With 30 bucks and an open mind, you can stay in some prime spots in California — on the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego, a block from the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, or, in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge or across from Union Square.
We're talking hostels, once regarded as the province of backpackers and bedbugs but increasingly go-to places for a growing base of mobile and moneyed travelers. More than 250 hostels are scattered throughout the United States, including 60 in California, offering a more social and budget-friendly alternative to hotel travel.
These days, travelers expect more than "no bugs and hot water," says Maria Argyropoulos, vice president of operations for USA Hostels. "Hostels . . . are becoming way upscale, and that reflects the changing nature of the client. Now, travelers almost expect budget luxury."
And "budget luxury" is what they get. Domestic hostels range from modern 200-bed high-rises in city centers to quaint 25-person beach cottages, and many are safe and clean. Most have 24/7 front-desk and security, and lockers to store belongings. Rates change according to season, number of beds in a room and location, but expect to pay $25 to $35 for a dorm bed in the summer and $70 to $100 for a private room.
Today, hostelers contribute $1.4 billion to tourist revenues worldwide, and though the words "hostel" and "youth" are often paired, hosteling is by no means young-person exclusive. As the struggling economy has widened the range of those seeking budget accommodations, hostelers note a corresponding increase in the age of patrons.
Independently run mom-and-pop hostels are the heart of the industry, though Hostelling International, the brand name of the nonprofit International Youth Hostel Federation, leads the market in quantity and quality, with 4,000 hostels in 90 countries — 19 in California. To sport the "HI" logo, hostels must conform to quality and sanitation standards. And no alcohol is allowed.
Here are some well-regarded California hostels we sampled:
Los Angeles area
HI-Santa Monica is the largest hostel in the United States, with 260 beds. The kitchen is expansive, dorms are bright and spacious, the activity board is brimming with freebies and you're a block from the beach.
1436 Second St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-9913, hilosangeles.org
Banana Bungalow Hollywood is of another era. Owner Joe Fazio describes the converted two-story 1960s building — formerly the Movietown Motel — as "retro, funky, cool."
The "deluxe" private and dorm rooms (140 beds) all have kitchens en suite, garishly colored according to theme, though the effect is, well, groovy.
Fazio also owns the 140-bed Banana Bungalow West Hollywood on Fairfax, just off the Melrose strip. The WeHo location isn't quite as California cool as the original, though the outdoor tiki bar is impressive.
5920 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; toll-free 1-877-977-5077; 603 N Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655 2002, bananabungalowus.com
Surf City Hostel keeps it simple. Besides a stellar location at the end of the Hermosa Beach promenade, crisp linens on the beds in the 60 rooms, half of which enjoy an unobstructed ocean view, and a charmingly frazzled manager — French-born Odile Brock, who has been running the place for 15 years — $25 buys you the best deal on ocean breezes in the South Bay.
26 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; (310) 798-2323, surfcityhostel.com
HI-Fisherman's Wharf is housed in historic Fort Mason at the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The oldest hostel in the city slopes down to a hiking path that meanders from Fisherman's Wharf to Marina Green along a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. Café Franco, a funky coffee shop, provides free breakfast for hostel guests, lunch and $6 dinners of vegetarian cuisine.
HI-San Francisco City Center, with 162 beds, is tranquil Fort Mason's bustling counterpart. Formerly the seven-story Atherton Hotel, the hostel still sports the hotel's regal dark wood interior, and rows of international flags flutter from the lofted ceiling.
Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason, Building 240; (415) 771-7277, sfhostels.com; City Center, 685 Ellis St., San Francisco; (415) 474-5721
The Elements Hostel could exist only in the Mission District in San Francisco. The bright yellow and orange building, looming over vibrant Mission Street, houses the 29-room hostel, Medjool Restaurant and the popular Sky Terrace, a 360-degree-view rooftop bar and restaurant.
2516 Mission St., San Francisco; toll-free 1-866-327-8407, elementssf.com
Pacific Tradewinds Hostel takes its nautical theme seriously. "Get off yer arse and get outside!" a sign declares at the entrance to the common area. Rooms are bright, clean and well maintained. All bathrooms are communal and coed.
680 Sacramento St., San Francisco; (415) 433-7970, sanfranciscohostel.org
The Green Tortoise, a cavernous 150-bed hostel looming over funky North Beach, is a hostel's hostel, and owner and founder Gardner Kent is an old-time hosteler. All the carpets are from Las Vegas, and the ballroom is a place you'd expect to find, as Kent puts it, a cancan show. There are thrice-weekly free dinners of hearty vegetarian fare.
494 Broadway, San Francisco; (415) 834-1000, greentortoise.com
HI-Point Loma, on a hill above downtown San Diego in a quiet residential neighborhood, has a tranquil, campy feel. With 53 beds, it's more like a bustling B&B. About half of Point Loma's guests are from the United States, many of them youth groups on retreats.
3790 Udall St., San Diego; (619) 223-4778, sandiegohostels.org
Banana Bungalow San Diego announces itself. The 90-bed hostel is breezy, beachy and comfortable, but you'll probably spend most of your time on the busy deck — for free barbecues twice a week and sunset parties.
707 Reed Ave., Pacific Beach, San Diego; (858) 273-3060, bananabungalowus.com
The USA Hostels San Diego building began life in the 1800s as a brothel, though the 23-room hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter has been through a few remodels since then. Murals cover the blue and yellow walls, many of which date from the years the building was the Grand Pacific Hostel. Guests walk up a grand staircase to their lodgings, ranging from a cozy split-level private room to wood-paneled dorms.
726 Fifth Ave.; San Diego; (619) 232-3100, usahostels.com