Are You Ever Too Old For…Youth Hostels?

Sydney Harbour YHA – rooftop terrace.

Australia has become a very expensive destination for foreign travellers who aren’t earning the high incomes that Aussies are currently earning. Hotels, flights, public transport, restaurant meals, and entry fees are all considerably more expensive in Australian capitals like Melbourne, Sydney and Perth than they are in cities traditionally considered high-cost destinations like London, New York and Paris.

If Terence and I aren’t required to try hotels for stories we’re doing, we will always stay in an apartment rental when we have a choice and when it makes sense (i.e. if we’re in a city for more than three days), however, for the first time in many years, in Australia, I’ve actually found myself considering hostels for overnight stays.

Now, don’t think I’m a snob for no longer staying in hostels. It’s not that. When I backpacked in my twenties, that’s where I mostly stayed. However, I’m 40-something now, I’m married, and Terence and I don’t particularly enjoy sitting around and singing along to someone badly strumming Wonderwall. And 99% of the time when we’re travelling it’s for work. As a writer, I need a quiet space to work, I need to plug in my laptop and spread out my research materials. Terence does the same, but has a gazillion drives that need to be plugged in. We can’t do that in a hostel. Or can we?

I inspected a handful of flashpacker-type hostels last year in Bangkok when we were researching a new guidebook to the city and was surprised to see how far hostels have come in a few years. Some could even be called stylish, with funky colour schemes and murals by local artists decorating the walls. Some boasted rooms with Wi-Fi, iPod docking stations and small flat screen televisions, not just a wall lined with old PCs and a TV lounge.

But what impressed me most was that the best hostels had single, twin and double rooms with en-suite bathrooms, and often the dorm rooms were on a completely different floor or section of the building. And once again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a snob, but surely you all remember the backpackers who stumble in from a night out at 4am (um, sorry, that was me), and those that wake up at the crack of dawn to catch an early bus or flight, but before they do spend an hour rustling plastic bags. What was it with that? Payback for people like me?

So in Australia, for the first time in many years I found myself browsing sites like Hostelworld.com (the one that came most recommended by backpacker friends on Twitter – it seems to be the Trip Advisor for backpacker accommodation) and comparing the prices of hostels in cities like Sydney to that of hotels – and, out of curiosity, comparing the price of hostels in Sydney to those in foreign destinations like New York. Ouch. The prices were indeed comparable.

And I found myself wondering whether we were too old to stay in a hostel, could we find one of those fancy flashpacker places like the kind I’d seen in Bangkok with double rooms with bathrooms, and would it be possible to actually find a place that wasn’t party central where we could actually get some work done…

What I really wanted to know, for myself as much as for the stories we’d be writing on Australia, was whether hostels were a viable budget accommodation option for married couples, older people, and even business travellers. Then, coincidentally, the YHA contacted me to see if we wanted to try their YHA at The Rocks, Sydney. Here was my chance!

Much to our surprise, there were not only quiet private double rooms with ensuite bathrooms with linen, towels and tea and coffee making facilities (all of the things you take for granted in hotels), they were in a separate part of the building to the dorms. They were also half the price – and probably in a lot better condition and cleaner – than any budget accommodation in the city, plus the rooms also had Sydney harbour and Opera House views. And there were even better views from the rooftop terrace. You would probably pay $200 for the same views from other city hotels, although admittedly not with the same comforts.

Could we work? Yes. There was Internet in the room – pre-paid log-in cards could be purchased from the front desk – and a desk to work at. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for both of us to sit at, and this is one reason we’ll always choose an apartment over a hotel or hostel when we can so we can both sprawl out at the dining table, but it would be just fine for a single business traveller.

Would I stay in a hostel again and would I recommend hostel stays to travellers like us – married couples – and for older folks and business travellers? Absolutely, in expensive destinations like Sydney – and probably New York – but I’d recommend doing some research first and, if you can’t find the information you want online, asking some questions.

Things to consider if contemplating a hostel stay:

  • Does the hostel have private double/twin/single rooms with ensuite bathrooms?
  • Are the rooms secure? Do you get your own key or card? Can you put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign?
  • Are sheets and towels available? Note that some hostels require you to hire them.
  • Is there Internet access and a desk and chair in the room (for business travellers)?
  • Are there tea and coffee making facilities in the room or are you expected to go to a communal kitchen? Is there a mini-fridge? (Don’t expect a mini-bar!)
  • Are the double rooms on a separate floor or different section of the hostel?
  • If not, what are the noise levels like? And what’s the vibe of the place? Is it a party hostel? This is an important question to ask. Unless of course, you know the words to Wonderwall and don’t mind a little sing-a-long…

Are you a traveller who has out-grown your backpacking party years but still use hostels? Would you recommend them? Only in expensive destinations or for other places to? Any tips to add?

2013-03-08T18:53:14+07:00

About the Author:

Lara Dunston is a Cambodia based Travel & Food Writer and has regular gigs with: The Guardian, CNN, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, The Independent, Telegraph, National Geographic Traveler / Traveller, Get Lost, Wanderlust, Travel+Leisure SEA, DestinAsian, AFAR. Read more here.

10 Comments

  1. David Whitley June 26, 2012 at 6:44 PM - Reply

    I felt too old for dorms at the age of, approximately, 22-and-a-half. Can’t stand them; need the privacy and ability to switch off. However, I regularly stayed in hostels whilst I was travelling in Australia (I left when I was 26) and still do occasionally.

    As you suggest, often a private room in a hostel offers better value than a a private room in a budget hotel or B&B. As a general rule, there’s nothing fancy in the rooms, but most of what you need – ie desk, plug sockets, internet, en-suite shower – is in the rooms. Australia and New Zealand, in particular, have some really good hostels now. I’ve stayed at the YHA in the Rocks myself, and I agree it’s excellent – the archaeological project it’s a part of is fascinating too.

    It’s definitely a case of reading between the lines and finding the right one for you, but I’ve encountered hostels that balance out slightly worn rooms with things like free bike hire, free boogie boards free nature tours/ talks etc. There are still some that match the old image, but most have changed with demand from customers.

    Finally, a note on Hostelworld. It’s a very good site for picking a hostel – the overall scores rarely fail to reflect the quality of the hostel. But it’s also an excellent site for finding small hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses that might not appear on the other big booking sites. I’ve found some really good affordable spots through that while researching city guides.

    • Lara Dunston June 26, 2012 at 7:11 PM

      Nice to see you here, David. I noticed a few comments from you as I’ve been going through and fixing links on the new design.

      I should have mentioned that archaeological site actually – that is pretty special and the location is just brilliant too. But this wasn’t really a post about that particular hostel but the idea of hostels in general.

      Yeah, Hostelworld looks pretty good to me, although I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t do any research to see what other sites people were using. I just wanted to see what else was out there other than YHA places. (The hostel that’s currently #1 in Sydney on there looks pretty cool actually).

      But that’s a really interesting point you make about how the scores rarely fail to reflect the quality of the hostel. In stark contrast to, say, Trip Advisor, where there’s such a mixed bag of comments on any one property. Are backpackers/hostel-users better assessors of accommodation than the average holiday-maker? Perhaps they are, because they’re spending longer on the road – gap years, years-long trips, or even just, say, a 4-6 week trip – so they have more experience in more hostels than say a holiday-maker taking one or two breaks a year. What do you reckon?

    • David Whitley June 27, 2012 at 5:51 AM

      They’re probably not better assessors of quality – but they are probably a better funnelled fit for the site. The major issue with Tripadvisor is that you don’t know whether the person reviewing the three star hotel is used to one star or five star accommodation. There’s a wide disparity.

      If you’re booking on a specialist hostel site, chances are you stay in hostels to have even looked there in the first place. Thus you’re unlikely to have the reviews stuffed around by people who are just not suited to the place anyway.

      I suspect a review site for vegetarian restaurants would be more reliable than one for restaurants; and a review site for drum ‘n’ bass clubs would be more reliable than one for nightlife.

    • Lara Dunston June 27, 2012 at 12:50 PM

      Yep, totally agree, David, we’re definitely on the same wave length, just didn’t explain myself, sorry. Generalising here of course, but backpackers tend to know their hostels (and are therefore in a better positions to assess), just as the design enthusiasts who only stay in design hotels or the five-star travellers who only stay in luxe places know their ‘products’. Because they’ve stayed in so many of the places, their connoisseurs of their category.

      Most young backpackers couldn’t assess a five-star hotel – they’d just be blown away by the overall level of comfort and couldn’t assess the fine details because it’s vastly different to what their used to, and conversely, a luxe traveller probably couldn’t assess a backpacker joint – they’d think they were all hovels.

      Having said that, I remember when we were writing Cairo reviews for LP’s accommodation site ThornTree some years ago. We inspected 50 properties over a week, from backpacker to five star. We knew exactly what accommodation in the city was placed where by the end of it. We went to what was easily the worst hostel in Cairo – all concrete, windows had no glass or screens, just basic old metal framed beds with thin, stained, lumpy mattresses in the rooms. It was like a prison. When the manager was out of sight, we asked a young traveller what she thought of the place. She said it was absolutely wonderful and one of the best places she’d ever stayed! I remembered wanting to give her a tip on a better place but the manager was heading our way.

      Then again, I overheard a few backpackers on a train in Perth who are working here on a long-term visas discussing all the different hostels they’d each stayed in, as they’d had to move around a lot due to the hostel rules. They talked about them in the most minute detail, in the way that you and I might. I guess they’re the people I’m talking about.

      Absolutely agree re specialist sites/forums too. Depending on what I’m after, I’ll always go to a specialist site over Trip Advisor – and I’ll always encourage readers to do the same. I’m confident that’s the future – niche sites aimed at niche audiences/communities. Thanks again for dropping by!

  2. Lindsey June 26, 2012 at 7:11 PM - Reply

    Great great post! I tend to avoid hostels simply beacuse if I’m traveling with my husband, it’s usually for our big vacation and we want the extra comfort of a hotel. When I travel with friends, we’re getting into the habit of renting apartments because it’s so cost effective. But it’s true that there are a ton of hostels that are upping their game so this guide is very helpful!

    • Lara Dunston June 26, 2012 at 7:19 PM

      Hi Lindsey! Lovely to see you here. Thank you! Yes, look, we have avoided them to for many years, and, ditto, apartments, villas, holiday rentals of any kind will always be my first choice for a few days or longer. Though I tend to find sometimes it can be a bit of a saga meeting the owner to collect the key and arrange the drop-off etc that sometimes a hotel is more convenient for a couple of days, especially if we’re running around a lot and not doing a lot of writing or much cooking. But in Australia hotels are just so outrageously expensive at the moment that hostels (like the one I described) are probably the only option for a lot of travellers these days, and not just backpackers.

  3. Sandy O'Sullivan June 26, 2012 at 8:11 PM - Reply

    Oh yeah, the requirements make it seem like we all might be a bit too old. My big thing, as I get older is noise (and this goes for some groovy motels as much) and my own toilet (I’m old!!!!).

    The communal tea/coffee thing is interesting, though. I stayed at one of the best hotels I’ve ever been in. It was last year in Glasgow at Citizen M… I loved it! The whole pod style of it worked because it was both big and small. Like I’ve never been in as big or comfy a bed ANYWHERE that I’ve stayed, and I’ve never had as big a shower (with a rainy showerhead thing, lovely!). But the room is small, but perfectly managed with the toilet/bath as an all in one wetroom that made it bigger, if you know what I mean… but still small for an actual bathroom. But it had everything. A huge TV, viewed from the bed (that worked!)… beautiful lighting and all of the mod cons, ipod/ipad charger – solid internet access, a desk thing to work at… and even somewhere to put my luggage. So… yeah… it worked. BUT they had no tea or coffee making facilities… really nowhere that it would have worked… they opted instead to go with the (better from them cost-wise) tea and coffee downstairs/breakfast/tea and coffee all day/night (and the coffee was actually okay)… and they are in the heart of Glasgow, so even though I am usually do all of that before I meet the world, I kind of coped with it, knowing that it was the concession for the size/cost (good price) and quality.

    But I hesitated at first… cos like a lot of youth hostels, they advertised ‘youth’ and young, which is code for noisy/keep me awake at night. Nah, I stayed there on two separate occasions, both over Friday/Saturday nights and no worries at all! It’s just a well-made building, and really nice and flash and a self check-in with incredibly helpful staff… it’s that, right… a good room, bathroom inside, clean, not noisy, okay bed, helpful staff and a location near where I need to go, that I’m always headed for these days!!!

    Okay, I know Citizen M isn’t a hostel, but it’s that crossover thing… like a teenager is cross between being a kid or an adult, this isn’t doing all of those hotel things and is cheaper than its class… and that’s what I tend to use. But I guess it also shows that there is this class of hotel that isn’t boutique and isn’t economy and isn’t luxury and isn’t business… it’s sort of a compromise of a few things. I’ll be interested to see how their new property opening in London shortly (maybe already) goes… I spent a lot of the time in the Glasgow one thinking ‘I wish they had one of these in London for twice the price’… so the drawbacks, even the big one of no tea in the room, wasn’t enough to dissuade.

    You’ll, surely, never get anyone to *admit* to knowing the words to Wonderwall.

    • Lara Dunston June 26, 2012 at 8:56 PM

      I heard Citizen M was pretty cool. I have to say I do love the fact that most Aussie hotels (as well as apartments obviously) have tea and coffee making facilities. I like to work as soon as I wake up in the morning but of course need a coffee/tea to do so, and don’t necessarily want to race down to a breakfast room/cafe that early.

      Wonderwall seems to have become the backpackers-around-the-campfire-with-a-guitar song of the Noughties. When I was backpacking in South America in the 1990s it was Country Roads the American kids were singing on the hostel rooftops. But we’ve heard Wonderwall being sung in the most unusual places, including a remote hill-tribe village in Thailand that was meant to be tranquil and silent, just us and the starry sky! Instead, we listened to backpackers, drunk on Thai whisky, in a nearby house singing Oasis songs all night. Not fun.

  4. Ekua June 30, 2012 at 6:07 PM - Reply

    I don’t think it’s as much about age as it is about the person and their needs. I’ve met some amazing travelers in their 60s at hostels I’ve stayed at in different parts of Latin America. They were definitely clean and cute hostels, but they didn’t have private rooms or ensuite bathrooms. The older travelers didn’t seem to mind this, the one thing they were concerned about was making sure they had a bottom bunk!

    I often travel solo and tend to go for a longer time than many tourists, so it’s cheaper to hostel. I also feel safer in hostels because you get to know people and decent hostels have somewhere to lock up your stuff. But I’ve definitely moved beyond the backpacker phase to more flashpacker phase so I won’t stay just anywhere if I can avoid it. I’ve had some misses at places with really obnoxious fellow hostelers, but I’ve gotten better at avoiding that by choosing the smallest room possible or private rooms when available. I often read reviews on both hostelworld and hostelbookers. And I never leave home without earplugs!

    • Lara Dunston July 1, 2012 at 3:51 PM

      Ha! Ha! You’ve hit the nail on the head, Ekua. I do recall meeting a lot of older travellers too when I used to stay in hostels when I was younger. I guess those years after retirement are similar in a way to gap years, with the same freedoms and flexibility that younger backpackers or even people who’ve taken time out from careers to travel the world, have.

      Either way, it’s a very different situation to people like Sandy above, a researcher who travels a lot, and David (also above) and my husband and myself, travel writers working on the road, who need privacy, peace and quiet, a desk to work etc.

      For travellers not working though, and for budget travellers or travellers in expensive countries like Australia, they’re a great option for the reasons you state – affordability, social aspect, and safety. All great points! And a terrific tip about the ear plugs and the hostelbookers site, thanks for those. And thanks for dropping by!

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