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Originally published Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Hostels offer travelers fellowship, affordability on the road

Hostels are no longer just for youth. Many offer travelers fellowship as well as a way to save money on the road.

The Denver Post

Hostels

Among the frequently asked questions about hostels:

Q: Aren't youth hostels for kids?

A: Most hostels, even those called youth hostels, are open to people of all ages.

Q: Do I have to share a room with people I've never met?

A: Most hostel accommodations consist of beds in shared rooms. But private rooms with single and double beds are often available, usually for about double the cost of a bunk.

Q: How much do hostels cost?

A: It varies. In North America, Western Europe, Israel or Australia, you'll pay $20-$35 a night in cities and less in rural areas. In Hanoi, Vietnam or La Paz, Bolivia, a bed will cost you $5. In Darjeeling, India, expect to shell out between $1.50 and $2.50 for a comfortable bed in a shared room.

Q: Do I need a membership card to stay in hostels?

A: Sometimes it's cheaper with a membership card for a hostel organization, but membership isn't mandatory.

Q: How else do hostels save you money?

A: Hostel beds are almost always cheaper than private hotel rooms. But that's not all. Instead of eating out, many hostels offer communal kitchen space Many other travel-related expenses — Wi-Fi access, laundry, calling-card purchases — are also often cheaper at hostels.

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Would it be possible to spend two weeks in Western Europe or a month in Southeast Asia without ever really talking with fellow travelers? Absolutely. But not likely if you're staying in a hostel.

Hostels are to hotels what communal, shared-table eateries are to elite restaurants. They bring people together, allowing for shared experiences and information that inevitably make trips all the more special and worthwhile.

"The hosteling mission is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago," said Johan Kruger, head of communications for the England-based nonprofit Hostelling International. "Hosteling is about so much more than just accommodation. It is about meeting new people, discovering new places and learning about new cultures."

Hosteling history

Hosteling started in the summer of 1909 when German teacher Richard Shirrmann found his student hiking group stuck in a thunderstorm. They took shelter in a school, and as his students slept on straw that night, he developed the idea for places to stay for students that would become the foundation of international hosteling.

The first true hostel opened in a castle in Altena, a town in Germany, in 1912. A year later, an additional 80-plus hostels had opened their doors. And by 1931, 12 hostel associations were operating more than 2,600 hostels across Europe.

The British-based Hostelling International was created in 1932 to standardize the member hostels, and today HI serves 4 million members with more than 4,000 hostels in 80 countries, including the United States.

While HI is the industry leader — especially for older travelers who appreciate the organization's high standards — other companies and organizations are thriving the world over. Hostels.com claims to have information on more than 30,000 hostels.

Growing up in Germany or Britain, most children stay in hostels while traveling with school or church groups. It's not uncommon for families to plan entire vacations around hostel stays. In the U.S., hosteling faces many challenges, and Americans often aren't introduced to the concept until they travel abroad.

That's something HI's American branch, HI-USA, is trying to change.

"It's not a familiar concept to many Americans," said Mark Vidalin, director of marketing for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit HI-USA. "Many Americans learn about hostels overseas because of the huge network of hostels. But we're trying to get people to stay in hostels while they're traveling in their home country, too."

You can stay in a castle hostel in Culrain, Scotland, a train hostel in Sydney, Australia, and a boat hostel in Stockholm. But you can also stay in a lighthouse hostel on the Pescadero, Calif., coast, or a 100-year-old country home hostel in Quakertown, Pa.

In the past 10 years, HI-USA has decreased its number of member hostels but increased the total beds booked on an annual basis. The organization is working on facility and service standards while focusing on its mission, proudly displayed at the top of its homepage, www.hiusa.org: "To help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hosteling."

On New York's Upper West Side, it's easy to pay $200 a night at a midrange hotel. A bed in a shared dorm room at the HI New York, in the Upper West Side, goes for $34 a night. And then there's the nickel-and-diming that goes along with most traveling.

"I stay in hotels where they make you pay for Wi-Fi," said Vidalin of the $10- to $15-a-day charges at some American hotels. "We don't believe in that."

Sure enough, one quick call to HI New York proved his point.

"Of course we have free Wi-Fi," the front-desk attendant said kindly.

Yet another reason to stay in hostels.

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