The youth hostel is, in many countries, the indispensable condition for affordable travel. Few people (never mind young people) can afford to stay in European hotels. Not that European hostels are cheap. I once paid about $45 a night for the pleasure of sleeping in a sagging bunk with about 20 other travellers in Ireland, and taking an icy shower in the morning.
Asian hostels are much less costly and just as bad: cheap, unsanitary, noisy, and equipped with linen one would be reluctant to bed down in if one weren't quite so tired.
At Hostelling International Canada, the local wing of the International Youth Hostelling Federation, marketing manager Tracy Jordan admits that some hostels only care about filling their beds and don't want to invest the cash in assuring guest safety or comfort.
She says, backpackers should keep their eye out for the Federation's blue triangle logo in the 60 countries in which it operates. "We tell guests that when they see our logo, they know they're guaranteed safety, security, cleanliness and friendliness.'
Most private mom-and-pop hostels, says Sherry Brown from Travel Cuts, the agency owned by the Canadian Federation of Students, "aren't going to be run according to anyone's rules but their own.
Regular standard "With HI, there's a pretty regular standard across the board. There aren't usually unexpected horrors, if you can put it that way."
I have seen some great hostels (the Malate Pensione in Manila stands out) and some dumps with mildewy, grease-stained walls that I've refused to sleep in (half the guest houses in Kathmandu).
Which variety do we have in Toronto? I found out we have both.
Hostelling International has a location at King and Church. It's bright and cheerful and the foyer is packed with guests who obviously feel right at home. Many are using the free e-mail service. A dorm room costs $23; a single isn't exactly cheap at $76.
But people are happy. Lotte VanDijk of Holland tells me this hostel is better than any she's seen in Germany or Italy. She gives it a 7 out of 10. Jean-Guy Leblanc of Saskatoon says, "This hostel rocks" in comparison to guest houses he's visited in England, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. He gives it an 8.
The Toronto Budget Hostel at Church and Dundas had plenty of room, and it's easy to see why.
The place is, in the words of guest Paul Brownley, "a fucking dump." "If the health board ever came here, they'd shut it down," he muses, largely because "the sewer backs up into the kitchen."
When I speak to manager Sandy Rateja, he is quick to explain that it is not the sewer but the storm drain that backs up, and he blames the city. As for the matter of cleanliness, he claims the Budget has a full-time cleaner and that "hygiene is a top priority." It's the guests, he says, who are the source of the unwholesome dirt.
"You have to understand that we have people coming from many different backgrounds, and they bring many different things with them," he explains, suggesting that they unpack their filth when they arrive.
If so, they don't seem to have brought it from very far away. "It's good for transient workers," Brownley confides, "not necessarily for tourists."
When I ask to see a room, I'm given a key and sent up to the supposedly secure room. I find holes in the walls and sagging bunk beds. The urinals in the bathroom are overflowing, and the cracked and blackened tiles are falling off.
You can stay here in the dorm for $20 a night.
The Canadiana Guest House at Richmond and John is booked, and not surprisingly. It's clean and new, and the area where people gather is even tastefully appointed.
Free barbecues There's a patio on which guests are treated to free barbecues. The dorms are hardly luxurious, but they seem clean enough. Dougie McIntosh of Edinburgh calls the rooms "a bit crap" but concedes that the hostel is "marginally better" than what he's seen in Europe.
He gives it a 6.5, but his friends Matt Ross and Pete Rankin of Glasgow give the Canadiana an 8 and a 7 respectively.
The only employee, Sandra Tojierra, was exceedingly friendly. All this for $22 a night.
By far the highest-profile hostel is the Global Village Hostel at King and Spadina. It was booked, and the woman at the desk would not show me a room ($23.50 for a dorm, $59 for a private room), but the guests seemed to be enraptured by the experience of staying there.
The place is bustling with comings and goings and relaxed loitering, which may be related to the fact that there's bar in the building and a barbecue every night.
Emma Mills of Manchester gushes about the staff. Melissa Emerson of Victoria, too, lauds the staff to the skies. Mills gives the Global Village an 8, while Emerson, who complains only of the lack of mirrors, gives it a 7 -- adding that European hostels merit a 3.
In contrast is the Marigold International Travellers Hostel out at Dundas and Roncesvalles, somewhere one would expect to find few tourists. And indeed, I find none. In fact, I find no one at all, not even an employee to show me a room. I find doors ajar and catch glimpses of unmade beds and soiled linen.
Research assistance by Tabassum Siddiqui
Number of hostels in the world having Hostelling International's symbol of safety: 4,500 Number of countries having Hostelling International hostels: 60 Number of overnight stays a year at HI hostels: 31 million Number of youth hostels, (not necessarily HI members) in Canada: 70
Number in Toronto: 11
Cost of a dorm bed in a Toronto hostel: $16-$25 per night
Compiled by Geoffrey Chan and Tabassum Siddiqui