Who knew hostelling with kids could be so great?
When someone offers you a free place to stay in Italy, you go, right? Italy—and Rome in particular—has been on my bucket list forever, and it’s the kind of place where I’d love to just wing it—book a flight and figure things out when I got there. But when my mother-in-law decided to winter in Sicily and offered up a standing invitation to visit whenever, my only opportunity to go was when my husband wasn’t available. So it’d be just me and my two kids, ages 5 and 8. As my fellow parents would understand, winging it ain’t so easy when you’re travelling solo with kids.
Still, I couldn’t exactly let myself turn down the opportunity, so I plotted out an itinerary that included two days in Rome at the end of our Italian adventure. I wanted to make the most of them by staying somewhere central, preferably near the Coliseum, my only must-see attraction. With two kids in tow, I had to, at the very least, figure out where we’d stay ahead of time.
When a savvy traveller friend suggested a hostel she had stayed at, I was skeptical. I had never seen a family at a hostel, and to be honest, it had never even crossed my mind that families could stay at a hostel. I assumed hostels would be too busy and crowded to work for a family. Sharing rooms and stuffing everything in a locker—with kids? I don’t think so. And what if they desperately needed to use the bathroom, but they were all occupied? Disaster! Besides, rolling in with my kids would no doubt wreck the young and carefree vibe you typically find at hostels, wouldn’t it? Not to mention security concerns involved in sharing a space while travelling on my own with the kids, especially in a big city like Rome.
I was surprised. Had we been missing out on the family hostel experience this whole time?
Still, I looked the hostel up, and it appeared welcoming, clean and central, plus families had indeed stayed there. The reviews, particularly from those with kids, were all overwhelmingly positive. Plus, the price was right (less than most two-star hotels that frankly looked sketchy at best). I was surprised. Had we been missing out on the family hostel experience this whole time?
As I dug further, I discovered this hostel also offered a home-cooked Italian dinner, served family style, a few nights every week. Our flight into Rome was scheduled to land in the late afternoon, and I wasn’t looking forward to having to scope out a suitable place for us to eat, in the dark, before I had gotten my bearings. Arriving to an authentic home-cooked meal in a foreign city sounded amazing. I checked for availability and found a private room with an ensuite available on our dates. What the heck, I thought, and booked it.
Fast forward a few months, and we landed in Rome. Driving past the monolith of the Coliseum was absolutely surreal. We arrived at the hostel, and it was just as promised—friendly and hospitable with a touch of whimsy. The owner, Linda, whom I’d exchanged several emails with, greeted us like an old friend, and the whole place smelled like a delectable bakery as the owner’s husband, Steve, the resident baker and chef, was busy making biscotti for dessert that night.
Our private room was actually in an adjacent building where, we found out, only one other person was booked for the night, and she was pleased to have a family join her in the communal areas. Our room itself was minimalist and comfortable—hardly any different from a typical hotel room. In fact, it was much cleaner than the vacation rental apartment we had just stayed at in Sicily. The room also had a large window that opened up onto a back lane. My kids loved looking out and waving and shouting hello to friendly locals.
The joy of travelling is found as much in the people we meet as the places we go. Having my kids experience that was a simple yet profound gift. And, a hostel is such an authentic way to deliver such a gift.
The family-style dinner that evening made for a perfect introduction to Rome. My kids felt completely at ease with all the dinner guests, a range of travellers of all ages from around the world. There was a young European couple who return to the hostel every year. A couple of older American solo travellers, trekking across Europe, who said they enjoy the companionship you find at hostels, not to mention the lower costs. There were two female coworkers on a much-needed vacation from London. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to have my kids join in, and quickly included us in the conversation, asking us where we were from, if we’d been to Italy before and what we liked to do.
The owners, who have three of their own kids, ensured my kids had food they enjoy, and Steve asked my daughter (a bit of an artist) to draw him a picture, making them fast friends. The merriment and easy exchange among all of us fellow travellers reminded me that the joy of travelling is found as much in the people we meet as the places we go. Having my kids experience that was a simple yet profound gift. And, a hostel is such an authentic way to deliver such a gift.
My kids still talk about the people we met there and ask me why there isn’t a communal dinner with other guests at every place we stay!
Turns out hostels can be great for families. Here are some tips for hostelling with kids:
- First, check to see if the hostel you’re considering is family-friendly. Some have age restrictions that limit stays to kids of a certain age, such as six or older, or limit younger guests to certain room types. Given the shared spaces, I would recommend hostelling with kids beyond the toddler stage as it makes things much easier if they are independent in the bathroom and can understand how to behave in communal settings (that is, they won’t cry all night or be super loud at the crack of dawn). Plus, hostels are unlikely to provide any baby gear you may need such as cribs or high chairs, and there’s sometimes little room to store them if you bring your own. When in doubt, reach out to hostels directly via email or Facebook to ask if their place would be a good choice for your family.
- Talk to your kids before and during your stay about how a hostel is different from a hotel so they have an understanding of what to expect and what’s expected while they’re there. Don’t just focus on what’s not allowed—let them know about all the perks of hostelling, too, like meeting and talking to people from all over the world.
- Book a private room (with an ensuite, if possible). Let’s face it. You don’t want to deal with your kid waking up in the middle of the night, and neither does anybody else. Many hostels offer private rooms and this is a must with kids. After all, there are enough distractions at bedtime, and you can’t compromise on the extra security and privacy with little ones. Some hostels have family-specific rooms, and others may have smaller dorms with only four beds or so, which you might be able to book out entirely.
- Choose a quieter time to go. We went to Rome during its low season, which meant it was also slower at the hostel. On our second night, we had our whole area to ourselves, which meant my kids could run loose a bit without disturbing others—something you can’t really do in a hotel that’s jammed in the high season.
- One of the best perks of hostels is the self-catering kitchens, which allow you to cook what you want, when you want. Meals add up when you’re travelling, especially if you have a picky kid like mine who rarely finishes a meal. Find a nearby grocery store and stock up on some quick and easy snacks and meals that you know your kids enjoy. Not only will it save money, but it’ll also save your sanity if you can’t find a restaurant that serves something Mr. Pickypants will eat.
- Capitalize on hostel amenities. Do a load of laundry while your kids enjoy the games room. Or just sit and sip a cuppa joe. Most hostels also offer a ton of tourist info and deals to stretch your dollar. And while you may not be up for joining the hostel pub crawl, many offer family-friendly activities right out their front door.
- Enjoy the camaraderie. Hostels offer a hub for travellers who generally want to interact with other travellers. Chatting with others offers a great way to get super travel ideas, but also a chance for you and your kids to meet interesting people from different places.
Ultimately, you know your kids best. Maybe they’re not quite ready for a hostel yet, but will be on your next trip. Just don’t assume that hostels aren’t for you if you have kids. In fact, it’s an amazing and attainable way to show your kids the world and could spark a travel bug that lasts a lifetime.