A New Age of Travel: The Rise of Youth Hostels
The early 20th century saw the emergence of a new form of travel known as the youth hostel. These accommodations were specifically designed for young, budget-conscious travelers who desired a safe place to stay while exploring the world. Youth hostels became synonymous with affordability and appealed to those with limited financial resources. As C.B. Fawcett noted in 1931, young travelers relied on their health, energy, and enthusiasm for their journeys since they typically lacked substantial financial means.
Health and energy were essential aspects of the early hosteling movement. The ideal user was someone who would have otherwise resorted to camping and preferred hiking or cycling as their means of transportation. By joining the Youth Hostel Association in their respective countries for a small fee, travelers could expect a warm and secure welcome at various hostels along their route.
Fawcett described hostels as catering to wanderers rather than sojourners. Their purpose was to provide affordable and basic accommodations for travelers, with hostels being conveniently spaced at fifteen-mile intervals in England and Wales, allowing for a day-long hike between each stop. These establishments gained immense popularity among young people, who desired the freedom to explore the world independently, even on tight budgets. Hostels also became an attractive option for those looking to travel abroad while keeping costs to a minimum.
In 1936, Florence A. Bogardus, an American teacher, shared her experience joining a group of French girls on a tour of Brittany. Bogardus had a yearning to fully immerse herself in the region, independent of any assistance from organizations such as the American Express. However, due to financial constraints, she needed to find an affordable way to achieve her goal. The perfect solution presented itself in the form of the youth hostel, or “auberge de la jeunesse,” though Bogardus and her companions stumbled upon a unique variation. Their “moving” youth hostel was a freight car modified with makeshift beds made from crates and limited cooking facilities. Each night, the car would hitch to a passenger train, allowing them to wake up in a new town each day. For a mere $14, they enjoyed a seventeen-day tour—an option that is unlikely to exist in today’s world. Indeed, this form of travel held particular appeal during the challenging years of the Great Depression.
By 1940, Edna V. Grodman, a member of the national headquarters staff of American Youth Hostels, wrote about the expanding youth hosteling phenomenon in the United States for “The Clearing House,” a magazine for junior and senior high schools. Grodman explained that these American hostels were strategically spaced to accommodate foot travelers and bicyclists, with patrons being able to budget as little as one dollar per day for accommodation and meals. She attributed the origins of the American youth hostel movement to Isabel and Monroe Smith, who had observed the European hostel accommodations and sought to introduce the concept back home. Grodman also emphasized that youth hostels welcomed travelers of all ages, from the youthful to the elderly.
In the United States, mobile youth hostels in the form of railway carriages became popular, offering travelers the opportunity to visit various sites, including the renowned Grand Canyon and the World’s Fair. Grodman detailed how the hostels would halt at scenic locations, allowing hostelers to disembark, unload their belongings and bikes, and embark on exciting adventures such as climbing distant peaks or exploring famous attractions. After an eventful day, they would return to the stationed train, ready to continue their journey. This dynamic style of travel captured the imagination of young adventurers and enthusiasts.
The youth hosteler image was synonymous with an outdoorsy lifestyle, venturing into regional towns and villages rather than staying in major cities. This vision of healthy and educational travel inspired some prep schools and colleges to sponsor the establishment of youth hostels on their campuses or provide course credits for hostel trips. While high-end hotels were continuously expanding their luxurious offerings for the elite, the affordable nature of youth hostels empowered young people with diverse backgrounds to explore the world and expand their horizons.
Today, the concept of a “gap year” or backpacking trip has become more common, and the approach to hosteling has evolved to encompass various travel styles. However, a century ago, the rise of youth hostels presented young people with a brand new and exhilarating opportunity to broaden their worldview.
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