has a lot of pot smoking going on-- one of my coworkers at my last gig was *living there* while he interned with us, and he'd often come to work grumping about not getting enough sleep due to craziness going on in adjoining rooms.

That being said, my coworker knew of two other hostels in the area that he'd intended to check out too, so it's not your only option. He ended up getting an apartment thanks to the intervention of his family's friends in the area.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:48 PM on July 21, 2008

I tried the hostel thing in Europe in the early 90s, and quickly realized that hippie, wide-eyed Americans looking for an "authentic" experience right in the heart of an Old World city would find sullen, angry Germans, British soccer hooligans and various, sketchy flavors of illegal aliens from Turkey and West Africa. Then the Americans would whip out the credit card and head off in search of the closest thing resembling a Best Western.

Being neither a trust-a-farian nor a soccer fan, I relied on advice from, of all people, my dad.

* Be strategic about hotels. In a continent full of cities with subways and trains, you don't have to stay in Sloane Square or Montparnasse in order to visit Sloane Square or Montparnasse.
* Besides, London and Paris are for chumps. Overrated. Barcelona, Copenhagen, Ireland. Prague was great, but overrun these days. I hear I missed a great thing in the smaller Greek cities. A buddy of mine got a job in Corfu; a girlfriend of mine got a job in Dingle, Ireland.
* Sleep on the trains. Sleep on the beaches. Sleep in the parks.
* It's Europe. You don't need to shower everyday. Buy a package of baby wipes and you're good to go.
* If you're a friendly person, you meet friendly people. You just do. It happens. And those people have couches and showers, or they split hotel bills with you.
* Gymnasiums have walk-in day rates and showers.

I guess the main thing I'd say it, you have to be strategic ("I'm here for X days, so I'll shower on day Y, hit the train on day Z..."), willing to toss it all ("My plan didn't work out. I'll splurge this one day on a hotel and re-orient myself.") and entrepreneurial ("Hello, ladies. Can you help me? I'm looking for...").
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:49 PM on July 21, 2008

I've stayed in a ton of hostels in the US and have had a real broad range of experiences. Some are absolutely awesome, some average, some shitty (I think predominantly in cities). But the real deal about staying in hostels is that you meet a whole bunch of interesting people, and if you strike up some friendships and you're going the same way, then you can start thinking about splitting motel rooms - because everyone in hostels has the same MO: want to travel, bit thin on the Benjamins.
I found the main drawbacks were; the ones that just have two big rooms filled with bunk beds - one for men, the other for women - trying to sleep in a heaving room of smelly/ snorey/ drunk dudes is no fun, at times impossible. Then there's the ones that turf you out at 11am and won't let you back until 4 or 5 - yes, I know I'm supposed to be travelling, but I've been on the road for 3 months and dude wants to rest a day or two. You can also find in cities that hostels are used by borderline vagrants, and I ain't got nothing against vagrants, but one time I roomed with a dude who had all his life possessions in a trash bag, slept for 36 hours straight, and then I found him standing in front of me naked but for a pair of Y-fronts, at which point he delivered the line, "I'm so confused." Me, I take that shit in my stride, but I can understand that others might be a little freaked out. And then there's the places that are just goddamned expensive and if you have that book of coupons you get at Dennys you can find a motel (clean sheets - private bathroom!) for less.
On the positive side - apart from making a boatload of new friends - good ones are a real pleasure to stay in, a lot have small rooms with two or four bunks (one was even co-ed, although girls can be drunk, smelly and snore too), you have access to cooking (hello pasta diet!) and laundry facilities, and they have tons of useful information on the local area. Travellers also leave behind/ trade their 7 day National Park receipts once they've used them which can save quite a few bucks. And then there's the upper echelon of super-awesome hostels - there's one somewhere out east that's a bunch of treehouses, there's a yurt north of Yellowstone, the one in Truth or Consequences has it's own natural hot spring hot tub, the one in Kanab comes with the world's biggest breakfast etc.
Also, some offer camping facilities, so if you don't mind carrying a tent around, this can be a good way of avoiding the dorm-style unpleasantaries, but still getting the kitchen, shower and fellow travellers.
posted by forallmankind at 11:03 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hostel, and I love it. I like meeting the people, the energy, and the kitchens - often they'll have places where you can make your own food.

I have just two tips, that I haven't seen mentioned:

1. Bring your own lock. hostels almost always have lockers in the rooms. I have a combination lock that I take with me, and if it fits on the locker, perfect. Sometimes, you have to buy or rent locks from the hostel hosts, but if that's the case, then definitely do it. I don't travel with very much, so as soon as I leave for the day, I put all my luggage in there. I've never had anything stolen all the years I've been hostelling.

2. Bring earplugs! I made this mistake one too many times, and one too many times I end up sharing the room with a snorer. So, definitely pack those. They make a difference!
posted by spinifex23 at 11:25 PM on July 21, 2008

In addition to earplugs, a mild sedative might be a good idea. Not so strong that you can't react to emergencies if necessary, but enough to help you sleep through other people snoring, getting up at night to pee etc.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:41 PM on July 21, 2008

Bring two pairs of sneakers. I did the backpack thing in the mid-90s, hit up a music festival on a farm in the middle of nowhere and came back to the hostel with muddy feet...
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:57 PM on July 21, 2008

I've stayed in hostels as a single woman and found them mostly fine. Other budget options include Accor Hotels, which are the Motel 6 equivalent in Europe and generally quite pleasant, and, which, the last time I used it, gave me a lower-than-hostel rate for a gorgeous room in a 14th century palazzo in Venice.
posted by judith at 12:11 AM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I travel a lot and write for several travel guide series, and well, I hate staying at hostels. Local travel agencies and internet searching can usually find you a "private apartment" or "private room" for the same price as a hostel full of whining drunk teenage ravers. In Budapest, where I live, two people sharing an apartment with a kitchen and downtown location is the same price as two hostel beds. I was just in Croatia last month, same deal: Rijeka hostel, 27 Euros, private apartment for two: 45 Euros.
posted by zaelic at 2:47 AM on July 22, 2008

So what is it like to stay in hostels?

As someone on a previous AskMeFi question put it so well, How long is a piece of string?

Your questions are extremely open, and you'll find varying levels of quality on a single block in a single town in a single country. And you're too old at 35? Hey, I'm 35, and I don't feel too old for a hostel. To be specific, I wouldn't feel too old in a hostel in SE Asia, where I traveled extensively about 5 years ago. A buddy of mine, age 40, is leaving soon to spend a month in Thailand, all in backpacker hostels. I'd say the average age for hostels is about 30 or so, so no, you're not going to feel out of place.

Just a quick example: Thai hostels can be grimy as hell but incredibly cheap, but Vietnam tended to have more "real" hotels: much nicer private rooms with A/C and cable tv(!), but more expensive as well.

And yeah, read reviews. It's cliche, but buy a Lonely Planet or Let's Go guide for the country you're visiting; they're genuinely useful. Check out their websites, too.
posted by zardoz at 2:59 AM on July 22, 2008

I used to feel worried hostels too, but on my last trip I stayed at Point Loma in San Diego, and it was awesome. My (then) boyfriend and I got a private room for about $42/night, plus free pancake breakfast. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. The bathroom was clean and I never had any trouble taking a shower. The place was pretty empty because this was in January, but I would say about half of the other people staying there were over 30. Among others, we talked to a traveling grad student from South Korea, and a middle aged man doing temp work who had just moved down from Seattle.

I would start out staying a hostel that you know for sure will be super nice (based on multiple reviews, or advice from friends). Get a private room and visit during non-obvious school vacation periods (e.g. Spring Break). I also get the impression that Hostelling International hostels, having to meet certain standards to stay in the organization, are generally pretty decent.
posted by puffin at 3:20 AM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: I just finished working at a hostel for 6 months and at 35 you are nowhere near what I would consider 'too old' to stay there. Not even close. And the one that I worked at even had the word 'Student' in the title.

It's doubtful anyone would make you feel unwelcome but you have to judge your tolerance levels for young travelers who have probably never been out on their own before. How bothered would you be by a group that came in at 3:00 AM and intoxicated? What about a semi-permanent lodger in your room that smells really, really bad? Or people that turn the lights on when you're about to sleep?

For a few of the months I lived in one of the 6-bed dorm rooms and at first was paranoid about leaving my things in the room but then relaxed. Usually the hostel will provide lockers for free or a nominal fee.

Ditto for what everyone else is saying about a private room. Many hostels offer them for much less than what a hotel in the same area would charge; that sounds like it could be an option for you.

The web sites that we were listed on were and Both provide user reviews for cleanliness, location, etc. as well as comments.

Good luck!
posted by amicamentis at 4:22 AM on July 22, 2008

I hated every hostel I stayed at in the USA and Canada. Europe is the place to go for hostels. Avoid the major cities as others have said, their offerings are generally poor for all budget accommodation.

Besides these, best hostels ever: Florence, Berlin, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Hong Kong. Worst: Athens.

My husband is 38 and we always prefer hostels over budget hotels if we can find a nice one. We don't like to socialise with others in the hostel, but we do like the atmosphere if it's kind of quiet, and has a nice mix of people, a good breakfast room. We always go for a private room.

Alternatives if not available, Ibis, other budget hotel chains, bed and breakfasts (eg in London there's a whole string on Gower St).

We always use and (with a grain of salt).
posted by wingless_angel at 4:30 AM on July 22, 2008

If you stay in a hostel- bring shower sandals. Grosssssss.

Another option might be something like Hotwire which sells hotel rooms at discounted rates. I don't actually have any experience with hotwire specifically, but over the weekend my boyfriend was able to get 50% off a great hotel in downtown Montreal through a similar discount hotel agent. We ended up paying 15 dollars more than we would have getting a private double bed in a hostel. Pool on the roof, hot breakfast, king sized bed and full kitchenette for 107 a night (incl. taxes and fees).

Keep in mind though, the bunk beds are a lot cheaper than the private double bed rooms, and hostels will often charge full price x2 for two people to stay in the room. You will prob do significantly better getting a hostel bunk if it's just you, but just know that it's not impossible to get a decent, well-located 2.5 star hotel for a lot cheaper than you'd expect.

I've never had anything stolen from me in a hostel, but I sure felt a lot more secure about leaving my stuff in my hotel room than I ever did locking stuff up in a hostel. The cleanliness was a real clincher for me though. All the hostels I've stayed in (NYC, Toronto) have had good reviews, but were all dank and smelly with grimy bathroom tile and questionable mattresses. Maybe I just went in expecting too much (I am a bit of a cleanfreak), but if it is a concern of yours, I would choose my hostel carefully.

Happy travels!
posted by sunshinesky at 4:32 AM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: I'm 38 and I have stayed in a lot of hostels. I stayed in most of them when I was in my early 30's. I have NEVER fit the "age profile," and I have always felt welcome.

The KINDS of experiences I have had have varied in terms of the types of accomodations -- but I've never been REALLY uncomfortable. I think the worst hostel in terms of comfort was in Ottawa, but not to the "bedbugs-and-leaky ceilings" aspect -- the hostel in Ottawa is in the former jail, and the rooms are the former jail cells. Each cell is actually a decent size. It's just that they still have the bars up as the "walls", and the hallway light in each floor is left on all night -- so I just plain didn't sleep very well.

But I've found that on average, your experience is: you end up in a room with about 8 bunk beds, and depending on the popularity of the place either all of them will also be occupied or will be occupied by a revolving door of roommates; or you'll have the entire room to yourself if you're not in a popular place. You'll get a fairly decent mattress and a pillow. Some places will rent you linens for a dollar a night if you haven't brought your own; in one or two places they did provide linens for free. You'll also share a bathroom and shower with others; either the rest of your room or the rest of your floor. In some cases the building is an older building that had had some prior history as something - either it was a former country house or farmhouse or college dorm; or it IS someone's house, and the owner decided to open a hostel and they live on the premises. In one case the hostel owner set up the beds in the hay loft of his barn and you had to go inside the main house to use the bathroom, but the beds were all comfortable and the owner was a sweet Finnish man who would strike up conversations with you about cats.

Most places have kitchens for you to make your own food; you're expected to actually buy your own provisions yourself elsewhere or bring them with you. But sometimes if you are lucky you'll show up just after someone else who brought a bit too much food has just left and they've stowed it all in a "free for the taking" corner, and you can adopt it (that happened to me at a hostel in Philadelphia -- I took over someone's cereal, pasta and canned tomatoes and ate free for two straight days). A small handful of the more popular hostels sometimes offer a complimentary breakfast buffet -- usually simple things like muffins, bagels, coffee and juice, a couple kinds of cereal. One hostel even had a restaurant on premises.

One or two hostels do still expect you to pitch in with some small chore while you're there -- either vacuuming your room or giving the bathroom mirror a polish. Very few still ask this.

Hostels in the more urban areas of North America are the more exhaustive in terms of accomodations -- they'll have showers, a bigger staff, more stuff in the kitchen -- but that one hostel that had the restaurant was the one I stayed at near Yosemite, on the site of a former boy scout camp, where they still had latrines instead of toilets in the sleeping cabins. And they even served wine at the restaurant area, so who knows? (They also had a kitchen for public use as well.) Some hostels do have a curfew, where you have to be in by a certain time or you're locked out; the urban hostels are less thus. They also tend to have a decently-sized staff, and are very good at trying to help solve problems (in San Francisco I got stuck in a room with four comedically-loud snorers, and when I went to the front desk at 3 am and begged to be moved to a different room, they very apologetically told me they were completely booked -- but, the clerk got me a pair of earplugs from their gift shop and gave them to me for free). Some of the specific locations have individual quirks that can be a thundering inconvenience -- the hostel in Santa Cruz would not let you park a car directly in front, they had to give you a parking pass for a street two blocks away in a gated community, so you had to drive there, pick up the pass, drive two blocks away, park, and tote your luggage back. But the staff was very good at soothing all ruffled feathers from cranky travelers discovering this. Plus later that evening I discovered that they had a huge clawfoot bathroom tucked away in a room all by itself for anyone who wanted to use it, and they would even loan you bubble bath and a rubber ducky.

Most hostels have a very active staff when it comes to leading tours and giving you tourist information -- the one in Chicago especially had very good info at the bulletin board in the lobby, with step-by-step, door-to-door directions on flyers for many of the big attractions. Volunteers lead the tours, and sometimes they're hit or miss in terms of quality, but the guides are at least all eager. The staff at the desk can also be helpful in terms of giving directions and suggesting things to do.

In terms of the crowd -- it's REALLY diverse. I went to New Orleans in my mid-20's, and the others in my room ran the gamut of a young woman who was going to be starting grad school in Tulane and was staying there while she found an apartment to a secretary from Australia who was traveling the southeast US for a month for her vacation to a Swiss girl who was doing a cross-US road trip to a pair of English college students who'd sort of miscalculated when Mardi Gras was. In Chicago I shared a room with three New Zealand girls who stayed out really late most of the time anyway and a woman from Rhode Island who was only in town because she was a huge Boston Red Sox fan and had been given tickets to a Boston-Cubs game at the last minute and it was the only place she could afford to stay. I've also met English cabbies, Australian computer programmers, Northern Irish mathmeticians and Norwegian geographers, and a Polish college student who eagerly tried to tell me all about a band named "Burlap Cashmere".

If you stick to hostels that are affiliated with the International Youth Hostel movement, the accomdations tend to be better as they're fairly strict in terms of requirements. Not every state has IYH-affiliated hostels, unfortunately, but they have quite a few in California (I think LA has two). My biggest advice would be to pack a towel and sheets for a twin-sized bed -- not every hostel provides linens, but they do all provide blanket and pillow. Check the kitchen before you make a food run to see if anyone left anything behind. And -- be ready to engage in conversation with the others in your room and in the dining area, because some of them are fascinating. (One of my favorites was the one with the Belfast mathematician and the Norwegian geographer, and I still have the photo from when the Australian secretary and the Swiss girl and I all went to Mardi Gras world together.) And pack your sense of humor in case you do end up in a converted jail cell kind of room -- and others in the room will be in that boat with you, so you can giggle over it with them. But you'll be fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:06 AM on July 22, 2008

I always pick the room with the smallest # of beds. Usually a 4-bed dorm is a few bucks more than a 16-bed dorm and it makes a huge difference for me because I'm a rather light sleeper. Also, co-ed rooms are better than all-male rooms because more guys snore.
posted by smackfu at 5:34 AM on July 22, 2008

Couchsurfing could be an effective alternative to hostelling these days in terms of letter you stay in a place without breaking the bank. Again the profile of typical couch surfers may be younger than you - however you can have a look at the sort of person you would be staying with and they can have a look at you.
posted by rongorongo at 6:30 AM on July 22, 2008

I stayed in a hostel in Atlanta, GA (this one) one time and all 3 of my "roommates" were over 30. They had just moved to the ATL (as had I) and worked at the restaurant up the street. In general I don't think you will feel out of place unless you are one of those people who just feels out of place in new environments.
posted by no1hatchling at 7:32 AM on July 22, 2008

My mother (who is over 35, and doesn't especially like loud places) has stayed in hostels in New York, London and Bath (UK) - all were nice. But it's about what hostel you book. In London, for example, we specifically booked a hostel which we were told was quiet, despite it's Oxford Rd (very busy) location. The age range there was anywhere 20-60, with quite a few people my mother's age. And it was very quiet.

If I don't know a hostel, I like to go with one which is a member of the Hostelling International hostel association - I've generally had good experiences with them. Though I don't remember if the Bratislava Backpacker's Hostel (Slovakia) was part of it - but it is a very nice hostel. Great restaurant attached.

That said, you can sometimes find cheap hotels which are the same price as hostels, particularly when travelling as a group. When I visited Paris, we booked too late for the better hostel, so we opted for a small family owned hotel for about 50 Euro a night (which is about what you pay for 2 people in a hostel in a good area). It wasn't fancy, but was on the metro, very quiet, and very friendly. In Europe, cheap hotels often advertise on the same sites as hostels.
posted by jb at 9:36 AM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: I'll chime in with the "each hostel is a special snowflake" experience. Yeah, there are the party hostels that, at 41, I would rather chew hot glass than experience (I'm glad I saw a few in my early 20s, but some of them royally annoyed me even then). But then there are places like the family-friendly, panoramic hostel I stayed at in Menaggio, Italy, which features art classes, 2 week language courses and even a nature course... right on George Clooney's beloved Lake Como. When I was there, they had a cooking school but it looks like they aren't doing that right now. Which is too bad, but MAN their food is good and apparently they still serve dinner there for 9 pounds. And apparently rooms there are still way cheap... 14-15 pounds a night, with a view of the lake.

Oh, and how can you not appreciate the experience of staying in an authentic castle overlooking the Rhine River for cheap? Just read reviews and you'll get an idea if you want to give a place a chance.

As others have said, you can also easily figure out when to avoid a place that way. Pay attention to the reviews, good & bad. Other travelers will rarely steer eachother wrong, they wouldn't want someone to do that to them on holiday so they're really trying to be honest. Nothing to be scared of if you take the time to prepare yourself and do a little research. Which you should do any time you're planning to spend money on something anyhow.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:41 AM on July 22, 2008

Also be sure that you're aware if a hostel has a curfew or any kind of lock-out times. For example, the Rhine castle hostel has a 10pm curfew. Not much to do in the area after hours, but if you want to be out drinking wine and not get locked out from your bed you wouldn't want to choose a place like that. Likewise, the hostel I stayed at in Bern, Switzerland, had lockout during the day so that people wouldn't loiter around. And some hostels have neither.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:45 AM on July 22, 2008

One thing I haven't seen mentioned here (apologies if it has) is that a lot of times, the hostel will sound really quite nice, but it will be SO out of the way that it's completely not worth the extra time/effort to get there. Map it out, see if you want to take an hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere just to save a few bucks to stay in a hostel. It seemed like every HI hostel I wanted to hit was inconvenient in this fashion.
posted by user92371 at 11:45 AM on July 22, 2008

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posted by HotPatatta at 5:07 PM on July 22, 2008

Response by poster: These answers are awesome! I've got a lot to go on here and I feel like I have more options when I start to travel.

Thanks, guys! I appreciate it!
posted by jason's_planet at 10:36 PM on July 22, 2008

I agree with the Empress on IYH hostels (although I was charmed by the Ottawa jail hostel, perhaps because my partner and I got upgraded to a twin cell). Here in Baltimore, we have a nice one (disclosure - I'm an occasional volunteer there). I'm going to Iceland this fall, and planning on staying only in hostels.

I'm 43. My partner is 64. Neither of us have felt too old or been treated strangely.

The noise can be too much. Of the 6 nights I spent in Ottawa, one of them I could not sleep at all due to a large group of loud, ski tripping teens who refused to understand "Could you please be quiet, it is 3 am" in either French or English. But, I've been kept up in regular hotels, too.
posted by QIbHom at 8:49 AM on July 24, 2008

Update: I'm still at the hostel thing. I have decided to take myself to New Orleans for my birthday this year; because this year, my birthday falls right smack on Mardi Gras.

The only way I could CONCEIVABLY afford to stay in New Orleans on Mardi Gras is by staying in a hostel. Both of the ones I stayed in ten years ago are still there; neither is affiliated with IYH any more, and the one I liked better was sold out, so I've crossed my fingers about the second one (I probably won't be in the room itself much anyway).

but it's a block from most of the parade routes, it's right on the streetcar line, and it'll be cheap.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:20 PM on September 2, 2008

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