Youth hostel. In America, the term conjures up mental images of dirty places reminiscent of old motels that delinquent youths spend the night in while hitchhiking across the country. They are cheap, but you get what you pay for.
At least that’s how I thought about them, until I went to Europe.
In Europe youth hostels are the name of the game. Sure, just like hotels, some are better than others; but even the cheap ones surpassed all my expectations. And as a young traveler myself, I would highly recommend hostels to any young traveler traversing through Europe.
On one of our long weekends off from class a few of my friends and I decided to hop on a flight from Barcelona to Rome (which to this day is one of the coolest things to say). As students on a budget, we were trying to make the trip as cheap as possible, making sure to leave plenty of funds for pizza, wine, and gelato upon touching ground in Rome. Therefore a hostel was the only option for us in terms of sleeping quarters. I wasn’t really sure what to expect once we reached the gated door of our hostel after being dropped off by a taxi at 11pm. We walked up a few flights of narrow stairs to the lobby where we got our key and headed to our room. Since there was four of us, we managed to get a room to ourselves so we wouldn’t have to share with strangers (something you should expect if you ever stay at a hostel).
The room was beautiful.
With pink painted walls, paintings of Italian scenery, and pretty tasteful lighting décor, it was nicer than many of the hotels I stayed in for more money in the United States; maybe with the exception of the bunk beds. Walking to the window it opened to a small Shakespearian balcony into a courtyard. In the morning the neighboring balconies had people of all ages smoking and drinking espressos.
Again, not expecting much. We were prepared to go somewhere around the neighborhood to get something to eat before starting on our day. However, our hostel provided breakfast for all guests. There was coffee, bread (with Nutella of course, this is Europe after all), and cookies. The man serving the breakfast spoke little English, allowing me to practice my broken Italian, but had a huge smile on his face the whole time and was extremely hospitable.
After filling up on cookies we started on our day. Since we arrived in the late hours of the night, we were not completely sure of what was around the hostel, at the time it seemed it was fairly distant from the center of the city. However, when we stepped outside the streets were bustling and we were only a couple blocks from the metro station.
Upon returning from our excursion through Rome we were ready for a quiet night in. However, to my surprise we were greeted with a wine night hosted by the hostel. In the dining room area near the lobby, the owners of the hostel placed multiple bottles of wine out on the table. Young travelers were gathered around the table. Some had just arrived, others had been there for a few weeks. We decided to sit down and were welcomed like we were already friends.
Some of them were from Australia, others from all around the United States. Some had just started their travels, others had been traveling for weeks. Regardless of where they were from, or where they were going, they were all sitting at that table in that moment; and when you are travelling, that’s the only thing needed to make a friend. We sat at the table long after the wine was gone, talking about everything that led us to that moment. I walked away from that evening with new friends, and little different perspective.
Travelling brings us together. Especially as young adults trying to find our way, finding a commonality with someone 3,000 miles from home is a pretty incredible feeling. Even if we come from completely different worlds, the fact that we are in the same place at the same time, even if just in passing, it creates a unique bond.
So when I traveled to London after my study abroad program was finished I was intrigued by what I would find at the hostel I was staying in. Because I was travelling on my own, my only option was to share a room with strangers, which was new to me. After flying into Heathrow airport, I hopped on an hour-long train ride to Westminster. My hostel was walking distance from the train station, so I dragged my suitcase down 5 London blocks.
The hostel was nothing special on the outside, in fact it looked like the all the other apartment buildings around it. When I got inside the man at the desk, who couldn’t have been older than 25, gave me my key and a short tour of the hostel. The hallway to my room looked like any other hallway in a household. At the end of the hallway was my room. Inside there were four bunk beds cluttered with people’s things, and a small sink and mirror. It looked a little like a sleep away camp. There weren’t many people in the room, except for a couple girls napping.
Once I got settled in my bottom bunk I went out to the common room where there were young people studying, chatting, or just hanging out. Couches lined the walls and there was a giant TV with a full video game set-up. The feeling was reminiscent of a college dormitory lounge. People were not actively socializing, but there wasn’t a sense that socializing wouldn’t be welcomed.
There is a certain unspoken camaraderie and understanding between young travelers, especially in Europe. Ordinarily, people are hyper-aware of their shared space, not commonly open to strangers being in their personal space, especially when their personal belongings are involved. But in hostels, there seems to be an understanding that you keep to what is yours. This may be because there is a common trust, or maybe its just because as a traveler you want to transport minimal amounts of items, so there is no practical reason to steal anything.
Despite the respect for personal space, those who stay at a hostel tend to be open to new people and experiences. They are all travelers after all, that’s all what we are here to do! So even if someone seems to be keeping to themselves, a single hello over the “requested dollar donation” breakfast can open up an entirely new world.
Sure hostels aren’t five star hotels with turn-down service, a big pool, and a grand entrance lobby. Sure you may have to share a room with eight strangers, some of whom don’t even speak the same language as you. But it’s real. And to be completely honest, who needs any elaborations when you have the entire world just outside the lobby? Sharing a similar space and experience with people who are completely different than you is one of the greatest things about travelling.
Hostels are more than just a place to lay your head for the night…it’s a culture. Although I haven’t been to hostels outside of Europe, my experiences have altered my concept of hostels completely. They aren’t dirty and sketchy, they are places for young travelers to convene and recoup before starting out on their next big adventure. Unlike a lot of hotels, hostels are not a destination, but a place you pass through, and there is something really spectacular about that. Sometimes the hostel itself will host wine nights or movies nights to encourage the camaraderie, and sometimes it just happens on its own.
I would encourage any young traveler to research and stay in hostels throughout Europe. Not only are they inexpensive, but they allow you to share a space with people doing exactly what you are. If you’re lucky you may find a new friend or travelling tips. You will hear and tell stories of adventures, and hopefully learn something about a culture you didn’t even intend on encountering. And at the end of your stay you’ll go your separate ways, but that experience will become part of your journey. It’s a culture, a network, a haven for students, travelers, and adventurers.
Sometimes traveling is more than just having your own experiences, but sharing experiences with others. It can make our differences seem not so different at all.