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Hostels provide accommodation where guests can rent a bed, sometimes a bunk bed in a dormitory and share a common bathroom, kitchen, and lounge. Hostels once were divided into "youth hostels" for those younger of age and "elder hostels," but age associations have disappeared in recent decades. Rooms can be mixed or single-sex, although private rooms are increasingly common in all types of hostels. All hostels are generally cheaper for both the operator and the occupant; many hostels employ their long-term residents as desk clerks in exchange for free accommodation.
An effort should be made to distinguish between establishments that provide longer term accommodation (often to specific classes of clientèle such as nurses, students, drug addicts, arrested persons subsequently bailed to await trial and homeless people where the hostels are sometimes run by Housing Associations and charities) and those offering short term accommodation to travellers or backpackers.
- The low price of the accommodation compared to alternatives such as hotels and bed and breakfasts
- Because of their common areas (kitchens, sitting rooms, pool rooms, bars etc.) there's much more interaction between guests than in traditional hotels.
- Most hostels have a genuine community feel. This gives guests the opportunity to interact more with other travellers (often from all over the world), make new friends and share stories and travel tips.
- Hostels are less formal than hotels.
- Most hostels have a library of travel guides for guests to use to plan out their journey.
- DVD libraries and book 'swap systems' are also not unusual.
- Hostel staff (unlike many hotel receptionists) are genuinely there to help, provide free, independent advice on the best places to eat and drink, travel options etc.
- Many hostels provide activities for their guests for a nominal charge or no charge at all. These might include guided tours of the town (or the local bars!), language lessons, live music, barbecues etc.
Within the 'traveller' category another distinction can be drawn between hostels that are members of Hostelling International (HI), a non-profit organization encouraging outdoor activities and cultural exchange for the young, and commercial independent hostels. Hostels for travellers are sometimes called backpackers' hostels, particularly in Australia and New Zealand (often abbreviated to just backpackers).