They aren't lush, but they're more than suitable - and private
By now, most everyone knows that youth hostels are no longer just for youths. They've even dropped the word from their title ("Hostelling International" is the new name of the official hostel organization). But were you aware that most hostels nowadays offer what are billed as "family rooms?" Sometimes, a family room can be as fully private as a suite, with its own bathroom. More often, it's simply a standard dorm-type room equipped with bunks--but at least the place is all yours, privately, and that's the point. You can have a space of your own, often in a centuries-old building loaded with character, at a bargain price.
Obviously, such lodgings aren't for everyone. They suit the energetic budget traveler who's eager to be out and about, who prefers to spend minimum time in a hotel room and maximum time in the local ambience. Pampered types, for whom the lodging and its amenities are a major part of the traveling experience, should clearly look elsewhere.
That said, even the intrepid traveler should be warned about a few eccentricities common to family rooms at youth hostels. Sleeping facilities will almost certainly feature tall bunks, with vertiginous top beds. Four to six bunks will be in the room, and frequently there'll be only one light fixture: "Lights out" for the kids at a reasonable hour means that the grown-ups will be plunged into darkness too. But then again, perhaps early-to-bed is not such a bad thing, since early-to-rise is obligatory: Some hostels close during the day, and you may be required to vacate the premises as early as 10 o'clock in the morning. (You can, however, leave belongings in your room during "lockout.")
Finally, don't expect to stay in a hostel with your family for a few bucks a night, as you might have done in your own youth. Each individual bed is bargain-priced: from $12 to $15, typically. With hostels, as with most hotels and pensions in Europe, you pay by the bed, regardless of the age of the person who sleeps in it. Thus, even the low price of $12 a bed can add up if there are five of you.
On the plus side, it's unlikely you'll find a better bargain anywhere else, especially as your $12 to $15 includes breakfast, too. Often this is a simple bread-and-jam affair, but even in those cases you'll usually enjoy plenty of strong coffee, steamed milk, and hot chocolate. Sometimes inexpensive communal dinners are available, which brings up another selling point: Hostels are sociable places. If you feel friendly, you can meet individuals from many walks of life. Speaking of food, many hostels offer shared kitchen facilities, and when you travel with small kids, simply having access to a fridge (to store milk, for example) can be a great convenience. Just note that you're expected to clean up after yourself.
Our own recent experience A particularly excellent feature of hostels, especially in Europe, is that many are located in centuries-old castles or former monasteries. On a recent trip to France and Italy with three kids, nearly every hostel we tried had something to recommend it. In Lyon, it was a megabreakfast with toast, jam, unlimited hot chocolate, juice, and those little boxes of cereal that kids love, plus a great view over the medieval rooftops. At the Villa Francescatti in Verona, we enjoyed the huge grounds of a sixteenth-century villa and the privacy of a separate building for families. The La Primula hostel, in Menaggio on Lake Como, offers friendly atmosphere, a library of books and board games, wonderful dinners at bargain prices (this hostel also organizes cooking classes), and the view from the balcony ain't bad either. In Cinque Terre, the Manarola hostel gets top marks, with helpful staff, individual bedlights, and private bathrooms.
How did we find these hostel gems? An excellent guidebook, Hostels France & Italy: The Only Comprehensive, Unofficial, Opinionated Guide, by Paul Karr and Martha Coombs, describes many outstanding hostels and notes which ones have family rooms or reputations for excessive noise. Online resources are helpful, too. Hostels of Europe (hostelseurope.com) has maps with top locations and excellent listings that make note of family rooms, quietness, and kitchen facilities. The Italian Youth Hostel Association (hostels-aig.org) has details and pictures. Most Web sites also promote online reservations. Always try to make reservations for your family room well in advance, and get a confirmation by fax or e-mail.
The two big questions But what about the bathrooms? And that bring-your-own-bedding thing? The BYOB policy is ancient history. Some hostelers still travel with their own "sleep-sheet" (two sheets sewn together to make a sack), but why bother? Typically, when you enter your family room, each bunk will be decked out with crisp sheets, plump pillows, and a blanket folded neatly at the foot of each bed. If a sleep-sheet is required, it can be rented at the hostel for a modest charge. Sleeping bags, meanwhile, are considered unhygienic and are often not allowed, so there's little point in carting them around. Do remember, though, to bring along your own towels.
As for the bathrooms, even when there's no private toilet or shower for your room, facilities will probably be just across the hall; those we saw were very clean. I know, I know: Most North Americans have a phobia about shared bathrooms. Overcome this bias and a new vista of budget options will open. Meanwhile, your family room will always contain a sink, at least.
The great decision One final point about hostels concerns memberships: Some hostels require membership in a hosteling organization; check on this issue when you make your reservations. With luck, you'll be able to buy a membership (approximately $15 to $25) at the first hostel on your itinerary. Nonmembers won't be turned away--in the worst case, you might have to pay a slightly higher charge for your room. Alternatively, you can buy a membership before your trip-head to the Web sites noted above or to www.hiayh.org or www.hostels.com, which can also answer your general questions about hosteling.
Four recommended European hostels
Auberge de Jeunesse du Vieux Lyon, 41-45 Montée du Chemin Neuf, 69005 Lyon, France. Tel. 011-33-4/78-15-05-50, fax /78-15-05-51, fuaj.org/aj/lyon.
Villa Francescatti Youth Hostel, Salita Fontana del Ferro 15, 37129 Verona, Italy. Tel. 011-39-045/590360, fax /8009127, hostels-aig.org/shop-uk/verona.htm.
International Youth Hostel "La Primula," Via 4 Novembre 86, 22017 Menaggio, Italy. Tel. 011-39-034/432356, fax/431677, menaggiohostel.com.
Hostel 5 Terre, in Manarola, Cinque Terre, Via Riccobaldi 21, 19010 Manarola, Italy. Tel. 011-39-018/7920215, fax /7920218, cinqueterre.net/ostello/ostelloen.htm