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Budget: Hostel Stays a Fine Fit for Families

"Forget about your all-inclusive six thousand dollar family Christmas vacations in the Caribbean," bemoaned one reader after a recent column. "For us, it's just not feasible." Echoed another mom, "Aren't there any real deals out there? We want to hear about things we can afford."

In answer to their pleas, here's a deal that's one of the best-kept secrets of family travel-staying at one of the 4500 youth hostels in more than 60 countries around the world. Over the last 20 years, as the hordes of backpackers have graduated to jobs and parenthood, many former youth hostels have concentrated on providing family suites or adjacent family annexes; some rooms have private bath or shower. All ages are now welcome at most hostels from tot to senior citizen and the price is right. For members of Hostelling International, lodgings start at about $10 per adult, half-price for kids under 18. Even in such high-price cities as London, England, where the price of an average hotel room could fix your kids teeth, families can bed down in a large room with private bath in the former choirboy school right across from St. Paul's Cathedral. Price: under $150 for a family of four.

Often the deal is compounded by the fact that the building is unique or the view is five-star. Sleep beside a lighthouse on the northern California coast or in a 1908 pioneer home in Redwood National Park, awake to a picture-perfect Sound of Music view in Salzburg, Austria or check into a rambling 18th-century house in Cornwall straight out of Daphne Du Maurier's novels. Wake to the sound of bagpipes in Perth, Scotland or cavort in lasting daylight on the remote island of Arran off the Scottish coast. A self-contained family unit with 3 bedrooms across from the windswept beach costs about $10.80 per parent, about $8.80 for kids under 18.

Of course for this kind of bargain, there are a few quirks that families may have to get used to. Some hostels close up for a few hours during the day; just about all have curfews (although if you're travelling with small children, you don't mind everything quiet from 11 p.m.). Most don't allow sleeping bags, but rent out sheets and quilts or ask that you bring your own sleep sheets and towels. Some places only take kids under five while others have a minimum age of three or four. Most provide kitchens for cooking as well as pots and dishes but may ask that you clean up and do a few chores. Many family rooms have bunk beds so romantic adventures with your spouse could be a challenge. Because each hostel is so different, housekeeping standards vary.

But, say families who have done the hostelling route, benefits far outweigh the idiosyncrisies. Hostels offer a great chance to meet other travelling families; kids can meet others of their own age. You won't find the camaderie that erupts during dinner preparation or dishwashing in a hotel dining room. Most managers are friendly and helpful. Often, there is a restaurant or coffee bar on site.

Last month, I toured the Carmen Trails Hostel near Ottawa, a country lodge that loves families, situated on the border of nearby Gatineau Park. Guess what? It looked just like home! Toothpaste smudges marked the sink and teenage clothes decorated a bedroom floor. Breakfast, a hearty helping of eggs, croissants and apple sauce, was served in the sunny dining room family-style at long tables and benches. Activities offered at the front desk ranged from family snowshoeing (with small light snowshoes for kids) to summer picnics at pristine lakes. And all for $50 per night per family. This was a world apart from the European youth hostels I remembered, where a gruff overseer, who could have moonlighted as a recruiting chairman for a biker gang, kicked out everyone at 10 a.m. and locked the door.

This summer, our family may be embarking on a few hostelling adventures ourselves. In planning a trip to Sweden this summer with 16-year-old Dustin to visit his cousins near the Arctic Circle, we are considering a few nights in a Stockholm hostel. It's a toss-up between two berths in a ship moored in the harbor or beds in a former jail on one of the city's islands. All for about $18 each in a city where a moderate hotel seems to cost over $150. Now that's a deal!

To enquire about hostel membership, $26.75 per adult, free for kids under 17, (or lifetime membership $187.25), contact Hostelling International Canada, 205 Catherine St., Suite 400, Ottawa, K2P 1C3, 613-237-7884 or contact the Toronto Youth Hostel 416-971-4440. Members receive a map of hostels throughout the world and access to worldwide reservations. If you're travelling to Britain this summer, be sure to check out Frommer's Complete Hostel Vacation Guide to England, Wales & Scotland listing more than 300 castles, historic homes and other great places to stay for as little as $13 per night (Macmillan, $19.95). To book a room at Carman Trails hostel, call 819-459-3180.





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