They used to be called "youth hostels," catering to the 25-and-younger backpacker crowd. But hostels aren't just for youth — or backpackers — anymore.

Share story

They used to be called “youth hostels,” catering to the 25-and-younger backpacker crowd. But hostels aren’t just for youth — or backpackers — anymore.

The big trend in hostels is toward more private rooms, and multiple-bed rooms designed for families who like the informal style and low cost of hostels.

My 17-year-old daughter and I chose an all-hostel vacation this summer as we visited Vancouver Island. We found comfortable, low-frills lodging in locations geared to please adventurous travelers. And we didn’t have to bunk in a dormitory — or pay Holiday Inn prices.

“Definitely, the private room is fastest growing in terms of demand,” said Shelbey Sy, director of marketing in Western Canada for Hostelling International (HI), a nonprofit membership organization that is the industry benchmark in ultra-budget lodging. HI, with more than 4,000 hostels in 80 countries, celebrates its 100th year this year.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The Victoria International Hostel, housed in a heritage building downtown, expects to close for renovation to add more private rooms this fall or winter.

Hostels are also turning away from having too many rules that treat guests like, well, youth. “You don’t have to do chores anymore, and curfews have gone by the wayside,” Sy said.

Why the changes?

“A lot of younger people who were backpacking and staying in hostels in the 1960s and ’70s are doing it still, only they’re older and many are encouraging their children to do it,” said Tom Eberhardt, assistant manager at the Victoria hostel. But that older crowd wants a few more comforts.

To see the “hostel of tomorrow,” you might visit Nanaimo, B.C. There, Bruce and Angie Barnard’s 20-room, HI-affiliated Painted Turtle Guesthouse feels more like a boutique hotel.

The Barnards left their home in Australia about seven years ago to travel the world for a year, sampling a wide range of accommodations. Their travels gave them a good taste of the lodging industry.

“There were definite things I liked and didn’t like about boutique hotels, about urban B&Bs and about international hostels,” said Bruce Barnard, 45. “I set out to create a guesthouse with the best of all those.”

The Painted Turtle keeps costs low by limiting frills — don’t look for a lot of artwork in guest rooms, a phone or TV. While bathrooms are shared, each floor has locking, private facilities with showers. The shared kitchen looks like something out of House Beautiful magazine. Each floor has Wi-Fi transmitters.

The tuned-in traveler is part of the hostel transformation, Sy said.

“There’s a new term: ‘flashpackers’ instead of backpackers. They travel with their laptop, their digital camera, their MP3 player. So hostels are going to more amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, or iPhone docking stations.”

That carries its pros and cons. While I sat in the lounge at the Victoria hostel, some young travelers from Britain shared friendly banter about their travels to Tofino — the sort of interaction among travelers that hostels pride themselves on — while many other guests buried their noses in laptops, tuned in more to e-mail and tweets from back home.

That’s causing growing pains in the hostel community, questioning whether it should cater to the electronics-dependent.

“It’s a big debate, because five years ago you didn’t see that at all,” Sy said.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.