Zenos Dupuis, from Saginaw, Mich., does not like fancy hotels or spending $200 a night for a room. But he does likes a good value, a central location, and clean and comfortable accommodations. So when he travels with his extended family these days, he prefers hostels.
“I like the huge restaurant-style kitchen, where you can bring your own food,” said Dupuis, who stayed at the Chicago Getaway Hostel several times recently with his wife, grandchildren and children, including an infant son. “The employees treat us like family; they make you feel at home.”
He also likes that the hostel is just a short walk to the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Many people associate hostels with lone backpackers, traveling groups of students and even older singles, but these days, more families than ever are vacationing at hostels, industry experts said. They are located in a diverse range of locations, too, including urban centers, like London, where they are close to museums and parks; in resort areas like Orlando or beach towns; and in exotic locations, like a "tree house" style hostel in Olympos, Turkey.
“Hostels are becoming increasingly appealing to cost-conscious travelers with children,” said Giovanna Gentile, public relations executive for London-based HostelBookers.com, which specializes in budget accommodations internationally. As the demand continues to increase, she said, “hostels are adapting themselves to offer the types of accommodation and services that traveling families are seeking.”
“Most hostels offer games rooms and where children can watch TV and families can relax in the comfortable lounge areas after a busy day of sightseeing,” said Gentile. And “hostels often organize free activities such as city tours or movie nights, which are also popular with families.”
Other family-friendly features include common kitchens to make packed lunches or dinner for tired (or finicky) kids, which is both cost effective and convenient; private rooms with en suite bathrooms, so the entire family can sleep together in one room; bike and skate sharing programs; pingpong tables; and movie rooms. There are also amenities to keep the parents happy, like on-site bars. "You won't have far to travel once you have put the kids to bed and settle down for an evening drink," the HostelBookers.com website notes.
The site designates a number of family-friendly hostels, but not all. So if a destination is not listed, Gentile recommends reading the description and customer reviews to determine which property is most suitable, and to ask about things like location, elevators, on-site facilities like swimming pools and if the hostel provides cots or highchairs. Some hostels, she said, provide baby-sitting services. At the Villa Saint Exupery Gardens, in Nice, France—located in a residential area in a converted monastery—“there are plenty of activities on offer to keep the children happy including canyoning, sailing and horseback riding,” the listing reads. “The hostel offers a free baby-sitting service and parents can enjoy some much needed time to themselves on a free city tour.”
Dupuis, the Michigan father and grandfather, said some guests at the Chicago hostel were initially surprised to see young children.
"You do get a few looks, like, 'Why are the kids here?' But I never got the feeling that we were annoying anyone," he said. "And many would break the ice by asking, 'How old is your baby?'"
Overall, guests and employees were welcoming, Dupuis said. “A guy from Dublin asked if he could sing to my son. He actually got down on his knees and sang my son an Irish lullaby.” And when his 4-year-old granddaughter began to play with one of the white pool balls in the game room, “an employee racked up the balls for her,” he said. “They made her feel like she belonged there.”
Dupuis said he also enjoys mingling in the common areas and the diversity of guests. “You always hear a variety of languages and meet people from all over the world. I think that’s what I enjoy the most. You never know what accent you are going to hear,” he said. “It opened my eyes.”
That’s exactly the philosophy behind hostels, said Mark Vidalin, marketing director for nonprofit Hostelling International USA. In recent years there has been a trend toward smaller, more private sleeping areas. “And hostels are far less rustic and far more service-oriented than 20 years ago,” and there are more worldwide now than ever, he said.
“But come with an open mind,” as hostels are not intended to replicate hotels. The goal has always been “to intentionally create a shared space, an environment to connect. It’s all about the international, intercultural experience,” he said.
In addition, what is unique about hostels is that no two are the same. Many are historic landmarks, or are located in quirky or fun places, like former lighthouses or Norman castles. Vacation at a place like that, Vidalin said, and the “kids will never forget it.”