hostel

If you think hostels aren't for you, think again

Hostelling International Boston was the only place to stay in Boston affordably and comfortably, as I quickly found. Also known as HI Boston, it is actually a chain of hostels available in the U.S. and Europe. Because there are so few hostels in America, often Hostelling International is one of the only brands available and now I know that the quality of their brand and service makes them one of the best choices. 

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When I first arrived in Boston, I had a different hostel booked for the first night, because while it was not as well rated as HI, it was decently rated and a few dollars cheaper. But after one night, I found that the hostel I was staying at was not worth the money—customer service was nonexistent, the bathrooms were dirty, the dorms crowded and dark. So I called HI Boston, crossing my fingers that I would get a bed over the holiday weekend. Soon I was dragging my luggage down the stairs of the T (the metro in Boston) on my way to Chinatown. 

My first impression of the hostel was that it was beautiful, clean, and big. The entrance and lobby serve as both a hangout and a waiting area, with big comfy couches and a fireplace. You can buy some basic snacks and drinks or hang out in the community room that has a projector for showing films and sports matches. There is an industrial kitchen upstairs, where free breakfast (coffee, juice, yogurt, toast, bagels, and cereal) is served every morning and sometimes a free community dinner. But guests are free to use the appliances to make their own food, or grab a cup of tea or coffee anytime throughout the day. On the second floor is a laundry room, a book exchange, a pool table, and lots of places to relax and meet new friends. Then there is the community events board. This is the magical board that is always full to the brim of cool activities, meet-ups, and free outings. That’s the best part about Hostelling International, they always have things to do and make it easy to meet other travelers. 

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The rooms themselves are spacious and the bunks are nice. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, I can assure you that this is the best possible set up. Each bunk has a large locker next to it, that acts as a caddy for all your bags and valuables. Tip: Hostels don’t usually provide locks, either use a luggage lock or travel with a combination lock. By the head of each bed is a hollow part in the locker that has multiple outlets and a reading light. I used this as my bedside table, charging my phone and keeping my glasses and a book. This feature is great on the top bunk, so you don’t have to climb in and out of bed or store things on the side of the mattress where they could get lost. The bathrooms were awesome, because instead of large communal bathrooms, like in a gym, there were lots of individual bathrooms, each with a shower. As always in a hostel, the state of the bathrooms relies heavily on the other hostel inhabitants. While the cleaning staff did a great job, some bathrooms get untidy when travelers don’t clean up after themselves. It should be noted that while not all hostels provide towels (some charge you to rent them) they are included in the price at HI and it’s easy to switch out your towel for a clean one.

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HI Boston is a beautiful and affordable place to stay, whether you are a lone traveler, a couple, a family, or group of friends. It’s the first hostel I stayed at where there were so many different ages and groups of people. There are many dorm rooms (which are usually smaller so people aren’t constantly coming and going) as well as private rooms. HI has a great setup with lots of amenities so that you can be comfortable and meet other travelers. While I initially balked at the cost, with breakfast and so many other extras included with amazing service you won’t find another hotel or hostel in an American city that is so worth the value. When traveling in the U.S., Hostelling International would be the first place I would look.

Prices:

Dorms come in mixed gender, female, and male and vary in size. Large rooms (8 beds) are cheap than smaller (4 bed) dorms. For one bed in a 6 bed dorm it is $44.49 Sunday through Thursday, and then $59.49 on Friday and Saturday. There is also a $3 charge per night if you are not a member; membership is $28 a year. 

Private rooms can vary in price depending on the day of the week and the season, but on average in June a double room is about $220 per night. 

Disclaimer: This post was written in partnership with HI Boston. As always, the opinions expressed here are completely my own. 

So You've Never Stayed at a Hostel

The idea of staying at a hostel may make you nervous. You've seen the horror movie and heard some weird stories about what happens to travelers who stay at hostels. Sleeping in the same room as a bunch of strangers may seem daunting, but it can also be tons of fun. I consider hostels to be one of the best aspects of travel, especially when I'm traveling alone. They are where I make friends and find useful tips and information about where I am. Still, trying something new, like staying at a hostel, can be difficult, so here's my guide for making the best of it.

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

  1. Hostels are for everyone! A few hostels have age limits, usually between 18 and 30. However, there are plenty open to everyone. Some hostels are even known to be good for traveling with a family or younger children. So just run a few Google searches and see what you can find. Treehouse hostels, eco-hostels, hostels in former jails--there's a hostel for every traveler.
  2. If your parents/friends/loved ones are worried, let them know that you are capable and there are safety measures. Most hostels are very safe, but be sure to choose one that has security cameras, locks on the dorm doors, and a 24 hour desk. Use your common sense and be aware of any possible danger.
  3. Choosing which hostel to stay at is simple and only requires one thing: research. Check out hostelworld.com, lonelyplanet.com, and hostelbookers.com. You should find out the cost of an average night wherever you want to go. For example, $8 a night for a hostel in northern Thailand is normal versus $25 a night for a dorm in western Europe. Also look at what neighborhoods are most central and safe. Use the search filters on the above sites to cross-examine the highest rated hostels and the cheaper hostels. When you've found a few make your decision off of the reviews. Because even if a hostel offers a lot of great amenities, it may be hard to meet people. Or if you don't want to stay at a party hostel, you will want to check out the vibe before you book. What I look for in a hostel: a competitive price, a common area to hang out and meet people, freebies (like breakfast or a pool), a good location near public transportation, safety measures, and cleanliness.
  4. Be social. When you arrive and move your stuff in, strike up conversation with people in the dorm, in the hallway, or even in line for the bathroom. I like to take my iPad or a book to the common area and sit for an hour or two, to meet new people. This is the best way to find someone to go to dinner with or get tips on what is worth visiting in the area.
  5. Take advantage of the everything the hostel has to offer. Some hostels have guides, free maps, snacks, etc. Most of the time they will hold your bags the day of arrival and departure, so you can explore or do activities without lugging around your worldly possessions. One hostel I visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia organized group outings on whiteboards to lower the cost of transportation and help travelers find friends. Another hostel I visited in Rome had free pasta nights and a complimentary nighttime tour of the city!
  6. If you don't like the hostel or are uncomfortable staying there, leave. Check to see the policy on leaving before the end of your booked stay, sometimes they will give you a full refund. This is also a reason to only book the first few nights if you are staying for a while. That way you can move if you don't like it or book a longer stay after a few days. But a traveler should never feel obligated to stay in a place they feel is unsafe. And if there is something wrong with your room or the people in it, speak to the management. A good hostel with take care of any problems for you.

So if you've never stayed in a hostel, give it a go. I find that some of the coolest people I meet are from hostels. Not to mention, it is one of the cheapest ways to have a secure and (usually) comfy bed while traveling.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.

London in Two Days

I couldn't believe my Europe trip was coming to an end as I flew from Vienna to London. At the same time, I was excited to see a new city.

My excitement quickly toned down as I was held up at Immigration once again (see here for the first time). It was like a nightmare on repeat. Apparently, the Immigration officer in Edinburgh failed to mention my passport was flagged in UK databases and I would be detained for questioning anytime I entered in the next six months. There was no way to get out of it--it was procedure.

So I spent three hours being searched, held, and questioned even though I had a plane ticket home in three days, a hostel booked, and proof of funds. I was pretty upset--because this horrible thing was happening again. Eventually the officer in charge told me that "she believed me" and told me that if I didn't leave when I said I would they would know. However, she was nice enough to write a special note on my passport and file saying that if I entered the UK in the next six months (totally not happening) I should not be detained.

Finally, I collected my luggage and hopped on the Tube. A little over an hour later, I was lugging my stuff through the empty and dark streets of London, something I had been trying to avoid when I booked my plane ticket. I was in a rush to find my hostel since it was after 10:30 and check-in ended at 11. Luckily for me, my trusty map app got me to Travel Joy Hostel in time, although I did not escape a smattering of raindrops. I turned in for the night after a hot shower, not hungry in the least for dinner.

Everything in London is expensive. So staying at Travel Joy hostel was one of the cheaper options as it's not smack-dab in the center of the city. However, it's a 10-15 minute walk from the Pimlico tube station and there is a bus stop not even a block away for a line that goes into the city center. If you stay at a hostel in London it will probably be above a pub, which is nice because this acts as a hangout space throughout the day. Travel Joy also served ridiculously good Thai food for dinner and had free activities like salsa dancing lessons. I found that while it was not a huge hostel, I still had to approach people in order to make friends. Basically, if you are willing to make an effort and be outgoing you can get to know the other travelers.

10 Things To Do in London

1. Shopping in Chelsea

I stumbled upon Chelsea when walking towards Buckingham Palace. Chic, high-end shops line the streets that are otherwise filled with brownstones. The perfect kind of shopping for a traveler; beautiful clothes and accessories that are too pricey for me to consider taking them home. My favorite shop was the prettiest chocolate place where I bought some unusually flavored, but delicious bars.

Where: Artisan du Chocolat is at 89 Lower Sloane Street and good Chelsea shopping is farther along Sloane Street.

2. Westminster Abbey

Over 700 years old, this place has witnessed a lot of history. Though it functions as a church, it is best known as a burial place for the famous English. Here you can see the tombs and learn about royalty, poets and authors, scientists, and more. It runs a little expensive (though what in London isn't?), but it's one of those things that should be done. Take your time, walk through and learn about the many historic characters that belong to this place. Personally, it was reverential for me because I adore English royals and writers. I couldn't help sighing over their tombs and imagining them when they were alive. It was a little upsetting that no photos were allowed as I desperately wanted one with Queen Elizabeth.

Where: 20 Deans Yd, Westminster tube stop

Hours: see here

Cost: Adults £20.00, 60+ and students with valid student ID £17.00, children (6 - 16 years) £9.00, children under 5 free accompanied by an adult

3. Victoria and Albert museum and cafe

When I heard this museum was free and pretty cool, I had to stop by. I didn't have time for much, but I viewed a beautiful womens style through the centuries exhibit. Also, I peeked at the Raphael comics which were divine. If I had more time, I would have paid for some of the exhibitions, like one about the history of wedding dress. I had lunch in the cafe that was absolutely delightful. Counter-style one can buy all sort of salads, sandwiches, soups, and sides and then sit in the prettiest high-ceiling room. Quite a few people seemed to come for just lunch, so beware of the crowds.

Where: Cromwell Road, South Kensington tube stop (entry from tube)

Hours: 10.00 to 17.45 daily and 10.00 to 22.00 Fridays

Cost: Free, not including special exhibits.

 

4. See a Show

London is just as much renowned for its theaters as New York, partially because the history of English theater goes back centuries. My father emailed me to say that he would treat me to a show ticket as a Christmas present! So I quickly did some internet searches and booked a will-call ticket for the Les Misérables matinee the next day. Arriving at the theater, I was too excited. I had never seen Les Mis live and I had a great seat since I bought a solo ticket. The show was truly excellent and the cast talented. While Broadway theater is rarely cheap, the performance was worth the price.

Where: the West End aka roughly between Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square

 

5. Changing of the Guard

Upon planning my visit to London, I thought this was a necessary stop. It is extremely touristy, but I felt like it had to be done once, just to say I'd had. Best advice--get there early and dress for the weather. I was there a good 45 minutes early and already crowds were milling about and saving spots. To get a good spot, pick one place and stay there. So I got a spot just off the side if the center gate and it was amazing. Other people would flock to another place when something happened early-on, like the arrival of the new guards, but then these tourists didn't have a good view of the actual production. The actual thing was much longer than I expected and my feet went numb with cold, I kid you not. Still, it was super interesting to see the guards receiving orders and going through the procedural change. Even better was the band which played music not only entering and leaving, but for 15 or so minutes during the ceremony.

Where: Buckingham Palace, nearest tube stations are Victoria, Hyde Park Corner, and St. James Park

Hours: 11.15-Guards with bands arrive, 11.30-Official start time, 12.00-Guard change ceremony ends. Every morning (weather permitting) from April to the end of July and every other day on the off-season.Cost: Free

 

6. Cafe Below

I found this restaurant, which is nestled in the crypt of an old church, online and had to give it a try. So I went for lunch right after visiting St. Paul's, which is around the corner. I made a reservation and was glad I did, as the restaurant is small and very popular with the natives. Some of the menu was sold out when I got there, a drawback of it being so small, so I ordered a salad with a cheese soufflé on top. It was delicious and very fresh, my favorite meal in London. The pinwheel of different grain and leafy salads was something unique and the soufflé was amazing. Would visit again.

Where: St. Mary-le-Bow (Bow Bells Church), near St. Paul's and Mansion House tube stops

Hours: Breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Wednesday-Friday (reservation recommended)

Cost: Lunch was approx £9-15 and dinner £17-25

 

7. St. Paul's Cathedral

The most famous church in the city, St. Paul's drew me both for its history and its architecture. Designed by Christopher Wren, basically the best English architect there ever was, the exterior and interior are equally magnificent. Delicate, yet towering and strong, it is not hard to gaze upon the Cathedral while listening to an audio guide about its building and history. Pop down to the crypt to see the burial sites of Christopher Wren and Lord Nelson (this excited me to a point of nerdy humiliation). What I found most amazing was that it had survived World War II with minimal damage. In fact, Londoners volunteered to be stationed throughout the day and night to extinguish any incendiaries on the roof and in the rafters.

Where: St. Paul's tube stop

Hours: Monday-Saturday 9.30 to 4.00

Cost: Adults (18+) £17, seniors and students £15, children (6-17) £7.50

 

8. The Tower

Famous for housing royalty and confine prisoners, The Tower is a major London attraction. Like most things in the city, it's rather expensive, so it's best if you give yourself some time there to explore. Unfortunately, I arrived right after the last Watchmen's tour, in which a Yeoman escorts you through the main parts of the castle. I still saw some of these Yeomen and even re-enactors inside the castle. I enjoyed walking the ramparts for a great view and seeing the rooms used as prison cells. In the White Tower, the keep, there are cool, interactive exhibits for kids and a weapons and armor display which included the head of a wooden figurine of Queen Elizabeth I. In another building I viewed the Crown Jewels, a collection a lot vaster and more impressive than I imagined. It was good to see the jewels near closing as I was one of a few visitors. The Tower was an engaging museum that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Where: Tower Hill tube stop

Hours: March-October: Tuesday-Saturday 9.00-17.30, Sunday & Monday 10.00-17.30; the rest of the year they close an hour earlier than summer times

Cost: Adult £22, seniors and students £18.70, children £11

 

9. The Globe Theater

As a reader and Shakespeare admirer, I knew I had to fit this in my schedule. Although the current Globe Theater is not the original (two have burned down since Shakespeare's time), it was built in the best possible representation of an Elizabethan theater. They perform shows here still, rain or shine, despite the open roof. There are two ways to visit: take a tour or see a show. Unfortunately there wasn't a show the night I visited, but I caught the last tour. The guide was quite a character and was super informative. Definitely a highlight of my time in London, though next time I plan on seeing a show.

Where: 21 New Globe Walk; Mansion House, Blackfriars, and Southwark tube stops

Hours: tours 9.30-17.30, every 30 minutes

Cost: Adult: £13.50, senior (60+): £12.00, student (with valid ID): £11.00, children (5-15): £8.00, children (under 5): free

 

10. Harrod's or Selfridge's

These iconic department stores are fun to pop in if you have some extra time. Especially at Christmas time,  when they are lit up and have holiday displays in the windows. Room after room of pretty products and an easy place to stop for good cuisine.

Where: Harrod's-87 Brompton Street, South Kensington or Hyde Park Corner tube stops; Selfridge's-400 Oxford Street, Bond Stree tube stop

Hours: Harrod's, Selfridge's

Cost: Free (if you can restrain yourself from purchasing)