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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
As a whole, the US has been slow to embrace hostels. While we’ve seen an uptick in interest and investment in shared lodging recently, the industry, domestically, still lags far behind other parts of the world.
A handful of hostels, however, have succeeded here as exceptions to the rule. These properties are longstanding testaments to the fact that hostels can survive, and even thrive, in a hostile hostel environment.
Miami Beach International Hostel
A mainstay in South Beach for nearly two decades, the Miami Beach International Hostel has been a favorite of backpackers from the states and abroad. Both breakfast and dinner are included in its bed prices (starting at $25 for a dorm or $120 for a private room). For a time, the rooms seemed as tired as 18 years in SoBe would make you, but a brand new location still a block from the beach gave the hostel a much-needed refresh.
What sets it apart: If you’ve ever wanted to experience the nightlife of South Beach without waiting in line for the privilege to pay $50 to step inside a club, Miami Beach International Hostel is your solution. They organize nightly trips to SoBe clubs with VIP entry (read: no wait) for free or a fraction of what cover charge would cost otherwise.
Green Tortoise Hostels
You couldn’t script a backstory for an iconic hostel any better than Green Tortoise. Started as a long distance “hippie bus” company in the 1970s, Green Tortoise buses took leisurely journeys across the country with communal meals and camping stops. They eventually gave up their regular service in favor of adventure camping trips and opened a pair of hostels in San Francisco and Seattle in the early 1990s.
What sets it apart: Free and cheap meals, tours and bar crawls (which encourage interaction with other guests) are common in good hostels, but Green Tortoise takes it to the next level. At their San Francisco property, for example, guests are encouraged to help prepare the free dinners under the direction of a very entertaining chef. And the staff members at both locations are, without fail, contagiously enthusiastic.
USA Hostels Ocean Beach
With its colorful, hippie exterior and massive peace sign, USA Hostels Ocean Beach — formerly Ocean Beach International Hostel — is hard to miss. After 20 years of operating independently, it has joined USA Hostels and given its rooms an upgrade, but promises not to lose its funky appeal. Dorm beds start at $31 and privates are available from $120, with all rates including basic breakfast, daily activities and enough psychedelic ambiance to make you question your sobriety.
What sets it apart: Less than two blocks from Ocean Beach, the hostel supplies everything you need to enjoy the location. Towels, beach chairs, umbrellas, Frisbees and coolers are free to borrow, and surfboards and body boards can be rented for cheap. Even lessons cost far less than outside rates. Combine that with free beach yoga, beach bonfires and an outdoor foot wash and shower, and you have the ultimate beach hostel.
Hosteling International (HI) USA brought hostels to the states from Europe in the 1930s. They existed in some form until the 1980s, when the first major urban hostel boom put shared accommodations on the map in six major cities including Boston. And in 2012, HI Boston moved into a fresh new location and shook off the grungy, high school field trip vibe associated with most HI properties.
What sets it apart: The new location was masterfully built according to the needs of a backpacker. HI Boston delivers with a convenient location, cozy lounge area, friendly and knowledgeable staff, well-equipped kitchen with free breakfast, huge lockers, free tours and fair price with dorm beds for $35 and private rooms for $100. It’s a model large hostels can learn from.
Apple Hostel Philadelphia
Apple Hostel is what happens when a couple veteran hostel employees say, “Let’s start our own hostel!” And then actually follow through. This year marks 10 years since Marc and Ines opened the doors of their hostel, ideally situated in the historic Old City neighborhood, and it easily remains the best property of its kind in Philly. The owners credit their success to their adopted dog, Mickey, who is listed as acting CEO.
What sets it apart: With bunks starting at $20 per night in the pleasant 16 bed dorm (or privates from $80), this is about the best bang for your buck you’ll find in a big US city. This price even includes a free event every evening: a rotating mix of dinner, a tour and drinks.
Banana Bungalow Maui
Another staple to the local backpacker scene, the Banana Bungalow in Maui has been accommodating backpackers and surfers in some capacity for 38 years. The garden setting with hammocks, table games and a Jacuzzi is a perfect spot to meet and socialize with other backpackers — especially over happy hour. While $47 for a dorm bed is steep, you won’t find much better in Maui. And a private for $120 may be worth the tiny premium if you’re traveling with a friend.
What sets it apart: Banana Bungalow loses points for its worn-down rooms and location in Wailuku town far from the beach, but its high-quality, free (tip-based) daily tours more than compensate. Every day, the hostel shuttles guests in their vans to various spots on the island. Saturdays are the best, when they drive to the top of Haleakalā and lead a 13-mile hike across the Martian-like surface of the crater. On Tuesdays, Banana Bungalow employees drive guests to the town of Hana, where a nearby jungle hike is a highlight.
USA Hostels San Francisco
Centrally located downtown near Union Square and public transportation, USA Hostels San Francisco is a great launching point for first-time visitors to the Golden City, as there wonderfully helpful staff members to direct you. Because this is San Francisco, expect to drop $40 on a dorm bed or $110 on a private room. Fortunately, that includes a decent breakfast and access to free or cheap tours, outings and pub crawls.
What sets it apart: All dorm rooms have no more than four beds, so you’re not paying a premium for smaller dorms; and each bed is equipped with USA Hostels’ signature privacy pods, which include an outlet, shelf, reading light and even a partial privacy screen. This is how you’ll find some solitude in San Francisco without paying more than $100 a night.
Other Great Hostel Properties
Aside from these mainstays and recent ventures such as Lifehouse and Freehand Hotels — riffs on the hostel model — there are other great hostels around the country fostering a strong backpacker community.
In New York City, for example, there’s The Local Hostel. In New Orleans, it’s the Auberge Hostel. Travelers can also rely on Hostel Fish in Denver; Firehouse Hostel in Austin; Highroad Hostel in Washington, DC; Holiday Jones in Chicago; Crash Pad in Chattanooga; and any city with a Samesun hostel.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !
Feature image courtesy of USA Hostels Ocean Beach.
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