Hostels are for Tourists with Backpacks

 

I just got off a 16 hour flight, hopped a bus to a bus station, and then barely managed to snag another bus before it left.

It’s about 6:30am one day in the future…not quite sure how that happened, but I’m pretty sure the transition took place while I was sleeping. And here I thought the International Dateline was a phone-based service for lonely xenophiles.

Now I’m at a hostel. Goodie.

Standing in line, I glance around, though it’s just out of boredom…I already know what I’m going to see. At this point I can pretty much just close my eyes and list off what will be in the room.

Behind me there will be a whiteboard or chalkboard with the days events. There will be an emphasis on local deals and a happy hour at the hostel (or unattached but affiliated) bar. There is a tour today or tomorrow to some local tourist attraction. Another is for the non-tourist; some kind of picnic, wine tasting, rock-climbing shindig, ostensibly in the company of locals.

I’m not sure who the locals are, but I imagine they’re probably the people who work here. Does that even count?

Another wall will have a massive map along with historical information about the area, fun facts and/or book-report-style posterboard displays sounding out important colloquialisms along with an explanation of what the hostel’s name means.

There will be photos of people who have lived there before and the people who work there. They’ll be doing fun things – rock climbing, canoeing, traveling with great big bags on their backs – “they’re just like you!” these photos say. Trust us! Come to this wine tasting we’re holding at the famous cliffside picnic area that other visitors don’t know about! Only US$99!”

A booth or table will be conspicuously set up, nearly collapsing under the weight of fliers and informational brochures about local things to do, modes of transportation and concerts/parties that will be going on in the near-future (and very likely ones that already occurred up to several months ago).

Signs about how to access the WiFi are posted. There’s a kitchen (sign: “we’re not your mother, please wash your own dishes!”) and a shelf of books you can take, so long as you leave one that you’ve got with you. There are chairs in little groups for impromptu meetings with other travelers.

And you know what? Even though hostels are predictable, they’re great. Really fantastic, actually. The people are generally very friendly and helpful, the lodging is almost always very habitable and relatively clean (better than my dormitory in college, anyway), and the price is definitely right.

My issue with hostels is that they purport to provide a genuine experience, and the (generally) younger generation of travelers that stay there perpetuate this myth that hostels are somehow more legit than hotels or other housing opportunities.

This is simply not true.

Hostels are just as whitewashed and enclosed as any hotel. The only real difference is that you meet people from all over the world while there…the trouble is that they are all other travelers.

What do I have against meeting other travelers? Absolutely nothing! In fact, I almost always meet at least a handful of really great people when I stay at a hostel.

This is an issue all unto itself, however, because I find that when I meet these other travelers, I seldom feel the need to really dig deep into the local culture as much as I would going solo.

Sure, we may go on a day trip, walk around the city and eat the local food. But I’m certainly not forced to make friends with the locals, to work my way out of difficult situations or just sit an observe the local customs and mannerisms. I’m too busy exchanging travel stories with this chick from London and this guy from Germany. There’s a guy here who’s been traveling for years, and now I know all about where to go when I make it over to the Netherlands. Sweet, except that I came to South America to learn about South America. And all he can tell me about are the tours the hostel he stayed at took him to.

Boo. Hiss.

So stay at hostels – I know I intend to continue doing so – but be real about what you’re getting for the money. Don’t assume that because you’re staying in the cheaper option that you’re seeing the REAL (insert name of country you’re visiting here), because honestly you’re not. The bars they’re taking you out to or recommending are the ones that expect tourists from the hostels to show up. The landmarks they’re showing you and the excursions they’re taking you on are customized for foreigners. You’re not going to meet up with any locals who will work to integrate you into the local system, because there is a lot more money in keeping you separate. It’s just good business.

Try to live with a local or get a place of your own outside of the hostel/hotel system if you really want to get some dirt under your nails and live like the locals do.

Otherwise, just enjoy your situation for what it is. There’s a bar, library, theater, kitchen and clean bathrooms all throughout this hostel I’m in at the moment.

I’m going to take what luxury I can before heading back out into the real world.

35 comments

  1. Well said. I feel like I’m experiencing the local life when I’m running errands. Banking, grocery store, haircut, etc. Just trying to take care of my stuff, like everyone else. And the novelty of doing those mundane tasks in a strange place is pretty fun. Well, sometimes it’s fun.

    The kitchen sign, “we’re not your mother, please wash your own dishes!” is spot on! I’ve seen that exact sign so many times.

  2. Well said. I feel like I’m experiencing the local life when I’m running errands. Banking, grocery store, haircut, etc. Just trying to take care of my stuff, like everyone else. And the novelty of doing those mundane tasks in a strange place is pretty fun. Well, sometimes it’s fun.

    The kitchen sign, “we’re not your mother, please wash your own dishes!” is spot on! I’ve seen that exact sign so many times.

  3. lol sounds exactly like the hostel im sitting in in NY right at this instance. I agree tho, sometimes you gotta just venture out on your own, pop into some local bar and strike up a conversation with some localers. Otherwise your stay can just turn into a blur of supermarket beer in the hostel common area…

  4. lol sounds exactly like the hostel im sitting in in NY right at this instance. I agree tho, sometimes you gotta just venture out on your own, pop into some local bar and strike up a conversation with some localers. Otherwise your stay can just turn into a blur of supermarket beer in the hostel common area…

  5. Even when I don’t travel that much, I do agree with your points. To fully be in the local culture you need to go where it is.

    Any planed trip will just be that, a trip. But take the time to find the local markets and stuff like that and you will truly get a better grip on the local life.

    I guess that is why I enjoy a lot of your posts about your travels, they feel more real (and sometimes dangerous), that make them far more valuable than any trip to a local attraction.

  6. Even when I don’t travel that much, I do agree with your points. To fully be in the local culture you need to go where it is.

    Any planed trip will just be that, a trip. But take the time to find the local markets and stuff like that and you will truly get a better grip on the local life.

    I guess that is why I enjoy a lot of your posts about your travels, they feel more real (and sometimes dangerous), that make them far more valuable than any trip to a local attraction.

  7. Oh, I stayed in my fair share of hostels in my 20′s. I agree, you usually end up meeting fascinating people from all over the world EXCEPT the country you’re actually visiting.

    I worked around this in a couple of ways:

    1–figure out how to stay in a country long enough to integrate somehow–by working, volunteering, taking classes on something that interests you etc. See if you can arrange to rent from locals–sometimes there are options if you plan on staying for a while and meet a few hookups (don’t just go stay in the home of some random person–like I did when I was young and death defying. Just because I survived doesn’t mean it was safe!) I went this route in Mexico, France and Madagascar.

    2. If you ever have the opportunity to visit friends from other countries, do it in a heart beat. (I did this in Spain and Ireland–a whole different experience than the hostel)

    3. Go incognito and don’t hang out with the other folks in the hostel. Just because you sleep there, doesn’t mean you need to be joined at the hip with your fellow tourists. Strike out, ride the bus like the locals, ditch the backpack, schmooze with locals in bars and cafes . . .If you travel in a pack of tourists people will stare at you. If you travel alone, people will often talk to you!

    PS–I ended up married to a Frenchman I met while traveling alone and I now live in France . . .there are some consequences to traveling the way I did.

  8. Very well said Colin!!! I love this. I love that you are calling out the non-authenticity, because it’s a very prevalent thing and not just in travel.

    From Ross, who is currently staying with Andrew, the guy in Santa Monica ;)

    #samehuman #wehavegotpeopleeverywhere

  9. Very well said Colin!!! I love this. I love that you are calling out the non-authenticity, because it’s a very prevalent thing and not just in travel.

    From Ross, who is currently staying with Andrew, the guy in Santa Monica ;)

    #samehuman #wehavegotpeopleeverywhere

  10. I think you’ve hit on a very true and honest portrayal of hostel life. You’re right … when we stay at a hostel, we think we’re “roughing it” and really getting a feel for the local culture, but in most instances, I suppose you’re right. Though I’ve got to say I do love a good hostel every now and again.

  11. I think you’ve hit on a very true and honest portrayal of hostel life. You’re right … when we stay at a hostel, we think we’re “roughing it” and really getting a feel for the local culture, but in most instances, I suppose you’re right. Though I’ve got to say I do love a good hostel every now and again.

  12. Sounds like a good time :) I do love hostels, regardless of their sometimes ‘kiche-i-ness’ (hope i didn’t slaughter that word. So jealous of your travels!!

  13. Sounds like a good time :) I do love hostels, regardless of their sometimes ‘kiche-i-ness’ (hope i didn’t slaughter that word. So jealous of your travels!!

  14. When you like to do both, meeting travellers and locals, I stongly suggest to start travelling on a bicycle. It is great. There are many ways to do it. You don’t need to go on a full-on self supported high mountain adventure. You can stay in hotels/hostels but you will see the real (insert name of country you’re visiting here) during the day.
    Good luck!

    Sebastian Wevers
    http://www.osmosno.wordpress.com

  15. When you like to do both, meeting travellers and locals, I stongly suggest to start travelling on a bicycle. It is great. There are many ways to do it. You don’t need to go on a full-on self supported high mountain adventure. You can stay in hotels/hostels but you will see the real (insert name of country you’re visiting here) during the day.
    Good luck!

    Sebastian Wevers
    http://www.osmosno.wordpress.com

  16. Oh Colin, you need a good dose of Asia bad. That “getting to the bottem of the culture” is impossible b/c it’s a bottemless pot. Anyway, your 98% right.

  17. Oh Colin, you need a good dose of Asia bad. That “getting to the bottem of the culture” is impossible b/c it’s a bottemless pot. Anyway, your 98% right.

  18. i thought this was brilliant, especially these lines: “You’re not going to meet up with any locals who will work to integrate you into the local system, because there is a lot more money in keeping you separate. It’s just good business.”

    i hate when backpackers tell me about how awesome it was that one time they ate local food, or talked to that local person for a little while.

    @simple in france you’re right, it is what you make it, and sometimes all a hostel needs to be is a cheap bed

  19. i thought this was brilliant, especially these lines: “You’re not going to meet up with any locals who will work to integrate you into the local system, because there is a lot more money in keeping you separate. It’s just good business.”

    i hate when backpackers tell me about how awesome it was that one time they ate local food, or talked to that local person for a little while.

    @simple in france you’re right, it is what you make it, and sometimes all a hostel needs to be is a cheap bed

  20. You couldn’t have written this any better. Hostels provide the easiest travel experience possible while allowing travelers to think they’ve been roughing it. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hostels at all, and as long as you realize the concept for what it is, as you do, you’re able to enjoy the benefits without sacrificing your overall travel experience.

  21. You couldn’t have written this any better. Hostels provide the easiest travel experience possible while allowing travelers to think they’ve been roughing it. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hostels at all, and as long as you realize the concept for what it is, as you do, you’re able to enjoy the benefits without sacrificing your overall travel experience.

  22. This article assumes people are travelling for the ‘real’ travel experience and to meet ‘authentic’ or real locals.

    There are any number of reasons why people choose hostels:
    - safety and security: in that you are likely to meet like-minded people and that you will have a base from which to explore the city in whichever way you like.
    - pure fun
    - location
    - convenience
    - costs
    and so on…

    If you’re a genuine person then no matter where you are, you’re more likely to have a genuine experience.

    If you want fun, maybe to meet up with a local in a club or hook up with another traveller, then that’s cool too.

    Do what you want and feel free to explore as you wish, while respecting others. Isn’t that what hostels are about?

  23. This article assumes people are travelling for the ‘real’ travel experience and to meet ‘authentic’ or real locals.

    There are any number of reasons why people choose hostels:
    - safety and security: in that you are likely to meet like-minded people and that you will have a base from which to explore the city in whichever way you like.
    - pure fun
    - location
    - convenience
    - costs
    and so on…

    If you’re a genuine person then no matter where you are, you’re more likely to have a genuine experience.

    If you want fun, maybe to meet up with a local in a club or hook up with another traveller, then that’s cool too.

    Do what you want and feel free to explore as you wish, while respecting others. Isn’t that what hostels are about?

  24. I totally relate to the hostel experience you describe. When homestays or settling down roots aren’t an option I like to connect with people via CouchSurfing.com. You can stay with like-minded people or just meet up for coffee or a local event. Met great people while we were in central & south america this way!

  25. I totally relate to the hostel experience you describe. When homestays or settling down roots aren’t an option I like to connect with people via CouchSurfing.com. You can stay with like-minded people or just meet up for coffee or a local event. Met great people while we were in central & south america this way!

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  27. Nice post!

    I really like hostels, although admittedly a lot less than I used to. I prefer those smaller, family run places that don’t have the aforementioned brochure table and aren’t trying to cram tours and bus ticket down your throat, though.

    They do their thing, serve their purpose and house all sorts of travellers; from the ones who are dying to connect with the local culture to the others who are just on a party weekend and couldn’t care less.

    But it’s easy to get stuck in the ‘hostel bubble’ spending your free time hanging out in the common area chatting to other backpackers about how much more ‘real’ it is to travel this way or taking any number of the tours mentioned while rarely straying from the path set out before you when you walk in the hostel’s doors.

    The strange thing to me is how many travellers don’t really seem to want (or make the effort to search out) much more than that.

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  29. I was offended upon seeing the title of this, but I couldn’t help but laughing: it’s so true. The hostel description is accurate and you’re right, when you meet other travelers you’re usually having so much fun partying or doing the touristy stuff you def. don’t dig as deep as you would if you were solo. I def. plan on mixing guest houses and couch-surfing into my next trip for this exact reason. Great post!

  30. Staying with someone locally is the best way to get the “real” feel of the environment and culture. Great analysis and very insightful.

    • Very true. I just couchsurfed for the first time in Scotland, and it was great. My host was Italian, and we ate Indian the first night. She was late coming home the 2nd night, and her neighbor walked into the vestibule, saw me, and invited me up for coffee to wait for her.

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