The cheaper I sleep, the longer I can stay.

thI just had three really nice days in Austin, Texas. The total charge for lodging was about $84, breakfast included. That’s because I stayed at HI Austin, a 10-minute bus ride outside of the city’s bustling downtown.

Yes, I had up to four roommates at any given time and yes, the bed was extremely basic (a bottom bunk). But what did I care? Any time I was in the room I was asleep or headed in that direction.

I’ve stayed in hostels in the United States (Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City) and the United Kingdom (London, Cardiff) and always had an agreeable — and frugal — experience. These places aren’t nearly as scary as those Eli Roth movies would have you believe.

Well, there was that one hostel roommate who’d just been arrested for importing machetes. And the time that some Eurotrash dude decided he could make me into a cougar. But both those examples actually wound up being funny, as well as good blog post material.

I never thought I’d want to sleep in a room with strangers, but decided I’d give it a try and see. I was hooked immediately because they’re just so damned cheap. How often have you paid $129 or more per night for a “budget” motel room in which you spent very little time?

True, there’s a total lack of privacy unless the room is mostly empty. In Cardiff, I stayed in a very large room with only one other woman. We nodded politely but didn’t bother each other. (Some hostels do have private rooms, but they cost more.)

On other occasions, though, I’ve talked with people from all over the world and also from all over the United States. It’s interesting to get other points of view about our country. And if you’re not around young people very often, it’s good to hear from late-teen and 20-something U.S. travelers. The world they inhabit may be different from the one in which you live — and their experiences will make you think, even if you wind up agreeing to disagree.

But what about bedbugs?

Almost always I’m the oldest person in the room, except for that Irish guy who had beer for breakfast and thought it was fun to watch me struggle down from the upper bunk. Yet I’ve never felt marginalized by younger tourists. Some, in fact, are curious about why I’m staying there and ask me why.

If you want to start a chat of your own but feel too shy to do so, buy some fruit and/or cookies at a market and offer some to your roommates. Since many of these youths are traveling on a shoestring, food is a primo conversation-starter.

Whenever people ask me how they can travel for less, I always suggest hostels and the Megabus. Fairly frequently the word “hostel” seems to trigger the fear of bedbugs. One reader on an MSN Money article left a snide comment about how dealing with an infestation would wipe out all the money I saved.

Sure, it’s possible I could get bitten or, worse, bring Cimex lectularius home with me. But that could happen at major hotel chains, too.

I brought this up at the Austin hostel and one of my roommates was puzzled. “Why would people think that?” she asked.

“Probably because they think ‘cheap’ automatically means ‘disgusting’,” I replied.

Maybe some hostels are disgusting. Maybe I’ve just been lucky to visit only the good ones. But I consider them a great frugal hack: The cheaper I sleep, the longer I can stay.

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  1. You’re awesome, Donna!

  2. Linda G

    My thing is that I don’t want to have to schlep my stuff around all the time (i.e., the bathroom). When I am on vacation I like the option of spreading out. Also I like to sleep with my husband – not sure bunk beds are conducive to that 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Well, there are hostels with private rooms. But a shared bathroom is definitely a hostel thing, and not everyone’s excited about carrying soap/towel/shampoo/whatever else down the hall. Do what works for you.

  3. Ive done it all from hostels to airbn’b to budget hotels to couchsurfing. Every one can be totally awesome or totally gross, it’s not the medium itself.

  4. I think it is an opportunity that can work! I stayed in one with a group of girl scouts and a few Moms and the low cost made it possible for us all to spend a nice day at a zoo and have a large sleep over and earn a few badges together. It was clean and safe 🙂

  5. My favorite trip was cross country ,west to east, in a pickup. We slept in the back when it rained, in a tent when it didn’t, and had the nicest little room at Arcosanti near Flagstaff, Az. It was kind of hostel-ish but it was our big splurge of the trip and got our own room. I would do the hostel thing in a heartbeat.

    • Donna Freedman

      Back in the day, young people would go to the Jersey shore for the weekend and sleep under the boardwalk. The joke was that the were staying at the Underwood Hotel.
      These days, of course, it’s not safe to do such a thing. Besides, the police would probably ticket you for vagrancy.

  6. On my one and only trip to NYC with a previous BF, we got a super basic hotel just on the edge of the village. It was clean, tiny and yes, we schlepped our stuff to and from the bathroom we shared with everyone else on our floor as needed. But that savings (and the killer airfare we scored on JetBlue) allowed us to spend more at the Cloisters gift shop, eat “a slice” or bagel sandwich whenever we wanted, and take the train everywhere and see everything. It was a blast.

    • mario capetillo

      hello.. susan.. i enjoyed reading your comment… going to nyc around mid feb 15.. my plan is to visit museums and catch a Broadway(hopefully at a really good price) show.. do you have any hostels..you could recommend me.. its my first trip up to nyc.. however i have friends who have live there..or have friends with family that live there..thanks

      • Donna Freedman

        I don’t know about Susan, but I’d recommend the HI Hostel on Amsterdam Avenue. Clean, comfortable and a three-minute walk from the subway.

  7. My dad, age 75, still makes plenty of use of his lifetime youth hostel membership. Maybe someday you’ll cross his path!

    • Donna Freedman

      Ha! I don’t have a lifetime membership, but am glad I renewed through 2014. I might still make it to Philly and NYC before the end of the year.

  8. Ro in SD

    I always wanted to try a hostel and was not disappointed when I had the privilege of staying at the Airman’s club in NYC. When my original host heard I was going to stay at a hostel she strenuously objected and insisted I stay with her for my visit. She feared I was going to bring bedbugs into her home! Unfortunately, her home was not up to my relaxed housekeeping standards and I ended up at the hostel toward the end of my trip. I had a room meant for two women with no roommate and was very comfortable. I doubt I’ll stay anywhere else in NYC now that I’ve discovered this gem.

    • Donna Freedman

      Is that the HI Hostel on Amsterdam Avenue, by any chance? The one that was formerly a home for “indigent women”? I’ve always had a good experience there.

  9. A hostel sounds like a good experience!


    My husband had a boss a few years back — multi-millionaire — He said,

    “After you turn out the lights, all hotel rooms look the same.”

  10. I’ve stayed in hostels everywhere from Vancouver to Munich and have had great experiences. It’s a great way to meet people and a lot of hostels have side perks, such as walking tours of the city, kitchen facilities or meals included. And you just can’t beat the prices! My stay next week at the Frankfurt Hostel includes breakfast, and (because I’ll be there on a Saturday night) a spaghetti dinner for the super cheap price of 23 euros per night. I do take some precautions about my belongings – I leave my suitcase locked and use a school style combo lock to secure it to my bed if there isn’t a locker, but you can have your belongings stolen in a hotel, too. And like you said, the cheaper it is, the longer you can stay or the more often you can go!!

  11. I had a lot of fun hostelling many years ago but haven’t done it since; I keep forgetting you can do it just as well here in the States as you can overseas!
    I do have to have a certain level of comfort lest my aches and pains be exacerbated… I wonder if I’m underestimating how comfortable they can be?

    • Donna Freedman

      In your case, I’d urge caution: What if you get there and find out you’re too tired/in too much discomfort to hike to the bathroom? Or suppose the bed isn’t quite comfortable enough and makes you hurt even more?
      If you know you’ll be visiting a certain city more than once, maybe you could check out the hostel on your next trip. Explain your health issues and ask if you could lie down on a bed for a while.
      And if you decide a hostel would work for you? Specify a lower bunk, or a room with single beds. The Chicago hostel had a nice “suite” situation with four single beds and a private bath.

  12. My first experience staying in a hostel was in 2012 during a SOLO vacation to Portland, OR (never been there, didn’t know anyone). It was one of the BEST experiences of my life. As far as the hostel, I opted for a private room since it was my first cross country trip alone and I had some pricey camera equipment with me. The room was lovely. No TV or AC, but I didn’t need either. I slept with my window open & took a small portable DVD player with me. The bathroom was right next door, never occupied, very clean. Still more expensive than a dorm room, but way cheaper than all the other surrounding hotels. I plan to use airbnb during my dream vacation to England in 2016.

  13. Michele H

    Hostelling International is a good source for finding them around the world. I’ve visited their NYC one and it’s kept very clean!

  14. When my daughter was playing college basketball in Hawaii, I’d go to watch her play–usually when they had a string of home games. Always stayed in the YWCA which is the same idea as a hostel. There were many women who actually lived there year round. I shared a room with a retired nurse who decided she wanted to live in HI for a year. She was very nice and gave me tips of some hikes to take, etc. They had a computer room so I could check my emails etc. Price ($49 night) included breakfast and dinner but I usually only had breakfast. Daughter wanted to take advantage of mom paying for “non dorm food” for the week.
    I’ve also done airnb in London and Barcelona. Loved that, too.


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