Travel: Pile 'em high and sleep 'em cheap

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The Independent Culture
NO CHORES. No curfew. The Sugar Hill hostel in New York City emphasises how different it is from traditional youth hostels. For pounds 8 a night visitors to New York get a bunk bed in a relatively safe part of Harlem, and a chance to enjoy the company of like-minded travellers without the nagging worry of being told to clean the bathroom before leaving.

In order to encourage decent living, official youth hostels have long had a compendious set of rules: curfews, a ban on alcohol and restrictions on staying more than a few days. These regulations help to explain why America has so few proper youth hostels: only a few hundred, in a nation where even the pokiest town has a string of motels. Cheap motels always used to be the budget traveller's staple in the US, but prices have risen. The Motel Six chain now charges several times more than the dollars 6 from which it earned its name.

It did not take much to realise that a big market existed for hostels without the rules. So the independent hostel took off. Rambling old houses have been crammed with bunk beds, priced at around pounds 10 a night. It is hard to put a value on the hilarity of train travellers' tales in the dorm; the US rail network, Amtrak, can be so late, so often, that it makes BR look like a model of punctuality. A party of Germans I met in Boston were stuck in the desert for three days. That sort of thing never happens to Michael Palin.

With his team of researchers, Mr Palin hardly needs to plug into a network of informal advice; but ordinary travellers can benefit greatly. Bulletin boards in Boulder, Colorado, offer shared car rides to Reno; the Orlando hostel has a stash of coupons for Walt Disney World; and Las Vegas hostels provide advice on how to beat the casinos. The hostels belonging to the Hostelling International network have relaxed their restrictions in order to compete in the 'pile 'em high, sleep 'em cheap, rule 'em less' market.

Unused, perhaps, to communal living, hardly any Americans stay in hostels. Germans, Japanese and British travellers are in the majority, most of them taking advantage of unlimited-travel rail or bus passes to roam around the USA. Certainly there are disadvantages: a snorer doing an impression of a wart hog can keep a whole dormitory awake all night, for example. But the prospect of coffee and doughnuts (the standard breakfast in most hostels) makes getting up bearable.

This style of accommodation has considerable attractions for the discerning and richer traveller. A number of hostels, such as those in Atlanta and Memphis, have created a neat cohabitation of luxury rooms and basic dorms. The front door leads to a plush bed-and-breakfast establishment (the term has much more cachet in the USA), while the tradesmen's entrance is mandatory for backpackers. But patrons who have long ceased to be students are often to be found wandering from the upmarket side into the communal quarters, asking for directions to the World of Coca-Cola or the Sun Studio. Students still know where the best deals can be found.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Hostels affiliated to Hostelling International require guests to be members of a national hostelling association, costing pounds 8.90 for a year in the UK. Contact the YHA for England and Wales on 0727 855215; the Scottish YHA on 0786 451181; or the YHA for Northern Ireland on 0232 324733. These associations can supply Volume 2 of the 'International Directory', which includes North America ( pounds 5.99). 'The Hostel Manager's Handbook' is available from Sugar Hill International House, 722 St Nicholas Avenue, New York, NY 10031 (010 1 212 926 7030).

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