I have to admit that I am a recent convert to Family Hostels. I stay in hostels when I am on surfing trips with friends or travelling on my own. All I need is a bed, a bit of wifi to check the weather and somewhere I can feel half-human.
We stayed in hotels before but we found that they don’t really work with our family. While they have their uses for some occasions, they are too pricey, too boring and too limited for my family. Sorry Hilton! To be honest, I am more of a self catering guy when it comes to family trips but we decided to try some family hostels last year. It was a big success. We regularly go away for hostel trips now. Turns out we are the Hostel Family Robinson!
So how did we do it? How did we go from Hostel Noobs to Hostel Heroes? Here are my top 10 tips for getting by in Family Hostels.
Every hostel, like every family, is different. The An Óige network have big ones (Glendalough), small ones, ones with no electricity (our favourite, Glenmalure) and ones that are taking hostelling to a whole new level (Ballyhoura). It is important that you find the right one for your family to visit. Our family has an 11 year old that cannot stay quiet in the morning. She wakes up with the dawn chorus and likes to chatter with nonstop questions (“Is it normal the way I can feel the soles of my feet on the floorboards when I am walking? Is that strange or is that normal?”). Both of us like early morning walks so a hostel surrounded by trails is good for us. Her brother and mother need organised cultural visits in the afternoons and they come alive at night so we have to take that into consideration. Also, hostels can be in out of the way places that are miles from shops or in noisy busy cities. Make sure you know what suits your family best.
The An Óige Hostel network was set up in 1931 to take care of young people, so safety has always been a priority. Most hostels have separate family rooms these days so you can keep the family together. If, like us, you stay in a hostel with no family rooms, each child must be accompanied in a dorm with a parent. An Óige dorms are not designed for mixed genders. Our kids love this as they get to experience that sense of adventure from sharing with others while also spending some solo time with one parent.
Hostels do have lots of people mixing and mingling. That is what makes hostelling so cool. However, it is not up to hostel staff to look after children. We always made sure that we go with the kids when using bathrooms and showers just like we do in any communal space such as the local swimming pool or water park. Hostelling was originally about teaching young people how to be independent so there is a bit of learning before a young person can navigate through a hostel without getting locked out of their room or leaving their phone behind. Trust me on this.
3. Plan Your Activities.
Some people will spend all day in a hostel. Not our family. We get cooped up indoors and the An Óige hostels have these very cleverly designed things called windows which look out over landscapes that will call to you. If we wanted to stay indoors we would stay at home with our flatscreen TV. We want a place to rustle up some eats, a decent bed, a place to hang out for a while and plenty of things to see and do nearby.
If I had my way, I would also look for everything to be within walking distance. I have too many memories of holidays spent driving around Ireland looking out the window of a Ford Anglia, bored. The whole purpose of family hostelling for me is to get the kids back into the outdoors. I grew up on a farm so I know the benefits of outdoor activities and I know from wandering around the trails near hostels with the kids that they like it too.
4. Respect others.
Hostelling is different. It is not like staying in a hotel where everybody is closed off in their little (or big) rooms and everybody seems isolated and anonymous. Nobody interacts in a hotel. Apart from a receptionist asking you how you would like to pay your bill, piped music is all you will hear. In a hostel you hear so many different languages. There is nothing like having breakfast on the long tables of the Church in Dublin Hostel and listening to all the different languages being spoken to feel your horizons broaden.
Hostelling is very much about learning to live with other people. This is where young people learn to put principles of respect for others into practice. Everyone is passing through but everyone in hostels also seem keen to make some sort of passing connection. This is a great way to introduce young people to other cultures in a safe environment that is centred on the benefits of travel. Watching how our kids interact with others in the communal areas of hostels was an eye opener for us and it taught us a lot.
5. Introduce them to others.
It seems like the number one job for parents these days, apart from providing children with technology, is warning them about strangers. Hostels offer one of the few opportunities where we can show them that meeting strangers need not always be associated with danger. When I was growing up, strangers were interesting, especially the ones from different places. They brought stories and tales of adventure from far off places. When we stay in hostels we introduced the kids to dreadlocked ozzies travelling around-the-world, moonlight stargazers and retired hikers. I like to think that hostelling with the family has helped them to socialise.
6. Use the kitchen.
I love the idea of camping. I would probably do it more if it was not for the cooking, and the cold, and the sleeping on the ground. Actually, I just like the idea, not the reality. I just cannot be dealing with the lack of kitchen facilities in the outdoors. The last thing I want to do on a holiday is to have to sit by a fire for three hours burning marshmallows and waiting for the water to boil for the pasta. When it comes to family breaks, I need a decent kitchen. That is a non-negotiable for our family. Most family hostels have kitchens that you can use. I need power, pots, pans, potato peelers, plates. Lots of p-words. I don’t want to have to lug all that gear with me on holiday and I don’t want to have to eat out every day so the hostel kitchen is vital for family hostels.
7. Use the space.
Hostels, as my daughter likes to tell me, are multi-purpose spaces. To make life easy when hostelling as a family, it is a good idea to familiarise the kids with the hostel. It will be their base for the next few days. I give them a tour of the hostel so they know where the communal area is, the kitchen area, the shower area, games rooms and the no-go areas. Each hostel has its own peculiarities and its own secrets. Each hostel has its own character. Knockree has nice outside benches and a field across the road that leads down to the river. Go Explore Hostel is around the corner from the beach. Bluestacks has a cinema room while Errigal has a reading snug. Ballyhoura has a bike sticking out of the top floor and a dog called Sprocket. Killarney has secret cellars and a High Ropes course in the woodland canopy. Cashel has a neat barbecue zone. You want to make the family comfortable in a strange environment surrounded by people they don’t know. Getting them to know the space will help with that.
8. Teach them how to deal with boredom.
Boredom is one of the complaints from young people. Technology may have something to do with it but the fact is very few young people know how to deal with downtime. Hostels are strange in that they are one of the few places where it seems ok for young people to just hang out and do nothing. Maybe it is because at any minute someone could come in the door who is going to ask you how to get to the nearest train station or if they can borrow your potato peeler. The hostel experience is one where anything can happen. So, no pools or gyms or bars or kids clubs necessary. We get to introduce them to the joys of unstructured hanging about without being a nuisance.
9. Make them responsible.
Along with learning respect for others, children benefit from being made responsible. What we really like about hostels is the look on our kids faces when they see everyone else cleaning up after themselves. We love that moment when they realise that cleaning up is not some weird old fashioned thing our family have invented just to torture them. Yes, everyone else does it too! Myself and herself do a little secret happy dance when they pick up their plates and take them to the cleaning area. Yes, parenting job 101 done. We have not moved on to getting the kids to cook for us yet but we are working on it. Baby-steps. After that we can start getting them thinking how they are going to support us when we are older.
Just like the children need to be responsible, so do parents. Hostel staff are used to dealing with young people but they are not babysitters. There has always been an expectation that you take responsibility for the young people you bring into a hostel. Just because it is a family hostel does not mean that the staff are there to entertain your children. So…
10. Schedule time for them.
Hostelling is about sharing. Sometimes the most and the best we can share with others is our time. Even when they don’t want to or cannot leave the hostel, use the time to spend it with them. Most hostels have games to while away the hours and they are usually the type that are designed to get people of all ages interacting. Even if you are all watching your favourite Youtube video in the wifi area, do it together. It is the part of the experience that children remember.
Finally, when it comes to hostels you should be looking for at minimum a kitchen, a communal area, no lock out hours, an outdoor area, and a family room. The best thing to do is contact the hostels directly to see if they can accommodate your family.
The rest is up to you!