I never went hostel-backpacking through Europe as a college student. I didn’t take a few months off after school to find myself and I’ve certainly never skipped around a country on a work visa as seems to be so common these days. In fact, most of my early travels as an adult were in business class accommodations thanks to the piles of free points I earned from my travel-happy career. As a result, the only perception I had of hostels was from wild movies and friends / family — it seemed to be an entirely different world from the one I wanted.
Then, not very long ago, I found myself needing a place to stay for two weeks in San Francisco during my WFR class. Hotels would have run me hundreds of dollars a night and several times the cost of just booking a new course at an easier location. Driving from my parent’s place in the East Bay Area would have meant 3 more hours added on to each day and neither camping nor the Airbnbs of the world offered up much in the way of viable alternatives. Thus I found myself with a reservation for a hostel, one small bunk and a locker in a room with 7 other guys. Two weeks later it had changed how I traveled.
It goes without saying that hostels are a light year away from your local Hilton: Privacy? Nope. Space? Limited. Comfort? Hope you like a cheap bed. And then there’s the people. What makes a hostel so much better than a hotel is those people. They might snore, they might party, they might be younger or older, stranger or not strange enough but then again, they might be awesome company.
Check into the Fairmont Hotel in Lake Louise, Alberta and you’ll have a killer view from the lobby, a stunning building to Instagram about, and one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever seen. What you won’t get much of however is new company. That’s fine if you’re on a “look out the window” car trip with your entire family or on a romantic getaway but if you’re on an adventure to explore and experience a new place, new make a world of difference. I say that as someone who has driven tens of thousands of miles across the US, flown around the world, been to a dozen national parks, an endless number of viewpoints, hiking trails and wonders completely solo — I love traveling solo but adding like minded people to the equation, even just here and there, changes the entire experience for the better.
My first day in Banff, I walked into my room only to be warmly welcomed by two Germans who had crossed paths on travels just a few days ago themselves. That was not my plan, I did not anticipate meeting them, did not try to buddy up, but enough curious faces and it’s simply bound to happen.
“Happiness [is] only real when shared” – Christopher McCandless (the guy from Into the Wild)
Those two became my company that evening and together we ventured into the dive bar in the basement of the hostel where we found many more friendly faces from Australia, Germany, Canada, and other corners of the world. The next day, four of us journeyed out to Lake Louise to explore. We had pseudo “tour guide” who had been in the area before, first time snowshoers to see light up with excitement, and we all got to enjoy a day with new sights and new stories. Over the next 10 days, I made many more day trips, half the time joined by new faces and half the time on my own for deeper exploring when I wanted it. We went to bars as groups, had meals at restaurants where I got global perspectives on the wacky world, had leisurely treks to vista points I’d have never known about, I even found myself a car companion for the 4+ hour drive along the Icefields Parkway.
Not every place had the same experience of course — in Jasper, the hostel crowd was friendly but quiet, the location strangely removed from the town and almost any communal activities. It wasn’t the same experience I felt in Banff so you know what? I moved on. For $18 a night, ditching part of my plans was no big deal (and they refunded me for it too, go figure). I headed back on the road to some of the same old faces and to many new ones.
Not every day had an adventure companion, but that’s not my travel style anyways. What I discovered is that the hostel life offers whatever you want to take from it: a cheaper place to stay, a chance to find people to travel with, a way to have a new conversation, a late night drink with someone intriguing. Extroverts, introverts, people like me who are in the middle… It is strange to greet new roommates, be forced around new faces, but when everyone is away from home in the same way, all the norms sort of change and it becomes ok to interact. Some people came with friends or small groups but overall to the hundreds of faces I saw, few of us knew each other at the start and we all saw the same amazing sights, all wanted to have a good meal, and all had to put up with the storm brewing outside — that shared experience brings down the normal walls of social interactions. Yes, most of the relationships disappear soon after they’re made but not all of them; weeks later I’m still having conversations that are now crossing the world with people who I can stop off and visit in places I had wanted to go and some I had never even thought of.
Even if the idea of sharing a room frightens you, the hostel experience is still worth thinking about. Most places offer “privates” which are a steal if you’re traveling with a friend or two and likely still cheaper than a hotel if you’re going solo. So really there’s no excuse not to try it out. What’s the worst thing that happens? You lose $50 and check into the Hilton?
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