At what age is it appropriate to sleep in a top bunk? Six or older, some say. Others argue that it depends on the kid.

But what if the kid is over fifty?

Ohio-based personal chef Beth Mansfield wondered that herself last year during a five-week New Zealand trip that she was able to afford by staying in hostels.

“I had many fond memories of hostels from the 70’s while backpacking in Europe and wondered if a 50- something solo woman would feel out of place staying in lodging meant primarily for 20-somethings,” Mansfield says. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

One night she did end up with the fabled top bunk, and survived. “I personally hadno problem with the shared accommodations. Generally speaking the rooms were quiet at night and everyone kept their things tidy and locked. The bathrooms were sometimes not the nicest,” she recalls.

“But then again,” she adds, “I had more money for other things. Like bungee jumping.”

With hostels, as with most things in life, what you spend depends on what you want. Mansfield encountered everything “from private rooms with baths to shared rooms with bunk beds and dorm style bathrooms,” common hostel options for which she paid $30 to $100 per night.

Location as well as price figured into hostel picks for California-based registered nurse Janet Patterson, who paid the equivalent of $17 for her bed in an 800-bed hostel in London “located between two Tube stations and walking distance from the Eurostar terminal.” She traded up in Flensburg, Germany, where she and a fellow traveler shared a single room with two twin beds “with our own bathroom, a gorgeous, fully-stocked shared kitchen and dining room, walking distance to the center of town, harbor, and train station.” The cost? About 62 bucks, “much cheaper than a hotel would have been,” Patterson says.

The economics of hostelling also appealed to New York-based attorney Cara Dearman and her husband, who put their lives on hold for a month to avail themselves of Jet Blue’s all you can flypromotion. To save even more money, they frequented hostels in the Caribbean, Central America, and Colombia on the vacation. “We wanted to stay in hostels both for expense reasons and to meet other people,” Dearman says.

How well you take to other people, of course, determines how well you’ll take to hostelling. If you’re on the fence, take a test drive, says Mark Vidalin, marketing director for Hostelling International (HI) USA . Try it somewhere close to home as a recreational weekend,” he says, perhaps picking a slow season so you can more easily take advantage of any private facilities the hostel offers.

Vidalin suggests that hostelling is “a time of life thing for some people and for others it’s a way of life.” And for many of the rest of us it’s probably somewhere in between.

Book it right.

The Internet makes it easy to book a hostel stay and perhaps makes it even easier to complain about it, a fact that hostel operators are keenly aware of, says Anthony Corallo, vice president of the Impulsive Group, which operates Broadway Hotel & Hostel in New York City, among other properties.

“The hostel community is pretty sensitive. If they don’t like [their hostel experience] they’re pretty vocal,” Corallo says, using e-mail, social networks, and community sections of hostelling Web sites to voice their opinions. Dearman found hostels through hostelworld.com, hostels.com, and Twitter. The hostel sites enabled her to read “recent reviews from travelers. Twitter was valuable for finding hostels in Bogota because we weren't sure where the safer places to stay were,” she says. On Twitter she “got several responses from locals with great suggestions,” yielding rooms averaging around $40 a night.

HI enables booking about a year in advance, but even if you want to book a popular destination’s hostel during high-season, a couple weeks notice will often suffice, Vidalin says. However, if you embrace the traditional notion that a hostel stay ought to be a somewhat spontaneous decision, hostels can often accommodate night-before bookings and walk-ins, he says.

Know what amenities to expect…or not.

Common areas and self-service kitchens are fairly standard in most hostels and bedding is often provided. Most HI hostels issue guests two sheets that have been sewn into a sack, designed to envelop the guest and keep the bed clean; HI largely forbids sleeping bags, which can potentially harbor insects. HI also maintains a standard ratio of toilets, showers, and fixtures per number of guests, Vidalin says.

Whether you’re staying in an HI hostel or an independent one, amenities will vary depending on your hostel’s size and geographic location. Some hostels have rooms that accommodate families, some don’t. Hostels in major urban centers are usually open 24 hours, while others may be closed during the day. HI hostels present fairly straightforward amenities lists for their U.S. and international locations.

Wireless service is available at many HI hostels and is often free at the larger city center locations. Following the trend of most Internet-enabled hotels, Broadway Hotel provides laptop users with free Wi-Fi in its common area along with computer kiosks with pay-per-minute Internet usage.

Have a sense of security.

Mansfield notes that some hostels have women-only floors with locked doors. But the majority of hostels don’t: many multi-bunk hostel rooms worldwide tend to be co-ed. Broadway Hotel has 24-hour reception and security and a guard that patrols the building. You can also store your valuables at the desk and, common to many hostels, you’ll have access to a locker, though you’ll need to provide your own lock. Corallo also says the property doesn’t permit its guests to bring in strangers, one of the more important policies you’ll want to ask about when booking any hostel.

Embrace the community.

While you might seek to avoid the common area or pretend your roommates don’t exist, that’s an awkward way to save a few bucks. Embracing hostelling’s community experience can add value to your trip. When I visited Broadway Hotel’s common area it had the feel of a college library – albeit a quiet one – but the guests managed to look up from computer and TV screens and talk to each other. Likewise, Vidalin says in larger HI hostels there may be one common TV room and another room that’s deliberately TV-free.

For Mansfield, the highpoint of her hostelling experience “was the conversations I had with these young people from all over the world” in the shared kitchens of her hostels.

“I met a young woman teacher who escaped her small hometown after breaking up with her two-timing fiancé who teaches at the same school,” she recalled. “Another woman I had dinner with was visiting her best friend who was in an abusive relationship. In one surprise I met a group of 60 to 80 year olds who were biking around New Zealand - not the flat part - doing 50 to 70 miles a day.”

“My whole trip was so much richer for meeting these people,” Mansfield added, “and it never would have happened in a hotel.”

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