Back in 2005, when Eli Roth’s slasher film “Hostel” (the first of three in the gory series) hit the theaters, I was a young college student who’d recently traveled to Europe on a shoestring budget. I never saw the movie, but I recall being impressed by its premise, and thinking, “What a perfect setting for a horror movie!”
The hostels I’d visited were far from salacious torture chambers — but they were equally far from being charming abodes. But, hey, for as little as a few bucks a night, what more could you expect beyond a rickety bunk in a room shared with strangers? If amenities were what you were after, you could head out the door to the nearest hotel.
Thanks to a few factors — most notably the growth of Instagram, online review platforms and the rise of the digital nomad — hostels are no longer the bane of the budget traveler’s journey.
Around the world, in tiny villages and major cities alike, hostel owners are delivering a curated experience that highlights comfort, community and coolness — all for generally much cheaper than a hotel or an Airbnb.
Come for the cheap lodging, stay for the cheap beer
Brendan Lee, a travel blogger from New Zealand who has “practically lived in hostels these past few years,” has seen hostels make radical progress in a relatively short amount of time.
“Hostels are far more modern now than they were just a few years ago, especially compared to 2011 when I started backpacking,” Lee says. “They used to be just a cheap bed, but now they've become much more sympathetic to the other needs of today's travelers, such as cheap laundry, cheap (and healthy) food, cheap tours and activities, cheap alcohol, etc.”
People want to socialize, it’s part of the whole sharing economy. The meeting people aspect is a huge draw for hostels.
Maryline Goldman, global head of PR and communications for Hostelworld
Rosie Bell, a freelance travel writer based in Panama, observes hostels “attempting to be everything to everyone and not just seedy places for backpackers on extended gap years.”
Bell notes that hostels are increasingly incorporating co-working spaces into their layouts to cater to the digital nomad. Guests can also typically count on other community building perks, including “yoga studios, cinemas, rooftop clubs, surf camps — you name it — and they appeal to an ever-expanding demographic,” Bell says. “I've witnessed them change the landscape here and become an international force to be reckoned with.”
Meet me for drinks at the hostel bar
A hostel used to be a place to sleep. Now it’s a place to hang out.
Consider Fabrika in Tbilisi, Georgia.
“I'm not even staying here while I'm in Tbilisi, I'm actually staying in a full-service modern apartment,” says Nate Hake, a travel blogger who has visited more than 45 countries in the past three years. “But I choose to come to Fabrika anyway to get work done and just to enjoy the environment, because it's a full-service social hub for travelers and locals alike. It's located in a former Soviet sewing factory that's been turned into this huge hostel that includes a community event space, a restaurant, a giant cafe, a co-working space, a courtyard and a ton of local art. It's so cool that even the young locals come here just for fun.”
Running a hip hangout spot may not have been top priority to a hostel owner a decade ago, but now that they’ve caught on to what millennials want, it’s crucial. A recent report on hostel travel from Hostelworld found that among millennials (versus boomers), there’s a 59 percent increase of interest in co-working spaces, a 55 percent increase in bar and party scene, and a 39 percent increase in social spaces.
“People want to socialize. It’s part of the whole sharing economy,” says Maryline Goldman, global head of PR and communications for Hostelworld. “The meeting people aspect is a huge draw for hostels.”
These community perks are also potentially a huge money maker for hostels, which still aim to bring ultra-affordable lodging options to guests.
“Customers love to spend money socializing, so if a hostel has a cool hostel bar and good Wi-Fi, they’re creating a social space where people can have food and beverages, and even invite people to meet them for dinner. That’s what really drives the revenue,” Goldman said.