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Finding Friendly Hostels in North America

April 04, 1999|LUCY IZON | Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her Internet site is

If you'll be exploring North America on limited funds this summer, one way you can stretch your budget is by using the hundreds of hostels.

Don't let the term "hostel" mislead you. It doesn't mean that you'll be sharing digs in a halfway house or shelter. These facilities are exclusively for travelers.

Hostelling International (HI) is a worldwide organization with nearly 4,500 travelers' hostels in more than 70 countries. Membership costs $25 per year. Some of the affiliated national associations use the word "youth" in their name (i.e. American Youth Hostels), while others have dropped it altogether (Hostelling International--Canada) because very few hostels in the world actually impose age restrictions anymore.

The two North American HI-affiliated associations produce a joint 400-page handbook that gives details, maps, photos and an idea of activities in the area for their 220 hostels (142 in the U.S. and 78 in Canada). They provide inexpensive dormitory-style accommodations for travelers of all ages, with separate quarters for males and females. Expect fully equipped self-service kitchens, dining areas and common rooms for relaxing and socializing with other visitors from around the world. Many have private family and couples rooms that can be reserved in advance. Some even offer swimming pools and hot tubs.

Buildings used for HI hostels range from log cabins and lighthouses to institutional-style buildings. Among the more interesting are lighthouse hostels in Campbellton, Canada, and in Pescadero, Calif. (50 miles south of San Francisco); and a former dude ranch (H-Bar-G Ranch Hostel) in Estes Park, Colo.

Guests at the HI hostel in Shuswap Lake, Canada, sleep in train cabooses; in Ottawa, in the cells of a former jail. Near Seattle and Taos, N.M., the hostels feature tepees. On Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, the HI hostel is a former lifesaving station (built in 1873), which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Expect to pay $12 to $16 per bed, per night if you are an HI member; a few dollars more if you're not. And even though the word "youth" may no longer be in the name, be prepared for most of the guests to be student-age travelers.

The 1999 edition of "Hostelling North America: The Official Guide to Hostels in Canada and the United States" is free to HI-AYH members and hostel guests in the U.S. Nonmembers may obtain a copy for $3. Contact HI-AYH, 733 15th St., N.W., Suite 840, Washington, DC 20005; telephone (202) 783-6161, Internet http://www The Hostelling North America handbook includes membership information along with details on local discounts for hostel guests at restaurants, shops, museums, sports equipment stores, rental car companies, tours, etc. HI-AYH also offers a free booklet called the "Travelers Resource Guide," which is filled with tips for hostelers (primarily for those planning international adventures).

Hundreds of independent hostels compete with the HI facilities. You have to be more careful here. Some facilities are really good; others don't cut it. The atmosphere can also vary, from a place suitable for a family to a party crowd. Word of mouth, guidebooks and recommendations by the staff at other hostels, who may have had feedback, can help guide you.

Two independent hostel operators regularly publish information on both independent and HI hostels. In general, their books will tell you about a greater number of facilities, but you'll get only basic details on where they are, their rates and hostel network affiliation.

"The Hostel Handbook" is compiled by Jim Williams, who maintains the Blue Rabbit International House and Sugar Hill International House hostels at 730 and 722 St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem, New York City. The handbook is a handy, pocket-size, 104-page listing of 600 cheap places to stay in the U.S. and Canada. It's a good supplement to a guidebook because it's published each winter, allowing for information to be as current as possible. Novice travelers will also benefit from information on scams, safety, transportation services (including budget tours and backpacker bus services) and other budget travel information resources. This year's edition includes pages for collecting hostel stamps.

"The Hostel Handbook" is available for $4. (Send a check, made out to Jim Williams, to The Hostel Handbook, Dept. IGH, 722 St. Nicholas Ave., New York, NY 10031.) For more information, tel. (212) 926-7030, Internet http://

"Jim's Backpacker's Guide" is published by Jim de Cordova. When he's not marketing his latest invention, the Dreamhelmet (a helmet-shaped pillow for travelers), De Cordova operates Jim's at the Beach, a California hostel at 17 Brooks Ave. in Venice Beach.

"Jim's Backpacker's Guide" is a 118-page book listing 1,000 places to sleep for less than $20 per person, per night. There are hostels, hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs and KOA Kamping Kabins. You'll also find listings for WWOOF--Willing Workers on Organic Farms (these farms are dedicated to organic methods and depend on volunteer helpers). "Jim's Backpacker's Guide" costs $8 and can be ordered by credit card; tel. (800) 208-7226, Internet

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