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Removing the ‘youth’ from youth hostels

A revolution has altered the character of these inexpensive lodgings
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

It was a mixed-up scene, to say the least. But strangely affecting. In a corner of the lounge, a middle-aged pianist sat riffling off a Schubert cadenza while a teen-age music-lover turned the pages of her sheet music. At a chessboard nearby, two college students stared at their rooks and knights while a white-haired senior offered occasional advice. And at an overstuffed couch under a notice-filled bulletin board, several eager young people sought travel advice from a couple in their 40s.

If you were now to learn that this jumbling of the generations—young with old, newly retired with newly wed—was occurring not in a school, but in a youth hostel, you’d probably be startled. Unknown as yet to the vast majority of American travelers, every youth hostel organization in the world has (other than in the German state of Bavaria) eliminated the maximum-age limitation on youth-hostel membership or the right to use youth-hostel facilities. A small but growing population of every age and condition—married and single, elderly, middle-aged, baby boomer, yuppie, and preppie—is today flocking to make use of the cheapest lodgings and most dynamic travel facilities on earth.

What is a youth hostel? And what are these structures that now accept “young people of all ages”—to use a newly coined slogan of the hostels? They range from ancient castles to modern farmhouses, from Buddhist temples to converted water mills, from rambling Victorian mansions to four-masted sailing ships to glass-walled high-rises in the center of great cities—some 5,000 hostels in all (in 74 different countries), of which 160 are here in the United States. While the beds they offer are often double-decker cots in privacy-lacking dormitories (but usually segregated by sex, with men in one wing, women in another), their facilities are otherwise comfortable and clean, closely supervised by “hostel parents,” social, cheery, priced in pennies—and now multigenerational in clientele, as I was recently able quite personally to confirm.

The scene that began this essay was one I witnessed in the public areas of the Washington, D.C., youth hostel short blocks from the White House. I had arrived in Washington on a Friday afternoon, without reservations, never dreaming that every hotel in town would be sold out. They were. Shaken and dismayed, but vaguely aware of the revolution in youth-hostel policies, I rushed from the Capitol Hilton (where I had just been turned down) to the Capitol Hostel, if it could be called that. And moments later I was ensconced in a quite decent (if somewhat dreary) single room at the grand rate of $29 a night, tax included. I could have stayed in the dorms for only $14 a night.

If the locale had been Europe, Mexico, or the Far East instead of Washington, D.C., I could have enjoyed similar facilities for as little as $8, $9 or $10 a night, sometimes with breakfast included. Only in the more expensive cities do youth hostel prices rise to the princely levels I encountered that night. Almost everywhere else they amount to a near-negligible expense, permitting seniors and students alike to enjoy a major extension of their time spent on travels.

Prior to retirement, most of those seniors had money but no time. Now they have time but less money. The ability to use $9-per-person hostels instead of $50-per-person hotels suddenly enables mature citizens—even those on Social Security—to enjoy the same three-month stays abroad that many younger Americans experience on their summer vacations. How many retired Americans could undertake trips of that length if they were compelled to pay normal hotel rates on each and every night?

The “senior” revolution
What brought about this revolution? Some hostellers point to the laws against age discrimination enacted in numerous enlightened countries. Some mention the growing realization by youth hostel organizations of their need for income and patronage in those non-summer months of the year when young people are in school and unable to use hostels. Still others suggest that the lowering of age bars, occurring gradually in different countries, came about when hostel-loving “baby-boomers” approached their middle years and insisted on the right to continue using hostel accommodations. “Hostelling gets into your blood and you can’t get rid of it,” say Hal and Glenda Wennberg of central Maryland, who met at a hostel in 1946 and soon were husband and wife. Though the American youth hostel organization has always, in theory, been open to people of all ages (unlike its European counterparts), it is only recently that youth hostels have openly advertised the right of seniors to join and participate. In Europe, formal decisions were required and taken, to accomplish the same goal.

“The reason we use hostels,” says an elderly hosteller and former college lecturer from Nebraska, Jane Holden, “is because hostelling is an attitude, not simply a source of cheap accommodations for penniless young people. That attitude never changes. To me, the finest moments of life are in meeting people from different countries and backgrounds, and extending friendship to them. Even if it means trading off a bit of comfort and privacy.”

Do mature hostellers find it difficult to mix with members 40 years younger than they? “Not at all,” say Edwin and Jean Erlanger, hostellers since the mid-1960s. “Once people work together in the kitchen, or begin discussing that day’s news, the barriers just fade away. Wherever it is—Japan, Austria, Mexico—the generations have far more in common than you’d think.” One prominent San Francisco member of Golden Gate Youth Hostels, the octegenarian Miriam Blaustein, was also a leading activist in the highly-political Grey Panthers. “I am still as youthful mentally as I ever was!” she stated. “But I know my limits. I will not exceed them, nor will I impeded what the younger people are doing. My work in youth hostels is part of a broader effort against ‘ageism’.”

When seniors first began using youth hostels in heavy numbers, some youth hostel “parents” (managers) persisted in giving preference in reservations to young members; that’s now ended, says an official of American Youth Hostels, Inc., and he has never received a single complaint of age discrimination. Other mature guests were a bit non-plussed by the dormitories assigned to them, although many soon found that hostel managements were at pains to provide them with such private rooms as existed. Still another AYH executive points out that the trend in youth hostel construction around the world is to rooms housing no more than four or five people, and occasionally to the standard twin-bedded or single-room variety.

An often heard proposal is formally to eliminate the word “youth” from the organization’s title. Though that idea was rejected by the organization’s Board of Directors, individual hostels have taken steps to do just that. In the Washington, D.C., structure, the word “Youth” in a large neon sign has been replaced by the word “International” — Washington International Hostel — and staff members inside patiently explain that the “youth” in the title of their sponsoring organization means “young in spirit” or “young in outlook,” and not in chronological terms. As if the dream of Ponce de Leon were finally at hand, today’s mature citizens find “eternal youth” in a youth hostel.

Enter elderhostel
But now a caution. This newly acquired ability by mature and senior citizens to make use of youth hostels should not be confused with a wholly separate program of study tours called Elderhostel. Limited to people over the age of 55 (but open as well to their spouses of any age), “Elderhostel weeks” are conducted by the Elderhostel organization of Boston, Massachusetts, at more than 1,500 universities and other educational institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Domestically, Elderhostel programs run anywhere from one day to 20 days, with many five to seven day programs. An average five-day program costs between $400 and $700, depending on the location. Internationally, Elderhostel programs run anywhere from a week to a month and average upwards of $3,000 per person, including airfare. Some participants stay in unused or temporarily vacated university residence halls, or youth hostels, receive all three meals each day, and attend several hours of lecture classes.

What sort of instruction? The courses range from “Modern Italian History” to theories of Albert Einstein to any topic at all, in fact, so long as that subject does not deal with problems of aging or other issues uniquely affecting senior citizens. The goal of Elderhostel is to permit senior citizens to remain vital and alive to the current concerns, and the formula has proven immensely popular. Reacting to course announcements in Elderhostel’s free catalogues (supplemented by intermittent newsletters), nearly 300,000 people over the age 55 pursued instruction in 2003. That catalogue is today stocked in most public libraries, but can also be obtained by contacting Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111-1746 (phone: 877/426-8056, Web: www.elderhostel.org, e-mail: registration@elderhostel.org).

American Youth Hostels -- Hostelling International
Known for decades as “American Youth Hostels,” AYH is the American branch of Hostelling International, a vast, worldwide organization that primarily operates simple, inexpensive lodgings for traveling young people. Though it now also makes those lodgings available to persons of all ages, obviously its chief clientele remain persons 18 to 25 years of age. The U.S. headquarters for Hostelling International-USA are at 8401 Collesville Rd, Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD, 20910 (phone 301/495-1240, Web: www.hiayh.org), but there are local branches in 34 cities throughout the country. Visit the Web site to look up locations, or scan the phone book for either “Hostelling International-USA” or “American Youth Hostels,” or look in the Yellow Pages under “hostels.”

Approximately 120 youth hostels are found in the United States and Canada, several hundred in Europe, and over four thousand scattered across the rest of the globe. They are the finest available accommodations for young people, not only because they are remarkably inexpensive—an average of $25 to $30 a night in expensive cities like London and New York, and $12 to $15 a night in smaller destinations, for dormitory-style, bunk beds—but because of the opportunity they afford to meet and socialize with other dynamic, young travelers from around the world. Barriers fall away in a youth hostel. People are open to one another, eager to be of assistance and to learn about other cultures. Bulletin boards line the walls containing notices of events and travel opportunities, offering rides and jobs. And though some of the youth hostels are rather spartan in their furnishings, not all of them are. The newer ones have cafeterias and lockers, reading rooms and lounges, occasional private rooms for families and couples. But even in the newer or newly-refurbished facilities, bathrooms and washrooms are almost always communal in nature, to keep costs low.

In addition to providing lodgings, most local branches operate low-cost hiking and biking tours that use hostels for their overnight lodgings.

Many hostels accept advance reservations but, they also rarely turn anyone away (except in the high season of summer)—it seems always possible to squeeze in an extra bed, an extra sleeping bag. Because they serve such emergency housing needs, some travelers join the organization, and acquire the all-important membership card, simply as a safeguard against those occasions when every hotel in a particular community may be sold out. If you are nervous about traveling nationally without reservations, they can be made for free online. Though I, for one, regard hostels as a preferred form of lodgings, and not simply for emergencies, still every frequent traveler should be a member, and carry that card, just in case. If you are not a member, expect to pay an extra $3 per night for dorm accommodations in the U.S. Internationally, in most cases you must be a member to stay in the hostels. Membership is free if you are 17 or under, $28 annually if you are between 18 and 54, $18 annually if you are 55 or older. For those sums, you’ll receive the card, and a guide to membership with a card to return if you would like a free listing of U.S. hostels.

For an additional $11.95 (plus $2 for postage and handling), you’ll receive a similar but more extensive handbook of youth hostels in Europe and the Mediterranean area, and still another $11.95 (plus another $2 for postage and handling) will bring you the same for Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Smaller, more specific hostel handbooks are available for certain countries and regions, such as the guides to England and Wales or New Zealand for $5.50 and $5 respectively, including postage. And suddenly a brave new world of remarkably inexpensive lodgings becomes available to you, permitting almost constant travel—month after month—for an outlay that would barely secure two or three nights at the average hotel.