With 30 bucks and an open mind, you can stay in some prime spots in California — on the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego, for example, or a block from Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or across from Union Square.
We're talking hostels, once regarded as the province of backpackers and bedbugs, but increasingly go-to places for a growing base of mobile and moneyed travelers. More than 250 hostels are scattered throughout the U.S., including 60 in California, offering a more social and budget-friendly alternative to hotel travel.
These days, travelers expect more than "no bugs and hot water," says Maria Argyropoulos, vice president of operations for USA Hostels, which has locations in San Diego, Hollywood, San Francisco and Las Vegas. "Hostels throughout Europe and Australia are becoming way upscale, and that reflects the changing nature of the client. Now, travelers almost expect budget luxury."
And "budget luxury" is what they get. Domestic hostels range from sleek, modern 200-bed high rises in city centers to quaint 25-person beach cottages, and many are safe, clean places to stay. Most have 24/7 front-desk reception and security, and provide lockers to store belongings. Rates change according to season, number of beds in a room and location, but expect to pay $25 to $35 for a dorm bed in the summer, and $70 to $100 for a private room.
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Today, hostellers contribute $1.4 billion to tourist revenues worldwide, and though the words "hostel" and "youth" are often paired, hostelling is by no means young-person exclusive. As the struggling economy has widened the range of those seeking budget accommodations, hostellers note a corresponding increase in the age of patrons.
Independently run mom-and-pop hostels are the heart of the industry, though Hostelling International, the brand name of the nonprofit International Youth Hostel Federation, leads the market in quantity and quality of hostels, with 4,000 hostels in 90 countries — 19 in California. To sport the "HI" logo, hostels must conform to quality and sanitation standards. And no alcohol is allowed.
Here are some well-regarded California hostels we sampled:
—Los Angeles area
HI-Santa Monica is the largest hostel in the U.S., with 260 beds. The kitchen is expansive, dorms are bright and spacious, the activity board is brimming with freebies and you're a block from the beach.
Many of the hostel's numerous activities revolve around the Rapp Saloon, a local landmark nestled below the hostel. The saloon's activities are open to travelers and residents alike, and range from the Friday open-mike poetry night to acting classes and salsa lessons, free for guests and open to the community (donations accepted). To assist true travelers on a budget, most hostels require out-of-county identification and enforce a maximum visitation limit — usually around 21 days. Accordingly, the L.A. hostels listed don't allow L.A. residents, but the HI-Santa Monica is an exception.
1436 2nd St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-9913, www.hilosangeles.org
Banana Bungalow Hollywood is of another era. Owner Joe Fazio describes the converted two-story 1960s building — formerly the Movietown Motel — as "retro, funky, cool." That it is, although it's also modern, clean and unapologetically tacky. You'll find an Astroturf tiki courtyard in the back and a movie room with blue vinyl theater seats.
The "deluxe" private and dorm rooms (140 beds) all have kitchens en-suite, garishly colored according to theme, though the effect is, well, groovy.
Fazio also owns the 140-bed Banana Bungalow West Hollywood on Fairfax, just off the Melrose strip. Housed in a former retirement home, the WeHo location isn't quite as California-cool as the original, though the outdoor thatched-roof Tiki bar is impressive.
5920 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (877) 977-5077; 603 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655 2002, www.bananabungalowus.com
Surf City Hostel keeps it simple. Besides a stellar location at the end of the Hermosa Beach promenade, crisp linens on the beds in the 60 rooms, half of which enjoy an unobstructed ocean view and a charmingly frazzled manager — French-born Odile Brock, who has been running the place for 15 years — $25 buys you the best deal on ocean breezes in the South Bay.
26 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; (310) 798-2323, www.surfcityhostel.com
HI-Fisherman's Wharf, housed in historic Fort Mason at the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, feels like Camp San Francisco. The oldest hostel in the city slopes down to a hiking path that meanders from Fisherman's Wharf to Marina Green along a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cafe Franco, a funky coffee shop open to the public, provides free breakfast for hostel guests, lunch and $6 dinners of hearty vegetarian cuisine.
HI-San Francisco City Center, with 162 beds, is tranquil Fort Mason's bustling counterpart. Formerly the seven-story Atherton Hotel, the hostel still sports the hotel's regal dark wood interior; rows of international flags flutter from the lofted ceiling over an ornate mahogany bar.
Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason, Building 240; (415) 771-7277, http://sfhostels.com; City Center, 685 Ellis St., San Francisco; (415) 474-5721
The Elements Hostel could exist only in the Mission District in San Francisco. The bright yellow and orange building, looming over vibrant Mission Street, houses the 29-room hostel, Medjool Restaurant and the popular Sky Terrace, a 360-degree view rooftop bar and restaurant. The interior of Elements is a hodge-podge of turquoises and reds, eclectic and clean enough, though it doesn't quite feel like a hostel, because it lacks common areas and a kitchen.
2516 Mission St., San Francisco; (866) 327-8407, www.elementssf.com
Pacific Tradewinds Hostel takes its nautical theme seriously. "Get off yer arse and get outside!" a sign declares at the entrance to the common area swathed in bright blues and nautical reds. Like all great ships, this one maximizes its small space. The benches that line the long hull of this ship double as storage units. The rooms are similarly skinny but bright, clean and well-maintained. All bathrooms are communal and coed.
680 Sacramento St., San Francisco; (415) 433-7970, www.sanfranciscohostel.org
The Green Tortoise, a cavernous 150-bed hostel looming over funky North Beach, is a hostel's hostel, and owner and founder Gardner Kent is an old-time hosteller. All the hostel's carpets are from Las Vegas, and the ballroom is a place you'd expect to walk in and find, as Kent puts it, a cancan show. In other words, the Green Tortoise embraces kitsch, and pulls it off. Though cancan shows are not officially on the activity roster, this ballroom, with floor-to-ceiling windows, is where the magic happens, hosting the Green Tortoise's thrice-weekly free dinners of hearty and healthy vegetarian fare, live music every Sunday night, and a weekly beer pong tournament.
494 Broadway, San Francisco; (415) 834-1000, www.greentortoise.com
HI-Point Loma, on a hill above downtown San Diego, in a quiet residential neighborhood, has a tranquil, campy feel. With 53 beds, it's more like a bustling B&B than a Hostelling International. About half of Point Loma's guests are from the U.S., many of them youth groups on retreats. When I stopped by, Girl Scout Troop 3909 from Forth Worth was working in the hostel's industrial-sized kitchen preparing a traditional Filipino meal, which they shared with hostel guests as part of HI's Cultural Kitchen youth-education program.
3790 Udall St., San Diego; (619) 223-4778, http://sandiegohostels.org
Banana Bungalow San Diego announces itself. The 90-bed hostel is breezy, beachy and comfortable, but you'll probably spend most of your time on the busy deck — from free barbecues twice a week and day-time people watching to sunset parties and live performances by local bands.
707 Reed Ave., Pacific Beach, San Diego; (858) 273-3060, www.bananabungalowus.com
The USA Hostels San Diego building began life in the 1800s as a brothel, though the 23-room hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter has been through a few remodels since then. Murals cover the blue and yellow walls, many of which date from the years the building was the Grand Pacific Hostel before USA Hostels took it over in 1994. Guests walk up a grand central staircase to their lodgings, ranging from a cozy split-level private room — the bed is lofted above a mini-living room — to wood-paneled dorms.
726 5th Ave.; San Diego; (619) 232-3100, www.usahostels.com
IF YOU GO:
WHAT TO KNOW: Do your homework before you check in. Go to Hostelworld.com or Hostels.com to read reviews by other travelers and see current rankings, which tend to be reliable. Smaller hostels tend to have a stronger communal feel, though you're in closer quarters with that community, while bigger hostels (100-200 capacity) can feel anonymous, which works if you're on business or already traveling with friends.
Most hostels give you bed linens at check in and expect you to turn them in at check out. Many offer free Wi-Fi but charge for use of their communal computers, usually about $2 for 20 minutes.
For a complete listing of hostels in the U.S., check out Jim Williams' well-established "The Hostel Handbook for the U.S.A. & Canada," updated yearly ($4 plus shipping and handling, www.hostelhandbook.com).
FOOD OPTIONS: Many hostels offer low-cost communal dinners, which vary from cafeteria-quality dishes to outdoor barbecues to the surprisingly gourmet. At Pacific Tradewinds, Sunday night dinner consisted of a full roast chicken, spicy Italian sausage, roast corn, mashed potatoes and a colorful salad of mixed greens, beets, green beans, tomatoes and bell peppers — the best $5 hostel dinner I've had.
Most hostels have a communal kitchen; boiling up some pasta and veggies is a great way to break the ice with other travelers. Check activity boards for local farmers markets and grocery store locations.
Hostels are known for freebies — check to see what dinner outings or events are going on when you're there. Breakfast is usually included in the rate (make-your-own pancakes are ubiquitous), so are coffee and tea.
FREE SHUTTLES: Banana Bungalow locations offer free airport shuttle pickup from the Los Angeles and San Diego airports and free parking at their facilities. Check hostel websites for most up-to-date bus and public transport schedules, and for walking directions from bus and shuttle stops.