It may seem odd for someone who is 38 years old, but I actually choose to stay in hostels. Sure, sharing a bathroom with dozens of other people can be a chore, and hostels are often noisy and grimy. But they have a few benefits as well: they are often highly social, raucous, and fun; they're often conveniently located, and they're budget friendly (cheap!).
I didn't stay in a hostel until I was 37. I was in Seattle, in the midst of a divorce, and wanted to travel and experience some new things. When I was married, my wife had much higher lodging standards than I, so we always stayed in standard, clean chain hotels. When I started traveling solo, I reasoned that I could cut the lodging expenses in half by staying in hostels; that's been fairly accurate, and I'm usually happy with the tradeoff. I like roaming around, seeing the sights, partying 'til dawn, and looking for adventure. I don't sleep much while traveling, and certainly don't lounge around the hotel. So for me, a cheap hostel works well as a home base and a place for a few hours of sleep per day.
That said, I've learned that a hostel is not always a better value than a cheap hotel. Here's what I found recently.
Do your research
Using HostelWorld, I found a hostel in Seattle at $40.00-45.00 per person for a private room with a double bed and a shared bath; so that's an $80.00-90.00 room for two, the price dependent on the day of the week. Tax and breakfast were included, and there was a kitchen; plus, laundry facilities and bike parking. Not bad for your own room. The location was excellent – downtown, not far from Pike Place Market, Seattle Center.
In comparison, using Travelocity, I found a room with a double bed and private bath for $80.00 per night in a hotel that's a 10-minute-walk from the Seattle Center. It's basic, with no swimming pool, restaurant, workout room, breakfast, or kitchen. I've stayed in dozens of hotels similar to this one. If they're cheap enough and the location is reasonably convenient, I do enjoy the privacy occasionally. Because of the price, they fill up quickly for holidays, big events, conventions.
The appeal of each option is quite different. A hostel is a place for making friends, staying a few days, catching up on laundry, and taking a break from restaurant food by cooking your own. A hotel is a place to sleep, to find some privacy, and keep your valuables while you're out and about.
If you're traveling alone, as I often do, you may find that you prefer hostels. It's easy to hang out and meet people, including fellow solo travelers who may have loads in common with you. The hostel vibe means it's easy to socialize, join people for fun activities, and still maintain a reasonable (low) budget.
And when you're traveling solo and willing to sleep in a dorm-style room, you can get the per-night cost down to $20.00-25.00. I see that option as a last resort; it's often too much action as I want to wind down, and it seems that every night, I'm either waking someone up or being woken up in the middle of the night. Plenty of people, however, usually young vagabonds on gap year, take this route exclusively.
Mom and Pop Hotels
Another option to remember is independent or “mom-and-pop” hotels. On Whidbey Island a year ago, I stopped at a restaurant with an adjacent hotel. I checked the room and found it clean, with two double beds and a bathroom – no tub but a fine shower. It was cheap, too, at $70.00 per night, or only $35.00 per person.
The restaurant next door hosted karaoke that evening so we had our fun built in, too! Don't expect to find the mom-and-pop hotels on the web, though. The cheapest won't have a web site and won't advertise much, either in print or online. And don't count on guidebooks, either. It's common for a hotel, restaurant, or whatever, to experience a massive surge in business after a listing in a guidebook. Guess what happens next? Yep, it isn't so cheap anymore. Your best bet in finding such places is word-of-mouth, followed by your own reconnaissance.
Steve Hansen works as a freelance copywriter and writes articles for magazines, newspapers and web sites about travel, landscaping, building, adventure, outdoor sports and music. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.