Why Stay at a Hostel in the US?

Did you know that the United States even had hostels? It seems a lot of people do not. Hostels are just not that popular with most Americans (probably due in part to a smear campaign by the Movie that Must Not be Named).

I would be that most Americans backpackers who happily stay at hostels abroad never even think to look for ones when traveling in the US. The ones that exist are few and far between, and the default cheap accommodation in the US is probably a motel or cheap hotel.

So, even though I had visited the Hostelling International facility in Washington DC for events before, I was still a little nervous about working with HI Hostels on this San Diego project. I’ve had mostly fantastic experiences with HI abroad everywhere from Beijing to Helsinki, but what if the US hostels didn’t live up to the standard?

I was actually pretty surprised and relieved! We had a great time at the HI Downtown in San Diego (and even paid a visit to the HI Point Loma Hostel as well). In fact, we enjoyed it so much we’re planning to stay with HI again when we go to San Francisco next week.

So why would you choose to stay in a hostel over a cheap hotel? Here are some good reasons:

They Are Really Nice

I’ve stayed in some really sketchy hostels, guest houses and hotels in my time. The San Diego HI was spacious and airy, covered with art pieces from local artists (all available for sale). It had a huge spacious kitchen, multiple common rooms and our room itself was big (for a hostel) and comfortable. The Point Loma hostel looked even prettier with bright rooms, big outdoor hammocks and community guitars.

I’ve found this to be true of HI hostels all over the world: they are big, pretty and full of shared spaces.

Free Events

While we were in San Diego we got the chance to participate in a variety of free or very cheap events offered by the hostel. The two hostels actually share a community organizer who has the sole job of organizing events and activities for hostel guests, so there was quite a lot going on.

Out first night in town we dragged out jetlagged butts out on the town for a free pub crawl which had us out dancing until I finally called it quits at 1 am. San Diego has tons of interesting beer pubs and craft cocktail bars that we never would have found on our own, so it was nice to be show around by a local. The next morning we took a free walking tour also offered by hostel volunteers.

Community Involvement

One of the coolest things I noticed about the hostels in San Diego is their effort to be involved with the local community. Several nights a week a local volunteer cooks a communal dinner that hostel guests can join for a mere $5. We were present for spaghetti night and spent awhile chatting about teaching opportunities in China with the local chef.

The Point Loma hostel is even more ambitious with their weekly Saturday community market featuring local musicians, craft-sellers and grilling. It’s still in it’s infancy, but I think it’s so cool that the hostel strives to be an active member of the community, not just a hotel.


US hostels aren’t quite the bargain that they are in other countries around the world. A private room may run you $90 at the Downtown Hostel, and a dorm around $35. You could probably stay in a dingy cheap motel for $100, but you might not necessarily be downtown and you definitely wouldn’t have access to the same amenities.

Unlike most hotels the hostel offers free breakfast (a pretty decent one too), free walking tours and events, kitchen use, advice and support. Not to mention the all important free wifi.

As you can tell I was pretty impressed, although I did see a couple of drawbacks:

Most US Hostels are Dry

I’m sure this is for liability reasons, or maybe just to keep the peace. It certainly is nice not to have loud party people outside your door at 3 AM, however having a drink in the common room is a great way to facilitate mingling and socialization. In a city full of amazing microbreweries, it would have been nice to have picked up a sampler and enjoyed a couple in the comforts of our “home.” Not a big issue, but something to be aware of.

Hostel Culture Hasn’t Yet Arrived

Partially related to the point above, but I think it’s really a separate issue: people here weren’t as social as I’ve experienced in hostels abroad. I’m used to arriving at a hostel, pulling up a chair and immediately having someone ask me where I’m from, where I’ve been or how long I’ve been traveling. The travelers here weren’t so social. Even during group events like breakfast of the market, people seemed to keep mainly to themselves.

I don’t really think this is the fault of the hostels themselves, the more likely culprit is that the friendly open traveler culture isn’t really a thing here yet. That’s part of why I would encourage more people to stay in hostels- to make the US a more social, traveler friendly country.

Have you stayed in a US Hostel? What was your opinion?

I was in San Diego as a guest of HI USA. All opinions are my own.

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14 thoughts on “Why Stay at a Hostel in the US?”

  1. Are there any websites or resources to locate such hostels?? Whether in the US or abroad. Also are they children friendly, or more directed towards twenty-something free adults?

    1. Definitely saw plenty of kids at hte San Diego Hostels. I think HI hostels in general are more family friendly but you’ll want to read some reviews to make sure you don’t end up at party hostel.
      My favorite hostel booking website is HostelWorld.

  2. Hostels are really popular in Southeast Asia and cheaper too. Since we arrived in May, we haven’t seen one yet in New Jersey and New York. Perhaps later my wife and I can try one. The one you have here looks nice and comfy.

  3. The Hi-Vancouver Central is amazing (and it isn’t dry). But maybe Canadian hostels are a bit more relaxed than in the US.

    I enjoy hostels that have separate rooms for the showers and toilets. It is nice to have the privacy of showering in a room that has enough space to get dressed and all that.

  4. I was actually thinking about this recently as I’ll be returning to the US in a few weeks. I know there are hostels around where I live in NYC but I’ve never actually noticed them. It would be cool to check one out where you live, just for the opportunity to meet some international travelers while you’re at home. Might have to finally check them out when I’m home this time!

  5. I haven’t stayed in a hostel in the US, but I just returned from a backpacking trip through Europe where I went from one hostel to another. And I have to say I absolutely loved it! It’s such a great atmosphere and everybody staying in or working at the hostel were all really friendly and open minded – a shame if it isn’t like that in the US, because I have to say that was one of the greatest things about my trip! 🙂

  6. In my experience, hostels are OKAY in the United States, but I rarely ever use them because there are often better options like couchsurfing, airbnb, or camping.

    For example, if I am traveling to a big city, I will most likely try to use couchsurfing because couchsurfing is free and you end up staying with someone who knows the city. As you alluded to, hostels in big cities tend to be expensive and usually, it’s not impossible to find a couchsurfing host because there are so many available.

    In small cities, it’s rare that you will find a hostel. In this case, I usually try couchsurfing or more often, I end up booking a stay with airbnb.

    In rural/beach areas, i usually have good luck couchsurfing or camping.

    I do agree with your points though. I’ve stayed at 2 hostels in the U.S. and both have been solid experiences. I just don’t think they are worth it in most cases.

  7. I stayed in a wonderful hostel in San Francisco. Not “cheap” by European or Asian standards, but I was very glad I did.

    It’s great that the San Diego hostel had local art available for sale. That’s such a great idea!

    And I agree about hostels being dry… I understand that not everyone drinks, but for those of us that do, it is a nice way to break the ice with other travellers or unwind after a long day sightseeing on your feet. A beer or two is not the same as a rager!

  8. I just feel that for around $90 or a little more, I could find a great deal on a B&B or a small budget hotel and would prefer to do that than stay in a U.S. Hostel. I really enjoyed this post! I do hope that hostels continue to become more widespread in the states so we can slowly start to embrace and enjoy hostel culture like we do abroad. Also, have a great time in San Francisco! If you haven’t already, don’t miss the view from Coit Tower and please visit the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Two of my favorite spots in SF!

    Happy travels 🙂

  9. I’ve stayed in hostels in NYC and some of the other major cities, but like you said, hostel culture really hasn’t made its way around the country yet. The Midwest is coming around. Madison, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis all have hostels now.

    I think some of the hostels we have in the U.S. are fairly standard, nothing to brag about. Hostels in Europe and Asia, I’ve found, are much nicer.

  10. After coming back from studying abroad, I wondered why I never thought to stay in hostels in the U.S! I didn’t end up doing much research, so thank you for the post. 😉 I’m not surprised that the ones in America aren’t quite at bargain prices, but it is a good alternative to dropping tons of money on a hotel room! Is there a specific site you use to find them, or just the popular hostel sites?

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