Every long-term traveler we've met or follow thinks differently about how they spend their hard-earned travel-funds. Some want to eat at fancy restaurants, but will skip hiring a guide to show them the city. Others will stay in a premier hotel, but won't buy souvenirs. Many have different financial priorities during different parts of their trips. (We wrote about our point of view here.)
Lodging can be one of the most expensive parts of a long-term trip, but we've read about people who spend hardly anything in this category; they house-sit, couch-surf, and trade-work-for-lodging. For our family of five we rarely scrimped here, but we also couldn't afford hotels. Our priorities of comfort, safety, location and cost often landed us in short-term rentals. Occasionally we opted for Inns or B&Bs, and a few times, Youth Hostels.
Youth Hostels? Really? With family?
Yes. Youth Hostels. For a family. Here's why:
First, most hostels are now open to people of all ages. Travelers no longer have to carry a membership card and prove that they're under 26. Staying at hostels gave us the opportunity to connect with other international travelers, from the 22-year-old solo backpacker and college groups, to other budget-conscious families and spry senior citizen couples. And if you're not thrilled about sleeping with strangers in a military-esque dorm with metal-framed beds and footlockers, you should know that many hostels offer private rooms. Some even have family-suites complete with private bathrooms and kitchenettes.
Second, Youth Hostels are fun! They still have that hip boarding house aura and host international guests from all walks of life. Many arrange group outings, sponsor social hours in the public spaces of the hostel, and have friendly, chatty staff. Even in the age of internet and cell-phone, colorful bulletin boards display announcements for activities and shout-outs to friends on the road. Outgoing hostel-stayers will always be able to find something to do, and usually someone to do it with, even during low season.
Third, the savings go beyond the cost of a night's stay. Many hostels offer discounted tickets to events and sights, hand out coupons for restaurants, and provide city maps. They also have free or low-cost services like wi-fi, laundry and airport-transfer. We gratefully paid $6.00 in Argentina for a week's worth of 5 people's dirty laundry which came back neatly folded in just 24 hours. Our hostel in Prague offered free (and delicious!) espresso each time we passed the reception desk, and for the kids, they'd whip up a cup of hot chocolate. We also used their printer and borrowed guide books. I haven't done all the math, but I know these services helped our budget.
Finally, many Youth Hostels are conveniently located in a city's center. In both Athens and Prague, we could walk to most of the must-see sights on our itinerary, or take short, cheap trips on public transportation. We loved being able to come "home" after a morning of touring, rest, and then go out on the town again. There were grocery stores located nearby, and we could use the Hostels' kitchenettes to make simple breakfasts of eggs and toast or yogurt and fruit.
All of that being said, there downsides to staying in Youth Hostels. For us, smoking was an issue. In Athens, despite many signs prohibiting it, guests smoked throughout the building. Our son has asthma, and all of us are highly sensitive to smoke, so this made our two-night-stay unpleasant.
Another problem is that hostels can only be as good as their guests. Our last two days in Prague landed on a weekend, and our hostel hosted guests celebrating Hen and Stag parties. Rowdy noise began Friday night and didn't end until about Sunday morning. Luckily, we’d come prepared with earplugs and were staying in a private room far from the fray.
And lastly, some Youth Hostels aren't bargain-priced. We hunted for a family-room in central Amsterdam, reaching out to several different hostels. There was only one with space for our family, and it would cost almost $1700 for one room for one week. Conversely, the Airbnb apartment we found was just $1800, had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully-stocked kitchen, and overlooked a charming canal. Clearly we opted for the apartment.
While we didn't stay in Youth Hostels that often, we were mostly happy with our experiences when we did. If we were to travel RTW as a family again, we would consider hostels as an option in cities where we want to be right in the city center. For reviews of hostels we stayed at, check out our guest-post on The Thirsty Tourist.