My imagination went rampant when I learned I would be staying in hostels during my 17-day study-abroad trip to Italy and Ireland.
I saw myself huddled up against the stone walls of a damp dungeon. The silence occasionally interrupted by the buzz and zap of a single light bulb as it swayed from the ceiling.
Some of my classmates admitted they had similar fears. “Gonna get murdered,” Maritza Carrillo said, laughing. The sophomore at Oklahoma City Community College was only half joking.
After my summer trip, I have a better perspective.
Hostels offer guests something that is hard to come by: personal connections with real people, and an opportunity to travel in a more affordable way.
Just like its hesitant, but developing, love of soccer, America is slowly coming around to the hostel way of traveling.
“(Hostels) are becoming more and more popular, especially on the West Coast and the East Coast,” said Christian Alyea, Oklahoma Study Abroad program director. “Those hostels are comparable to what you would find in Europe and around the world.”
Alyea has led dozens of study-abroad trips for Oklahoma students, to destinations including Spain, Italy, England and Costa Rica. All included hostel stays. He is aware of the concerns of hostel stays to first-timers.
“Their facial expression is the first response,” he said “They’ve seen movies, ‘Hostel’ or any type of movie like this … they assume it’s going to be the same.”
The reality is much different.
“This is how young people all around the world travel; (they) travel on the cheap,” Alyea said.
This emerging trend in travel offers modern amenities such as free Wi-Fi and communal computers. Most include breakfast.
But the preconceived ideas about hostels are enough to keep some Americans from experiencing one of the best ways to make friends while seeing the world. The advantages of hostel travel can easily be overlooked.
Francesco Restuccia, our Italian program director, said hostel guests don’t just meet locals from the region, but also travelers from all over the world, who happen to be visiting the same place.
In a communal kitchen in Perugia, Italy, OCCC sophomore Katie Axtell met a fellow traveler from Italy. He didn’t speak English, and she didn’t speak Italian. In spite of the language barrier, she was able to teach him the basics of making French toast.
“Some hostels are just as modern and nice as hotels,” Alyea said.
But hostels are often more affordable.
Alyea said prices are always changing, and sometimes specials are offered.
In general, hostels cost $15 to $30 a night. They have become so popular in Europe that some hotels offer competitive prices. However,many hotels still cost hundreds, or sometimes thousands of dollars anight. The lower cost of hostels allowed Oklahoma Study Abroad to offer the 17-day trip for $3,000, airfare included.
Alyea said in some places, hostel travel is so common that the prices are similar to hotels.
Each hostel has something unique to attract travelers, such as rooftop terraces, game nights or outdoor patios.
Hostel di Perugia in Italy offered a communal kitchen, a library and a balcony with a postcard-perfect view of Perugia’s dynamic landscape. Terracotta rooftops and rich greenery stretched out toward the horizon for miles until the vista ends with hazy mountains, occasionally capped with a bit of white snow.
In Ireland, Abigails Hostel was voted top hostel in Dublin in 2013, and was nominated for Best Large Hostel in the World by HostelWorld guest ratings.
Abigails overlooks the River Liffey and can tout its location a block away from Temple Bar, the entertainment district where the band U2 got its start. Live Irish music and pints of Guinness were just around the corner.
In Rome, Alessandro’s Palace was three blocks from Termini station, the hub for all forms of mass transportation. Plus, it was within walking distance of many attractions from antiquity to the present.
It also included a fifth-floor rooftop terrace for guests to enjoy the view and the opportunity to socialize.
In Florence, Hostel Archi Rossi offered the most sumptuous brunches, free walking tours, an open-air terrace, a landscaped courtyard with plenty of seating and a foosball table.
What’s the downside?
To be sure, there are some drawbacks to staying in a hostel. Hostel life generally involves sleeping on a bunk bed with a three-inch thick twin mattress in a room with three to 23 others, sometimes competing for the same bathroom. In our case, all our roommates were from our group, OCCC students, with women and men in separate quarters.
We couldn’t help but get well-acquainted with our fellow students, and learned that it’s important to be patient and considerate during your stay.
“There’s a restroom that doesn’t belong to you, so you’re sharing … your time is limited there,” Oklahoma City resident Adrienne Maximin said.
Although some hostel rooms are mixed-gender, most hostels offer gender-specific, private and family room options as well. Doing research can help the guest avoid negative experiences, Maximin said.
Hostel websites can help travelers decide what’s best for them. Hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com have rating systems.
“You can see what you’re getting into before you go,” Alyea said.
In the end, no one can tell you what your hostel experience will be like exactly. You will probably learn something new about yourself; probably what you can and cannot do without.
And after your stay, scary movies will no longer be your first thought when you hear the word “hostel.”
Did you know?
Hostel vs. hotel
A hostel experience will be different from a hotel. If you are accustomed to hotels, there are several potential pitfalls that you should know about before you stay.
For more information on programs offered through Oklahoma Study Abroad, visit www.oklahomastudyabroad.com.