Hosteling — a lifestyle

By: Randy Keck
This item appears on page 62 of the March 2013 issue.

Lodging at hostels while globetrotting is becoming an increasingly popular trend among travelers ages 40 to 70. For a number of them, hosteling has even become a lifestyle, as opposed to just a travel style.

During a recent interview, friend and lifelong hosteler Merrilee Zellner shared her insights regarding the history and evolving status of the people, particularly seniors, who stay in hostels while traveling.

It became clear to me during our exchange that a discussion of the philosophy of hosteling as a travel style is largely an exercise in clarifying travel values. Merrilee, in fact, possesses encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of hosteling worldwide. There is good reason for this, as an outline of her personal history reveals.

A hosteling history

After graduating from college in 1971 and working in the fashion industry for eight years, Merrilee became restless and moved to Greece in 1979. She taught English for a few years before heading on to the South Pacific and Guam, where she was involved with the USO until 1984.

Venturing back into the mainstream, Merrilee worked in real estate in Washington, DC, until 1990, when a dream opportunity beckoned and she became the manager of the largest hostel in the US, in Boston. She happily honed her hosteling expertise until 1994, when she signed on to work for the Atlanta Olympics until its conclusion in 1996.

After a 5-month solo hosteling adventure in Asia that included traversing the far reaches of China, she returned to the US and ended up operating a travel business, then working in the mobile phone industry. In 2001, again restless for the road, Merrilee read the Lonely Planet guide “Read This First: Africa,” after which she embarked, again solo, on an adventurous 5-month hosteling exploration of the Dark Continent.

During her time in Boston, Merrilee had developed a fondness for nearby Newport, Rhode Island. Noticing that Newport did not have a hostel, she, upon her return from Africa, began a project to develop the first hostel in Rhode Island, opening the facility in 2003. A decade later, her hostel remains the only affordable alternative for travelers visiting popular Newport during the busy summer season.

For the past nine years, she has lived the life she loves, operating the hostel and usually traveling for two months each winter, exploring new international destinations, hostel style. Her past two winter hosteling adventures have been in Argentina and Colombia.

The evolvement of hosteling

Many of us fondly remember the days when we stayed in youth hostels while traveling. The term “youth” has been removed from most hostels these days, as the world of hosteling has broadened and adapted its product and appeal to a greatly expanded age range and following.

The new era was ushered in by industry stalwart Hostelling International (HI), formerly Youth Hostels International, whose worldwide network of affiliated hostels maintains the toughest qualifying and quality-control standards in the hostel industry.

All HI-affiliated hostels are required to offer at least some private rooms in addition to standard dorm rooms. Offering private rooms has proven to be a highly successful, perhaps brilliant, effort to get back the aging baby boomers (and not just Americans) who were committed hostelers in their youth. HI advertises that hosteling is a state of mind, not of age.

Merrilee adds that, in her opinion, “If HI is there, it is a safe destination to visit.”

Committed hostelers understand the myriad appeals and benefits of hosteling. What many other travelers would regard as the limitations or perceived limitations of hosteling, the committed tend to view as opportunity.

The hostel epicenter

The communal kitchen is the all-important communication center of hostel life. This is the setting in which one meets fellow hostelers, where the exchange of extensive travel information takes place and where those with common interests and common directions often join forces to explore locally or perhaps continue on together to another destination. These exchanges often happen over a shared meal experience.

Hostelers with the luxury of a rented vehicle often offer seats to new hostel friends, who then share expenses. Hostelers also may combine resources to rent a car.

Experienced hostelers have learned that other hostelers they meet along the way are usually the best information sources available. The more third world and more remote the location, the more important these hosteler communication links and resources tend to be.

Hosteling myths

Merrilee points out that certain outmoded myths persist regarding the world of hosteling. The first is that hosteling is primarily for the young. No longer true! The baby boomer mentality has changed everything, and hostelers today represent a broad cross section of ages, largely from early 20s to 70s.

The more remote and less accessible the location, the older the hostel travelers tend to be. Hostelers in easily accessible areas of Europe generally are much younger than those in most other areas of the globe.

The next myth is that hosteling is primarily for those with limited funds who are on tight travel budgets.

Merrilee advises that this perception is misguided. She says that, both when she travels and in the hostel she operates in Newport, many hostelers she encounters could easily afford 4- to 5-star accommodations if they so chose. In fact, she estimates that only about 20% choose her hostel in Newport because it is inexpensive, with the rest simply preferring to stay in a hostel environment.

She adds that, today, most hostelers over 30 are relatively sophisticated and well educated. Staying in a hostel and attending the opera are no longer inconsistent behaviors.

Hostel privacy and safety

In regard to lodging, privacy is a relative concept, typically based on individual definition and need.

These days, most international hostels offer at least a couple of private rooms, with the remainder being same-sex or co-ed dorm rooms or both. All rooms tend to have secure lockers to which only the individual boarders have access. Most also have good Internet connections — a must in our “connected” universe today.

Hostels offer an environment with a high personal safety quotient — a major appeal, particularly for solo or duo women travelers, especially in third-world regions.

Hosteling in third-world countries

Merrilee’s current definition of a third-world country is any place you can travel on $25 per day, including accommodation, food and transport.

She advises that in the third world, many hotels are cheaper than hostels but much less popular among savvy foreigners. This is based on safety, security and sanity considerations in addition to other benefits of hostel stays.

Many are not aware that in most third-world countries, almost all hostels are operated by foreigners as opposed to locals.

Dipping your toes into hosteling waters

I asked Merrilee to suggest a couple of international destinations where seniors new to hosteling could more easily try out the hosteling experience.

She suggested Mendoza, Argentina, and Quito, Ecuador, both of which have hostel areas in their respective cities. Merrilee also suggested Vietnam (particularly Saigon) and Colombia as destinations where the numbers of hostels have increased dramatically.

Another of her favorites is South Africa, which she refers to as hostel nirvana. She said that in South Africa there is even a shuttle bus system available, which makes hosteling particularly user-friendly. Additionally, it is possible to do low-cost wildlife safaris in South Africa in conjunction with hostel stays.

In terms of new hostelers getting their feet wet, Merrilee also suggests trying more than one hostel in destinations where many are located in close proximity. Doing so provides a valuable comparative-hostel experience.

A window to relocation

Merrilee noted another interesting and telling trend in her recent travels. Older travelers from many developed countries, including the US, are utilizing hostels to experience destinations they are investigating as possible full- or part-time retirement options.

She proffers there is no better way to get an accurate feel for the culture and lifestyle of a destination than to have an ear to the ground, hostel style. Doing so can open limitless information doorways and opportunity windows.

Before you hostel

Intrigued enough to do some hosteling homework? If so, I recommend you investigate the following websites, which include booking sources and pricing: www.hostelworld.com, www.hostels.com (Hostels.com; phone +353 [0] 1 5245800 from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. GMT) and www.hihostels.com (Hostelling International, 2nd Floor, Gate House, Fretherne Rd., Welwyn Garden City, Herts., AL8 6RD, England; phone +44 [0] 1707 324170 or fax 1707 323980). Do view them all, and be prepared for possible information overload.

You also may contact Merrilee with any hosteling-related queries, at info@newporthostel.com and www.newporthostel.com.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝When values become obscured and truths illusive,
often we can find much of what we seek
through the lens of lost to found 
via the joys of communal sharing and discovery. ❞
— Randy opining re the greater hostel-travel experience