George Finn, who is in his 50s and general manager of Hostelling International USA, is not a hosteller by nature.
However, the manager of the American arm of the nonprofit organization that hosts a network of hostels became one rather quickly once he spotted an unlikely exchange taking place between two people during his stay at a hostel in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Finn had been taking a stroll on a Tel Aviv beach and, upon leaving the area, discovered that a bomb had been fired from the Gaza Strip right around the time that he had been on the beach. As pandemonium ensued and people evacuated the immediate area, Finn hurried back to his hostel.
“In the dining area, a Palestinian and an Israeli were breaking bread together,” he said. “They were discussing, very calmly, that they do have differences and they had to recognize that.”
Finn saw, through that exchange and many other hostelling stays since, that hostels, through their no-frills dormitory-style accommodations focused on culture and experience rather than luxury and comfort, could help travelers connect with one another much deeper than a typical hotel would allow, regardless of their age or background.
When thinking of a hostel, many Americans are brought back to the 2005 horror flick “Hostel,” in which three backpackers are kidnapped and tortured after staying in a Slovakian hostel.
“A hostel isn’t about the movie. You’re not thinking, ‘Ew, I don’t want to get murdered,’ or stepping over junkies or seeing a bunch of people sleeping on one bed. That’s not what a hostel is,” Finn said.
In a hostel, four to 20 travelers sleep in rooms of bunk beds and share a communal bathroom with other floor mates in major European and American cities for $15 to $40 a night. Many hostels also have private rooms with private bathrooms. Bed prices sometimes include breakfast, and guests are also welcome to use a self-service and fully equipped kitchen.
Besides the free Wi-Fi and breakfast, the chief difference between a hostel and a hotel is that hostels are social by nature, while people tend to retreat back to their hotel rooms at the end of the day, a “complete change from the often lonely experience that you can have in a full-service hotel where the only people who talk to you are staff,” said Carl Michel, executive chairman of Generator Hostels, a European hostel chain.
Hostels may have originally catered to young backpackers because of their price and friendly fixtures, but “there’s a reason that these days, they’re no longer referred to as ‘youth hostels,’ ” said Marc Desmarais, president of Apple Hostels Philadelphia.
Twenty percent of Apple’s visitors are over 30.
“Hostels aren’t just for the young anymore,” Desmarais said. “No matter your age, if you enjoy meeting people from around the world with different interests, religions and political views, you’re going to love hostelling.”
Sissel Garnes, a Denville native, stayed at several European hostels in the mid-90s because of their price and said that, at that time, 90 percent of her fellow hostellers were in their 20s. However, she had no issue connecting with others.
“Even then, everyone was interested in everybody else and was open to learning about other cultures and lifestyles,” she said.
The average hosteller is between 18 and 26, but more and more hostels are seeing older guests, especially at Generator hostels.
“Ten years ago, Generator was a party hostel and the demographic was younger. Today, we are the leading design hostel in Europe and offer great service, great atmosphere, great events and, of course, a great night’s sleep,” Michel said. “As a result, the age band has broadened — 10 years ago, 95 percent of our guests were under 30. Now, it’s more like 80 to 85 percent.”
Even more of the visitors at St. Christopher’s Inns, a European hostel chain, are over 30. Robert Savage, public relations manager, said that 35 to 40 percent of visitors over the past 12 months were over 30, “myself and several other board member included.”
“We even host a gentleman in his 90s who journeys over to Paris from Australia every year, and very much likes the private en-suite dorm rooms at the 550-bed St. Christopher’s Gare du Nord hostel,” Savage said.
Savage said that the recession brought in business travelers, who, after the recovery, chose to remain with St. Christopher’s Inns because of the price and modernity. Loyal customers, backpackers by nature, “are the intrepid bunch who took no note of the recession and traveled in greater numbers than ever.”
Finn said, “When older people come and stay here with us, we know that they are diehard and seasoned hostellers. They are in the breakfast room with millennials, making better world citizens out of themselves, exchanging ideas and gaining a better understanding of the world and its people.”
Desmarais said that there is no better way to get to know an area than by staying at a hostel because of their use of common areas and various activities such as city tours and game nights for guests. Activities offered at other hostels include comedy nights, pub crawls, open mics and Salsa, often involving the surrounding community to connect travelers to the city.
However, prospective hostellers need to keep in mind that hostels are not out to cater to the feel-good, Finn said. “If you are looking for fluffy towels and room service and eco-green soap, then stay at a four- or five-star hotel because we don’t have that kind of service here,” he said. “You serve yourself. The kitchen is kept clean, but you bring your own food and cook your own meals and, hopefully, you cook a little extra for someone else to try it.”
According to Finn, the kinds of people who would thrive in a hostel environment are those who are open to learning about other cultures, as well as creative types such as artists, writers and chefs who work in professions that “transcend all boundaries.”
However, it’s also important to recognize that even though some hostels, because of their updated fixtures and interesting design, may look like hotels, they are not the same because a hosteller trades his privacy for a chance to try life simply and communally.
“When the day is over,” Finn said, “you need to be the type of person who has an understanding that if you didn’t like a person, it was because they were rude, not because they had a different skin color or an accent.”
If you are interested in booking a hostel, visit hihostels.com to find international hostels that meet assured standards.