I opted for Luxembourg, a small slice of Europe with three official languages and a reputation as a tax haven. It wasn’t the cheapest destination I had researched, but I had never been there, and the train was a reasonably priced direct route from Paris.
But my search for hotels left me discouraged. It could easily cost 500 euros (about $498) for a three-night stay. When a hostel showed up in my search on Booking.com, I rejected it. A few days later, my frustration mounting, I clicked: 82.50 euros (about $82) for three nights in an all-female shared dorm, including breakfast.
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I hadn’t really slept in hostels since I traveled to Guatemala in my early twenties. Now I was a 42 year old mother. Yet the pandemic has forced us to rethink life as we know it. If I had to push him around a bit to make this trip possible, so be it. I clicked again, reserving my bed.
The morning of my train, I strolled through the sunny streets of the Gare de l’Est with my backpack, seething with a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt in a long time. Then, as the train pulled away from Paris, I felt a pang of worry. Should I have packed a sleeping bag? Or my own sheets?
In the hostel lobby, everyone looked younger than me. I was uneasy, but also mildly relieved when I saw a cart stacked with plastic-wrapped bedding. I hoped not to be judged by Guy, the receptionist, by handing over my identity card. He couldn’t have been nicer.
I walked into my room and the door slammed behind me like a hammer calling my conscience. It was intimate, smaller than my college dorm. I expected something that would allow me to easily withdraw into anonymity. Instead, there were two sets of bunk beds, a toilet, and a shower, which would at least save me from walking down the hall with a towel.
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Just one of over 3,000 addresses in the Hostelling International network, the Luxembourg City hostel was extensive. His restaurant, Melting Pot, looked like a cheerful school canteen. A three-course prix fixe menu was available for 11 euros (about $11) and included local dishes such as leek soup and spaghetti Bolognese. Three local beers were on tap. Outside, a patio offered a charming view of the corniche of the old town. A game room contained a pool table, and a ping-pong table was near the main entrance. I was also surprised to see a children’s play area.
My first morning, I noticed two men in bike shorts filling their CamelBaks in the cafeteria sink. Reinhold, 69, and Peter, 64, were on an 11-day bike trip from Amsterdam to Koblenz, Germany, and were staying in shared hostel rooms the whole trip because it was more affordable. But Peter had a problem with the breakfast. Compared to other hostels, he says, it was “lacking in love”.
Expecting nothing more than bread, I was pleasantly surprised by the spread of ham, cheese, yoghurt, fruit and cornflakes, as well as the espresso machine.
I started noticing older solo travelers and those traveling in groups. And families like Juan and Mariana from Canada on a three-week tour of Europe with their teenage sons. They would stay in private rooms in hostels for cost and convenience reasons, they said.
“That’s right where you sleep, isn’t it?” said Marianne.
She was right. Ever since I had my son, I had dismissed hostels as viable accommodation options. I assumed they were relegated to my past as no one would ever stay in a hostel with a preschooler. However, Guy told me that while the majority of hostel guests are backpackers, older adults are frequent guests and families are common, and were even pre-pandemic.
“We have a family that stays every day,” he said.
Nete and Nils from Bruges, Belgium, were traveling with their three children, aged 2, 4 and 6, to Switzerland. It was their first family hostel stay. “We already said we would do it again,” Nete said. The kids loved exploring and they even found the shared toilets a fun adventure.
Perhaps I had been too narrow in my thinking. In “The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel” by Rolf Potts, to be published in October, he writes about bringing his newly retired parents to hostels with him in China and in the Czech Republic. “Indeed, hostels are no longer just for young people,” he writes. “They are a nice and inexpensive accommodation option for anyone who wants to give up a few comforts and enjoy their shared energy.”
On my last dinner, self-awareness evaporated, I watched the children chase each other around the patio as dusk set in. A group of gregarious middle-aged men enjoyed a bottle of chilled rosé. Children played on the swings while their parents watched from a nearby bench. A couple was playing cards; another ate next to a stroller. Some loners sat with a pint, their books open on the table.
In fact, I felt inspired. My quest pushed me to reconsider my preconceived ideas. In doing so, I had found a way that could make more travel possible for my family. Plans to go to cost-prohibitive places like Scandinavia and Japan suddenly seemed more within reach. After all, a hostel was affordable, potentially multi-generational — and not a bad way to get revenge.
Henk is a writer based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter (@ErinHenk) and Instagram (@erinkhenk).
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.