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The 100 Year History and Evolution of The International Youth Hostel

An early rise of 8.00am to chop firewood whilst on holiday, was quite a shock to a fellow young traveler such as myself, but not half as much as the shock I received minutes earlier. When the hostel warden walked the halls at 7.30am ringing his bell to get everybody up and out of bed. So they could complete their daily chore before breakfast.

The Origianal Youth Hostel - Alenta Germany

This was a situation I faced in a Youth Hostel I stayed in, on the West coast of the USA back in 1992. It was quite common in many hostels that you had to preform a small chore as part of your permission to stay. Could you just imagine this happening in today’s modern hostel? There would be a bloody riot, that’s my guess. How times have changed!

The Beloved Hostel Chore Is Now A Thing of The Past

Although these regimented days are now all but behind us, and the word youth has even been removed from the name of the foundation. Originally focused towards the younger generation, and aptly named the ‘International Youth Hostel Federation’. Hostels now open the doors to everyone, and have changed their name to ‘Hosteling International’.

For the young independent traveler or backpacker of today, the ease of finding quality budget accommodation in many of the worlds most popular destinations is an easy task. You just flip through your guidebook, or scour on the web to pick one of the many available opportunities, but things were not always quite as easy as this.

Hostelling International Logo

The Hosteling International logo has gone through many changes and variations over the years, but is a well recognized symbol to the independent traveler. (R) Trademark

Not so long ago, the choices of quality budget accommodation were allot more scarce, and they were not always located in the most convenient of locations either. There were no free shuttles to local transportation hubs.

No in house tour operators, sharing a wealth of knowledge on the destination, offering tours, excursions and actives to an array of possibilities. There was yourself, your back pack and your standard issue IYHF sleep sheet. Although there’s one thing that hasn’t changed and that’s and the stock standard multitude of bunk beds.

The hostel movement has grown and evolved exponentially in the past 20-30 years. I believe hosteling has played a major role in the emergence of independent budget travel, and opened many a beaten path to the mass market. Youth Hostels definitely played a major role in my early years on the road throughout Europe and North America, in the early 1990’s.

Richard Schirrmann Started The Youth Hostel Movement Back in 1909

From their humble beginnings in Germany back in 1909, the hosteling movement quickly spread throughout Europe from where the Youth Hostel Federation was formed in 1932. It continued to spread it’s wings across the Atlantic to North America and onwards to Australia. Hosteling has continued it’s international growth into a huge worldwide association, spanning over 80 countries.

International Hostelling now has over 4000 hostels the world over, with the average number of overnight stays per year now over the 30 million mark. With numbers like these, they even begin to dwarf some of the worlds major hotel chains. Throw in a listed membership base of over 3 million people, and it all adds up to big business. The latest figures estimating that hostelers pump US$1.4 Billion into world tourism revenues.

The Portland International Youth Hostel

A young and inexperienced traveler (1992). Check out my brand new backpack. It didn’t stay that color for long.

Originally starting out as a place where German school teacher Richard Schirrmann was able to give residence to young students. It’s hard to believe the youth hostel was formed just over 100 years ago.

The centenary of the first permanent hostel (Alenta Castle in Germany, as pictured at the top of this post) is due in 2012 and the whole movement of hosteling has come along way in the last hundred years.

The hostel now comes in many varieties and over the years I’ve stayed in light houses, ships, sports stadiums and all manner of heritage buildings the world over. The modern hosteling movement has now seen it fracture into a wide variety of independent franchise’s of backpackers, and boutique hostels, as well as the traditional ‘Hostelling International’ variety.

There’s no doubting that staying in a hostel is an extremely social atmosphere. I have many fond memories of my stays in various parts of the world. There’s only one aspect I don’t miss from my hosteling years.

Anyone who’s spent time in a hostel knows only to well, that the poor chainsaw snorer soon becomes an outcast of society. Not that we discriminate here at DigiDrift, but I have been accused of several midnight toe twisting episodes in order to get some shut eye.

Your Thoughts and Comments

Hostels played a big part during my early years of travel. I’m keen to know if the younger traveler of today enjoys them as much as I did? Are there any older travelers out there, who remember the old chore system, and have some interesting tales to tell?

A Little More About The Author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  1. [...] you imagine being woken up at a hostel at 7:30am to chop fire wood or complete your chores before [...]

  2. LIssie says:

    From memory there were chores still in the US – after they had died out in Australia and NZ – I remember being surprised that I had to do them in San Diego in 1987.

    Back in 1982 I was at uni and I made the huge decision to buy a life membership of the YHA – it was the equivalent of about 3 years membership but I figured I get my money’s worth.

    In 2007 we were heading to Australia and I knew that there were some decent YHA’s in Oz who did private rooms – so on a whim I rang up the local YHA and explained that I had a “life” membership and quoted the number. Well not only did life mean life – but they still had me on the database – albeit at my mother’s address, a house I’d sold 15 years previously) – and yes I still get member rates and discounts!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Lissie, I love hearing stories like that. My memories are starting to fade a little now, but I think I purchased a one year membership when I headed to the states in the early nineties. As you pointed out, there were still many YHA’s operating in the old school manner even back then.

      Things have surely changed now. Seeing the industry grow from a small operation into a multi million dollar tourism bonanza of backpackers the world over. Thanks for stopping by and safe travels….

  3. Jonathan Thal says:

    The YH organization is a wonderful idea that gives security and confidence to the lone traveler, which stranded in the street in some expansive city. I filled some notebooks with their stamps in my around the world tour. I have many compliments for them whenever I found their welcoming addresses. Nevertheless, a traveler who set abroad in search of adventures, tend to remember those cases when things went wrong.

    Back on 1976 I was looking for an YH named Bluebird in Pusan, the main port of S. Korea. Without speaking any Korean I felt a lot of frustration. Only when I entered some restaurant and asked everybody for my address, a young man helped me in the dark back streets to the place. There was not any sign outside. The warden wasn’t any happy to see his only costumer for the night. His entire table was full with car’s head lamps and reflectors. In all the hostel’s dusty rooms the beds was pilled in one corner, with no shower, kitchen, or bed sheet to rent. Being 13 countries since I left home and still 59 ahead, I couldn’t turn down this 3rd world event, that cost only 1$ per night.

    In the morning, I had to wash my face and shave in the tap, near the floor at the end of the corridor. Still puzzled, the warden insists that I will not show up before 5 PM. But after few days of visits, when time comes, I got a ferry to Japan, and I had to leave earlier. Again, some young local guided me to the place, where the warden refused both of us in. I showed him my ticket and angrily he let me enter (not my visitor) to get my things. Only then I find the answer to my agony. In each room, dozens of girls was sitting on the floors asemembling cars front panels, with buttons, nickels, and meters clocks. In my only Korean YH I was witnessing the first shaky steps that later brought Hyundai(?) As well as Korea, to became the economical giant of today.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Jonathan, That’s a pretty cool story mate. I for one can also remember the days of getting your Hosteling International book stamped at each location as well. A $1 per night was well before my time though. I think in the early nineties the prices were around $6-$12 per night, and a whopping $20 for the New York Hostel. Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed the story….

    • Jonathan Thal says:

      Hallo Jason. I find it written in my diary: This same warden charge 1$ per night, but after he couldn’t find his receipts book among all the marchandise piles in his office, he let sleep just FOR FREE.Who know, maybe we share by that a gentleman agreement, You pay nothing and you get nothing, just don’t tell anybody.

  4. Jason says:

    Hey Miko, The hiring out of Hostels sounds like an interesting idea. I’ve never heard of this being done before. I have noticed that more and more Hostels are starting to provide private rooms, and it makes a great deal of sense to me.

    Although it’s not the quintessential Hostel experience that you and I experienced in our younger days, it does offer a little more privacy and as you point out still leaving that great atmosphere. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I would like to add this is not a post by Richard who has come back from the grave, but is in fact from Steve who works for Hostelling International using our Facebook page login :)

    I think this is a great post you have written Jason for people to learn how HI and Youth Hostelling has evolved over 100 years. I agree people would just think you were mad if you asked them to do chores in a hostel now and yet it was so normal not that long ago. I worked in Bath YHA more than 20 years ago and my duties included cooking, cleaning, reception, gardening, painting, washing and everything else, all for a room and a wage that barely paid for a few beers. I have never had so much fun though and I think the fun and community spirit you can have in a hostel is the one thing that hasn’t changed over time.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Steve, I had a great old laugh when I saw the comment come to me via email, with ‘Richard Schirrman’s’ name at the top. I appreciate your input and glad you liked the post.

      The Youth Hosteling movement as I explained in my post has been a massive influence in independent travel the world over, and I don’t believe people knew just how important and how large Hosteling International has become.

      Your time at Bath would no doubt be like so many others the world over. In my view, the community and social atmosphere of Hostels is their 2nd biggest draw card after the cost. Although, as I have explained to others via comments. I don’t use Hostels as I have gotten older and have a little more disposable income, but certainly haven’t forgotten my roots and the many years of using during my early travel years. Once again thanks for stopping by.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Jason, Many thanks for the reply. I know what you mean about getting older and wanting more comfort – now that I can afford it better. It’s good to see hostels have also changed with the times too. There really are some classy looking ones out there now and it’s also possible to get a room to yourself. It allows visitors to socialise as much or as little as they like.

  6. Steve says:

    That’s really interesting.  I had no idea that you had to do chores as part of the condition for staying there.  I enjoy staying at hostels as much as most other travelers, but I have to admit that I don’t use them as much as I used to.  Now that I have a little bit more money, I throw in a nicer place here and there instead of doing nothing but hostels like when I was younger.  In fact, when I was in Costa Rica, I had to stay at a budget hotel one night because a hostel I stayed at the previous two nights was full of mold.  I didn’t know I was allergic to mold until that point.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Steve, I’m also a person who used to stay in hostels quite often when I was single and younger. The atmosphere made allot of sense back then, but nothing stays the same for ever and as I’ve grown older I do enjoy a little more peace an quiet of a guest house or hotel. Thanks for stopping by mate.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I spent a month in youth hostels in England & Wales when I was 15. I was biking with a group of about 25 youth – aged 15-21. It was a very social time & I remember loving the atmosphere; I didn’t actually mind the chores because they rarely took more than 15 minutes but hated the food. Beans, fried egg, fried bread and gross bacon every morning got old in a hurry.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Leigh, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head and that Hostels are a great social interactions and certainly lend them selves to the younger traveler. I for one had no issue with the chores, but it was a bit of a shock when they requested I do it. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about the chore system, so I had no idea. I could live on the beans and eggs, but you can keep the fried bread and bacon. Thanks for stopping by, appreciated as always.

  8. Earl says:

    During a random road trip across the US many years back I stayed at my very first hostel, a small place on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. As soon as I handed over the money for a night’s stay, I had to sign up for two chores, and those two chores had to be completed between 7 – 8:30am the next morning. I had to sweep the floor of the entire hostel and clean the kitchen.

    I left the next day, right after my chores were complete!

    It’s definitely been a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel now as I tend to prefer budget hotels instead as in many countries, the cost really isn’t that different and you’re able to enjoy your own space. The more I travel, the more I crave my own quiet space.

    • Jason says:

      Hey Earl, So I wasn’t the only one to get loaded up with some tough work before breakfast. From my research into this post, it seems that the American hostels are the ones that kept there roots in the more traditional form, and the European and Australasian variations are the ones that drifted away from the more regimented daily running.

      I completely agree with having your own space. The hostels definitely have a place in the world and although some do come with the possibility of private rooms, the budget hotel or guest house is a more sensible option for those wanting some peace and quiet.

  9. Cumidanciki says:

    ZOMG! I don’t think I would have survived the wood cutting LOL! Didn’t realise how fortunate we are! It all really ties up with your guest post too.. and that’s coming right up.. next week.. *excited*
    Never knew there was a hostelling movement! A really enlightening post indeed:)

    • Jason says:

      Hey Ciki, Yes the bell for wake-up call was quite extreme, and wasn’t the norm for other hostels that’s for sure. I think the person running the hostel must have been an ex prison warden or something.

  10. Nice original historical perspective on “The Hostel” Jason. Times have certainly changed. WIFI, power showers, and easy to book tours are all part of the new hostel get up these days. 

    I can’t say I like hostels any more though. I found on my research of Australia quite a few imposing age restrictions! Also, knowing where the “Party Hostel” is essential for avoiding, or partaking in. Depending on your reason for being their. 

    Strangely in Portugal I found quite a few of these party hostels that encouraged more than just one to bunk bed. Not my type of place I must say. More a closed party type thing. So, yes, sometimes it pays to research!

    • Jason says:

      Hey Dave, I’m hearing you in relation to the party hostels, and as you rightly point out it all depends on the reason why one is there. I’m well aware of the goings on in these places, as I did do a short stint working at the independent Banana Bungalow in west Hollywood back in 1992. A far cry from many of the traditional ‘Hosteling International’ abodes, that’s for sure.

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