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Websites take the hassle out of researching, booking hostels

Special to The Times

It’s a romantic image that many of us still carry in the back of our minds: A backpack-clad American student clutching euros arrives at a train station somewhere on the Continent and sets out in search of an inexpensive place to stay for the night.

That may have been true once, but nowadays, younger travelers are increasingly turning to websites such as Hostelworld.com to research and make reservations, saving themselves the hassle of scouring a strange city for a place to sleep, said Tom Kennedy, co-founder and president of Dublin, Ireland-based Web Reservations International, owner of such websites as Hostels.com and Hostelworld.com.

“Backpackers have grown soft,” said Kennedy, who comes to the business with firsthand knowledge of operating the 300-bed Avalon House hostel in Dublin.

“It used to be that you’d have 142 [guests], 142 bikes out front, 142 people paying cash.... Now everyone arrives by cab, pays by credit card. They want to hit the town and just drop off their bags.”

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The Web has provided a cheap, reliable method for booking hostels that didn’t exist in 1998, when Kennedy sat down with some fellow hostel keepers in Dublin. They were looking for a way to deal with as many as 200 daily e-mail requests for information that each hostel was receiving.

In those days, “it was a huge hassle booking hostels” both for travelers and hostel keepers, Kennedy said.

He and his partners looked for a way to use the Web to connect the customer with the hostel. The result was Hostelworld.com. In the five years since its founding, it has added an office in Sydney, Australia, has grown to 8,500 product providers and now books, along with other Web Reservations International sites, about 25,000 beds per night.

Hostelworld.com offers bookings at hostels and other budget accommodations worldwide; Hostels.com books only hostels. The accommodations that appear on both sites are identical and are controlled by the hostel owners themselves.

Each site tacks on a $2 booking fee per reservation, whether it is for one night or 10, one person or 20.

I recently checked on several sites for four nights this weekend in London and settled on the 164-bed St. Christopher’s Inn. That hostel, which 728 customers rated on Hostelworld.com, got high marks for “location” (walking distance to the Tower of London and the Tate Modern), “security” and “character,” all important considerations for travelers of any age. It scored slightly lower on “staff,” “fun” and “cleanliness” ratings.

Rates at St. Christopher’s Inn ranged from $24 per night for a dorm to $40 for a twin private at Hostelworld.com, Hostels.com and Studentuniverse.com (a Web Reservations International affiliate). Rates listed on those sites are in U.S. dollars. St. Christopher’s Inn’s own web- site (www.st-christophers.co.uk) lists prices in pounds (13 pounds, or about $24, per night for a dorm, 21 pounds, or $38, for a twin private).

It’s an incredible deal compared with the Park Lane hotel in London at $273 a night, where I’ll be staying on my next visit. Plus St. Christopher’s Inn throws in breakfast as part of its deal.

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Of course St. Christopher’s Inn doesn’t have the Park Lane’s elegant Palm Court Bar or its rooms with views over Green Park. But the inn does have a “brand new massive chill-out room with big screen TV, PlayStation, relaxing couches and beanbags.”

I wonder whether it’s too late to change my reservation.

Contact Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.


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