Too old to stay at a hostel?

A few times recently I’ve found myself posing the question, “when is someone too old to stay at a hostel?”

I ask this now because I have some travel coming up: to New York for six days next week, Washington DC soon after, and LP and I are planning a trip to Vermont at some point.

I have mixed feelings about staying at a hostel.

I used to love them. The first time I travelled I was 19, and backpacked my way around California for three-and-a-half weeks. I was travelling solo, so hostels were a good way to meet strange people. They were cheap, and provided me with a bed and some space to lock up my stuff. What more did I need? If you hit the right hostel, maybe they’d put a keg on, or a barbecue for a few bucks, further enabling you to have the same slightly drunken conversation about your trip with people that you would never see again.

At one particular place, the Banana Bungalow in Melrose, Los Angeles, they even had a designated party guy, this crazy Thai-guy named Boogie. His job was just to work the common areas and make sure people were having a good time. I went back a few years later and he was still there, doing the same thing.

All retrospective cynicism aside though, I had a very good time. I’ve had a few tours of duty in hostels since this first exposure in 2004. I lived in a hostel in Vancouver in 2008 for a month, practically broke, mixing frozen vegetables in with my cup noodles each night at the insistence of a friend to stave off malnutrition. Here I shared a bunk bed for a fortnight with a perpetually drunk Englishman, who would stumble up the ladder to his bed in nothing but white Y-front underpants about midnight each evening, cackling “how’s your novel?” at me as I passed the time on my laptop.

Today, my heart sinks a bit when I arrive in a hostel. They all smell identically, the air consistently dank in each with a mixture of bad foot odour and cheap spray-deodorant. Most people in hostels are younger than me now, grouped in exotically foreign-looking squads all engaged in the earnest pursuit of adventure. This makes me feel boring and out of place. I’m not really looking to meet new people these days. I’m just looking to be left alone.

Hostels hold up one key benefit, still. They’re cheap. For $25 to $35 a night you get all of the basic elements of a hotel, just none of the space, comfort and privacy. Most of my travel in the next few weeks is for work. As a freelance journalist, one does not make quite enough money to justify a night at the Marriott.

For part of my time in New York, and in Vermont, LP will be joining me. Today, thanks to the raft of cheap travel sites – such as ExpediaPriceline, and Hotwire – we’ll get a hotel room, usually for about $100 or so. It costs a little more than staying in a hostel, but for a few dollars extra each it is never, ever not worth it.

So for me, the hostel is a young(er) person’s game. They’re an economic crutch, and are most worthwhile as a form of social engineering to keep young adventurers guessing about whom they may run into next.

I can’t wait to leave the hostel behind. I wonder how you feel about them?

For now, I know they’re unavoidable… and I’m okay with that. I’m still young enough that when I check in to a hotel I feel a giddy rush, like I’m pretending to play grownups. I haven’t left hostels behind completely.

There’s free wireless Internet always (which is more than I can say for some hotels), and you can usually bank on a free breakfast (if you take a little extra you can usually stretch this out into a lunch, too).

I have a few hostel rules that see me right. I stick with the YHA, because independent hostels may be a little better, but they can also be a lot, lot worse. I always take earplugs, because I’ve spent too many nights in my life awake listening to strange men snore. I always stay in a mixed dorm, if I can, because it is amazing what the presence of even one girl within a group of six or seven strangers can do to the general standard of hygiene. I cling to the bottom bunk, but that’s a personal preference, I guess.