In my teens, a family member mentioned to me a great, cheap way to travel was to stay at hostels. This sounded like an incredibly daring concept; something I was certain never to pursue.
This was pre-internet. Hostel information was typically found through Frommer’s publications. Although entries for hostels in these widely known travel guidebooks were well-written, they lacked the depth that today’s hostel websites now provide. Because of the detailed websites, I felt more daring to take the plunge into hostelling adventures. http://www.frommers.com/
Hostels are ideal for several reasons. Most are a fraction of what it would cost to rent a hotel room. Hostels oftentimes position you right in the heart of the travel destination, (not by the airport), so you are more inclined to soak up the culture and get the inside scoop on the best educational opportunities, eateries, night-life, and what to avoid. For example: I have signed up for ghost tours in three different tourists destinations and have yet to experience anything even remotely ghost-ish. Hostellers will be straight with you about this from the get go. Not to bag on ghosts specifically. I also never spotted any wee men on the Leprechaun Tour when in Ireland.
I will admit there are some downsides to hostels. You might die.
I joke. When friends and co-workers discovered I had been staying in hostels they expressed concern. Apparently, there is a movie out there where everyone at the hostel gets killed. Someone gets their nose chopped off? I don’t know. I have never seen such a movie, (although we did watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre on movie night at one of the hostels), but I’m sure it’s unrelated. I have never felt truly unsafe at one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostel_(2005_film)
In all seriousness, the downside to hostels has mostly to do with sharing. Do you like to share, or do you avoid it like the plague? Hostels I’ve stayed in provide you a bunk, (in either a co-ed or gender specific dorm), and a locker for your personal property. Everything else is shared: bathroom, kitchen privileges, common areas. Hostellers are generally the sharing type and may often share their food with you, and reciprocity is always appreciated.
There is always a weirdo in the bunch and, at times, someone may eat your food which you properly labeled and placed in the community fridge. Perhaps they have left something unexplainable in the bathroom garbage can? These things happen.
Ear plugs are a must if you are assigned a large dorm, (typically 8-12 bunks). People can be noisy sleepers in ways I never imagined!
HI Hostels are a great way to start out. They are very safe, and adhere to higher standards. They generally do not allow alcohol, sometimes have curfews, lock-out times. They are generally never a party environment. I’m not a fan of lock-out times, but the hostel listings will be upfront about this. Depending on when lock-outs occur, it might never apply to you.
Hostels are “Yelped” just like other businesses/destinations. Plenty of photos are provided.
I have met so many great people traveling this way. I think it is ideal for the solo traveler because you can meet so many like-minded people, and have instant companions for exploring a new place. I have found that most foreign travelers staying in US hostels have great English skills and are willing to communicate with other hostellers. Every so often I meet a hosteller whose English is spotty and I suspect him to be a fugitive.
My first was India House Hostel in New Orleans, LA. It was very hippie-inspired. It was a great experience! http://www.indiahousehostel.com/
My favorite hostel, to date, is Green Tortoise in San Francisco. It is more of a party environment, (if that suits you), but if doesn’t, that is why ear-plugs were invented. They have community meals three nights a week, and the cook will let you help with the preparation of these meals, which I have found is a great way to meet people right away, (chopping veggies and drinking beers). http://www.greentortoise.com/san-francisco-hostel/
Along with community meals, many of the hostels I have visited have movie nights, game nights, live music…ice cream socials.
Hosteling is a great way to meet “real travelers”. I have traveled and stayed in often very nice hotels, but have gotten so much more out of the experience staying in a hostel environment. A hotel offers a very sterile perspective no matter where you travel. What you give up in privacy you make up for in a rich, behind-the-scenes, experience.