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Cheap sleep on the road

High hotel costs can shorten your stay. Alternative accommodations stretch your travel budget and can enrich your trip.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 4, 2012 2:24PM

Image: Couple Taking Self Portrait in City, New York City, New York, USA (© Radius Images/Getty Images)Last spring I found a fairly inexpensive ticket to London. Why fly all that way and stay for only four or five days?

Last summer I attended a conference in New York City. Why not explore the most exciting city in the U.S.?

Hotel costs, that's why. But I found an alternative that let me stay for a week in New York and almost three weeks in the United Kingdom.

Hostels. Dorm-style accommodations made both those trips affordable. I paid less than $22 per night in London and less than $43 a night in New York. I've also used hostels in Chicago and Philadelphia. Three things surprised me:

  • The accommodations. Although some were merely serviceable, others were swell.
  • The perks. Things like free breakfast, free pizza/beer/movie night, free walking tours and kitchen privileges, including access to shelves of food left by other travelers.
  • The acceptance. I was usually 25 to 30 years older than the other guests, but I was always treated kindly, resulting in some great conversations with people from other states and other countries. (Post continues after video.)

Price is what drives my hostel habit: The cheaper I sleep, the longer I can stay. But "cheap" doesn't necessarily mean "sub-par." The New York hostel was two blocks from a subway and directly on a couple of bus lines, in a neighborhood full of produce markets, delis and inexpensive eateries. (I became very fond of "roti rolls," Indian flatbread filled with vegetable curries for only $1.50.)

The London facility was pretty basic, but its location -- just a couple of blocks off Piccadilly Circus -- made up for the take-forever elevator and the limited number of shower stalls. During a side trip to Cardiff, Wales, I found the hostel to be so clean and quiet it felt like a resort. Well, a resort with bunk beds.

Make new friends

Not everyone who stays in a hostel is on vacation. I talked to two people who were in London for job interviews. A trio of pretty 20-somethings from rural England had come to town for a weekend of big-city fun. An elderly Irishman was there to attend the opera.

Depending on the hostel you might be able to get a private room. But the more beds in a room, the cheaper it will be. Accommodations with their own bathrooms cost more.

Initially I thought that sleeping in a room with people I didn't know would be weird. It turned out to feel more like summer camp.


Camp is a good analogy for hosteling: A whole bunch of very different people bunk together and form quick friendships. They may last only as long as the vacation does, but they greatly enrich the experience.

More than a money-saver
Meeting people is the best thing about hosteling. I didn't go nightclubbing with those 20-somethings, but I did enjoy chatting with them. I had conversations with people from Germany, Israel, South Africa, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Italy, France and Saudi Arabia.

Frugality determined my choice of accommodations. But the experiences gained were just as valuable as the dollars saved.

Keep these travel tips in mind:

  • An annual membership carries discounts; joining is probably worth if it you're staying more than a few days.
  • See if there's a charge for towels. I brought one with me to London.
  • Lockers are provided. Bring your own lock.
  • Make reservations through cash-back shopping sites for 1.5% to 3% in additional savings. These sites can access hostels through Expedia or a specialty service like

More on MSN Money:

Apr 4, 2012 8:21PM
We rent a small apartment in the London neighbourhood where our family lives. It's cheaper than a hotel and much nicer.
Aug 29, 2012 1:02PM
tried hostels in two American cities and both were BAD experiences. the first had drunk young people making noise all night; the second had a drunk person vomit in the room. Too many young immature folks for my way of doing it cheap. Being 60 plus puts me in a quiet mode not loud and out of control; thus I would not go the hostel route ever again.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.