Youth hostels: how the dorm became the norm

Dirty, noisy and packed with party hounds? Not any more. Youth hostels have evolved into attractive options for travellers of all ages and stages.

MY PREVIOUS experience of staying in a backpacker hostel had been a deciding one.

A lumpy bed, filthy bathroom and vomiting room-mate had led to a declaration of "never again".

So it was with much trepidation, 10 years later, that I let a friend convince me to give it another go.

Hostels had changed, he said, and my claim to being too old to stay in one was not valid.

On his recommendation, I booked a family room at the newish London Central Hostel, a converted office building in the city's trendy West End.

The location was ideal, just up the road from the Great Portland Street Underground station - which allowed us to come in by train from the airport - and a short walk from Oxford Street.

And for about $160 a night for a family of four, I couldn't argue with the value.

(A useful comparison is the new, no-frills Tune Hotels property in Westminster, where we would have needed two rooms at a combined cost of about $225 a night.)

After three nights at the hostel, I can report that my "never again" view became "definitely again".

The hostel offered all the benefits of backpacker accommodation without the downsides and the staff were super-friendly and helpful.

Our private room, while small and basic, was immaculately clean and had an en suite bathroom, so we didn't have to share with anyone else.

The biggest pro, apart from cost and location, was the social atmosphere, which is something you rarely find when using other types of accommodation.

The hostel had a modern cafe and bar downstairs and it was a great place to sit and have a drink, coffee or meal, listening to the chatter and observations of travellers from all over the world.

We didn't actively socialise but I certainly felt that I could have done so if I had been travelling alone.

The communications manager for the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) in Australia, Silke Kerwick, says many travellers choose hostels for social reasons as much as budgetary ones.

"Even when YHA builds brand-new, purpose-designed hostels with all en suited rooms and a high ratio of private rooms, we still place a huge emphasis on communal living aspects," she says. "We invest heavily in large, shared spaces ... from internet cafes to rooftop terraces."

At London Central (one of seven YHAs in London), I was pleased to discover there were several other families staying at the hostel, including some with young children and some with teenagers.

And we were far from being the oldest guests. There were many couples and groups from the baby boomer bracket and I noted one very well-dressed couple who were in their 70s or perhaps even 80s.

There were several groups of women on girls' weekends and a few individual guests who appeared to be business travellers.

Kerwick says that while the 18-35 age group still accounts for the majority of hostel guests, the YHA has always welcomed travellers of all ages, including families and grey nomads.

My other concern about staying in a hostel had been noise, but our room was absolutely quiet; if there were hard-partying backpackers staying there, I wasn't aware of them.

Another big pro of staying in a modern hostel is that you have a choice between catering for yourself and buying meals, depending on your budget.

The hostel had a large communal kitchen and dining area as well as the cafe, which served good, cheap food.

We paid about $6 a person for continental breakfasts that included unlimited tea and coffee and more food than we could eat.

The hostel's laundry also came in handy, considering we had two young children and a limited supply of clothes.

On the con side, a family room meant bunk beds and because we deemed the kids to be too young to sleep on the top bunks, we found ourselves climbing up the ladders each night.

You would also want to think twice about a hostel if you wanted to relax in your room.

We were out sightseeing all day and really only needed somewhere to sleep; however, in other circumstances, the rooms might seem a bit too basic.

And while the hostel supplied bed linen, it didn't supply towels (they were available for purchase).

Just don't swim in the moat

The YHA's charitable status allows it to get its hands on properties that developers would kill for. The organisation's hostels in Britain, for example, include grand old houses, converted castles and beautiful country cottages, many of which have been bequeathed to the organisation. The YHA also operates hostels in historically valuable properties owned by the National Trust. At St Briavels in Gloucestershire, you can stay in a moated Norman castle that dates to 1205; it will set you back just $25 a night.

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