Friday, March 11, 2011

Travel Tips: Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part I)

This travel tip comes courtesy of all the family jaunts we took when I was growing up in England.  My parents had a love for travel and a great sense of adventure, but with five children and themselves to accommodate, economy was the watchword.  I credit their frugality with all the wonderful, global experiences I've had, and many of the 'sleep cheap' tips I've gathered were inherited from them.

Hostelling International

One of the best kept lodging secrets in Europe is the network of Youth Hostels that spans almost any European country you might find yourself in.  The idea originated in Germany, where they're called Jugenherbergen, but now you can find them all over the world.  Most countries have their own hostelling association (DJH in Germany, and YHA in the UK, for example) but around 90 of these local associations have been organized under the worldwide association, Hostelling International.  This organization has an all-purpose webpage which allows you to view locations  in the US and across the globe and even book beds online.  There is a membership fee (non-members may still be allowed to stay in hostels, subject to availability and the possibility of a small extra charge) but if you plan on traveling often, in areas where hostels are plentiful, it can be a smart investment.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don't have to be a 'youth' to stay in a youth hostel.  The early sites were started as a haven for young people, who were expected to work and contribute in exchange for their room and board (some hostels still operate this way, but it's rare), but now you'll find patrons from eight to 80 all under the same roof.  Of course, some specific locations still have age limits - usually on the younger end of the spectrum - so it's worth checking in advance.

What should you expect? In many cases, the accommodation will be basic - a bed in a dormitory-style room or occasionally small private rooms with shared bathroom facilities are common - but some hostels offer amenities similar to pensions or bed and breakfasts.  Many hostels have self-catering kitchens and some even offer full-service restaurants or small shops and cafes.

It's a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to choosing a hostel; I've had one or two spartan experiences, but there are also some really great facilities in excellent locations.  In my many years of hostel experience, I've stayed in converted stables, barns, monasteries, a boathouse, a brewery, a three-masted tall ship and even a working lighthouse!  Hosteling also offers the opportunity to meet some fascinating people (it's amazing how close you can become when you're sharing a room, a kitchen or a meal), share old travel stories, or pair up with new travel companions.

The Af Chapman - one of the world's largest tall ships and a youth hostel!

Overall, I'd recommend hostelling for the experience, quite apart from the opportunity to save a few pennies to spend on more foreign food! Of course, as with most aspects of travel, you should always be careful when booking and staying in a hostel.  Try to plan ahead as much as possible - in many cases you can speak to the owners or view the place online ahead of time to put your mind at ease.  Don't stay somewhere where you don't feel safe and try to keep your valuables well hidden or with you at all times.

Maybe the idea of frugality appeals, but you've decided the community aspect of hostels just isn't for you: I'll be writing a segment on pensions and bed-and-breakfasts as another low-cost option in the coming weeks, so keep coming back!

For those who want an even more budget-friendly, close-to-nature approach to European travel:  Keep checking in for my post on tent and car camping overseas! Camping = even MORE money for culinary adventures and that's a good thing!

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