Cheap sleeps, hosteling around the world

New culture exhilarating for correspondent

New culture ‘exhilarating’ for correspondent

Rita Forbes

It costs about $20, you have to make it yourself, and it’s usually bigger than a breadbox. If you’re lucky, it comes with breakfast. What is it?

If you answered “a bed in a youth hostel,” congratulations! You’re on your way to affordable travel.

Europe is dotted with youth hostels. In search of cheap sleep, I’ve stayed at more hostels than I can count, in cities like Madrid, Belfast, Berlin and Prague.

Depending on the hostel’s location and quality, a bed costs $15 to $40. Upon check-in, you are given a set of bedsheets and pointed towards your room, which you may share with four or 40 other people.

Those fellow travelers can make things interesting. My roommates have run the gamut from a Peruvian biologist who gave me career advice to an Australian male model who recounted his attempts to land a contract in Munich. And I once shared a room with a young man for several days without ever making his acquaintance. He slept all day, and I slept all night.

Hostels definitely attract the party crowd, and I’ve gotten used to waking up at 4:00 in the morning because my roommates are drunkenly trying to find their beds. But revenge is sweet: three hours later, they have to deal with my alarm clock going off!

Some hostels are more up-scale than others. One place in Prague celebrated its grand opening by giving every female guest a fluffy towel, bar of chocolate and bottle of champagne upon check-in. In others, the sheets cost extra and there’s no soap in the bathroom.

Soap or no soap, though, almost every hostel provides lockers, so you don’t have to worry about another guest taking off with your hair dryer or paperback while you’re out sightseeing. There are places where I compulsively lock up all my belongings any time I leave the room. But at other hostels, I’ve felt comfortable enough to leave my laptop sitting on my bunk bed when I went out for dinner.

No matter how safe things seem, though, anything can happen. And although I’ve never been the victim of theft, I have been traumatized a few times. In a somewhat dodgy hostel in Munich, I once left my room early to go get breakfast. Afterwards, feeling sleepy and without any immediate plans for the day, I decided to go back to bed for another hour or two. My bed was not exactly as I had left it, though. Is it a sign of weakness that, confronted with a burly tattooed man sleeping soundly in my bed, I just tiptoed away?

Things like that wouldn’t happen to me if I stayed in hotels. But the outrageous memories are the ones that stay with me. No matter how much of Prague I forget, I will always remember the staff at my hostel asking politely if I would like to smoke marijuana with them (to which I politely declined). Hosteling has stretched my budget, allowing me to travel across Europe. And just as importantly, it has kept my travels from being bland.