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On paper: A supervised, inexpensive lodging place for young travelers on hiking or bicycle trips, etc.

In reality: The accomodation equivalent of a Kinder egg (or perhaps a box of chocolates) - you never know what you're gonna get. Hostels may be big or small, built this century or otherwise, have doors on the rooms or otherwise, etc.

Some things that you might not expect but can happen to you in a youth hostel:
  • upon arrival, notice that three busloads of 8-year-old children are also staying, most of them in your room
  • you end up with a nice private room, with real heating and a lock on the door that not even an 8-year-old could break
  • you have to walk seven miles uphill to find you're the only one staying in a tiny, bring-your-own-water croft house with the most fantastic view you'll see on this holiday
  • shower water pressure: it sometimes helps to make an offering to the god of your choice before turning on the shower.
  • you wake up at 7am, all refreshed and chipper, and actually want that breakfast they're serving...mmm! veggie sausages!
  • possibly due to last week's busload of 8-year-olds, can't shake the smell of wee
  • internet connections are sometimes available; eleven minutes for the price of a four-course-meal in the south of France.
  • you wake up in the morning to find three other people in your room who weren't there when you went to bed; they are usually sulky Americans or enthusiastic Japanese teenagers armed with useless guidebooks.
Hostelling International is a big fat hostel chain that makes travelling pretty easy; in the UK it's called the Youth Hostel Association, with more variants for Scotland and Ireland. Independent hostels can also be a gas - try one today!

And if anyone from Armadale Youth Hostel, Skye is reading this, I left my Nalgene bottle behind the curtain on the windowpane to make my water nice and cold in the morning, and I promptly forgot about it. I hope you like it.
Tips For Hostel Newbies

1. Bring a sturdy padlock. If you're staying at a dormitory-style hostel, this is absolutely critical. You don't want to wake up to find your camera and wallet gone. Make sure you lock up everything that you wouldn't mind losing, because people will take almost anything, even your underwear!

2. Bring a towel. Many American hostels (especially Hostelling International ones) provide you with a towel, but if your travels take you elsewhere, you'll find that that is pretty rare. Remember, a hostel is not a hotel.

3. Bring your own toiletries. Again, hostels aren't hotels, and you're basically just paying for your bed. If you somehow end up without shampoo or soap, check to see if the hostel has a box where fellow friendly hostellers leave stuff they don't need for others to use. Karma exists! If you have some extra shampoo at the end of your trip, leave it at the hostel; you have more at home and it could really help someone out!

4. Bring a sleep-sheet. A sleep-sheet is basically a large sheet that has been sewn together to make a big pocket. In most hostels outside the US, your bed will have a cover-sheet and a blanket, but you'll be expected to have your own sleep-sheet. Most hostels in the US provide sheets, but, better safe than sorry! Oh, and don't bring a sleeping bag, they are not allowed in most hostels because they spread bed-bugs. People go camping, pick up little critters, sleep in hostel beds with their sleeping bag, and the little critters make a new home in the bed. In many hostels, you can actually be fined the cost of fumigating the room if you are caught sleeping with a sleeping bag in a bed. If you are camping and hostelling, store your sleeping-bag in a locker.

5. Find out if the hostel has a curfew. Most hostels in metropolitan areas have no curfew, but their offices close at night (usually around 10pm at most HI hostels). Check anyway though, because you don't want to get locked out and have to spend a night on the street. Also, if you're staying at a hostel that has a punch-code entrance, write the code down and take it with you! After a night of fun out on the town, you might not be in such a state where remembering much of anything is easy!

6. Clean up after yourself. Hostels are cheap because there isn't an army of maids to clean up after the guests. Many rural hostels will assign you a chore to do as part of the fee for your stay. Even if they don't, be courteous and leave things the way you found them.

7. Use the kitchens! If you're traveling for an extended period of time, you'll want your money to go a long way, and one of the best ways to do this is to cook your own food. I'm not saying that you shouldn't go out and experience the local foods, but, if you eat out for every meal, most of your money will go to food. I always try to eat dinner (since dinner is my biggest and therefore most expensive meal) at the hostel, and usually eat out for lunch. You can also do a group-dinner where you and some fellow hostellers all pitch in and buy stuff and cook it together. That can be a lot of fun, and a cheap way to have a nice meal.

8. Talk to your fellow hostellers! Hostelling is a social activity. Meeting new people is as much a part of traveling as are the destinations you visit! The people at the hostel can probably tell you cool places to visit, the best way to get there, the best little-known restaurants, and also about other hostels they liked and disliked. If you don't want to get to know people, please, stay at a hotel.

9. Learn at least a few words of the native language of the place you're staying. People will really appreciate the effort and you won't look like an annoying pushy American who expects everyone to speak English. If you try to speak to them in their language, they're much more likely to try to speak to you in yours.

10. If the hostel offers a free breakfast, get there early. Most hostels serve breakfast from 8-11 am, and at 11 the food is put away, immediately! I've seen many a hungry hosteller get there one minute after 11 and walk away without any food. They are super-strict about this. Also, if the food runs out, you're screwed! I've also seen some jerks horde food... one guy actually took half of the food, and put it all in little ziplock bags. Don't do this, it's messed up!

11. Be flexible, be smart. Don't over-plan your trip. You'll find that lots of awesome opportunities pop up unexpectedly, and you should take advantage of them. Someone at the hostel with a car might offer to take you to an extremely cool place, or give you a ride to where you're going... that's cool, but be smart. Get their driver's license or passport number (if you wake up and your cash and "friend" are gone, it makes tracking them down much easier), make sure to let someone know where you're going and who you're going with (a quick call, an e-mail to a friend, etc.) and you're set! Well, there ya go, if I think of more, I'll add it later. If you have any suggestions, /msg me and I'll be glad to add them. Hostelling is a great way to travel. You experience so many things that you wouldn't if you took a "normal" vacation. Just try it! You'll be hooked!

At the time, I had the equivalent of a few hundred U.S. dollars to spare. It was the end of the summer, my days off had been extraordinarily ordinary and boring, and it was easy to persuade me to go to London for a few days.

The last minute flight to Stansted with a return ticket to Stockholm was only about $90, so I had some dough to spend once I got there, but I wasn't about to be picky about my living arrangements.

I'd checked online to see about different hostels. It was clear to me that London had billions and billions of these places, so it was hard to single anything out, but I looked at a few good ones, and even proceeded to call some of them, but without a credit card I couldn't book anything.

Well, the flight was a few hours late, so it was already round about midnight when I got through all checkpoints with my 70-liter backpack. Going downtown at this time of night looking for a hostel was out of the question, so I figured I'd just sit and wait until tomorrow. I saw the floor sweepers go by a dozen times and other interesting sights to the sound of Why does my heart feel so bad? playing from an unidentified speaker. Every once in a while I'd take a walk outside in the humid summer night, heavy with diesel and jet fuel.

The waking hours slowly passed, and some time around five or six, I caught the bus downtown, got my first five minutes of sleep in a couple of days, got off at the Victoria Station, and headed over to the train station from the bus terminal. The flyer people advertising hostels were already out, and there was no mistake to be made as to why that chunk-o-stuff was strapped to my back.

I still hadn't made up my mind about where to stay, but figured I'd head over to the area of town that I wanted to stay in. Got myself a travel pass and got robbed by a photo machine while taking the necessary mug shot for the pass. There's nothing like the look of your own sleep-deprived face lit up by a 1,000-watt lamp.

I got off the tube at Earl's Court and walked to the exit, as a rather shabby-looking gentleman approached me and asked if I was looking for a hostel. He informed me of the prices. They sounded good, and I really didn't give a flying fork about the standard of living, so I tagged along, as he showed me the way there. It was fairly close to the tube station, but I can't remember the name of the place. I think it was called Patrick's House or something like that, but I was never really awake or interested enough to pay attention.

The guy in the "lobby" (a three-by-three foot hole in the wall halfway up the stairs) thought I was American because of my accent. I paid in advance for a dirt cheap week after having been shown the dorm. The first day or two I regretted this. It took a while, but after a couple of days I started to get used to the whole atmosphere.

The walls had cracks. The room was lit by a naked light bulb. By the window of the room, which was facing a street with buses passing by all day and night, other traffic and general hurly-burly, there was a sink with a dirty mirror. The beds, which were bunk beds without ladders, were decently comfy and clean, but they made a sound like the world was about to crumble every time you ventured to breathe. The room took eight people, and was filled most of the time, though not always by the same people.

The two showers were small, but hot, powerful, and very refreshing after long, sweaty summer days and nights in a town that seemed to breathe diesel fumes at day and dew and silence at night. I kept my passport, wallet, digital camera, and other valuables locked up in the reception, and didn't get any non-valuables stolen. Maybe I was just lucky.

There were a lot of Aussies staying at the hostel, and though this was yet another accent to get familiar with, I enjoyed talking to the crazy bastards, and managed to gain some respect from these hardcore professional backpackers, most of whom seemed to have enjoyed this way of life for some twenty years, if not more. I met one happy girl from Australia one time on a nightly walk. She was swimming in the fountain at Trafalgar Square. I concluded that Australian is not a nationality, it's a mental disorder. Which I like.

I recall an Italian guy who snored a lot and seemed to have enormous difficulties getting out of bed in the morning. Breathing heavily, rubbing the sweat out of his face, he told me about his reasons for being there; he had come there looking for a job, any job, and was staying at the hostel until he could afford something better. I do hope he found what he was looking for.

Another figure that is forever etched into my mind is the drunken Scotsman. He would appear sometimes in the TV room/kitchen, either a silent, tall and skinny figure, or a sleeping, snoring one on the couch with his long-haired, gray head leaned back over the back of the couch. In fact, most of the time I saw this guy he was asleep. On the rare occasion that he was not, he was busy drinking out of his whisky bottle.

One night he had fallen asleep right outside the door to the dorm room, still holding his bottle, and I pushed him over as gently as I could with the door, just enough for me to get out, and leaped over his dormant body. The following day, he was sleeping on his back on the floor of the dorm room, butt naked.

The room was always hot and humid, and opening the window was no good solution, as the street outside was noisy. On the other hand, so was the inside most of the time. That didn't bother me much though. I never intended to sleep much in this place. It was a good place to dump your stuff, have a home base and a bed to rest on, if not sleep in. Over the course of the eight days that I spent there, I slept on two nights, four hours each. Nightly walks, emotional highs, and a lot of Red Bull and vodka kept me going.

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