(20 Nov 2005)
After nearly 100 years on the lower rungs of the accommodations ladder, hostels are moving up. Hostel
organizations are holding their members to higher standards than ever, and hostel owners are following suit as they serve a budget travel market that is increasingly thirsty for more diverse, and often fancier, accommodations than they will find at motels and low-cost hotels.
"They're absolutely getting better," said Mark Vidalin, marketing director for Hostelling International USA, a nonprofit hostel organization based in Silver Spring, Md. "There's been a recognition that hosteling had reached critical mass and gone beyond just cheap places to stay."
Customers have helped push hostel standards higher, industry executives said. Many backpackers who frequented hostels decades ago have returned to them in more recent years, seeking the camaraderie of these properties, but without backaches from ancient beds or headaches from worrying about their valuables disappearing while they sleep.
To help meet the market's rising expectations, Mr. Vidalin said that in the mid-90's, Hostelling International, which represents 4,000 hostels in 60 countries, began applying stricter standards to its member hostels. The United States division, for instance, has two full-time inspectors who travel to each of the organization's about 80 affiliates to evaluate cleanliness, security and the aptitudes and attitudes of managers, among other things.
Mr. Vidalin said that after the inspections began, Hostelling International USA dropped an undisclosed number of members. "We're a nonprofit, so we're more concerned about the quality of the experience than the bottom line," he said.
Hostels abroad are undergoing similar changes. According to Paul Fearn, spokesman for the Youth Hostels Association, Britain's division of Hostelling International, hostels "have improved dramatically in recent years," in particular, by increasing guests' privacy. Most hostels are walling off their big dorm rooms in favor of smaller rooms housing four to eight visitors, or even private rooms with a single bed. Such measures are "ideal for couples with young families traveling on a budget, as they can book their own room," Mr. Fearn said. "Many come with en suite bathroom facilities too, so all can stay together."
HostelWorld, which is based in Dublin, and its sister company, Hostels.com, are among the two most popular destinations for the backpack set. Established in 1999, HostelWorld has developed a network of 8,000 hostels in 158 countries, all of which can be reserved online, according to Ray Nolan, the chief executive of HostelWorld's parent company, Web Reservations International.
HostelWorld.com recently underwent a Web site renovation, including the addition of message boards moderated by local "gurus." But the most critical part of the site, its user reviews of hostels, has remained essentially unchanged. The company has gleaned 600,000 hostel reviews from customers who booked on the site over the years, throwing out all but the most recent 50 reviews to help keep a fresh perspective on each property.
Mr. Nolan said the reviews are particularly handy because hostels, unlike hotels, do not have an agreed-upon quality standard. "So you need something like this to get an independent view on whether the property is good or bad," he said.
HostelWorld and Hostels.com charge customers a $2 nonrefundable reservation fee, as well as a refundable 10 percent deposit on the price of the stay. While HostelWorld includes some Hostelling International properties in its search engine, Hostelling International's Web site, (hiusa.org) does not return the favor. According to Mr. Vidalin, of Hostelling International USA, the site allows users to secure reservations for each of the organization's properties, with no reservation fee. Further, Mr. Vidalin said the site offers two second-night-free coupons to new members.
Membership is compulsory for all who want to stay in a Hostelling International property. That is a detail sometimes overlooked by those who book rooms at member hostels through HostelWorld.com. The cost is $28 for adults and $18 for people 55 and older. Children join free, and membership includes basic travel insurance. Hiusa.org also features discount air fare offers exclusive to members.
Independent hostel owners offer free online booking too, and sometimes more photos and lengthier descriptions than can be found elsewhere. USAHostels.com, for instance, features several photos of each of its five hostels.
The 12-year-old chain is in the midst of a national expansion, but currently operates properties only west of the Mississippi - the newest of which is in a former three-star hotel in San Francisco. According to Marc Desmarais, USAHostels's vice president of operations, each of the company's hostels has lockers in each room and surveillance cameras in the room entrances and common areas.
The San Francisco location, Mr. Desmarais said, has Jacuzzis in two of the rooms, while each of the hostels in the chain offers a WiFi network and an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. The newer amenities and features, he said, serve a "clientele that's changed quite a bit in the past few years."
"It's a different breed of people," Mr. Desmarais added. "It's not just the die-hard adventurers, but people who expect more for their dollar. We get a lot more people traveling with suitcases instead of backpacks. Of course, we still call them backpackers."
Low-End Accommodations Move Up a Notch
Budget travelers are finding pleasant surprises in hostels these days. Here are several that may not qualify as resorts, but are far from the realm of last resorts.
MADRID Cat's Hostel, Cañizares, 6;, (91) 369 28 07; www.catshostel.com. Named by HostelWorld.com users as the world's best hostel, Cat's opened in May 2004 and quickly earned a reputation as one of the more well-appointed establishments of its kind. Aside from wireless Internet access, its bar and its nightclub, the hostel's signature touch is an airy atrium illuminated by a high, domed ceiling of stained glass.
LAS VEGAS USA Hostels Las Vegas, 1322 Fremont Street; (702) 385-1150; www.usahostels.com.With its swimming pool, above, Jacuzzi, air-conditioned rooms, Web access and a free all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast each morning, USAHostels Las Vegas offers amenities not found in many of the city's hotels, much less its hostels. Transportation from the city's Amtrak and Greyhound stations is free as a Sunday barbecue, beer included.
SINGAPORE Summer Tavern, 31 Carpenter Street; (65) 6535 6601; www.summertavern.com.
Rated by HostelWorld's users as the world's best small hostel, the tavern houses 90 beds in four dormitories and a private Honeymoon Room. Amenities include free high-speed Internet access, an in-house beer lounge with satellite TV, a library, a rooftop lounge, free breakfast and access to a gym and spa facilities.
GALWAY Sleepzone Galway City, Bothar Na mBan, Woodquay, Galway, Ireland; (353-91) 566999; www.sleepzone.ie. Built in 2001, the hostel offers some of the most highly regarded budget accommodations in Ireland. Visitors give it high marks for cleanliness and security. The hostel has free wireless Internet access, (mostly) en suite rooms, well-equipped kitchen and an alcohol-free environment. Sleepzone recently opened another hostel 35 miles away in Connemara.