THE youth-hostel movement started almost 60 years ago in the United States, but few Americans know they exist here.
The first US youth hostel opened in Northfield, Mass., in 1934, 25 years after hostels began in Germany. German schoolteacher Richard Schirrmann founded the concept when he began taking students on weekend field trips. School buildings, empty on weekends, were used for overnight stays. The concept of a network of student hostels to promote international understanding then spread throughout Europe and overseas.
Today, the nonprofit International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF) operates a network of 6,000 hostels. They recorded 31 million overnights annually in 70 countries. In association with IYHF, which has 4.5 million members, American Youth Hostels (AYH) provides nearly 200,000 members access to hostels worldwide.
Though luxury and privacy may be lacking (4 to 12 beds per room, shared bathrooms), the price is right - between $8 and $16 per night, on average. Most hostels also offer kitchens where travelers can cook their own meals.
"The difference is that instead of staying one night," says hosteler Carolyn Raynesford of Long Beach, Calif., "I could stay seven nights for about the same price" as a hotel.
You don't need to be an AYH member to stay at a hostel, but members also receive discounts on car rentals, sports equipment, museum admissions, and restaurant meals. Annual memberships are $25 for adults 18 to 54, $15 for seniors, and $10 for youths under 18.
For more information, write: American Youth Hostels, 733 15th Street N.W., Suite 840, Washington, D.C., 20005.