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When Richard Schirrmann started the first hostel in 1912, he never would have thought that one day travelers and hostel owners would be so divided.
Reading comments on forums, wiki-websites, and recommendation fragments of booking websites and other online available pages, I sometimes need to find out who the authors of certain written statements are. Of course, in times of internet combined with the world’s financial crisis and more hostels opening up each week, managements of bed offering houses need to make a point.
Here at touristmayday, we like to make a point, too. Over the years, we have been involved in many branches of the tourism industry. Writing, photography, management, security, insurance adjustment and more. But most of all, we traveled. And that is the most important aspect of all.
Before I get into the “What is a hostel?” part, let me explain how hostels changed over the last 10 to 15 years. Explained by the changes that Europe went through when it comes to budget tourism, which is the branch hostels are to be settled in.
The first hostels were started in Germany. Thought as accommodations for school classes and base for their daily fieldtrips, offering only dormitories, common bathrooms and toilets, the meals were cooked by the “Herbergsfamilie” (The German word for hostel host). Times changed and hostels opened more and more for individual travelers and families, and for construction workers needing a bed because the way home was too far. During the mid-nineties, there was a handful privately owned hostels, or backpackers in Europe. Hostels were in the hands of the HI associations, private places opened by travelers bringing ideas from Australia or North America.
The opening of the iron curtain brought a boom of budget tourism to places like East Berlin and Prague. The wave of hostels or backpackers caught every city on the continent. Mostly opened by heart, they offered mainly dormitories with common bath rooms, self catering kitchens and common rooms free of play stations. Then came the budget airlines. Flying backpackers and students around Europe in such high quantities, that hostels were filled up all year and every cheap B&B or pension had a 90% occupancy rate.
That was the time, when the hostel business got caught up with the real world, when hostels became real businesses. When hostel owners did not have to worry about how to pay the next rent, but how to get more travelers into a small room.
Apartments were rented, bunk beds squeezed into little rooms. 20 guests had to share one single bathroom and the advertised breakfast was a dry croissant and a spoon of instant coffee with hot water. A neighbor or a friend saw how easy it was to make money with nearly no hassle and another place opened.
At the end of the nineties, Barcelona had four HI hostels and one or two private backpackers. Today, the list of hostels is endless when checking booking websites for a place to stay in the Catalan city. And the service? What makes a hostel a hostel? What is the right balance for a bed offering host?
A hostel is no hotel! So dormitories are a must for both, the host and the traveler. The host can set up more beds in a room and accommodate more guests than he could by just offering private rooms. The budget traveler appreciates this because he will not pay more than he can afford if he likes to stay on budget. A fact is that 2-star hotels with only private rooms in cities like Florence or Seville changed double rooms into 6 bed dorms. An appreciated fact by the traveler, sleeping for 20€ but finding no locker or even space to place his backpack on the floor of the dormitory. A double room sells for around 80€, a dormitory filled with 6 people brings 120€. A win-win situation, one side thinks.
Kitchens are a must for a hostel that calls itself budget accommodation. This written, it is a known fact that in some countries or regions, the government restrictions for common or self catering kitchens are so unfullfillable that the management gave up applying for anything. The problem arises with false advertising. A hostels website cannot state “Common Kitchen” but only offer a microwave and an electric kettle. Some travelers book hostels because they think they save money by cooking their own meals. A good treat would be a deal between the hostel and a nearby restaurant or snack bar, giving the guest a discount for meals. Breakfast should be offered. (A treat in German HI-hostels, some 4-star hotel should copy their breakfast buffets).
Common bathrooms in hostels are as normal as snow in the Alps. But then, since budget airlines transport every kind of tourist to the hotspots of traveling, many hostels started a thing that is called ensuite. Of course, that comes to a higher price. It is understandable that private rooms have ensuite bathrooms. But why should I pay more for having to wake up in the middle of the night because my dorm mates need to go to the bathroom? Having to listen to noises one can- not write about. A group of people knowing each other and staying in an ensuite room is ok, but a bunch of travelers that just got to know each other? Well!
Washing machines are one of the treats travelers appreciate. Nothing better than being able to wash the clothes you are traveling in for weeks or months and get that smell out of the t-shirt. It is a plus for the hostel as well, being able to do some of the washing without paying fees at the next dry cleaner.
“Get to know spots” are the kind of places in hostels, where travelers meet each other. Beside the low prices and saving money, that is one of the main reasons, travelers stay at a hostel. Meeting fellow travelers. I remember a hostel in Toronto, an Argentine and an English backpacker, talking about the Falkland war and its stupidity, the next day an Iranian teacher having a cup of tea with an Iraqi student debating the spoils of Persian food. The common room, the kitchen or the laundry room are “Get to know spots”. For those smoking, well, there is always a smoker’s corner on the terrace or beside the front door.
Nowadays, newly opened hostels include services that make a hostel anything but a hostel. TV’s in dormitories, fitness rooms, saunas and else. How could we travel the world some years ago without having a TV in our dorm? Different people from different countries watching TV in a language they mostly can´t understand. A gym for those, who every second day carry about 50 pounds of luggage from a train station to a hostel and back and walk miles during their sightseeing sessions. A hostel with a sauna, in a city which has a humidity of 90% and squadrons of mosquitoes in every room. Of course, all that comes to a slightly higher price.
Like mentioned earlier, these budget airlines bring in all sorts of travelers. Even those, who do not look at price and service. 10 years ago one could arrive by train in a city and walk into the hostel without a reservation. These were the perfect times. Being on a long backpacking trip and not having to book every hostel days or even weeks in advance. Being able to stay some days more at the hostel because you love the place and not having to worry about losing your bed and 10% reservation fee at your next destination. Walk-ins are part of the hostel business.
Receptionists and managements of hostels are busy shifting available beds and rooms from one booking website to the other just to make sure the last bed will be sold early so nobody has to worry. The trouble begins when the computer goes on strike or a thunder storm causes a black out and there is no electricity. All reservations are saved in files of the booking engines, but not many hostels save the reservations with names and dates on a simple piece of paper, just in case. Confusion arises when guests like to stay longer, a new check-in is to be done, and the spirit of Thomas Edison does not want you to have power to run your PC.
Over all, many hostels lose the social and fun aspect of being a hostel. After all, it is supposed to be run by heart.
To be continued…..