With 30 bucks and an open mind, you can stay in some prime spots in California — on the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego, for example, or a block from Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or across from Union Square.
We're talking hostels, once regarded as the province of backpackers and bedbugs, but increasingly go-to places for a growing base of mobile and moneyed travelers. More than 250 hostels are scattered throughout the U.S., including 60 in California, offering a more social and budget-friendly alternative to hotel travel.
These days, travelers expect more than "no bugs and hot water," says Maria Argyropoulos, vice president of operations for USA Hostels, which has locations in San Diego, Hollywood, San Francisco and Las Vegas. "Hostels throughout Europe and Australia are becoming way upscale, and that reflects the changing nature of the client. Now, travelers almost expect budget luxury."
And "budget luxury" is what they get. Domestic hostels range from sleek, modern 200-bed high rises in city centers to quaint 25-person beach cottages, and many are safe, clean places to stay. Most have 24/7 front-desk reception and security, and provide lockers to store belongings. Rates change according to season, number of beds in a room and location, but expect to pay $25 to $35 for a dorm bed in the summer, and $70 to $100 for a private room.
Today, hostellers contribute $1.4 billion to tourist revenues worldwide, and though the words "hostel" and "youth" are often paired, hostelling is by no means young-person exclusive. As the struggling economy has widened the range of those seeking budget accommodations, hostellers note a corresponding increase in the age of patrons.
Independently run mom-and-pop hostels are the heart of the industry, though Hostelling International, the brand name of the nonprofit International Youth Hostel Federation, leads the market in quantity and quality of hostels, with 4,000 hostels in 90 countries — 19 in California. To sport the "HI" logo, hostels must conform to quality and sanitation standards. And no alcohol is allowed.
Here are some well-regarded California hostels we sampled:
Los Angeles area
HI-Santa Monica is the largest hostel in the U.S., with 260 beds. The kitchen is expansive, dorms are bright and spacious, the activity board is brimming with freebies and you're a block from the beach.
Many of the hostel's numerous activities revolve around the Rapp Saloon, a local landmark nestled below the hostel. The saloon's activities are open to travelers and residents alike, and range from the Friday open-mike poetry night to acting classes and salsa lessons, free for guests and open to the community (donations accepted). To assist true travelers on a budget, most hostels require out-of-county identification and enforce a maximum visitation limit — usually around 21 days. Accordingly, the L.A. hostels listed don't allow L.A. residents, but the HI-Santa Monica is an exception.
1436 2nd St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-9913, http://www.hilosangeles.org
Banana Bungalow Hollywood is of another era. Owner Joe Fazio describes the converted two-story 1960s building — formerly the Movietown Motel — as "retro, funky, cool." That it is, although it's also modern, clean and unapologetically tacky. You'll find an Astroturf tiki courtyard in the back and a movie room with blue vinyl theater seats.
The "deluxe" private and dorm rooms (140 beds) all have kitchens en-suite, garishly colored according to theme, though the effect is, well, groovy.
Fazio also owns the 140-bed Banana Bungalow West Hollywood on Fairfax, just off the Melrose strip. Housed in a former retirement home, the WeHo location isn't quite as California-cool as the original, though the outdoor thatched-roof Tiki bar is impressive.
5920 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (877) 977-5077; 603 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655 2002, http://www.bananabungalowus.com
Surf City Hostel keeps it simple. Besides a stellar location at the end of the Hermosa Beach promenade, crisp linens on the beds in the 60 rooms, half of which enjoy an unobstructed ocean view and a charmingly frazzled manager — French-born Odile Brock, who has been running the place for 15 years — $25 buys you the best deal on ocean breezes in the South Bay.
26 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; (310) 798-2323, http://www.surfcityhostel.com
HI-Fisherman's Wharf, housed in historic Fort Mason at the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, feels like Camp San Francisco. The oldest hostel in the city slopes down to a hiking path that meanders from Fisherman's Wharf to Marina Green along a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. Café Franco, a funky coffee shop open to the public, provides free breakfast for hostel guests, lunch and $6 dinners of hearty vegetarian cuisine.