Hostels With Kids: A Surprising Way to Save Money on Summer Travel

As you probably remember from your late teens and early twenties, hostels are the best place to meet young singles with a yen for traveling and -- if my own experience is any indication -- a seriousness when it comes to partying. Hostels on a Saturday or Sunday morning are quieter than a church in the middle of the night.

An unusual place to recommend for family travel? Probably, but there are several characteristics that make hostelers kindred spirits to budget-conscious families who are looking for a great travel experience that doesn't involve crippling credit card debt.Hostelers are frugal.

I am one of those types who insists on taking public transportation whenever possible while traveling; even putting aside the expense, it bothers me to be shuttled around solo in a polluting cab as a single traveler. And when I'm with my children, carting around American Academy of Pediatrics-recommended car seats is hardly a pleasure.

But visit a hostel web site, and you'll likely see detailed directions on how to get there via bus, train, and the least-expensive shuttle from airport, train and bus stations. Across from the reception desk at the Austin hostel where I stayed with my son earlier this month was a giant map of the city with notes about bus lines, frequencies of service, fares and recommended destinations. By taking the bus, it cost us just $3 to get to the airport on our way back home, cheaper even than in our home city of Portland, Ore.

And far from providing a choice of restaurants with prices that range from double to quadruple what you'd pay outside a hotel, hostels provide a few huge refrigerators, ranges and toasters, complete with masking tape and sharpies to claim your goodies and leftovers. Many of them even have deals with local bakeries and grocery stores to take their excess and day-old bread and other freebie groceries. If you've ever ordered lunch for you and the kids at a hotel restaurant and walked away sweating the $60 tab, the perfectly acceptable (and free) peanut butter sandwich and yogurt will have you singing as you wash your hostel dishes.

Hostelers are social.

You can't stay at a hostel if you hate other people; the crowd at a hostel is usually welcoming of all different sorts of people, up to and including children. My eight-year-old spent a half-hour showing another traveler in our co-ed dormitory room his world on Minecraft (his pride and considerable joy). I'd really seen enough of it for one trip and having him engaged while I read my novel was worth more than an hour at a spa.

I shared the extra food freebies I picked up at the conference I was attending with the hostel staff, giving me relief from having to cart it back home and providing some new choices for the budding gourmets who worked there. When I went for a run early in the morning, I didn't worry about my son: He'd made a couple of responsible adult friends (one from Cuba, another from Australia) who would watch out for him if he woke up while I was gone.

Hostelers have what you need.

I hate going to a hotel only to find I've forgotten something that cost me three times its market price from a mini bar or the hotel "gift shop." But hostels have that figured out, providing necessities like bus tickets, postcards, toothbrushes, shampoo, padlocks and laundry soap at reasonable prices.

Speaking of laundry soap: Hostels usually have coin-op laundry machines, a fair sight cheaper than sending your dirties out for laundering at a hotel, allowing you to travel light if that's your thing (it's mine) or in the inevitable event your children find some spectacular new way to dirty their entire week's supply of clothes in two days.

And hostels are packed with guests whose backpacks sport the latest version of every travel book on the market, as well as considerable knowledge in the form of the front desk staff (without the expectation of a concierge-size tip). Our hostel included a blackboard with a list of all the upcoming live music and poetry-reading events; staff enthusiastically recommended other kid-friendly entertainment choices, like watching the bats leave their roost under the Congress Avenue bridge at sunset.

Hostelers are leisurely.

One of the hardest transitions from single travel to family travel has been my kids' stamina: It's just not like mine. I'd happily awake at 7 a.m. and head straight to the first, best museum, not stopping until I fell exhausted into bed after that must-visit restaurant's last seating around 11 p.m. When I'm staying at a big hotel, I feel the hustle-bustle frantic pace, and it infects me and I tend to drag my children out into the world before their time.

But hostels are cheap enough on a per-night basis that guests often don't feel they have to get up and at 'em in order to get their money's worth as fast as possible. The pace of a hostel was perfect for me and my son, allowing us to see what we wanted of the sights without feeling as if we were sweating money. As I fell asleep on the third night there, I imagined future trips to Europe when my younger sons were older; we'd go three or four weeks at a time, with a week or more in a city -- enough for me to see the museums I long for and to sleep late or retire early a few days a week, too.

Hostelers love a good view (or a hip neighborhood).

I first experienced the brilliance of hostels when planning a trip to San Diego. I wanted a hotel near the convention center that was a good bargain; I didn't want something near a freeway. Someone suggested a hostel, which turned out to be in the hippest neighborhood in town, less than a mile from my conference, and walkable.

Our hostel in Austin was in a setting that can only be described as stunning (and close to several bus lines and a popular running and biking path, too). The building was perched on a gentle hill in a public park area, with trees surrounding the patios outside and a long dock out onto the lake -- the one visible from our room (dorm-like as it was) and eating area. Walk out the back door, and we were in full-on Texas nature, complete with sights of snapping turtles, fish swimming under our bare toes, and the raucous sound of birds of every type. The first night there, I found my eight-year-old standing on the end of the dock watching the sun set -- it was better than anything at the Hilton by a hundred miles.

Reasons abound to recommend hostels beyond those I've listed here, not the least of which is "bunk beds" (kids love 'em; hostels have 'em in spades) and "free WiFi" and "TV rooms with cable" (my son's reported favorite perk).

But the best reason of all is that it's a great way to encourage your young offspring to embrace the ways of frugal living and to be exposed to other cultures and travel experiences that will stay with them long into adulthood. And you won't have to take out a home equity loan to provide this rich, gorgeous experience to your family.
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