The first time I stayed at a hostel, I feared waking up enwombed in bedbugs. Before that trip, in 2008, I'd heard lots of tall tales: that hostels are dank shanties filled with thieves and voyeurs, and that they're sometimes converted into torture chambers (according to that 2005 horror film classic, "Hostel").
Despite my forebodings, I desperately needed a cheap place to stay in New York for a weekend. My wallet was light and I couldn't afford more patrician quarters. The warnings, it turned out, were false.
Since that trip, hostels have become my preferred vacation lodgings. They're cheap and fun, with more entertainment than you find in humdrum hotels. It's easy to make friends and to enrich your understanding of the world. I've learned, for instance, that Canada has a Thanksgiving holiday (second Monday in October) and that there are no squirrels in Buenos Aires. I've brushed up on my anthropology and improved my language skills. I once had breakfast with eight people from five continents.
Hostels do have their downside. Yes, there's the occasional bedbug. Or a roommate or two can snore so loudly that they'd topple the walls of Jericho. New York last year abruptly closed a popular Harlem hostel, citing fire safety concerns with its design and no doubt miffing European travelers stranded stateside by a belching volcano in Iceland.
Gone, though, are the days when hostels, many of which once had age restrictions, mostly attracted young backpackers who needed extended lodging on a shoestring budget. Nowadays you can run into people in their 50s or older taking advantage of the inexpensive accommodations: Prices range from very cheap to moderately so, starting as low as $15 and going up to $60, usually for a private room with a shared bath.
Over the past few weeks, I stayed at four New York hostels to check out their offerings. Some were good, some less so. But I'm happy to report that as usual, I found no bedbugs, creeps or disembodied heads.
*Hostelling International New York, 891 Amsterdam Ave. (212-932-2300; www.hinewyork.org). Beds from $39.
This hostel on Manhattan's Upper West Side is billed as the largest in North America. With more than 600 beds, it is almost a village. A recent poll by the website Hostelworld.com ranked it No. 10 among the nation's top 10 hostels.
Peckish after a long bus ride, I was glad to find a sandwich kiosk where I snapped up a Buffalo chicken hoagie for $5. I ate it while watching three guys play pool in an alcove across the way.
Exploring the hostel, I discovered a basement theater with sofa seating where local comedians perform several times a week. The nearby kitchen, bustling with a dozen people, has eight stoves and cafeteria seating. Most hostels have kitchens, but I'd never seen one this grand.
Upstairs, I was attracted by the sound of dulcet jazz notes floating toward me from the first-floor New York Room, which becomes a bar/club on Fridays. A trio was playing in one corner while an employee served free beer, wine and Coca-Cola. I took my drink to a table near the band and introduced myself to two 23-year-olds, Shou from Tokyo and Fabricio from Buenos Aires. This was the first day the three of us had been on the same continent at the same time, yet we became friends instantly.
At 9 p.m., the jazz ended and Rory Biscette, a local actor who volunteers with the hostel, announced that he was about to lead a Chinese New Year pub crawl. I'm not much for clubbing, so I invited Fabricio and Shou to my favorite New York jazz bar. After that, we ate pizza; on the back of a paper plate, Shou and I outlined the rules of baseball for Fabricio.
The next morning I bumped into Fabricio as he was setting off on a 12-hour, $10 hostel-sponsored walking tour of the city. Since I was checking out and didn't want to lug my backpack around for most of the day, I decided not to go along.
Instead, I walked around the city on my own for most of the day. Lugging my backpack.
*Jazz on Amsterdam Avenue, 201 W. 87th St. (646-490-7348; www.jazzhostels.com). Rooms from $45 with a six-night minimum.
I chose this hostel for one obvious reason but, sadly, there was no jazz trio playing when I arrived.
The Amsterdam is part of an international chain that includes three hostels in New York, and the first I've stayed in that also houses apartments. Pink doors signify dorms, brown doors apartments. I stayed in a six-person room; the hostel is currently converting to two-bed rooms.
The common area was the kitchen, a title I found slightly misleading. There was a refrigerator and a microwave but no stove, just a hot plate. Several people, most hunched over laptops, sat in silence while others watched news coverage of Middle East uprisings on a communal TV. That was largely the subject of discussion until I went to bed.
During the night I was awakened by a loud clanging coming from an exposed black pipe that ran floor to ceiling next to my bunk. I adjusted to the sound and went back to sleep. Moments later the clamor started again, jolting me awake. And so it went for more than an hour.
Fed up, I left the room to shower. The bathroom near my dorm was occupied, so I went to another. I flicked the switch, but no lights came on. Hmm. A large window let in enough natural light so the extinct bulb wasn't a problem, but the shower had no handle. Hmm. I went upstairs to a vacant bathroom, where I couldn't get any hot water. Hmm. I proceeded to another very dark bathroom, with no window, and flicked the switch. No light. Arrgh. Back to the first unlighted bathroom.
*New York Loft Hostel, 249 Varet St., Brooklyn (718-366-1351; nylofthostel.com). Rooms from $20.
Ranked No. 8 in the country by Hostelworld.com, this hostel is housed in a nearly century-old factory building near Brooklyn's rich arts scene.
Painted on each door is a New York scene. My 18-bed dorm, a spacious loft (hence the hostel name) with brick walls and wooden beams, was named after the Ramones, who originally hailed from Queens.
At a nearby deli, I discovered a wondrous elixir: espresso cola. Why hadn't I known about this in college? I took a bottle to the hostel kitchen, where at least eight people were working around the cooking island, speaking three different languages.
I opened the bottle and the cola immediately erupted, coffee-scented foam sloshing across the tabletop. While I scrambled for paper towels, a young woman ran into the bathroom and grabbed some toilet paper.
"What's that?" she asked.
"It's espresso Coke," I said, taking a sip. "It's really good."
She considered the bottle for a second. "Can I try it?"
"Sure." She took a sip.
She and a friend were vacationing university students from Luxembourg. For the rest of the evening, I chatted with them and an aspiring Formula One engineer, two teenagers from Copenhagen who spoke flawless, idiomatic English, and a former ATA flight attendant about to reset his life in the music and film business. Everybody reminded me to be up by 9 for breakfast.
The next morning, the kitchen cooking island was a cornucopia of breakfast foods: milk, cereal, fruit, waffles, butter, bread. It was the most bountiful breakfast I'd ever seen at a hostel (not all offer them). And it was free.
At checkout, I bumped into a young Frenchman who was asking the concierge for directions to the subway. I was heading that way and offered to show him where it was. That's what hostel friends are for.
*Tone on Lex, 179 E. 94th St. (hostelworld.com; 212-289-0010). Rooms from $15.
The interior walls of this hostel in a brownstone on the Upper East Side are painted with murals of the Brooklyn Bridge and people riding the subway. Images from Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" scamper across the kitchen walls.
My 10-bunk room had a sensible bathroom setup: the toilet in one room, the shower in another and the sink in the main dorm. It greatly improved occupancy times.
I found a back door through the kitchen that led to a courtyard, which closed at 10 p.m. out of respect for the neighbors. In the basement, I found a washing machine. The space seemed more grotto than basement; turning, I thunked my head on a girder. I'm a stately man at 5-feet-6, so this is a rare occurrence. I introduced the European travelers to a few new English words.
Back in my room, I met a group of Spaniards who invited me out for pizza but, having just eaten, I declined.
"New York has the best pizza in the world," I told them as they took off.
"Some might say it's in Italy," someone said once they were gone.
I looked around. Where did that voice come from?
From the bunk below me, its occupant an American student at the University of Kentucky.
"I went to the University of Tennessee," I said.
"Gross," he replied.
That effectively ended our discussion. I left to explore the city. Standing in line to get into a jazz bar, I chatted with two music students from New Jersey and mentioned why I was in town. They were planning a trip to New Orleans and were going to try out hostels. Did I have any tips?
"Watch out for the bedbugs!" I quipped.
Ugh, they said.
"I'm just kidding. Hostels are always clean," I assured them. "They're much better than you think."
As I can attest.