Hostelling Adventures for Families: Our Ten-Year Anniversary
By Kathy Chin Leong

It's a step up in comfort compared to camping, it's economical, and it's fun. Throughout the United States and internationally, youth hostels are fostering family togetherness and teaching children the value of acceptance, teamwork, and cooperation.

Our brood, plus the Carrolls, Provenchers, Youngs, Chins, and Cheng-Campbells, have road tested northern California hostels over the course of nearly a decade with eleven adults and eleven kids in tow. This February, we celebrated our 10th anniversary at the Yosemite Bug Hostel in the town of Midpines, one hour away from the doorstep of the national park.


Benefits of hostel travel are many. First, a single stay saves you half the amount, probably more in comparison to a hotel. Individuals pay anywhere from $9 to $22 per night, according to the Hostelling International-American Youth Hostelling (HI-AYH) organization. For instance, the Sanborn hostel in Saratoga runs $16 for adults and $7 for kids under 18. Our family of four cost only $49. If you are an AYH member, you pay two dollars less per adult.
Our band of modern-day gypsies lodge exclusively at HI-AYH facilities, which maintains the largest network of hostels in the world. The United States listing boasts approximately 110 locations from coast to coast and maintains high standards in cleanliness and upkeep. As in any vacation planning, reserve weeks, even months in advance if you have a large group, especially during peak season.

More than a bargain for the budget traveller, hostelling means adventure, yielding experiences unlike any other. Because the spirit of hostelling is based upon hospitality and goodwill, you interact with visitors from around the globe as well as local sojourners who want to get away from their hectic schedules. We've listened to young Europeans tell of their exploits as they stomped through the country. We have shared meals with single parents and their children. Our kids have adopted new friends while playing ping-pong.

Unlike chain hotels, no two hostels are alike. From the cottage bungalows of Santa Cruz to the lighthouse keepers' quarters in Montara , these dwellings are often vintage buildings acquired by HI-AYH.
The Sacramento location is an amazing renovated 1885 Victorian mansion which features a downstairs rec room, veranda, sitting parlor, and outside patio for dining. This new site has a bed and breakfast feel with lush carpeting in every bedroom.

The Monterey Hostel , with its vast, inviting living room, occupies the site of the former Carpenters Union Hall and provides parking at no additional charge. This is a bonus in an area where metered parking spaces are a premium.
Walking distance to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this gem turned out to be a perfect fall weekend getaway where we ate, shopped, at biked the perimeter of the bay under sunny skies.


When you first check in, the resident manager will greet you, collect the balance of what you owe, and go over rules and responsibilities. No food in the bedrooms. No alcohol or drugs. Do not leave expensive items in the rooms because they do not have locks.

You must observe the lights-out curfew. Each hostel enforces a quiet time where guests need to either go to their rooms or engage in whispered conversation in the common living areas.

In accord with the hostel tradition, these havens of refuge require travellers to leave the premises in the morning and return in the late afternoon. The idea is that hostellers should be going out to explore their newfound territories. Years ago, when we had toddlers who needed afternoon naps, we found hostels willing to make exceptions.


If you plan on concocting your own meals, prepare menus early. Call ahead to find out if the place has the storage space and appliances you'll need. Does the kitchen have a microwave, oven, coffee maker, waffle maker? This will save you needless hassle and disappointment once you get there.

At the Marin Headlands hostel , we had the use of a commercial-sized kitchen with a gigantic stove, drum-sized steel sinks, mile-long counters, and access to plenty of utensils for cutting and chopping. I assumed the place had a freezer. Whoops! Our group consumed the entire gallon of dripping vanilla ice cream that night, and I had to throw away the soupy remains.

At the Yosemite Bug , a kitchen is available for food prep, but it also features an on-site restaurant with excellent fare. If eating out is preferred, the managers are more than happy to tell you where to go for dining. Hostels keep a bevy of brochures on hand from local restaurants and eateries.


The upside of hostel travel is that you definitely get a bed, and you do not have to sleep on a floor or a cot. Further, many feature private rooms with double beds and a set of bunks. A few offer cribs and playpens.

The possible downside of hostel travel is that unless you get one of the coveted private rooms, you will sleep in a bunk bed in a men's or women's dorm. Having a sleepover with strangers may make you feel uncomfortable, and if you are a light sleeper, sounds of people rustling in their blankets or snoring will make it a long night for you. Bring your earplugs. Since we have 22 people, we easily take up two dorms, and the managers kindly refrain from adding anyone to our rooms.

When you call for a reservation, inquire about bedding. Some do not allow sleeping bags, others do. Some require customers to use their sheets and blankets. Others will rent sheets and pillow cases for 50 cents a night. I've been able to sleep well at every hostel I have been to, and give a thumbs up in cleanliness at each one.

Think of your college dorm days, and you'll remember what it was like lining up for showers. Unless you have a private room with restroom, be prepared to share the bathroom with other hostellers. Like camping, you must bring your own towel and toiletries. Since bedrooms and bathrooms are cleaned daily, you can be assured that the sanitation conditions are kept to a fairly high level although some facilities can be very old.

You should also ask whether the hostel keeps pets. While you cannot take along your animal, a few hostels have a resident cat on the premises which may spell disaster for those in your party with allergies.


Before you check out, expect to perform a few light chores. What you do specifically depends on the particular rules at that hostel. Jobs run the gamut. At one place, the manager asked us only to return bedding to the baskets. During one recent stay, we were told to mop the kitchen and sweep our rooms.

Don't like the chore idea? Before you rule out hostelling, remember that work is good, even on vacation! Think of cleanup duty as an opportunity for your kids to help out with responsibilities. This spring when one of our boys was asked to clean the bathroom at the Sanborn Hostel, he exclaimed, "Ewww! We don't have to do this at home!" The good news was that he willingly learned how to disinfect a toilet, and he didn't complain after being told how to do it.

Chores can include mopping floors, wiping off food surface areas, scrubbing down bathrooms, changing sheets, sweeping or vaccuuming. When everyone works as a team, it only takes about 5 to 20 minutes to finish the work.


One of the reasons we love hostelling so much is that there is plenty to do at every location. In 1994, our kids were toddlers and a few have now become teenagers. A hostelling adventure still holds "mysteries unknown" no one has outgrown.

At the Sacramento Hostel , we were walking distance to the Train Museum and Old Town, as well as the State Capitol. During that trip, we exposed our pre-school and elementary school kids to a "car-less" weekend. Planning months ahead, we rode the train from San Jose, and walked everywhere, and boarded the local bus to the municipal swimming pool for a day of refreshment.

Montara Hostel
, near Half Moon Bay, was a treat for the adults as we enjoyed hot tubbing under the stars while the kids played board games inside. Visiting tidepools, riding ponies, and going fishing exhausted us all that memorable weekend.

Another year we barbequed at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel and watched the sun slip beneath the Pacific Ocean. We trekked through a forest, picking wild berries along the way.


Whenever my kids think of their closest buddies, they automatically name the children in the hostel group. With a wink and a smile, we call each other "hostel friends" without thinking twice. Over the course of these ten trips, we have deepened the roots of friendship and include one another during holidays, day trips, and special events in each other's lives.

Our tribe of six beloved families can attest that the Hostelling International's mission statement is sound and true: "To help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hostelling."


* - More information on hostels nationwide.
* - Details on hostels in northern California.


Marin Headlands
Fort Barry Building
Rates: $18 per person; call for private room rates
*Turn-of-the-century 1900's army fort barracks

Point Montara Lighthouse
16th St. at California Hwy 1
Rates: $18 adults, $12 children 17 and under; call for private room rates
*Former 1875 lighthouse buildings

778 Hawthorne St.
Rates: $20 adults, $15.50 children 7-17, $11.50 children under 7; private room rates $54 and up
*Former carpenters' union meeting hall

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
210 Pigeon Pt. Rd.
Rates: $18 adults, $12 children 17 and under (non-members add $3); call for private room rates
*Former lighthouse keeper's housing

Point Reyes National Seashore
Limantour Rd
Point Reyes Station
Rates: $16 adults, $10 children 17 and under
*19th century ranch house

900 H St.
Rates: $20 adults, $10 children 17 and under (non-members add $3)
*Elegant 1885 Victorian mansion, restored

Santa Cruz Carmelita Cottages
321 Main St.
Santa Cruz
Rates: $18-$21; private rooms $46-$80
*Restored 1870's cottages

Sanborn Park
15808 Sanborn Rd.
$14 adults; $7 children (non-members add $2)
*Log house built in 1908

6979 Highway 140
Rates: $16 per person; private rooms $40 - $115
*Built with dorms with hostel cafe and coffee house; family quarters available
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