Hostels are a great option for budget-conscious travelers. (Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr)
Most people think of Europe when they think of hostels. You know, the whole cooking pasta and making Nutella sandwiches in the community kitchen while planning impromptu trips to southern France kind of thing. But even though that’s the common association, the U.S. has hostels, too.
Which is not to say that Americans stay in them.
Weirdly, most American backpackers who happily stay at hostels abroad don’t even think about looking for one when traveling on their home turf. The default cheap accommodation here is probably a motel or a cheap hotel. That may be because there simply aren’t as many hostels here or because the magic doesn’t exist in the same way it does overseas. Point is, staying in a hostel is a rarity — which is why I decided to stay in one myself.
On a recent trip to San Diego, I stayed in the Hostelling International San Diego Downtown hostel and also paid a visit to its sister hostel in San Diego, called Hostelling International San Diego Point Loma. I’d had mostly fantastic experiences with Hostelling International overseas — everywhere from Beijing to Helsinki— but still, I was nervous. What if the U.S. version didn’t live up to the standard?
Well, it did. I was surprised — and relieved! My friends and I had a great time at the HI in downtown San Diego, so much so that we booked a room with HI in San Francisco for a future trip. And because I enjoyed my experience so much, I want to spread the word: It’s actually a really great idea to stay in a hostel in the U.S. rather than a cheap hotel. Here’s what I learned during my stay.
The colorful lobby of the HI Downtown hostel in San Diego. (USA Hostels)
1. Hostels can be pretty and bright.
I’ve stayed in some sketchy hostels, guest houses, and hotels in my time. The HI San Diego was anything but. It was spacious and airy, covered with works from local artists (all available for sale), and had a huge kitchen plus multiple common rooms. What’s more, our room itself was pretty big (for a hostel), and comfortable too. And the Point Loma hostel had even prettier rooms, with bright colors, big outdoor hammocks, and community guitars. I’ve found this to be true of HI hostels all over the world: They are big, pretty, and full of shared spaces.
Score a private room like this in downtown San Francisco. (Photo: Macontor.net)
2. There are often free events.
While we were in San Diego, we got the chance to participate in a variety of free (or very cheap) events offered by the hostel. The two HI hostels share a community organizer, whose sole job is to organize events and activities for hostel guests — meaning there was a lot going on.
Our first night in town, we dragged our jet-lagged butts to a free pub crawl, which had us out dancing until 1 a.m. San Diego has lots of interesting beer pubs and craft cocktail bars that we never would have found on our own, so it was nice to be shown around by a local. The next morning, we took a free walking tour, which was also offered by hostel volunteers.
3. Hostels are involved with the community.
One of the coolest things I noticed about the hostels in San Diego was their effort to be involved with the local community. Several nights a week, a local volunteer cooks a communal dinner that hostel guests can join for a mere $5. We were there for spaghetti night and spent a good amount of time chatting about teaching opportunities in China with the local chef.
The Point Loma hostel is even more ambitious, with its community market every Saturday, featuring local musicians, craft sellers, and grilled foods. It’s still in its infancy, but I think it’s so cool that the hostel strives to be an active member of the community — not just a hotel.
4. Hostels can be a good value.
U.S. hostels aren’t quite the bargain that they are in other countries around the world. A private room at the HI San Diego Downtown hostel is $90, and a bed in a dorm is $35. You could probably stay in a dingy, cheap motel for $100, but you might not be downtown, and you definitely wouldn’t have access to the same amenities.
Another bonus: Unlike most hotels, most hostels offer free breakfast and kitchen use, as well as free walking tours and events — not to mention advice and support. And, of course, free Wi-Fi.
Of course, even though I was impressed by my hostel stay, there were some drawbacks. First, most U.S. hostels are dry. This isn’t a huge issue — it’s possible to have fun without drinking! — but it’s something to note.
You might not be able to drink, but you can still have a good time. (Photo: Hosteling International USA)
The other issue: People in U.S. hostels generally aren’t as sociable as the people in hostels abroad, at least in my experience. I’m used to arriving at a hostel, pulling up a chair, and immediately having someone ask me where I’m from, where I’ve been, and/or how long I’ve been traveling. But people in San Diego were not as friendly; they mainly kept to themselves. I don’t think this is the fault of the hostels themselves; the more likely culprit is that the whole friendly, open-traveler culture isn’t really a thing here yet.
That said, I would still encourage more Americans to try staying in a hostel on their home turf. It’s still a great option — and definitely much better than a cheap motel.
WATCH: How to Hunt for Buried Treasure in England