Wander through any major European city and you’re bound to stumble upon dozens of hostels, their doorways crowded with rucksacks and chatting, laughing backpackers.
The cheap, dormitory-style lodging and lively social scene are fixtures for European travelers on a budget. Hostel life abroad has been chronicled in books and movies, with tales of free-spirited youths and their devil-may-care attitudes.
But they’ve never quite caught on across the Atlantic. Numbering about 10,000 worldwide, there are only about 350 hostels in the U.S., according to Hostelling International-USA. The few available suffer from a lukewarm reputation, a transportation system that doesn’t favor backpackers and -- perhaps the most fatal flaw -- anonymity.
Most Americans “wouldn’t even understand the word 'hostel,' " said Mark Vidalin, marketing director of HI-USA. “If you asked them to define the word, they would have some misconstrued idea of it.”
Hostels, which usually cost between $20 to $30 per night, have been in operation for around a century, Vidalin said. His organization has been opening hostels since 1934, spurred by “the whole idea of internationalism and achieving peace through travel,” Vidalin said.
But that philosophy is absent in most of America’s hostels, said traveler Maryam Aghamiri as she chatted in the common room of the HI hostel in Austin. Aghamiri said hostels should center around meeting people and sharing experiences, but that element is missing in American hostels.
“The whole idea of hostelling is not applied in the U.S. as much,” said Aghamiri, a native of Iran who has traveled throughout Europe and America. “In the U.S., it has developed into a cheap place to stay.”
Vidalin said 80 of America’s hostels are regulated by his organization -- a nonprofit that sets out rules for cleanliness, staff training and similar concerns. The others are independently run, as are hundreds in Europe.
But while independent European hostels often draw the most travelers -- popular, most likely, due to the lack of rules and order -- their counterparts in the U.S. are often dull or unalluring, according to backpackers. Many are converted motels or houses bearing no resemblance to the hostels’ typical dormitory-style accommodations crawling with travelers.
David Capelle, who owns a hostel-booking Web site on which travelers can post ratings and reviews, said 40 percent of people who use Hostelz.com live in the U.S. -- but only 9 percent of them book American hostels.
“There really aren’t, as far as I’ve seen, any truly great hostels in the U.S.,” said Capelle, 30, who has traveled extensively in North America.
Part of the problem stems from general difficulties with backpacking through America, travel industry officials said. The long distances between cities and lack of cheap and efficient transportation hinder the idea of budget travel.
“The infrastructure’s different -- just the distance between points, travel time,” Vidalin said. “I think we’re always going to be challenged with the fact that the train system is not nearly as developed in America. The bus system is developed but ... coach travel has sort of a bad reputation, in some respects, in much of America.”
In Spain, for example, nearly every major city can be reached by rail or bus from Madrid. But in Texas, direct passenger train service doesn’t even exist between Dallas and Houston.
'They just don’t have the buzz'
In San Antonio, the city’s only hostel was quiet and nearly empty on a prime traveling weekend in June. Chinese student Jue Lu was one of the only travelers in the small, one-story outcrop about two miles north of downtown.
“It takes like half an hour” to reach the independent hostel by bus, said Lu, 24. “It’s not that convenient.”
For those reasons, hostels in locations that are not tourist hubs like New York and Los Angeles are not heavily trafficked -- and that hurts hostel life, Vidalin said.
“They just don’t have the buzz of a place where there’s just a lot of people coming through and they’re happening places,” Vidalin said. “The big draw of a really good hostel is the atmosphere.”
On the other hand, the Hostelling International facility in Manhattan -- at 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, walking distance from Columbia University -- has dorm beds available on peak summer travel weekends for just $30-$35 — a small fraction of what a hotel room in Midtown costs.
Capelle said backpackers also complain about America’s uneven distribution of hostels. In major European cities like London, Rome or Paris, backpackers can choose from dozens. In large American cities such as Dallas, there’s not even one.
“There is some frustration over the fact that there are so many cities in the U.S. -- even large cities -- where there really isn’t a hostel,” Capelle said.
Travel industry experts said there would be undeniable benefits if cities promoted hostels and backpacking, but they haven’t seen a streamlined effort to do so.
“It’s very important, though, because hostels are the way that many young people get a love for travel that they can pursue their whole lives,” said Allen Kay, a spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America. He said cities that grab young travelers early “have a very good opportunity to get them to come back again and again.”
Vidalin echoed those sentiments. “Those are tomorrow’s university grads, professionals, decision-makers — people that are also going to be traveling with their families,” he said. “We all want to go back to where we were in our youth.