Hostelling in the USA (more specifically, in Pennsylvania)

Reykjavik Backpackers
Reykjavik Backpackers

If you read this blog at all you’re well aware that I recently returned from a week long trip to Iceland.  It was an amazing experience, whose success I partially attribute to where we stayed: Reykjavik Backpacker’s hostel.

There were a number of reasons why staying in a hostel rather than a hotel enhanced our trip.   Iceland (as is most of Europe) is pricey.   Even the cheapest hotels costs about $120 per night.  Renting a bed at Backpackers was $44.00.  This wasn’t a relaxing vacation.  We were constantly on the go and traveling so didn’t need much more than somewhere to shower and pass out for a couple of hours every night.  Reykjavik Backpackers, as many hostels do,  doubled as a Tourist Information center.  We were able to book excursions, change lodging, and rent cars right from the front desk.

Reykjavik Backpackers had a great location on Reykjavik’s Laugevegur, the main commercial hub for shopping, eating, and bar hopping; everywhere we wanted to visit within the city was within walking distance and on the weekends, we were right in the thick of the bar action.  And because it was a hostel, and not some sprawling hotel complex, you could walk right out the door and be in the thick of the action and the Bunk Bar, which was situated in the lobby got visitors other than just hostel guests, giving it a more authentic feel.

Probably the biggest advantage to staying at Reykjavik Backpackers (or any hostel for that matter) is the emphasis on meeting other travelers.    In general people are much more willing to talk and meet new people in a hostel than in a hotel or just out at a bar.  I was traveling with my sister, and we would’ve had a good time going out on our own, but going out in groups and meeting people from different walks of life is one of highlights of visiting somewhere like Iceland.

When we were initially planning the trip my sister was  reticent to stay in a hostel.  She said she’d be more comfortable staying in hotels and it was only after comparing prices that I convinced her that for this trip, hostels were the way to go.

This wasn’t the only time in the recent past that plans I had involving hostels were nearly thwarted.  My friends and I go Baltimore for Preakness weekend every year.  This year, when we were Facebook messaging back and forth about who was going and where we were staying, one of my friends  suggested staying in a hostel.  She said she thought it’d be a fun way to get a lot of people in one room.  I liked the idea but besides for me it was universally panned.  The general consensus was that that would be sketchy and everyone would rather a hotel.  I did some personal research on the subject out of curiosity and realized that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stay in that particular hostel, mainly because of where in Baltimore it was located.

What I didn’t, perhaps naively, realize was that hostels in the United States are a thing.  They exist.  I was curious as to why, being an economic and social way to travel, they haven’t caught on.  I was also surprised to find less no less than 8 hostels right here in PA.

What is a hostel?

Hostels are a budget oriented, sociable travel accommodation.  Instead of renting a room, guests rent beds in dormitory style lodging.  You normally share social rooms (lounges etc) bathrooms, and kitchens, where you have the option to save even more money by preparing your own meals.

Now, much like hotels, hostels vary in the types of accommodations they offer.  Dorm rooms can vary from 2-20+ beds.  Some have communal college-dorm style bathrooms, while others have bathrooms you simply share with others in your rooms.  Some have very Spartan kitchens and lobbies, while others provide meals in the cost of the price, have computer lounges, bars, gardens, or even saunas and hot tubs.

When I went to Ireland last summer, I stayed in  seven different hostels and it felt in a way, like seven totally different experiences.  The first one we stayed at in Dublin was huge, or at least felt that way, but like our Iceland experience, ran a bunch of tours, including a hostel pub crawl which was a lot of fun.  We did have the weird experience of sharing a room one night with an entire family: mom, dad, and several kids, who spoke no English.  I did feel vaguely uncomfortable coming in semi-wasted in such close proximity to small children.

We did a bus tour of south Ireland that included hostel accommodations, and to be honest, we got to some of them so late and left so early that they legitimately were just a place to lay down.  In Dublin, we shared our bathroom with 8 other people in our dorm room.  In Kilarney, where we stayed for two nights, our 10 person dorm room had two bathrooms to choose from and was very large; it served for a fun place to pregame with fellow tour-mates, listen to music, and talk before we went out to the bars.  In Belfast, we had to walk up to stories to use the bathroom and saw very few other people, but we did only pay $12.00 a night and the hostel we stayed at in Derry reminded me more of a bed and breakfast with a large comfortable sitting room and garden in the back where you could sit and eat.  I’m not hostel expert, this was just my varied experiences.

Hostels, as I mentioned earlier, emphasize a social experience.  You’re often encouraged to get to know other guests through hostel pub crawls, movie nights, games, and other activities and often times, they’ll help you book tours and even provide hostel affiliated tours.

Since hostels emphasize an “adventure travel” spirit rather than a “leisure travel” they typically draw a younger crowd.  In fact, traditionally hostels had an age limit, which is rare now, but some “youth hostels” still exist which cater to only certain age groups.  And while hosteling is traditionally associated with backpacking, in recent years “boutique hostels” have become a thing; people want the social experience of hostels but with upgraded accommodations.

Why Hosteling Hasn’t Caught On in The US:

I had my own theories as to why hostels haven’t caught on in the US, but felt that I should reach out to PA hostel owners in order to get an expert opinion.  Jon, who operates Not Another Hostel, a non-profit hostel in Pittsburgh agreed with one of my personal theories that we a more caustic and colder culture here in the US.  He elaborates, “We as Americans do not even like to hug a stranger when we meet them, while in other countries the norm is a kiss on the cheek.  We love our personal space, which could be a result of our capitalistic ‘me’ culture.  This results in a lack of desire to share living quarters with people you don’t know.  This isn’t scary or weird for other countries.”

He also shared this amusing anecdote: he’s talked to more than several people who’ve seen the movie Hostel and thus have expressed fear of being murdered or raped if they stayed in one.  When he first emailed me this observation, I thought it was ridiculous,  but after thinking on it awhile, figured it probably wasn’t far off.  We got into an interesting conversation with a guy staying in our hostel who was hitch-hiking and couch surfing his way across Iceland.   I remember blankly stating that I would never do either of these things.  My rationale was that I watched way too much Law & Order: SVU to consider those viable options.  I’m going to give myself some leeway and say that it’s more realistic than Hostel, but still as a society, we’re heavily influenced by what we see in the media.

I talked with Andrew from the Chamonouix Mansion, a  hostel in a restored historical mansion in Philly’s Fairmont Park.  I liked his views on why hosteling hasn’t caught on here.  Part of it has to do with simple geography.  The U.S. is huge and doesn’t have a great public transportation system, which he points out by default makes a car necessary to see a lot of the country.  “A car,” he says, “can open the option of where a budget traveler stays: cheaper outlying hotels/motels, campsites, [or a] Walmart parking lot.”  He also talked about how the US, because of the aforementioned facts, is a car culture.  We do have a well built highway system and because of this had the advent of the motel.  You could often stay in motels for just as cheap as you could in a hostel.  A quick search of some small motels and inns in the greater Lancaster area showed that you could find rooms for $50, $42, and even $35 dollars a night.

While we might not necessarily need them, they are a lodging option many are unaware of and do provide you with experiences you wouldn’t get staying in a hotel.

The Benefits of Hosteling:

Apparently more US citizens are hosteling than I thought.  Not Another Hostel had over 800 guests last year and the majority were from the US and Europe.  Andrew at the Chamonouix Mansion estimated that 60% of their guests are U.S. citizens and Roger Stone, the innkeeper at the Iron Master’s Mansion ,  in Pine Grove Forest State Park,  located right in the middle of the Appalachian Trail, believes that only about 2% of his guests are foreigners.

All of the hosteliers I spoke to agreed that the main benefit is that hostels can just be a place to sleep for an economic price but have the option of being so much more.

Not Another Hostel is donation based, so if you legitimately are short of funds, you can set up some sort of accommodations.  In order to stay, you need to fill out an online form in advance and get approval from the owners which prevents it from being a free for all.  I liked Jon’s answer of “what would you say to convince people to stay in a hostel.”  He gave a pretty blunt, “your loss”, and elaborated that if you’re too scared to stay in a hostel, you’re probably missing out on a lot of opportunities.  He also said he’s met many lifelong friends in hostels which also rang true to my Icelandic experience.  I just Facebook friended a guy who stayed in our dorm room that we ended up drinking with all night.  I don’t think that would’ve happened at The Reykjavik Hilton.  Aside from a place to sleep, Not Another Hostel offers camping, breakfast, wifi, and free beer.

The Chamounix Mansion has movie nights, free bike rentals for guests, dinner nights, and sometimes hosts bands. Andrew suggests hostel travel as they tend to build more colorful memories than hotels: many people have travel memories that directly correlate to the set up , experiences, and other guests in the hostels they stayed in.    He also brought up how many hostel stayers only see or experience things because of recommendations they receive from fellow hostellers. There’s a sense of community that hotels can’t replicate.

My own observations were that people were much more willing to talk and meet people in hostels, which is cool if you’re traveling alone or in small group. It seems cheesy but the sense of community all these guys talked about does exist; you’re all there for the purpose of seeing somewhere new and it’s fun (not to mention time saving and economical) to bounce ideas and suggestions off one another.

Where to Hostel In Pennsylvania:

There are a number of hostels right here in the Keystone State, so maybe next time you’re planning a trip and don’t want to spend a ton or simply want to meet people, or to experience something new, remember to keep them as an option.

Some of these hostels are located in more remote locales and could potentially be destinations themselves.

Not Another Hostel, Pittsburgh

Philadelphia House, Philadelphia

Chamounix Mansion, Philadelphia

Apple Hostel, Philadelphia

Weisel Hostel, Quakertown

Hostel on Main, Rockwood (Laurel Highlands)

Iron Masters Mansion, Pine Grove State Park

Mary’s Guest House, Jim Thorpe

Has anyone stayed in a hostel here in PA or in the US in general?  Let me know.  I’m curious to hear your experiences.

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