The Hostel Experience – by an over 45 solo traveler

I would never pass up the opportunity to stay in a nice hotel or resort, but travelling is expensive and if you want to make your travel dreams become a reality you have to find a way for your budget to accommodate your travel plans.

When I decided to embark on an extended travel experience of  Canada and USA I wanted to do it as economically as possible, so that I could travel for as long and as far as possible.  Accommodation is usually the most expensive part of travel so I did what I had to do to stretch my dollars. During the three month trip I stayed in a total of 10 hostels and only 3 hotels and 2 B&Bs .

As a traveler in the over 45 age bracket who had never stayed in a hostel before this was going to be a new experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Staying in hostels definitely wasn’t like staying at the Ritz but  most were clean and tidy, the beds were relatively comfortable and most provided a basic breakfast of coffee, cereal and toast, muffins or bagels to start the day.

I must confess I am a bit of clean freak and before embarking on my journey my biggest fears were cleanliness of the hostels and bed bugs. I may have just been lucky but fortunately neither of my fears became a reality.  Hostels provide you with a clean set of sheets and towels at check-in and you often have to make the bed yourself.  Before making my bed I always checked under the mattresses and crevices for bed bugs using a torch. To be honest I think most of the hostels I stayed at were quite vigilant about the bed bug/cleanliness factor.  Most hostels had mattress protectors on the beds that were clearly clean and changed regularly, cleaners were also observed cleaning floors and bathrooms every morning.

Apparently some hostels have a reputation of being a ‘Party Hostel’.  I’m not much of a night owl these days and after a full day of sightseeing I was usually ready for bed at a decent hour, and most of the hostels I stayed in were actually relatively quiet. You can usually gauge the atmosphere of a hostel by checking reviews. The key to being satisfied with any accommodation you book is to always do some research before making the booking. Trip Advisor is one of the most popular websites that provides traveler reviews, but there are many others that can be found easily if Google the word ‘review’ with the name of the accommodation you are considering.

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Other things to consider when booking a hostel are room types, facilities they offer, do they provide breakfast (if that is important to you), distance from public transport, points of interest and of course the cost. Hostels have fully equipped kitchens, so buying some basic food items and preparing at least some of your own meals is another great way to reduce costs.

Generally hostels offer rooms with either 4,6 or 8 beds set up as bunks and some also offer private rooms. You can also choose between mixed-sex dorms or male/female only dorms. Each bed usually has a personal light, power point, shelf, and locker. Some hostel rooms have dorms with en-suite bathrooms and all had additional bathrooms with showers in the hall.  The largest dorm room I stayed in was at Hosteling International Philadelphia. I didn’t realise until I arrived that they only had one female dorm room with 18 beds. I arrived about lunch time and check-in was at 4 pm. During those few hours before check-in I became concerned about staying in such I large dorm and very nearly cancelled my booking and checked into a hotel, but I was only staying for two nights so decided to give it a try. The dorm was fully booked and to my surprise it was actually very quiet and everyone was very respectful of everyone else’s personal space.

The cost of staying in a hostel can vary depending on the city you are in. The hostels I stayed in varied from US$27 per night in Denali National Park, Alaska to US$71 per night in New York.  Another way to reduce the cost if you are on an extended trip and plan to stay in few hostels is to purchase a Hosteling International membership.  For US$28 you receive a 12 month membership which includes a minimum 10% discount at all HI hostels worldwide as well as other various offers.

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Denali Mountain Morning Hostel – a peaceful place in the wilderness.

Most hostels also offer activities or day tours around the local area at reasonable cost. They are usually conveniently located either centrally or near public transport and friendly staff can offer advice on how to get around a city and what to see. Because Los Angeles is quite spread out I decided to split my time between two hostels,  I stayed four nights in Hollywood and three nights in Santa Monica.  The Hollywood hostel provided a shuttle bus that takes guests to the beach in Santa Monica a couple of times a week (a distance of about 23 km). So I decided to take the shuttle for my transfer to the Santa Monica. I was expecting to have to walk a block or two from beach drop off point, but  the shuttle bus driver from the Hollywood hostel was kind enough to drop me and my luggage at the door of the Santa Monica hostel.

I only had one unpleasant experience in a hostel.  I was staying in a small six bed dorm room and was woken up at 7.00 am to the sound of the girl in the bunk bed above me, talking really loudly in her native tongue to her friend on the other side of the room. Seriously though most people who needed to make an early start were very respectful of others in the room by preparing themselves the night before and quietly seeing themselves out in the morning.

If your traveling alone, staying in a hostel is a great way to meet people. While staying in hostels I met and had some great conversations with people of all ages and from all over the globe. Of course most of the conversations you have with people you meet in hostels is likely to be an exchange of travel stories. It doesn’t matter how old you are because the love of travel crosses all generations and you share a common interest to explore the world. It seems that travelers inspire each other to keep travelling by sharing stories of travel, adventure and further wanderlust.

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HI New York – One of the best hostels I stayed in.

While I would never give up the opportunity to stay in a nice hotel, a hostel is a good option if you want to spend some time in a city that has a reputation for being expensive or if you want to stretch your dollar a bit further so that you can travel longer.  Now that I have experienced staying in hostels I would much rather stay in a hostel than a cheap hotel.

I will finish this article with a list of the places I stayed during my travels through Canada and the USA.  If you are over 45 and young at heart you should have no problem staying in any of the hostels.

HI Seattle at the American Hotel – An old building, but clean and comfortable. Breakfast was provided. The only downside was walking up three flights of stairs every time I need to go to my room.

HI Vancouver – Dorm rooms were very small,  breakfast was provided.

Denali Mountain Morning Hostel –  A great place to stay. The hostel & cabins are in the wildness with a creek running through the property.  If you’re lucky you might see a Moose strolling by. Friendly helpful staff, a shuttle bus to and from the Wilderness Access Center twice daily.  I had the best Salmon Chowder at McKinley Creekside Café just across the road.

HI Anchorage – A comfortable hostel. A breakfast (pancakes) only provided on Sundays.

USA Hostels San Francisco – Large hostel in a nice old building in the city center. I stayed in a nice 4 bed en-suite dorm which was comfortable. Breakfast was provided.

Stratosphere Las Vegas (Hotel) – Your average Vegas hotel, the rooms were clean and comfortable. Located at the North end of the strip which was a bit out of the way, you need to take a bus or a taxi if you want to visit the fancy ‘must see’ casinos/hotels.

Excalibur Las Vegas (Hotel) – Another average Vegas hotel, there was a definite whiff of stale smoke on the gaming floor but the rooms were clean and comfortable. great location walking distance other well know casinos/hotels.

USA Hollywood Hostel – This hostel was undergoing some renovations when I stayed there so there were some minor inconveniences at the time. Staff were friendly and helpful, dorms had en-suite bathrooms, breakfast was provided, I would stay there again.

HI Santa Monica – One of my favorite hostels, recently renovated with new beds and furniture, right in the town center and one street back from the beach. Breakfast was provided.

Fairchild House New Orleans – A lovely B&B in the Garden District of New Orleans (built in 1841), close to Charles Street where you can catch the Trolley to the French Quarter or Uptown area.

HI Miami Beach – This hostel was clearly a motel in a previous life so all dorm rooms had an en-suite, it was clean and comfortable, air-conditioned (it’s hot in Miami in June), lots of great restaurants nearby.

Clarion Hotel Orlando (Motel) – a basic comfortable Orlando motel with a pool and on-site restaurant.

HI Philadelphia (Apple Hostels) – Basic hostel with only one large female dorm. Located in the downtown area of Philadelphia.

HI Washington DC – Nice hostel, centrally located, within walking distance of the White House, breakfast was provided.

HI New York – located in quieter area of Manhattan and only two blocks from Central Park. Away from the hustle and bustle of Times Square, but close enough to be there in 15 minutes via the subway. Onsite coffee shop that provides simple meals. Storage lockers available (if you want to get out of town for a couple of days and store your big backpack).  Another of my favorite hostels, will definitely stay again next time I visit the big apple.

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San Francisco – just what I expected

San Francisco was everything I expected it to be. When I arrived I caught the train from the airport to the downtown area which was near my hostel. The moment I exited the subway on the corner of Powell & Market Streets I could feel the San Francisco vibe. I think this gave me the energy and enthusiasm to walk to my hostel, which I thought was only going to be four blocks uphill, but turned out to be eight blocks uphill, with my 14kg back pack.

Like usual I spent the first day riding around the city on a Hop On Hop Off Bus. The many hills, bustling city streets and the architecture of the buildings all contribute to the vibe of this city which just feels alive with character.

Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for real, after seeing it in so many pictures and on TV so many times over the years was a wow moment.

The Golden Gate Bridge from both sides

 

I also couldn’t resist the urge to find Alamo Square park and the Full House houses. The HOHO can’t take people there because it’s a residential street, so it drops you off about 2 blocks away and you can walk there (uphill again).

Houses opposite Alamo Square Park

 

You often see Fire Trucks trucks driving around the city and the HOHO guide informed us this was because 1/3 of all Fire Trucks must be out of the Fire Stations at anyone time in case an earthquake happens. When I was flying between Seattle and San Francisco I was lucky enough to be upgraded to an exit row window seat. From the sky not far out of San Fransisco you can actually see part of the San Andreas fault line, it looks like a line of cliffs where the earth breaks up onto a plateau.

The next day I took a ferry to the infamous Alcatraz Island. This was another place I had heard many stories about over the years, and it was interesting to actually go there and see the island and cell block where the prisoners where detained. Luckily I booked my ticket a few months ago. I spoke to a number of people who were disappointed they couldn’t go because they hadn’t pre-booked tickets. My trip to Alcatraz was followed by a late lunch and stroll around pier 39.

Alcatraz Island

Pier 39

 

While I was in San Fransisco I also took a tour which included the Muir Woods, the Sanoma wine region and a ferry ride between Sausalito and the pier. I wanted to see how US wineries compared to Australian wineries. The Muir Woods were lovely, but I wasn’t to impressed with the wineries. The tour visited 3 wineries and I tasted wines at two of them. Each winery charged $15 to taste 5-6 wines of their choosing, none of which were spectacular. I think I can safely say that Australia does wine better that the US.

Muir Woods, Olive Tree & Ferry Building

 

I also visited the California Academy of Sciences which is located at Golden Gate Park. There were some interesting exhibits including an Earthquake exhibit, a walk through rainforest terrarium, an aquarium and planetarium.

All in all I really enjoyed San Fransisco, it was a city with its own character.

Alaska – another uniquely beatiful place

I arrived in Anchorage Alaska on Saturday 13 May after disembarking a 7 day cruise and took a flight directly to Fairbanks. While looking out the plane window it was interesting to note that for a state covered in so much ice there are also a lot of dry arid areas. I later found out that this is because 2/3 of the state is covered in permafrost just 2-3 feet below the surface, which can make it difficult for vegetation to grow.

As I arrived in Fairbanks I realised a common pattern seems to be forming with my travels where I spend the first day in a new place just figuring out how to get around. Fairbanks is one of those very spread out towns, where a car would be really useful. But nevertheless I have now figured out how to get to most places I wanted to go using the local bus service.

So where did I go and what did I do in Fairbanks? I…

…visited the Ice Museum, where I watched a informative video about the World Ice Carving Championships. Ice Carving up here begins with big blocks of pure ice being carved out frozen lakes. After the video I literally entered a freezer (at -5’C jackets and gloves were a must) to see the ice carvings

 

…I took a Riverboat Discovery Tour which included a Dog Mushing Display, views of some really nice houses & log cabins, a visit to a mockup native Chena Village where native Alaskan guides provided information about how Native Alaskans lived prior to white man arriving, including smoking Salmon and how they used every part of the animals they hunted.


…visited the Museum of the North, which had some interesting displays …mammoth tasks, dinosaur bones, etc.


..on my last day in Fairbanks I went to North Pole which was just a 1/2 bus ride away and visited Santa’s house (which was actually just a shop but there were Reindeer outside).

I travelled from Fairbanks to Denali in a small shuttle bus with only 2 other passengers.  Luckily it was a clear day and at a particular spot on the highway I got a clear view of Mt McKinley (also known as Mt Denali) which at 20,310 feet is the tallest mountain in North America.

You can just see Mt McKinley (covered in snow) towards the background of this photo.

 

On my only full day in Denali National Park it was only 3’C (glad I didn’t forget my beanie and gloves that day).  In the morning I took a short bus trip to a place called Savage River, along he way I saw a couple of Moose (but no bears😟). Then in the afternoon I took a horse & wagon ride which included a yummy meal. I would have really liked an extra day or two in Denali as it would have been good to take a tour deeper into the park and closer to the mountain.

The following day I took the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage for another scenic journey.

I then had 3 full days in Anchorage which I spent relatively quietly (travelling can be tiring so it was time to slow down a bit). Still I did do the local trolley tour, visited the Native Heritage Centre, strolled around the local weekend market where I ate a Reindeer Burger (which was quite yummy) and finally I visited the Anchorage Zoo to see some of the Native animals I missed out on seeing elsewhere in Alaska.

Alaska Native Heritage Centre

 

Anchorage is one of those cities where all the downtown streets are named A, B, C etc and the cross streets are 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. I always though cities with streets named like this were a bit corny and unimaginative, but as a tourist I now realise it makes it a lot easier to figure out how to get to where you want to go.

Well that’s it for Alaska for now. I came here, I learnt about the history and the wildlife, I experienced (some of) it and enjoyed the beautiful sights. Maybe I’ll be back again one day……

42 Hours in Seattle

ARRIVED BY: Plane

DEPARTED BY: Train

ACCOMODATION: Hostelling International Seattle at the American Hotel

Seattle wasn’t originally on my list of places to visit but a friend from work recommended I add it to my itinerary. When it came time to book my flights I found that it was about $300 cheaper to fly into Seattle rather than Vancouver. That $300 dollars was enough to pay for a couple of nights accommodation, a little sightseeing and my train ticket to Vancouver. So the decision was made to make quick visit to Seattle on my way to Vancouver.

When I was booking my transportation throughout Canada and the USA I organised most of the arrival times during daylight hours so that I could take public transport to my accomodation. This would help reduce costs and allow me to get a more local feel for the city. I arrived in Seattle about 2pm and took the light rail from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the International District/Chinatown stop which was just one block from my accomodation at HI Seattle.

This was my first experience at staying in hostel accomodation. The HI Seattle was in an old building but it was clean and the bed was relatively comfortable. The only downside of this hostel was having to walk up four flights of stairs every time I needed to go to my room.  

I settled into the hostel and I went out for a walk in search of somewhere to eat dinner along the waterfront where there are a number of fish and chip shops. While walking along the waterfront I discovered that in some cities their obviously isn’t enough room for all the cars that need to drive on the roads, so they have to build the roads upwards on top of each other. The Alaska Way Viaduct has three levels and runs for 3.2 km (2miles) along the waterfront. It was built for 60,000 cars a day but is used 110,000, which explains why the vehicles are still bumper to bumper.

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The Alaskan Way Viaduct

On my only full day in Seattle I navigated the local bus service to the other end of town for a ride on the monorail to visit a local icon, the Space Needle for some views of Seattle from 305 meters (520 feet). 

The Seattle Space Needle

Next stop was Pike Place Market where I had tried Clam Chowder for the first time. It was quite flavoursome without being too overpowering. 

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Clam Chowder

There seems to be a Starbucks store on every block in Seattle and being an avid coffee drinker I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the very first Startbucks store.     

The original Starbucks store

Well that just about sums up my quick visit to Seattle. If I had stayed a little longer I would have liked to visit the Boeing factory.

I am now on my way to Vancouver by train and enjoying some beautiful scenery along the coast, which is another thing I would have missed out on if I hadn’t made the quick stop in Seattle.