Picture this: it’s the beginning of another summer and you have a road map and a full tank of gas. The highway stretches before you like a blank canvas full of possibilities.
Or you have a backpack stuffed with clean clothes and a European guidebook. You’re about to find out if those six semesters of German have paid off. But where will you sleep for the next three months?
Whether your summer travel plans include cruising down Route 66 or climbing the Swiss Alps, hostels offer budget-minded travelers the chance to see the world and meet new people in the process. Hostels are "generally lively and fun, with shared communal areas such as a lounge, kitchen, and often a bar, TV room and Internet access," according to Sarah-Jane Wilton, communication coordinator for STA Travel.
Accommodations vary from city to city and hostel to hostel, but you can usually expect basic communal lodging not unlike a freshman dorm. Hostels are usually co-ed, but women who feel more comfortable in an all-female room can usually request one. Depending on the place, you may be also able to book a private room for a fraction of a traditional hotel’s cost (just don’t expect HBO and a hot tub).
Aside from saving money, another great reason to stay in a hostel is the people you’ll meet along the way. From hitting the beach in Miami or shopping in Milan, chances are you’ll be exposed to fellow travelers from all over the world, most between 18 and 26 years old, so you’ll have lots in common if not a common language.
Boston University senior Jessica Musikar remembers a solo trip she took to Copenhagen, Denmark during her semester abroad: "I went out one evening with a group of random hostellers, including a Spaniard, two Kiwis [New Zealanders], an Australian, a Brit, and another American. My fellow hostellers’ revelry rescued what might have a boring, cold night in a distant place."
Just standing in the entrance to your hostel, you’re likely to hear travelers making plans in several different languages (even hostels in the United States attract both international and local travelers). Sharing the often cramped quarters of a hostel creates a sense of community where hostellers swamp stories and share travel tips over a card game or breakfast, which may be included but is often as simple as tea and toast.
"Hostelling" can be a lot of fun, but here are some tips to get the most out of your stay:
- Always bring a padlock so you can lock up items that you won’t need during the day. STA Travel advises students to "keep your money, passport or ID and other important belongings with you and close to you at all times." Don’t even bring expensive jewelry and electronics that you can’t bear to lose. Leave them safely stored at home!
- Unlike the Ritz, not all hostels provide linens. Some rent sheets and towels for a nominal fee. But it never hurts to be prepared with a spare blanket and towel (you’ll rest easy knowing the last time they were washed!). Ditto on the toothpaste and shower shoes.
- One of the best parts of traveling is sampling the local cuisine, but eating out all the time can get expensive. Food items like oatmeal, pasta and powdered milk travel well from city to city, and you can also peruse a local market for fresh produce and regional specialties. Bring back some groceries to the hostel’s kitchen and whip up a feast with your fellow travelers! Most will be more than willing to share a cup of milk or some cooking oil if you need it.
- Double-check the hostel’s location before booking. Just because someplace seems like a bargain, you may end up paying twice as much in cab fare or parking if it’s not in a convenient location. Based on her experience in hostels, Musikar suggests checking maps repeatedly "before you pick a hostel off the Internet. Anywhere that advertises easy access to bus service that will take you into the heart of City X is probably quite far from downtown. You don’t want to be waiting for a bus at 2 a.m. with a bunch of people who don’t speak your language. Find someplace you can walk home to." Travel agencies that are geared towards students, such as STA Travel, can help you find an affordable hostel in a safe, convenient location.
- You’ll also want to check if the hostel has any curfew or time restrictions. Few things are worse than returning from a fun night on the town, only to discover that you’ve been locked out of your hostel. Curfews tend to apply more in rural areas, as city hostels tend to stay open to accommodate the local nightlife. It’s always a good idea to program the hostel’s phone number into your cell just in case (and give it to friends and family members so they can contact you in an emergency).
- No one wants to plan for the worst, but it’s wise to buy travel insurance to cover baggage, flight cancellations and emergency medical care. Wilton also says to "speak [with] other travelers, locals and tourist information outlets to get information on the safe areas, especially in bigger cities." And in case you lose your travel itinerary or get separated from your group, you should email yourself (and those who may want to contact you) a copy of your schedule and flight confirmation numbers so you can look it up at an Internet café if need be. Aside from that, pack an extra pair of socks and get ready for unforgettable summer of travel!
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