I decided on Luxembourg, a tiny slice of Europe with three official languages and a reputation as a tax haven. It wasn’t the cheapest destination I researched, but I’d never been there, and the train was a reasonably priced, straight-shot ride from Paris.
But my search for hotels left me crestfallen. It could easily cost 500 euros (about $498) for a three-night stay. When a youth hostel came up in my search on Booking.com, I dismissed it. Days later, my frustration mounting, I clicked: 82.50 euros (about $82) for three nights in a shared, all-female dorm room, breakfast included.
I hadn’t actually slept in hostels since I traveled around Guatemala in my early 20s. Now I was a 42-year-old mother. Yet the pandemic has forced us to rethink life as we knew it. If I would have to rough it a little to make this trip possible, so be it. I clicked again, reserving my bed.
The morning of my train, I strolled along sun-dappled streets to Gare de l’Est with my backpack, ebullient 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 concern. Should I have packed a sleeping bag? Or my own sheets?
In the hostel lobby, everyone looked younger than I was. I was uncomfortable, but also slightly relieved when I saw a trolley stacked with bedding wrapped in plastic. I hoped not to be judged by Guy, the receptionist, as I handed over my ID. He couldn’t have been nicer.
I entered my room, and the door slammed behind me like a gavel summoning my self-consciousness. It was intimate, smaller than my college dorm. I was expecting something that would allow me to easily retreat into anonymity. Instead, there were two sets of bunk beds, a toilet and a shower, which would at least save me from walking the hallway in a towel.
Luxembourg City’s youth hostel, which is just one of more than 3,000 locations within the Hostelling International network, was extensive. Its restaurant, Melting Pot, resembled a cheerful school cafeteria. A three-course prix fixe dinner menu was available for 11 euros (about $11), and it included locally sourced dishes such as leek soup and spaghetti Bolognese. Three local beers were on tap. Outside, a patio offered a charming view of the old city’s corniche. A game room held a pool table, and a ping-pong table sat by the main entrance. I was surprised to see a children’s playground, too.
My first morning, I noticed two men wearing bike shorts filling their CamelBaks in the cafeteria sink. Reinhold, 69, and Peter, 64, were on an 11-day cycling trip from Amsterdam to Koblenz, Germany, and were staying in shared hostel rooms the entire trip, because it was more affordable. But Peter had an issue with the breakfast. Compared with other hostels, he said, it “lacked love.”
Having expected nothing more than bread, I had been pleasantly surprised by the spread of ham, cheese, yogurt, fruit and cornflakes, as well as the espresso machine.
I began to notice 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 be staying in private rooms in hostels for cost and convenience, they said.
“It’s just where you sleep, right?” Mariana said.
She had a point. Since having my son, I had dismissed hostels as viable lodging options. I assumed they were relegated to my past, because no one would ever stay in a hostel with a preschooler. However, Guy told me that, although the majority of the hostel’s guests are backpackers, older adults are frequent guests, and families are common, and were even pre-pandemic.
“We have a family staying every day,” he said.
Nete and Nils from Bruges, Belgium, were traveling with their three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, to Switzerland. This was their first hostel stay as a family. “We already said that we’d do it again,” Nete said. The kids loved exploring, and they even found communal toilets to be a fun adventure.
Perhaps I’d been too narrow in my thinking. In Rolf Potts’s “The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel,” to be published in October, he writes about bringing his newly retired parents to youth hostels with him in China and the Czech Republic. “Indeed, hostels are no longer just for youth,” he writes. “They’re an enjoyable, inexpensive lodging option for anyone willing to forgo a few comforts and embrace their communal energy.”
During my final dinner, self-consciousness evaporated, I watched children chase each other around the patio as dusk settled in. A group of gregarious middle-aged men enjoyed a bottle of chilled rosé. Kids played on the swings while their parents looked on from a nearby bench. A couple played cards; another ate next to a stroller. Some loners sat with a pint, their books open on the table.
I actually felt inspired. My quest pushed me to reexamine my preconceptions. In doing so, I had found a way that could make more travel possible for my family. Plans to go to cost-prohibitive places such as Scandinavia and Japan suddenly seemed more within reach. After all, a hostel was affordable, potentially multigenerational — and not a bad way to exact revenge.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.