Youth Hostels 101

Youth Hostels for Seniors and Baby Boomers

Interior of Common room, Adelaide Central YHA.
••• Adelaide Central YHA Common Room. Diana Mayfield / Getty Images

Most of us think of youth hostels as large dormitory rooms filled with noisy, backpack-toting teenagers. This picture can be quite accurate, but there’s more to youth hostels than you might think. When summer ends and students return to school, youth hostels, especially those with “family” rooms, can be a low-cost, convenient alternative to hotels.

What Is a Youth Hostel?

According to Hostelling International, youth hostels date back to 1909, when a Richard Schirrmann, a German teacher, decided that his students would learn more from their class trips if they had convenient, comfortable places to stay.

 Schirrmann began by opening one hostel at Altena, Germany. Today, you can find hostels in over 80 different countries and book your stay at one of over 4,000 different youth hostels.

If you visit a youth hostel, you’ll find travelers of every age. Families with infants, student groups, business travelers, and senior travelers all stay at youth hostels.

Should You Stay in a Youth Hostel?

Before booking a youth hostel room, consider the pros and cons of staying at hostels.

Pros

Cost

Youth hostels are inexpensive. Unless you bunk on a friend’s couch or find a low-cost Airbnb, you’ll probably spend less on youth hostel lodgings than you would pay anywhere else.

Information

It’s easy to find out about a particular youth hostel and learn about hostelling. Hostelling International’s extensive and informative website connects you with hostels around the world.

Location

You can find youth hostels in every imaginable location.

Avid shoppers might prefer downtown hostels, while hikers might choose a country hostel. You can stay in historic castles, modern buildings and on top of mountains.

Cultural Opportunities

You will meet people from all over the world when you start hostelling. You can talk with fellow travelers and share tips and stories.

Perhaps you’ll get acquainted with someone from your host country as you relax in the TV lounge.

Quality Standards

Hostelling International has developed worldwide standards for HI hostels. Because each HI hostel is run by a national hostelling organization, there are two levels of inspection, national and international. Most youth hostels are cleaned by the staff, not by hostel guests.

Some hostels are privately owned and are not bound by HI’s quality requirements. If you plan to stay at a private hostel, read customer reviews before you book your room.

Leisure Activities

Many youth hostels have TV lounges, playgrounds, bars and cafés to help you enjoy your free time. In some countries, such as Germany, youth hostels offer themed activities ranging from environmental study to cultural opportunities. Still others can connect you to local tours, special events and performances. The helpful front desk staff will provide maps and information about the local area.

Breakfast and Kitchen Privileges

Your youth hostel stay usually includes breakfast. Most hostels serve breakfast during a set time period each morning. You may be able to make arrangements for a portable breakfast if you must leave before breakfast time.

Many hostels allow you to use a common kitchen area to prepare food. 

Cons

Location

Be aware that some youth hostels, while beautifully situated, can be difficult to reach by public transportation. Others are centrally located, but do not offer parking. Research your transportation options before you book your stay.

Privacy

Lack of privacy tops most travelers’ lists of concerns about hostelling. If you choose to stay in a mixed or single-sex dorm, you won’t be able to close a door and shut yourself away. However, many youth hostels now offer four-person, two-person and even single rooms; they cost more, but offer more privacy.

Noise

If you opt for a dorm bed, you may have to deal with a lot of nighttime noise. Even though youth hostels have quiet hours, people come and go until the hostel’s front doors are locked.

The hostel’s common areas can also be noisy, thanks to travelers who are enjoying social time before heading to bed. If you can’t fall asleep unless your room is absolutely quiet, hostelling may not be the best choice for you.

Security

If you book a one-, two- or four-person room, you’ll be able to lock your door while you’re asleep. If you stay in a dorm, you’ll need to take some precautions to secure your travel documents and valuables. Buy a money belt and keep your cash, credit cards and passports on your person at all times. Ask about lockers when you book your stay; locker facilities vary from place to place. Some hostels ask you to bring a padlock, others have coin-operated lockers, and still others have no lockers at all.

Accessibility

Some hostels are accessible, but many are not. You will need to contact each hostel to find out if it has wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, and accessible beds and bedrooms. Some hostels only offer bunk beds, so it is important to ask about accessibility issues before you arrive.

Age Limits

Some hostels, particularly those in Bavaria, Germany, give priority to travelers under age 26. If you’re traveling without advance reservations, you may find it difficult to get a hostel room during the summer.

Lockouts / Curfews / Early Departures

Many hostels are only open at certain times. In some hostels, guests are asked to vacate the hostel entirely during daytime hours. Ask about lockout times when you book your stay.

Most hostels have curfews; the hostel doors will be locked at a certain time each night.

When you check in, you will probably be able to pay a key deposit and use a hostel key if you want to come in after the front door has been locked. 

Typically, you will be asked to check out by 9:00 a. m. If you like to sleep in, you’ll need to consider other lodging options.

Bedding / Linens

Youth hostels have an unusual bedding policy, designed to keep bedbugs out of your bunk. In a typical youth hostel, each bed has a pillow and a blanket – sometimes not the loveliest example of its type, but a clean, usable pillow and blanket. When you check in, you can use – or, in some cases, pay to rent – a sheet and pillowcase. Pick up your bed linens from a stack in the reception area and grab a hand towel from another stack. Take these items to your room and make up your bed. Youth hostel sheets resemble sleeping bags; they’re like a sheet “sack” that you sleep inside. Each morning, you must return your used sheets and towels to the common area. If you’re staying for more than one night, pick up a new sheet, pillowcase and hand towel each day.

You will need to bring a bath towel if you plan to shower at the hostel. In winter months, drying your towel during the day may be challenging. You may want to invest in a quick-drying travel towel. (Tip: Bring soap, shampoo, a razor and other toiletries. Some hostels hand out sample shampoo and body wash packets at the front desk, but it’s best to be prepared.)

Showers

Even if you book a private room, you should bring shower shoes. As at many large, multi-shower institutions, hot water may be in short supply.

Front Desk

Your hostel’s front desk will not be staffed around the clock. If problems arise, you may need to handle them on your own or call an emergency number.

Curfews

Most hostels have some kind of curfew. Don’t be late. They really do lock the doors.

Teens / Children

Youth hostels are open to all. This means you will encounter babies, toddlers and teens if you stay at a hostel. If you travel during the fall or spring, you may find that your hostel is filled with school groups. You can minimize your exposure to young, potentially noisy travelers by booking a single or two-person room. If your ideal vacation is quiet, peaceful and child-free, hostelling isn’t for you.

Membership

Membership requirements vary by country. Some HI member countries allow travelers who haven’t joined HI to stay at their hostels, while others require HI membership. If you’re thinking of staying at a youth hostel, ask about its membership requirements.

Popularity

Hostelling is popular with tourists and groups of all kinds. Be flexible when booking your trip. If you are traveling without advance reservations, you may be able to get a bed when you arrive, but you should always have a backup plan in mind in case your chosen hostel is full.

How to Reserve a Youth Hostel Room

There are several ways to book your youth hostel stay. You can go to the Hostelling International website and reserve a room online. Research available youth hostels on national association websites, too, because some hostels can be booked online only through their own national hostelling association. In some cases, you’ll need to contact the hostel by email or send the staff a fax to make a reservation.

If you’re a spontaneous sort of person, you can simply show up at a hostel and ask for a room. Some hostels set aside a few rooms for same-day travelers, while others sell out weeks in advance.

It’s always a good idea to read independent reviews before you book. Read comments at websites such as VirtualTourist, Hostelcritic or Hostelz to get an idea of what to expect at each hostel.

Be sure you understand each hostel’s cancellation policy. You may lose your deposit if you cancel less than 24 hours in advance.

What to Bring

Hostel rooms are comfortable but small. It’s best to travel light. You’ll definitely want to bring the following items:

  • Passport
  • Cash and credit card (payment preferences vary by hostel)
  • HI membership card, if required
  • Shower shoes and towel
  • Personal toiletries
  • Padlock and coins for lockers
  • Sleep sheets, if the hostel does not rent them

Once you have checked in, the desk clerk will give you a key and, perhaps, a door access code. (Don’t lose either, unless you enjoy being locked out.) You’ll be told where to pick up linens and what to do with them the next morning.

Checking In

Before you arrive, find out when your youth hostel’s front desk opens. Don’t be late, because you may lose your room. It’s a good idea to arrive early, especially during peak travel season, as some hostels overbook their rooms. Expect to fill out a form or two when you check in. You will be asked to show your HI membership card if you’re staying at an HI hostel where membership is required. You’ll also be asked to pay for your stay in advance. You may have to pay a key deposit or leave your passport at the desk during your stay.

Resolving Problems

Most problems can be resolved at the front desk, particularly if they involve check-in, checkout, meals or showers. Late night noise problems may be a different story if the front desk has limited hours.

Breakfast and Checkout

When you awake, tidy up, strip your bed and pack your gear before breakfast. This will give you plenty of time to enjoy your morning meal and check out on time. You will miss breakfast if you arrive late.

Expect a line at the front desk as the checkout deadline approaches. Return your keys, settle your account and enjoy the day.