Youth Hostels Now Host All Ages

CAROLYN RAYNESFORD is helping to broaden the definition of "youth" in "youth hostel." The retirement-age Californian, who has traveled on three continents, is one of a growing number of seniors who are staying at the network of inexpensive lodgings.

"Used to be you'd only hear of young people doing it," Ms. Raynesford says of hosteling, as she sits in the lounge of the Boston International AYH-Hostel. "I like being with people of different ages. I wouldn't want to be with just older people." She enjoys the discussions she has with youths from around the world, she says, comparing governments and the issues of the day from different perspectives.

"It's a combination of a Holiday Inn and the United Nations together.... Well, maybe the Howard Johnson," says Jazz Jordan, sales manager for New York City's International AYH-Hostel, the largest hostel in North America.

The American Youth Hostels (AYH), a nonprofit organization designed to promote international understanding, oversees a network of more than 250 hostels in the United States. It has 200,000 members, about 10 percent of them age 55 or over. Another 60 percent are between 18 and 34, according to AYH spokeswoman Toby Pyle.

With the slow economy, hostels' popularity has increased. Since 1986, overnight stays by Americans have almost doubled, while overnights by foreigners have almost tripled.

Raynesford was introduced to hostels a year and a half ago while looking for cheap accommodation at a convention in San Antonio, Texas. (Hostels, with their dorm-style rooms and shared baths, average $12 a night.) Since then, she has stayed at hostels across the US more than 10 times.

Though Raynesford does not fit the image most Americans have of a "typical" hosteler, neither do most hostelers today. This false impression pictures youth hostelers as in their teens or early 20s, social dropouts who wander the world, says Pam Tice, executive director of the New York hostel. The average age of hostelers is about 27, she says.

Australian Trudie Wykes, 27, typifies the modern hosteler. "Traveling is one of those things that, once you get it in your blood, it's very hard to get rid of," says Ms. Wykes, an Australian government worker who looks taller than her 5 feet. She would have fit the hosteler stereotype 10 years ago, when she was traveling through Thailand and Indonesia.

At the youth hostel in New York City, Wykes recounts her recent journeys alone for three months through Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. She tells of the people riding on top of buses and the chickens brought aboard trains. Wykes planned to spend a few nights in Boston, and then go to Montreal and Europe. She will travel until her money runs out, she says.

Most of the 740,000 foreigners who stay in US hostels each year arrive in the peak summer months (June to August). The bulk of them are from Britain, Germany, Australia, Japan, and France, says AYH's Pyle.

IN his tour of America, 19-year-old Florian Schnau of Germany has visited San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Miami Beach, among other cities.

"The best part of the travel was meeting the different people," he says. He did not meet many Americans in the hostels, however. "Most Americans don't know that there are hostels around," he observes.

Of about 1.1 million overnights last year in youth hostels here, only 30 percent were by Americans, Pyle says.

Then again, hostels are not for everyone.

"You sort of have to be free-spirited and laid-back," says Amy Rhodes of Massachusetts. You can't "be someone who has to have all the accommodations of a nice hotel room with a private bath." Ms. Rhodes "stumbled" upon a hostel five years ago when she was on a biking trip.

"You have to go with the flow," Rayneford concurs. "You have to be even more flexible than camping."

But for 46-year-old Lisette Langlois from Montreal, on a weekend trip to New York City, staying at a hostel is just fine. "I'm young in my heart. I'm not settled," she says. "I still enjoy going out, dancing, going on trips."

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