Can a hostel ruin your travel experience?
Hostels: they're either the best thing in the world, or the worst. I can't decide.
The benefits are pretty obvious. With the world's network of hostels you get cheap accommodation anywhere you want to go, allowing travellers to spend fewer bucks for more experiences. Longer on the road, with more money.
Unlike a traditional hotel you not only get a place to sleep, but usually a place to cook food, and a place to hang out and relax.
You also harness the ultimate way to meet people when you're travelling. Even the quietest of travellers couldn't help but make friends when they're thrown into a dorm room with a whole bunch of strangers from around the world.
Hostel-goers are usually like-minded people, open and friendly and keen to meet other travellers to hang out and swap stories and drink beers. Hostels are social places, the kind of accommodation option that's inclusive rather than exclusive.
So that's all great. But it's also the problem: they're almost too good.
I've been staying in a few hostels recently, and I've noticed something I've decided to call "hostel syndrome".
You can spot someone with hostel syndrome, because they'll be sitting there at the hostel bar when you first arrive, maybe staring at their phone, or drinking a beer, or watching TV. When you leave your room they'll still be there, doing the same thing. When you come back from whatever you've decided to do, they'll still be there. At the hostel.
In fact for your entire stay you'll see that intrepid traveller hanging out in the social areas, making friends, chilling out, watching TV, doing whatever it is they do, because the hostel becomes your travelling life.
It doesn't happen to everyone, and it doesn't happen in every hostel. Some of these places are just rooms and beds – they don't encourage a communal atmosphere, they're just a place to lay your head. So you're not going to base your entire stay around what's happening there.
But the more social establishments tend to lull you into holidaying purely at your hostel, hanging out purely with the hostel crowd.
What's on for today? Check the activities board and decide what to do. Where should we go for dinner? Grab a couple of randoms from the dorm and head out somewhere close. Are we going for drinks? Hit the hostel bar for cheap beers.
There's nothing really wrong with having hostel syndrome if that's the way you like to travel, but for me you lose a huge part of the experience if you succumb. You lose the spirit of exploration. You miss out on huge chunks of cities and countries because they don't happen to be in the sphere of the place you're staying and the people you're hanging out with.
I was staying in a hostel in Sultanahmet, the touristy part of Istanbul, recently and started chatting to an American guy about the city. "What did you think of Galata?" I asked.
"I dunno," he said. "Where's that?"
"Just across the bridge."
"Oh. Where's the bridge?"
Galata, another area of Istanbul, is about a 10-minute tram ride from Sultanahmet, but a completely different experience. There are fewer tourists, better restaurants, nicer shops.
But the American guy hadn't even heard of it during his four nights in the city because he'd been hanging out at the hostel most of the time, making friends and having fun. That hostel and the surrounding area would be his entire experience of Istanbul.
I know it's a case of each to their own, and if that's how you enjoy travelling then so be it. But so much goes undiscovered when you limit yourself to the hostel crowd.
It's a lazy, easy way of travelling, because you don't have to do any research, you don't have to take any chances, you don't have to deal with locals, and you don't have to get out of your comfort zone. You just enjoy the cheap beers and the company.
Sometimes that's the best thing ever. But if that's your entire travel experience, it's also the worst.
Have you noticed people with hostel syndrome? Do you find you tend to stick with the hostel crowd? Or do you try to get out and explore?
- Sydney Morning Herald