Youth hostels have, for the past few years, working hard to edge into the lower end of the tourism market. But are they a viable alternative to discount hotels?
How Hostels Compare with Discount Hotels
I already posted a few lines here about European non-profit Youth Hostels in general, but on the occasion of our recent trip to Innsbruck, we had the opportunity of actually trying one out.
Admittedly, this was a sample of one. But with thousands of Youth Hostels all over Europe, any sample is small, so with the proviso that our experiences and observations are not necessarily representative or the last word on the matter, here we go.
First of all, you must always remember that a Youth Hostel is not a hotel. If Youth Hostels are cheaper, they are so for a reason, and you should not expect to enter the Ritz – or even a standard two-star hotel.
Our room – what they call a “family room” for two – was reasonably sized, certainly not smaller than a room in hotels in Sydney, Paris or Rome.
It looked clean but joyless, with faded colours and a decor that was starkly reminiscent of 1970s student accommodation, lino floors and all.
There was no TV. The beds were separate. (If you are planning a romantic escapade, you may want to bear this in mind.) Bathroom and shower were clean and functional, but there was no soap.
The Youth Hostel was located at the edge of a high rise council estate, a 30 minute walk away from the town centre.
A bus stop right in front of the door was serviced by a busy line (buses stopped about every ten minutes), but the last bus from the city centre left at around 11 pm. (Nearly all Youth Hostel I have ever seen are operated in similar locations.)
The room was cleaned (floor and surfaces were wiped and dusted) once a day. I was a little astonished when the cleaning lady entered (at around 11 am) without knocking.
It is apparently assumed that privacy is something that guests should only be entitled to expect at the high end of the market, that it is a slightly frivolous luxury like a complimentary bathrobe and candy on the pillow.
According to a note carved into the door of the Youth Hostel, guests can only check in after 5 pm but the adjoining poster tells you that the check-in time has since been changed to 3 pm. This should serve as an important reminder of the ingrained Youth Hostel culture.
In old style Youth Hostels, visitors had to adapt to the internal requirements of the organization rather than vice versa. Remember that old habits die hard and expect to be treated, at least occasionally, as an inconvenience, not as a paying customer.
Even bearing this in mind, it may shock you to find out that at least some Youth Hostels – as ours did – operate a silence and curfew policy. Everybody in Innsbruck, according to the note in the corridor, had to be in by 10 and quiet by 11 pm. The staff, however, gave us a key to the back door and the impression that neither policy was strictly observed.
But in other Youth Hostels, you may not always be so lucky.
You have to pay a nominal fee for towels and bed sheets and pick them up from the reception desk. (Which means that you have to make your own bed, too.) You must also hand in a deposit before they give you your room key (cash or your ID).
Breakfast is buffet style: rolls, jam, cold cuts, corn flakes, coffee and tea. Adequate, overall, and I have been to discount hotels where the breakfast was worse (and certainly less plentiful).
For almost any visitor, the key argument in favour of a Youth Hostel is the price.
In Innsbruck, you pay €20 per night for accommodation in a group room (sleeping six or eight), €25 per night in a double room and €37 per night for a single. There is no guarantee that they can find you a single or a family room, so you should always reserve those in advance. These headline figures are low, but you must factor in that Youth Hostels charge you per person, whereas hotel prices are quoted per room.
In Innsbruck – where hotels are a bit pricey by Central European standards – the cheapest double room in a budget hotel would cost you about €80. But if you need to take the bus to town, perhaps even more than once a day (like us: we were there for the TBUIBK Conference), and if you then throw in a cab here and there after a night out, the price difference for two people sharing a room is already beginning to melt away.
Youth Hostels also do not freely provide some of the services you may expect from a hotel, even a cheap one. There is no luggage room, for example, and if you have a few hours to kill between your check-out and the departure of your train or plane, you can only leave your stuff at the hotel in a coin-operated locker.
Conclusion: Youth Hostels have a long way to go before they reach the standards of even the cheapest commercial providers.
They may be best suited for travelers who are poorly served by the standard size hotel room, either because the traveling party is too large (families with more than one child) or too small (single travelers).
For others, any advantage that Youth Hostels may hold will evaporate if you only look closely enough.