Ain’t that grand!

Kash Bhattacharya looks at the evolution of hostels over the last 10 years, with an increasing emphasis on luxury accommodation.

At gestalten, I have just published The Grand Hostels, a compilation of luxury hostels around the world. The concept of luxury hostels might be an oxymoron to some. For those not aware of this type of hostel, it takes a while for them to get their head around the idea of having ‘luxury’ and ‘hostels’ in one sentence.

In my research prior to my first book project, which I had already self-published back in 2012 and which was entirely about European hostels, I found there is a negative stereotype surrounding hostels, especially amongst women. The key was to raise awareness that the hostelling experience is evolving. It’s no longer about a cheap bed. These luxury hostels offer their guests an amazing experience.

The origins of the movement go back to 2005 to Europe. Until then the budget accommodation scene had often been dominated by cheap and basic family-run properties that were fine for those simply looking for a bed to lie on, but lacked the character and the fun of the hostels sought by the young independent traveller. One of the first hostels was a chic and beautifully furnished 23-room hostel called in Lisbon. Walking into the reception, you might have walked into a five-star boutique hotel. Set in an 18th century building, the hostel had been beautifully refurbished. Local artists were drafted in to give each room a unique feel.

In order to prepare for the first book project, the transition in my life went as follows. I was a whole year on the road, visiting all the luxury hostels. I had the comfort of a secure job and was blogging part-time prior to starting this project. I decided to jack in a pretty nice, well paid job of teaching social media to charities, sold all my belongings, packed my life into a 80-litre backpack and hit the road back in 2012. It was a seismic moment in my life. I was also starting a new life as a full-time professional travel blogger. However, the first hostels I visited were amazing experiences. All are great hostels run by great people. Each hostel was like an amazing new discovery. I was amazed about how little people knew about these places. It was then I realised there is such a thing called destiny. I had made the right decision doing this project.

At 34, I inter-railed for the first time, a ritual that many experience in their 20s. It was an amazing way to see Europe. Being a solo traveller, I was scared of how long I would last by myself on the road. However, I found it’s pretty easy to make friends. The luxury hostels which tend to attract discerning, independent travellers were a hotbed for meeting the nicest and most interesting people.

Hostels have had a bad reputation (sharing crowed dorms with 20 other noisy back packers etc). Bt they are are now appealing to an older crowd, too. I think the key trend we are noticing is that people are “travelling younger”. People who backpacked in their 20s are now 36 or 37 and still enjoy the freedom that independent travel offers them. Some hostels have noticed this trend and have upgraded their facilities to help cater to their specific needs. These hostels offer the comfort and convenience of private en-suite rooms alongside dorms. Plus, when you factor in: the excellent location of these hostels, competitive prices, many are ‘quiet’ hostels, key additional facilities like offering free WiFi, bike hire, staff that are passionate travellers and friendly- the overall experience is on the same standard if not better than what you would get at a five-star hotel, without the price tag.

In terms of design, I would say this new type of hostel is on par with a four-star boutique hotel plus the facilities in some of these hostels are amazing – you can expect anything from an indoor swimming pool, in-house cinema or an in-house chef that prepares for guests a three- course meal that is typically local.

I think travellers of today are more demanding and looking for more than just a cheap bed – they’re after an experience. The Airbnb effect means that not just the destination but the accommodation can also be a great experience. The advent of the internet, the more availability of information and choice means travellers have become more discerning and choosy when it comes to picking where they want to stay. The hostels, with their focus on experience and hospitality are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this shift.

The luxury hostels in my book are more than just beautiful designs. The owners were designing travel experiences for their guests and this is one key defining characteristic of the luxury hostel phenomenon.

More details on The Grand Hostels can be found here.

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