Holidays on the cheap: Youth hostelling in the UK

Rural England

The words "youth hostel" used to conjur up images of creaky bunk beds, dank bathrooms and a jaunty sing-song after dinner, but the reality is a lot different these days. Modern hostels are generally comfortable, well-equipped places – often in stunning locations and usually with private rooms available if required. And with money tight for many people, the opportunity to stay in a prime location with self-catering facilities for a reasonable price is making youth hostelling seem more relevant than it has been for years.

So do I need to be a youth?
The name is a bit of a red herring actually and youth hostels have been open to all ages ever since the movement began in the UK in the 1920s. However there has always been a focus on helping young people – and the hostels have traditionally been targeted at those undertaking outdoor pursuits such as walking, climbing or cycling.

Do I need to be a member?
No, but your stay will be cheaper if you are and the membership could pay for itself over just a few days.

Does membership cover the whole UK?
No, ever since youth hostelling arrived on these shores (from Germany, as it happens), there have been three separate organisations covering the home nations. The Youth Hostels Association covers England and Wales and operates around 140 hostels - while SYHA Hostelling Scotland covers – you guessed it – Scotland and has 35 hostels of its own and another 30-odd affiliated hostels. Hostelling International Northern Ireland has five properties in some of NI's most sceneic spots.

So I won't have to share a room with strangers then?
Not unless you want to. Dormitory beds are cheaper, but private rooms are still very affordable and are obviously preferred by couples and families. Some even have ensuite toilets – although it's more usual to have to walk to a shared bathroom. If you really like your privacy you can even rent a whole hostel – a good option for a family gathering or a landmark birthday perhaps. You don't even have to stay in a "room" at all - other options include camping, pods, barns and bunkhouses.

But will I have to do the chores?
In the earlier days of youth hostelling visitors were required to help clean rooms and communal areas and take part in other jobs – but that is now a thing of the past. You'll just need to make sure you do your washing up after using the kitchen facilities.

Do I have to clear out during the day?
Some of the smaller or more rural hostels do shut up shop during the day, and staff will also need to get into your room to clean – but even if that is the case you'll often be allowed to stay in a common area if the weather is appalling or you have special circumstances.

What kind of home comforts can I expect?
If you're used to swanky hotels then you may be disappointed, but if you've just stayed in backpacker hostels then you're probably in for a pleasant surprise. Rooms are clean and fresh bedding is provided in the form of a sheet, duvet and pillow. There is no kettle or hairdryer, but there is usually power for your own devices and a choice of kettles in the shared kitchen. You can hire or buy a towel, but most visitors choose to take their own.

And what about these common areas?
As well as the aforementioned shared kitchens – which are usually very well equipped – you can also expect a communal dining area and a further common room with armchairs and/or sofas. Many hostels also have a licensed bar.

But I prefer city breaks
Don't worry, there are hostels in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol and Cardiff – among other destinations – and the prices can be just as reasonable as the rural hostels.

So how much will it cost me then?
Dormitory rooms might be around £17 per person per night, while beds in private rooms will be more like £23 per night. There is a surcharge of a few pounds per night for non-members – but yearly adult membership is only £10 for Scotland and £15 for England and Wales.

Alright, where do I sign up?
Each of the hostel associations mentioned has a modern, user-friendly website and it's often possible to book online. If not you might have to go old school and pick up the phone to call your hostel of choice.

Have you been on a youth hostel holiday? Leave a comment below...

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