For any traveler making their way through Europe, Asia, South America, and even Central America, staying at a hostel is not only budget-friendly but extremely fun. So far, in the hostels I’ve stayed in at the U.S., it can barely even be considered budget-friendly. While some people cringe at the idea of sharing rooms with other people, whether for security reasons or hygiene reasons or personal reasons, staying at a hostel at least a couple of times is a rite of passage for any young traveler.
When I talk about hostel culture, I’m talking about the social atmosphere that transcends external factors like ambiance and environment. Basically, you can be in a fully-stocked common area or a grimy, dark basement and still find a way to become great friends with everyone around you. In the U.S., so far I’ve noticed hostels only aim at keeping costs low, rather than fostering a culture for people to meet one another and become friends. Sure, some of that is up to the guests to make the effort, but without things like common areas, hostel-led activities, and upbeat staff, it becomes quite hard.
In parts of South East Asia, I could find a private room at a hotel for nearly as cheap as I could to stay in a hostel. I would choose a hostel nine times out of ten, with an exception for the occasional “treat yoself” night after a long trek or when I’m feeling astronomically antisocial. In short, I would stay at hostels specifically to meet people, have fun, and become best friends with strangers. I can show up at a hostel knowing nobody, and within an hour or two, be heading to a bar or club with dozens of people from different countries. The social aspect is at least 50% of why people stay at hostels.
The American hostels I’ve stayed at were completely dead. One of them in Chicago had a price tag of $60 a night, but it had a famous cocktail bar downstairs and I figured, hey, it was only for a night. The endless hotel-like corridors and awful layout practically meant that no other guests would ever come into contact with one another.
I’ve tried to come up with why American hostels are so weak in comparison to other places. Some of the ones I’ve stayed in have been really nice, almost comparable to an upscale hotel. The one I’m writing this from right now is a four-story lodge in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a great location with stunning views, yet it doesn’t have that buzz or social atmosphere that a good hostel should have. I wondered if maybe it is the sheer size of America that makes backpackers hard to come by, but having just stayed at a number of hostels in Canada, I can attest that size apparently does not matter.
Most frequent travelers are probably used to nightmare bus rides from country to country. I myself have had to sit on a bus for 38 hours from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. Everything seems doable in comparison.
This isn’t so much a complaint as it is a bit of confusion. Almost every country I’ve been to has had a hostel culture to some extent. The U.S. is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and despite its large size and relative priciness, hostels should be much more prevalent than they currently are.
On the bright side, I have noticed a cultural shift in young Americans that show that our generation is more likely to travel than past generations, even if it is just to flex on the ‘gram. Maybe in a few years, hostels will start popping up throughout the U.S. and make seeing what America the Beautiful has to offer both affordable and fun.
Have you ever stayed at a hostel in the U.S.? What was it like?