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Hostels aren't just for students

My room in downtown Chicago was clean, convenient and cheap. So what if I had to share it?

By Donna_Freedman Nov 19, 2010 10:32AM

Last week I attended a conference in Chicago, a city where I used to live and where I still know a couple of folks. The classy hotel where the conference took place offered a "special" rate of $209 a night to anyone who wanted to stay and sightsee. That was a little too special for me, but I did want to stick around.

Years ago I used to drive past the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel in downtown Chicago and wonder what it would be like to stay there.


Now I know: Clean, convenient and cheap.

I could walk to Millennium Park, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, theater, restaurants and shopping. Chicago's buses and its famous "L" trains would take me anywhere else I wanted to go.

In fact, the L ran about half a block away and my third-floor window caught every clackety-clack. But you get used to it. And did I mention that I paid between $29 and $31 a night?

Once the province of students traveling on a shoestring, hostels now reach out to adult travelers who realize that the cheaper they sleep, the more they can travel. The price varies depending on whether it's a weeknight or a weekend, and also on whether you choose a room with its own shower and toilet.

You can find hostels in places like New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, Minneapolis, San Diego, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C. What are your chances of paying $29 a night in cities like those?

Sleeping with strangers

Of course, the rooms are cheap because they're shared. So are the bathrooms. That might be a deal-breaker for some, but it wasn't for me. The bed was comfortable enough, but the pillow could have been better (which is true of just about every hotel or motel I've ever visited).

The room I stayed in had four sets of bunk beds. However, during my stay there were never eight people there. In fact, there often weren't people there at all. I'd stop in to pick something up or to take a short rest and find the place deserted. On two evenings I went to bed as the sole occupant and woke the next morning to find three other young women sleeping nearby.

During my four-night stay all the roommates were unfailingly polite: tiptoeing around when someone was sleeping, taking cell phone calls out in the hallway, etc. Maybe I was just lucky not to end up in a room full of kleptomaniacs who played loud music and snored all night long. But I never felt nervous about being there.

Of course, being able to stash my stuff in an in-room storage locker kind of took the worry out of being close. My roommates were a lot more casual; several of them left backpacks or suitcases out in the open, and one even had her purse lying around. I wouldn't recommend either one, since a second is all a thief needs.

Wi-Fi and cornflakes

Technology being so essential these days, it's likely a hostel will offer free Wi-Fi. The storage lockers at USA Hostels have electrical outlets inside so you can charge your cell phone or laptop securely.

Breakfast might be included in the fee. In Chicago that meant bagels, muffins, fruit, coffee, tea, orange juice and three kinds of generic cereal. I chatted with a couple of 20-something Aussies who admitted that breakfast was also lunch: They'd kite a couple of extra bagels and apples to eat later in the day.

I had some interesting conversations during breakfast or at other times of the day in the 24-hour kitchen. I wasn't the only thrifty one cooking or using the microwave to heat up food from a nearby supermarket. Some people borrowed from the "free" shelf, which held things like spices, a bag of flour, a bottle of vegetable oil, some onions and, of course, a package of ramen.

One of the things I liked best was the chance to talk with people from other places: Florian from West Germany, Ibrahim from Saudi Arabia, Chloe from Scotland, Daniel and Erin from Australia. You don't always get that opportunity at a traditional lodging place.

Some hostels are nicer than others, of course. Just as with a hotel, you'd be wise to check user ratings. Flip-flops might be a good idea, too, just in case the last guy in the shower had athlete's foot.

Then again, I keep hearing about bedbugs in hotels, even fancy ones. Observe reasonable precautions and a hostel can help you stretch your travel dollars. You might even score some free ramen.

More from MSN Money:

Nov 20, 2010 8:02PM
Sounds like you made an ordinary trip into an "adventure". How cool to meet folks from all over the globe...nice folks no less...
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