20 unusual ways to save money: Stay in hostels on vacation

I'm getting a little tired of hearing people talk about how it's too expensive to travel. Lots of times, travel is cheap as long as you don't chase luxury. If you're really interested in seeing more of the world, then there are still plenty of ways to do it sensibly. One of the prime ways to visit a foreign place cheaply is to get yourself out of the chain-hotel ghetto. Sorry, Marriott, and Hilton, but for people who really want to experience, say, Budapest or Paris, there is a more realistic way to make that dream come true.

At the top of the list of cost-cutting is hostels. Americans overlook hostels. That's probably because compared to the rest of the world, we don't have very many of them, or we perceive them as flophouses for losers and addicts. In fact, though, in just about every Western culture but America's, there's a cultural expectation that young people take a little time off in their 20s and see the world.

A conservative estimate is that there are some 20,000 hostels worldwide. Assuming that each one has about 75 people staying there a night (another conservative estimate, since many house hundreds of travelers of every age), that means some 1.5 million people are staying in a hostel tonight. It's actually not as purgatorial as it sounds. In fact, in many ways, it's a preferable way to learn about other people and the world. At a hostel, your budget may dip, but your standards don't have to. Here's why.

1) Private rooms at hostels are nicer than the dorms.
Dorms are a great place to hit on co-eds, grumble at Germans who turn on the light at three in the morning when they get back from the bars, and smell feet. But in private rooms, the only snoring sounds will come from your partner (or you). What's more, in many hostels, they come with a private bathroom and, often, a TV. In many ways, they're exactly like rooms at local guest houses except you may not be subjected to cheap artwork on the walls. Otherwise, there's not usually a lot of difference. In many cases, hostels may even be nicer than the budget accommodation you're used to. Hostels have kept up with the tastes of the modern market, a trend noted recently by the Los Angeles Times. Take the designer look of Australasia's Base Backpackers chain and Edinburgh's SmartCityHostel.

2) You'll often spend most of your time out of your room anyway.
As a travel writer, my history is littered with stays at fabulous hotels that I couldn't fully enjoy because I was out all day and half the night exploring the city. It's a colossal waste of money to splurge on a suite with a 50th-floor view of Tokyo when for most of the time, you'll be in bed staring at the back of your eyelids. If the point of your vacation is to see the world, all your lodging really has to be is is clean, secure, and quiet enough to lull you to sleep. I save my splurges for the beachy resorts, when I'll be in or near my room a lot more.

3) Hostels give you a chance to meet lots of people.
I once spent nearly two years backpacking around the world on my own, and I practically lived at hostels. After I returned home, people often asked me if I felt lonely. Never. Not once. People who stay at hostels are by nature interested in the world and in learning (otherwise they'd be at home), so the common areas are full of interesting travelers from around the world. I have met lifelong friends at hostels. Backpackers are a generally a non-judgmental bunch, and they seem mostly interested in where you've gone, how you did it, and how to help you do more cheaply. When I stay at a fancy resort, though, my main souvenirs are photographs and the bill. Hostel workers can often be impersonal, but your fellow clientele is anything but. The reverse is true at B&Bs: The staff is likely to be effusive and helpful, but some of your fellow guests may want to keep to themselves.

4) You can also save on food by staying at hostels.
Most of them have full kitchens that you can use for free. That not only works out to be cheaper than a diet of restaurant food, but it also means you can go to the local markets and pick up ingredients that Customs won't allow you to bring home. So you can actually enjoy the local meats, cheeses, and fresh fish in the place you're seeing.

It bears noting that private rooms in hostels are not a savings panacea in every city. It all depends on the market. In London, for example, a double room with a private bath at the YHA London St Pancras, a modern building within walking distance of the West End, costs about £65, or about $95, including a continental breakfast. But a private-bath double at the Alhambra Hotel, a lovely family-run B&B a few blocks away, costs £75, or $15 more, and that includes not only a full English breakfast, but also the attention and expertise of the family that runs it. So at least in London, the price of a private room at a hostel is comparable to one at an inn. In other cities, though, the savings of a hostel room are markedly sharper.

Before your next trip to a foreign city, do a little research to see what the hostels have to offer. The big chain hotels are guaranteed to set you back several times the price of a private room at one of these genial social centers. And once you've got a few hostels in mind, search for a few reviews of them so that you can be sure you don't accidentally book into a place with a reputation for wild parties. Most of the time, especially if it's run by the standardized Hostelling International, it will be quiet and sane.

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