Increasingly upscale hostels are shedding their grungy image |

Budget sleep has never been so cool.

So cool, in fact, that some hostels now identify themselves as hotels.

When I wrote about them five years ago, the bottom line was that hostels – where guests typically pay for a bed rather than a room and share bathrooms, kitchens and other common areas – were trying to get rid of their reputation. Historically the hostel is known as a stripped down and predictably dirty place for funky (and I don’t mean hip) backpackers to kick off in Europe. But it has undergone an extreme metamorphosis. Hostels are growing in popularity in the United States, with immaculate, amenity-rich properties so cleverly designed you might imagine them in a Dwell magazine.

These trends have only grown over the past five years, and I’m not surprised to hear about hostels with pools, craft cocktails, art exhibits, live music, rooftop bars, tours, yoga classes and luxury suites. Kex, an Icelandic brand that opened a 29-room property in Portland, Oregon, earlier this month, has a 12-person sauna and a free European-style breakfast with homemade preserves and freshly baked bread. Like other properties in this new batch of hostels, Kex wants to appeal to travelers of all stripes, not just backpackers, so it’s tackling the image problem by avoiding “hostels” altogether, calling itself a ” social hotel”.

Generator, the affordable luxury European brand with 14 locations including Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris (a DC location is slated to open in January), once had “hostel” in its name but dropped it when the company launched its first American owned last year in Miami’s South Beach.

“The name ‘hostel’ was too limiting for us,” said Alastair Thomann, CEO of Generator. “I don’t know if we had kept it if Generator would have been so successful.” (He noted that the 2005 horror film “Hostel” did real damage to the perception of the hostel.) Generator was so successful that in October, its parent company spent $400 million to acquiring Freehand Hotels, a small American hostel chain with a slightly more grown-up and intimate vibe than Generator. Both brands are known for their stunning design-driven properties in trendy urban neighborhoods; they’re boutique hotel-inn hybrids with trendy restaurants and bars where guests can stay in bunk rooms or luxury private suites.

Regardless of sleeping arrangements, Thomann said, all guests share the same experience. “You feel the vibe of the hostel when you walk in. Like-minded people meet and swap stories.”

And while some travelers head to hostels because they’re still cheap (a bed in a 16-bed bunk room in Kex Portland, for example, is $39; a bed in a 10-bed dorm in Generator Miami costs around $32), the real superpower of hostels is this collective experience, something you won’t find in budget hotels or Airbnbs.

Hostels are designed to foster social interaction, and long ago they mastered the art of communal living – the magic that happens when you’re away from home and connecting with other travellers. Many hostel guests are solo travelers, and in a hostel they can play table tennis, cook a meal, break bread, or explore the city with a stranger who will soon feel like a friend.

The best hostels help travelers feel like a local, offering pub crawls, neighborhood walks, and ways to experience culture, always connecting with others, always on a budget.

This philosophy has even led industry giants to respond by rolling out properties with smaller shared or connected rooms and larger common areas (although neither is priced or called a hostel). ). Marriott’s Element launched its new shared lounge concept (four private rooms and a shared space where guests can cook, collaborate and relax) at hotels in Scottsdale, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado earlier this year. Motto by Hilton will open its first location in the district in 2020, featuring efficient guest rooms and the Motto Commons, a community center that can accommodate local food stalls, bars and vendors.

Whether the hotel concepts are successful or not, the redesign of hostels is moving forward at full speed. Matthew Kepnes, author of “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day,” said upgraded mattresses, privacy curtains, reading lights, high-speed Wi-Fi, 24/7 reception 7 and power and USB outlets are now all industry standard. Kepnes, partner of HK Austin, a hostel with vinyl record players and 500-thread-count sheets, said the market for these upgraded properties came in part from millennials staying in nice hostels overseas and wanting this level of luxury at the national level.

A mile west of HK, Native is an even fancier and more expensive option, calling itself an “experimental hostel that brings house party and hospitality together under one moonlit roof.” Native has 66 beds in 12 rooms, decked out in dark, sumptuous colors and materials like black marble and brass. It hosts a weekly poetry slam and has a public bar, another growing trend.

The Music City Hotel in San Francisco offers amenities such as daily housekeeping and fresh towels, free toiletries, and larger bunk beds. General Manager Brian Davy said that while Music City was called a hostel, business travelers and older travelers might never experience the property; as a hotel, it accommodates many of both. Music City is expanding to include a restaurant, bar, rehearsal space, jam space and production booths, so music makers and lovers can come together and immerse themselves in a local music scene while while respecting a budget.

Generator’s Thomann noticed other trends within the changing hostel scene: the increase in solo female travel (female dorms are Generator’s most popular) and growth in spending on food and beverages.

“They spend 10 times more on their dinner than on their bed,” Thomann said, noting that guests check in with fancy luggage and post photos of their gourmet meals on social media. “It will blow your mind how much they spend on dinner.”

Some of those dining dollars are spent internally at Generator and Freehand, known for their cutting-edge food and beverage offerings. Freehand has built a cult following at least in part because of the white-hot James Beard Award finalist Broken Shaker bars at every location.

Of course, if you’re nostalgic for the pre-luxury scene, you can still find hostel magic without the artisanal dishes and glamorous dining rooms. When I stayed at the bustling HI hostel in New York this fall, I rode the elevator with a talkative man who had just arrived from Egypt and stretched in the austere fitness room with a senior from Charlottesville, Virginia.

HI USA is part of Hostelling International, a non-profit organization with thousands of hostels around the world (there are almost 20,000 hostels worldwide), especially popular with young travellers.

The New York property, located in a historic building on the Upper West Side, has a huge courtyard and community garden by Manhattan standards where I enjoyed take-out dinner, listening to conversations in other languages .

Nearby, a lively trio of friends in their twenties from different countries planned a trip to Bolivia and lamented their coming 30s, when, they predicted, their days of travel and fun would be over. .

The hostel offers weekly welcome receptions, comedy nights, and tours of Greenwich Village, Harlem, and “Sex and the City” venues. Along with my Snoopy pajamas, I had packed earplugs (which I didn’t need), shower shoes (which I did), and a padlock (a necessity, as hostels usually have one locker per bed; most will sell you a padlock if you don’t bring one).

On arrival I received my berth duty, a key card and a leaflet with 10 safety tips, such as don’t show your money in public places and be aware of your surroundings, especially when using or store valuables.

While far from luxury, even HI is sprucing up its properties and adding high-tech features like charging ports in lockers and color-changing showerheads to encourage guests to save water. HI locations are often in repurposed buildings, some quite spectacular: HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, at the foot of a 115-foot-tall lighthouse in Pescadero, California, features a cliffside hot tub and outdoor seating with a fire pit; and HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf is in Fort Mason, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, overlooks Alcatraz and serves local beer and wine.

After a quiet night in my bunk, I grabbed a mediocre breakfast sandwich, wrapped in foil, from the hostel cafe. But it didn’t matter, because I was so engrossed in the conversation with Fabrizio, a young Brazilian engineer who was visiting the United States for the first time and who said that Americans are much nicer in person than on TV. He was halfway through his six-night stay at the hostel, and we talked about the highlights of the city; one of his was a Giants game for $70 – almost double the cost of his room.

“I like to do things when I can, even if they’re expensive,” he says, practicing his English. “I can always get the money back later.”