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Hostel territory is now a lot friendlier

Special to The Times

MOST people think hostels are bare-bones lodgings with bunk beds and communal showers, suitable only for backpackers and students. They often are. But hostels are changing. Many are more like budget hotels. They have low-cost dormitory-style rooms but also offer private accommodations at a slightly higher cost.

People expecting a mint on their pillows should stop reading now. Hostels are hands-on and do-it-yourself. They are still far from luxurious, but they offer something four-star hotels can’t: a great way to meet people. Here are some tips before you stay in a hostel.

Become a member: With thousands of hostels worldwide, choosing one can be daunting, but membership has its privileges. Most hostels operate like large hotel chains, with international booking networks and membership benefits. Hostelling International-USA, www.hiayh.org, offers perks such as free international travel insurance; discounts in restaurants; stores and attractions; and access to 4,000 hostels in more than 60 countries, some at discounted rates. Members of the International Youth Hostel Federation, www.iyhf.org, receive commission-free currency exchange as well as discounts on international phone calls.

HI-USA and IYHF are part of the Hostelling International network -- the brand name for more than 90 youth hostel associations worldwide. For the weary budget traveler, HI’s easy-to-spot blue triangle logo can be a sight for sore eyes.

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Make reservations for peak seasons: Although many travelers enjoy spontaneity, it’s important to book ahead during peak seasons in popular destinations -- Greece in August, for example, or Whistler, British Columbia, in January. It will save you time and money in the long run.

Location is crucial: Hostels are often near the city’s cultural center or within walking distance of local nightlife hot spots. Don’t be fooled by a slightly better deal “just minutes away from the city center.” Spend the extra buck or two and stay downtown. In Helsinki, Finland, for example, the ultra-modern EuroHostel is centrally located and filled with amenities. At per-person rates, including linens and a morning sauna, single rooms are $43, while doubles with a harbor view and triples rent for $26 per person. Rates drop slightly for members. For more information, check out www.eurohostel.fi.

Does the hostel provide visa support? Getting a visa can be difficult. For countries such as Russia, a letter of invitation is required before a visa can be given; hostels often provide inexpensive and headache-free visa support. At St. Petersburg International Hostel -- Russia’s only HI property -- visa support is offered for $54, including tax and your first night’s stay with breakfast. Visit www.ryh.ru.

Get what you pay for: Before making reservations, ensure that the hostel has everything you need for a comfortable stay. Many of us expect linens in hotels; hostels, on the other hand, may not provide such amenities. Ask whether linens, breakfast and lockers are included.

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Planning on staying awhile? Make sure there are laundry facilities and a kitchen if you’re planning to cook.

Ask about rules: Although most guests are 18 to 35 years old, more seniors are staying in hostels. Age restrictions used to be commonplace but have become increasingly rare. Nonetheless, confirm the hostel’s policy ahead of time. This is particularly important for families traveling with small children. Likewise, night owls should ask whether there’s a curfew. A midnight curfew could mean you’ll sleep outside if you get back to the hostel too late.


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