Life has an expiration date, but does hosteling have to? Anyone of us who has been through the world’s vast networks of bunk-beds and stall showers has probably noticed someone sticking out in the crowd that looked out of place. If you didn’t notice anyone, it could have been you.
Years ago my friend from high school and I were drinking beer in southern Spain. I was there on active duty in the Air Force and he was visiting for the rest of the week, intent to see Amsterdam on his way home. Three years out of university, he was a soon-to-be hedge fund manager and heading back to our home state of New York to make a lot of money. He mentioned that on the way back, he wanted to stay in a hostel. He said this in a curious deadpan, matter-of-fact, whispering tone whose sound suggested doing so could be a distant adventure, tantamount to climbing Kilimanjaro, wrestling a barracuda, or running a marathon. I understood him, even though I pretended not to. I, like many men in our twenties, had spent nights in hostels and there was nothing clandestine about it. Hosteling was the thing to do — especially in Europe. While expectations and social and professional norms lay ahead for both of us, this was especially true for him. Hosteling belonged to younger people and bohemian types. It was certainly not an activity of Wall Street’s brokers and players – granola and shoe polish seldom go on the same shelf. Up until that still unfinished beer, I was almost evangelical about hostels and nothing challenged my enthusiasm. The concept was new: hosteling as an age restricted, lowbrow activity, shadowing over the bohemian-smart, getting-over-on-life sense it seemed to advertise. Does hosteling really have an expiration date?
Back then my friend might have been on to something other than a cash-cow career. 43 year old Teresa Keane owner of Independent Travel Help, a website geared towards women 35 years old and older, writes in her blog post Youthful Travel is a State of Mind, “…while I was looking for accommodation on my smartphone on my way to Amsterdam in May this year, I saw there was a maximum age limit of 40 on the description of some of the hostels. As I was 43 at the time, that was a bit of a shocker. Since then, I have noticed other hostels in Europe with maximum age limits, some of which are as young as 35.”
Durant Imboden, a 68 year old travel writer from Minneapolis co-host of europeforvisitors.com, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers writes to me on a message board. “My main beef with hostels isn’t the hostels themselves, it’s the inbred crowd mentality that sometimes goes along with hosteling. But then, there’s nothing new about people traveling and hanging out with their own kind.” Mr. Imbowden remembers a clear line drawn in Germany. “Until 2005, the official age limit in Bavaria’s Jugendwohnheime (youth hostels) was 27.”
Sixteen years ago, travelers trended towards the advice of guidebooks like Let’s Go and Lonely Planet. Since then hostels have evolved with the information age in ways to make age almost irrelevant. There are more budget accommodations in the mix now, cataloged and rated online and transparent to the discerning globetrotter. Further, with the advent of Couch Surfing, residents all over the world open their homes and guide services completely free to travelers, based upon perceived compatibility between host and traveler. While hostels can not compete with the good will of their city’s local residents, they have to make themselves competitive in similar ways hotels do, and sometimes more so. In today’s market, most hostel owners cannot afford to take a moral position in the difference in filling a bed from the money of a college aged woman, a sixty year old man, or a traveling family with infants.
Farrah Ritter of travelmamas.com writes in her blog post Hostels with Kids in Germany, “When we told friends that our family was planning to stay in hostels throughout our five-day trip in Germany, it became clear that most people still associate hostels with youthful backpacking adventures, not family vacations.”
Staying in hostels tears down walls between travelers and this increases the anything-can-happen factor exponentially; from randomly reconnecting with a lost friend from a last trip, to having your iPhone stolen, to, well, anything. Matt of nomadicmatt.com will tell you in his blog post “My Hostel Horror Story: When My Roommate Shit in Our Dorm Room” about when… well, the link is right there — you can just read about it yourself. I have a similar story, but that’s another blog for another time.
I have lost count over the years how many times I have stayed in hostels. At some point, without realizing that I was making a conscious choice to stay in hotels and apartments as a general rule when traveling, a transition happened where I preferred to make sure I had plenty of personal space. I reconnected with hostels last year when I attended a one-week course in Northern Ireland, and bunked with five other guys. It was a fun reconnection with my even younger youth and a departure from the norm; but, admittedly I still prefer space, an absence of curfew and hot water any time of the day and night. Hosteling is not lowbrow or less adult than other lodging options; but, we put up more walls as we grow older and tend to lean towards the space that will allow us to be us. Beyond time, beyond money, any potential universal answer on an expiration date for hosteling in a person’s life is based on a combination of personal idiosyncrasies and the threshold for those of others.