Checking into the Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv in spring 2017 at the end of a family trip to Israel, Amy Friedman’s two teenage daughters took a look at the bare-bones room that slept four for about $130 and wondered if the trip was ending on a thud rather than a bang.
“It took about four hours to fall in love,” said Ms. Friedman, a television executive who lives in Montclair, N. J. Looking around the communal spaces, the girls found an art exhibition on the roof, swings in the living room, Ping-Pong and “a lot of young travelers so they could project what it might be like to travel when they’re older. We wanted to help the girls to picture travel they will be able to afford.”
Sparsely furnished, communally focused and very affordable, hostels — which traditionally offer shared bathrooms and dormlike sleeping quarters that might house dozens of strangers — have usually been associated with student travel. But hostels have evolved to appeal to couples and especially families by providing private rooms, often with several beds and private bathrooms.
In the United States, a number of new-wave hostels with family rooms and hotel amenities, such as those run by the London-based group Generator, have recently opened. Hybrid hotels such as the Freehand brand in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York have adopted the model to offer rooms that sleep up to six people traveling together. In 2020, the Berlin-based hybrid Meininger Hotel plans to open its first American outpost in Washington, D.C., with 616 beds in 154 rooms.
“Traditional hotels have not done a good job catering to families in the big cities,” said Rainer Jenss, the president of the Family Travel Association. “The biggest advantage of hostels is access to local communities, both in terms of location — they are usually centrally located, near public transportation — and built-in concierge expertise in the area. And it’s a great way to get ideas from other travelers.”
According to Hostelling International USA, a nonprofit that runs 50 hostels, hostels got their start in Germany in 1909. Alarmed by the impact of the Industrial Revolution on students’ health, an elementary schoolteacher named Richard Shirrmann organized weekend field trips to the country with overnights in local school buildings. Permanent hostels grew to more than 2,000 nationally by 1932 and the first youth hostel in the United States opened in Northfield, Mass., in 1934.
Today, HI USA operates mostly in large cities, and plans to open a new hostel in New Orleans this summer. The company said it doesn’t track the demographics of its 1.15 million overnighters annually but that families are welcome even though the core target traveler is 18 to 30 years old.
“Families are an important and growing demographic,” said Chad Fish, the owner of the independent Hostel Fish in Denver, who is working on expanding to Chicago and Los Angeles. “That’s why we’re adjusting the floor plan and layout in upcoming locations to have more family rooms.”
Saving money together
Most family traffic is driven by saving money and a desire to stay together. According to the travel data firm STR, the average daily rate for a hotel room in the United States in 2018 was about $130, meaning a family of four, if required to take two rooms, might end up paying $260 or more a night.
“Booking two rooms for two parents and two kids breaks up the family travel purpose of being together,” said Santiago Leon, the general manager of the 89-room Robey hotel in Chicago. When it opened in 2016, 20 of those rooms had more than two beds and sold as dorms, but within the year were converted to private rooms based largely on demand by families, which account for 30 to 40 percent of guests. Known as Annex Lofts, the rooms sleep up to five and start at $160.
Home shares like Airbnb similarly satisfy the need for togetherness, but many may lack the social interaction that is at the heart of staying in a hostel.
“What makes a hostel a hostel is the focus of bringing people together in a shared experience,” said Netanya Trimboli, the spokeswoman for HI USA, which has family rooms from $77 a night on Cape Cod and $106 in Montara, Calif., on the grounds of a 19th-century lighthouse 25 miles north of San Francisco.
On a practical level, most hostels have shared kitchens with cooking facilities, which can save more money and serve picky eaters.
Seeing a city, meeting the world
Many hostels build community through free events. The HI Houston, for example, has weekly museum tours and nacho nights.
“Hostels tend to have access to discounts and offers to things happening in cities,” Mr. Jenss said. “Hostelling would be very attractive to a family interested in immersing in local cultures.”
Generator, which has 13 locations in Europe, says between 15 and 18 percent of its business annually is family traffic and has shifted its room inventory to encourage family travelers with more four-to-six-bed rooms. Opened in October 2018, Generator Miami offers 300 beds in 105 rooms a block from the ocean, with rates from $23 for a bunk in a shared room and $104 for a four-bed room. Amenities include a restaurant, beach chairs and towels, a swimming pool and rental bikes.
“From age 10 or 11, we have different communal areas,” said Alastair Thomann, the chief executive of Generator, highlighting a new partnership with EA Sports to bring sports video consoles. “That’s why I think hostels are so popular, because they are social spaces.”
Play areas also foster connections between children. For Claudia M. Laroye, a freelance writer from Vancouver, a hostel in Locarno, Switzerland, gave her children, then 9 and 11, the chance to play with others from Spain despite not sharing a language.
“I’ve noticed that children are real icebreakers if they have commonalities where language is a barrier for adults,” she said. “They don’t suffer the same hesitations.”
Guarding privacy and safety
The growth of private rooms with private baths has, for the most part, solved the privacy issue at hostels, but often only if a family buys out an entire multi-bunk room. My family of three took a gamble on a room with four beds at Milford Sound Lodge in Fiordland National Park in New Zealand two years ago, saving more than $200, and wound up with a roommate, albeit one we never met, who showed up after we were asleep and, unfortunately, set his alarm for hours before we wanted to rise.
Another potential pitfall may be exposing a child to adult topics — in our case graffiti written on the wooden bunks about “Nick at reception” having access to “good weed” (though the lodge, also a hotel, is not overtly a party place). To our 17-year-old, this was hilarious teen humor, especially since Nick appeared in several non-drug-related posts, but parents of younger children concerned about language may want to inquire about dorm maintenance before booking.
“The one issue that concerned us was the all-night party scene. Will we be able to get to sleep?” said Mr. Jenss, who has stayed in several hostels with his children and advises phoning the hostel to discuss noise and booking a private room.
Multi-bed rooms at hybrid hotels like the Freehand New York, with hanging baskets of apples and graphics painted on the walls, feel more like hotels, even with bunk beds. But for basic hostels, parents may need to prepare children.
“You need to frame it, to help kids understand the why behind the choice,” Ms. Friedman said, adding that the bargain hostel she stayed at in Tel Aviv was an opportunity to demonstrate travel budgeting to her children, using the savings as a rationale for a more expensive restaurant or a second soda.
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