Hostels provide budget-oriented accommodation where guests can rent a bed, sometimes a bunk bed in a dormitory and share a bathroom, lounge and sometimes a kitchen. Rooms can be mixed or single-sex, although private rooms may also be available. Hostels are generally cheaper for both the operator and the occupant; many hostels employ their long-term residents as desk clerks or housekeeping staff in exchange for free accommodation.
An effort could be made to distinguish between establishments that provide longer term accommodation (often to specific classes of clientèle such as nurses, students, drug addicts, arrested persons subsequently bailed to await trial and homeless people where the hostels are sometimes run by Housing Associations and charities) and those offering short term accommodation to travellers or backpackers.
Within the 'traveller' category another distinction can be drawn between hostels that are members of Hostelling International (HI), a non-profit organization encouraging outdoor activities and cultural exchange for the young and independently operated hostels. Hostels for travellers are sometimes called backpackers' hostels, particularly in Australia and New Zealand (often abbreviated to just backpackers).
There are several differences between hostels and hotels. Some major advantages of hostels include:
There is less privacy at hostels than at hotels. Sharing a sleeping dormitory is very different from staying in a private room at a hotel or Bed & Breakfast, and might not be comfortable for those requiring more privacy.
Theft can be a problem since guests may share a common living space, but this can be avoided by securing guests' belongings. Most hostels offer some sort of system for safely storing valuables, and an increasing number of hostels offer private lockers.
The traditional hostel format involved dormitory style accommodation. Some newer hostels include en-suite accommodation with single, double or quad occupancy rooms, though to be considered a hostel they must also provide dormitory accommodation. In recent years the numbers of independent and backpackers' hostels has increased greatly to cater for the greater numbers of overland, multi-destination travellers (such as gap-year travellers, railtrippers, those on sabbaticals etc.)
The quality of such places has also improved dramatically. Whilst some hostels do still insist on a curfew, daytime lockouts, and/or require occupants to do chores, this is becoming the exception rather than the rule, as hostels adapt to meet the changing expectations of guests.
In 1912 in Altena Castle in Germany, Richard Schirrmann created the first permanent Jugendherberge or 'Youth Hostel' (now a trademark of the former International Youth Hostel Federation or IYHF). These first Youth Hostels were an exponent of the ideology of the German Youth Movement to let poor, city youngsters breathe fresh air outdoors. The youths were supposed to manage the hostel themselves as much as possible and do chores to keep the costs down and build character as well as being physically active outdoors. Because of this, many Youth Hostels closed (and still close) during the middle part of the day.
The idea rapidly spread overseas and eventually resulted in Hostelling International (HI), a non-profit organization composed of more than 90 different Youth Hostel associations representing over 4500 Youth Hostels in over 80 countries.
Some HI Youth Hostels cater more to school-aged children (sometimes through school trips) and parents with their children, whereas others are more for travellers intent on learning new cultures. However, while the exploration of different cultures and places is emphasized in many hostels, particularly in cities or popular tourist destinations, there are still many hostels providing accommodation for outdoor pursuits such as hillwalking, climbing and bicycle touring and these are often small friendly hostels that retain much of the original vision and often provide valuable access to more remote regions.
Despite their name, in most countries membership is not limited to youth.
Independent hostels are not necessarily affiliated with one of the national bodies of Hostelling International, Youth Hostel Association or any other licensing body.
The term "youth" is less often used with these properties. These unaffiliated hostels are often called "backpackers' hostels" and can be more or less expensive. Unlike a fast food restaurant where everything is standardized, these hostels can be very diverse. They usually do not require a membership card. Being privately-owned, these hostels can offer the latest technology and services for guests. One of the first US hostel chains to promote this new "socialized hotel" was Banana Bungalow in the early 1990s. Youth Hostels have since become places to meet people rather than just accommodation.
The independent hostel industry is growing rapidly in many cities around the world, such as New York, Rome, and Miami. This is reflected in the development and expansion of dozens of hostel chains worldwide. The recent eruption in independent hostels has been called, "the single biggest news in the world of low-cost travel.
The development of independent backpackers hostels is a strong business model, with some cities reporting a higher average income per room for hostels than hotels. For example, in the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, upscale hotels are reportedly making $141 to $173 per room, while hostel rooms in the same city can bring in as much as $200 per night.
Though in the past, hostels have been seen as low-quality accommodation for less desirable travellers, at least one Australian study has shown that backpackers (who typically stay at hostels) spend more than non-backpackers due to their longer length of stays. Self-described backpackers make up as much as 10% of international visitors in countries like Australia.