I think I’m aging out of my stoic travel habits.
My author profile over on Atlas Obscura boasts that “I stay in hostels by choice”; and I have indeed stayed in a lot of hostels, usually due to budget. But honestly, the mixing-and-mingling that happens in hostels is worth it; you’re all thrown together in the common room and you see someone with a cool souvenir and you ask about it, or you’re in the common kitchen and they ask you where you found shredded cheese, and you end up talking just because you’re from two completely different places and it’s cool. I had a fabulous conversation about theater with a London cabbie while we were both in Philadelphia, I bonded with a Norwegian geographer and a Belfast mathematician over the dinner at a Yosemite-area cabin; a woman from Australia tipped me off to a gelato-making class in Florence, Italy; and a chance question in the lobby of a New Orleans hostel landed me a date during Mardi Gras. Sometimes the conversations happen right in your room – one morning in London, all four of us in my dorm room woke up at the same time, and during our introductions we learned that among the four of us, we represented four completely different continents.
But that “dorm room” part has lately started to get on my nerves. I’ve been to London twice, and stayed in the same hostel both times – the second time I was in a much larger dorm room, with a revolving cast of characters taking up the twelve available bunk beds in the room. For a few days we were bunking with four girls from Madrid, who all had enormous suitcases which were too big to fit in the rooms’ lockers – so they simply left them bang in the middle of the floors. And every time they had to fetch something out of a suitcase they unpacked everything, spreading it out on the floor, and lingering over finding whatever t-shirt or socks or whatever, so the rest of us had to do a sidesteppy tap-dance around it all to get to our beds. I admit to whistling a sea shanty when they finally left (“Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies….”)
I ran into a similar problem in the first stop on my next big trip, to Rome – that time, it was four men, who invariably did everything as a group – they would wake up as a group, all four loudly unzipping suitcases and digging out towels and shampoo and soap and trooping back and forth to the dorm showers, then all four loudly coming back as one mass, zipping away their bags and heading off to breakfast together. And then by the time I’d finally blinked fully awake myself and was just about to dress in peace, they’d all loudly come back as one mass, unzip all their suitcases again, unpack and repack things in search of whatever guidebook or bag they needed, then zip everything away and take off again. Followed by another mass group upheaval in the room after lunch and another after dinner before heading out, and then another late at night when they came back to bed down again. One night I’d come back to the room early for some spare down time, and a woman who’d just arrived accidentally dropped something as she was unpacking and apologized profusely – I told her not to worry about it and swore she wasn’t disturbing me. She kept asking if she was bothering me as she unpacked and settled down for the night herself, not trusting when I said that she was fine. Then a half hour after she settled down herself, the Spanish Armada came back in for their usual round of unzipping and rezipping. I watched her watching them; and then, seeing her disbelief, I wrote a quick note and brought it over to her – “Now you know why I said you weren’t bothering me!” She read it and laughed; and then we just sighed, and retreated to our own beds.
That’s just sort of par for the course in the hostel dorm rooms, though. and I thought of it as part of the hostel experience.
I’d splurged for a private room in that hostel – it had a few more private rooms than average, and it was just a little bit more than a dorm room. Why not, I thought?
I still had the socializing going on in the common rooms, but – in the room itself, I could turn the reading light on whenever I wanted, even in the middle of the night. There was a computer right there in the room, so I didn’t have to fight for one of the community ones in the common room. Instead of trying to carve out a spot for myself on the windowsill, I could put any of my things anywhere I wanted – water bottle, books, slippers, robe, anything. I could shut the blinds in the morning, or open them to a brilliant full Italian moon. I could even, believe it or not, go naked in the room and no one would know.
And now that I’ve traveled like that I can’t go back. I’m making a return trip to Philadelphia soon – home to one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in – they have free bikes, friendly staff, and are in such a remote part of Fairmont Park that it’s as if you’re in the middle of the woods – I shared my breakfast with a rabbit in the yard one morning, and one night some guests reported sitting on the porch and watching three deer wander out of the woods nearby and walk right up to the porch.
But those charms are just not measuring up to the possibility of having my own bed in a room all to myself, my own bathtub just for me, my own key, my own kitchen, my own space. It tripled my budget, but this time I went with an AirBnB stay rather than a hostel.
I’ll still use hostels in bigger cities where I’ve never been before, I’m sure. Or smaller places where the odds are good that the rooms will be smaller. But I think I’m getting old enough that I simply will not skimp on certain kinds of creature comforts.