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Originally published July 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 27, 2009 at 10:02 AM

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Private rooms and fewer rules are transforming the hostel experience

They used to be called "youth hostels," catering to the 25-and-younger backpacker crowd. But hostels aren't just for youth — or backpackers — anymore.

Seattle Times travel staff

If You Go

Hostel tour of Vancouver Island

We stayed at these Hostelling International hostels. All price quotes in Canadian dollars at nonmember rates (HI members get a discount):


Victoria International Hostel, 516 Yates St., Victoria, B.C.; $28 (dorms) to $70 (private rooms) in peak season. 866-762-4122 or

Painted Turtle Guesthouse, 121 Bastion St., Nanaimo, B.C.; $25 (dorms) to $110 (four people in a family room) in peak season. 866-309-4432 or

Whalers on the Point Guesthouse, 81 West St., Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-3443 or; $32 (dorms) to $145 (five people in family room, with private toilet and wash basin).

Traveler's tip

These quoted prices for private rooms may not seem ultra-budget, but these facilities are in prime downtown or resortlike locations, and compare favorably to nearby lodging.

More information

Hostelling International:

What makes a hostel a hostel?

Here's a quick primer for the uninitiated. Lodging calling itself a hostel will typically feature:

Some dormitory-style bunks, typically priced in the range of $25 or less.

Shared bathrooms for most guests.

Communal kitchen facilities, with shared refrigerators, stoves, toasters, etc.

Shared dining and lounge areas.

Increasingly, some private rooms for couples and families, typically priced from $40 to $90.

An international clientele. Because hostels started in Europe and are highly popular there and in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world, you'll meet more international travelers there than at any Motel 6.


They used to be called "youth hostels," catering to the 25-and-younger backpacker crowd. But hostels aren't just for youth — or backpackers — anymore.

The big trend in hostels is toward more private rooms, and multiple-bed rooms designed for families who like the informal style and low cost of hostels.

My 17-year-old daughter and I chose an all-hostel vacation this summer as we visited Vancouver Island. We found comfortable, low-frills lodging in locations geared to please adventurous travelers. And we didn't have to bunk in a dormitory — or pay Holiday Inn prices.

"Definitely, the private room is fastest growing in terms of demand," said Shelbey Sy, director of marketing in Western Canada for Hostelling International (HI), a nonprofit membership organization that is the industry benchmark in ultra-budget lodging. HI, with more than 4,000 hostels in 80 countries, celebrates its 100th year this year.

The Victoria International Hostel, housed in a heritage building downtown, expects to close for renovation to add more private rooms this fall or winter.

Hostels are also turning away from having too many rules that treat guests like, well, youth. "You don't have to do chores anymore, and curfews have gone by the wayside," Sy said.

Why the changes?

"A lot of younger people who were backpacking and staying in hostels in the 1960s and '70s are doing it still, only they're older and many are encouraging their children to do it," said Tom Eberhardt, assistant manager at the Victoria hostel. But that older crowd wants a few more comforts.

To see the "hostel of tomorrow," you might visit Nanaimo, B.C. There, Bruce and Angie Barnard's 20-room, HI-affiliated Painted Turtle Guesthouse feels more like a boutique hotel.

The Barnards left their home in Australia about seven years ago to travel the world for a year, sampling a wide range of accommodations. Their travels gave them a good taste of the lodging industry.

"There were definite things I liked and didn't like about boutique hotels, about urban B&Bs and about international hostels," said Bruce Barnard, 45. "I set out to create a guesthouse with the best of all those."

The Painted Turtle keeps costs low by limiting frills — don't look for a lot of artwork in guest rooms, a phone or TV. While bathrooms are shared, each floor has locking, private facilities with showers. The shared kitchen looks like something out of House Beautiful magazine. Each floor has Wi-Fi transmitters.

The tuned-in traveler is part of the hostel transformation, Sy said.

"There's a new term: 'flashpackers' instead of backpackers. They travel with their laptop, their digital camera, their MP3 player. So hostels are going to more amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, or iPhone docking stations."

That carries its pros and cons. While I sat in the lounge at the Victoria hostel, some young travelers from Britain shared friendly banter about their travels to Tofino — the sort of interaction among travelers that hostels pride themselves on — while many other guests buried their noses in laptops, tuned in more to e-mail and tweets from back home.

That's causing growing pains in the hostel community, questioning whether it should cater to the electronics-dependent.

"It's a big debate, because five years ago you didn't see that at all," Sy said.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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