There is a reason ambitious young directors call their sadistic horror films Hostel and not, for example, Best Western.
The hostel, in the popular imagination, is dark and grimy, frequented not only by hard-drinking university students but also dubious men like the one sleeping on the bottom bunk in front of me when, on a sunny afternoon in Athens four years ago, I walked into my first hostel room.
His legs were hairy. His head was shaved. He looked, my friend Uri and I agreed when he was out of earshot, like a serial killer – the very personification of the hostel of horrors.
Except, I learned an hour later, he was an English teacher from Kansas, and he had just spent a year teaching in Japan, and we had a 45-minute conversation about life, and he was lovely.
Which was fitting. Increasingly, I would learn, so are hostels.
When Eric Balmer took over the popular Balmer's Herberge in Interlaken, Switzerland, in 1970, "the international youth hostel in Switzerland was a kind of army camp," Balmer says.
He laughs at the memory – "army blankets and regulations: take your shoes off, turn the lights off" – in part because he'd just spent about $400,000 installing a "high-ropes course" on local treetops, part of more than $4 million in improvements he's made to the place over 38 years.
The era of the cheap and dirty hostel, says Balmer, "is gone. It's completely gone."
St. Christopher's Inns, which operates hostels in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, offers female-only floors with "little luxuries like extra fluffy towels, hair dryers (and) nice soaps," says Rob Savage, who edits the chain's blogs, e-zines, and podcasts.
Toronto's Canadiana Backpackers Inn, at Widmer and Adelaide Sts., provides pancake breakfasts and barbecue dinners, karaoke sessions and seats at CBC tapings.
Some have wireless Internet service.
That summer in Greece, when I ordered a gyro for lunch at the Pink Palace in Corfu, the man behind the counter jokingly asked me if I wanted the lamb with strawberries: he had noticed me eating 30 of them at the Palace's sumptuous free omelette-and-fruit breakfast that morning.
In Britain, says Hostelworld.com editor Colm Hanratty, "some people still think a hostel is a place for homeless people." But perceptions are changing.
That's because hostels are too, thanks partly to the Internet, which has publicized criticism of them. The dissatisfied hostel visitor of the 1970s might write an angry diary entry; the dissatisfied hostel visitor of 2008 might write an angry blog entry or – horror of horrors for the modern hostel owner – issue a negative rating on a site like Hostelworld, where hostels are ranked on their "character," security, location, staff, fun and cleanliness. Since such websites often account for over a third of hostels' bookings – and sometimes more than half – poor online feedback can rarely be tolerated.
"We are really keen on good ratings," says Jörg Schöpfel, who has co-owned Berlin's EastSeven hostel for three years. "And we take seriously the stuff people say in complaints. If we get a bad rating, or if we see somewhere – in a blog or wherever – a bad comment about EastSeven, we contact the people and ask them what went wrong, to do better."
This year, for instance, they put in double curtains in each room because people complained that it was difficult to sleep in the summertime.
"The feedback," says Canadiana owner Chris Morgan, "keeps you on your toes."
So do "flashpackers," a growing group of travellers who have money to burn. They stay in hostels for the social experience, but still want comfort, even luxury.
"The number of flashpackers with state-of-the-art laptops, professional cameras and significant spending power increases all the time," Savage says.
I was aghast two years ago when a friend said he was going "backpacking" with a suitcase on wheels. Turns out he's not alone: "Backpacks," St. Christopher's Savage says, "now come with wheels, extendable handles and reinforced pockets to protect laptops."
With upscale travellers demanding "more, more, more and more," says Balmer, owners are constantly forced to improve. They must also accommodate older hostellers, known as "grey gappers," who find hostels allow them to meet more people. Some have even added private and ensuite rooms to meet the demand.
While hostels used to take the view "over 25 and you're out," Morgan says Canadiana hosted a 78-year-old German last May.
Of course, the horror-show hostel experience still exists. Hostelworld, Hostelz.com, and travellers' forums have lots of scathing reviews. ("Didn't dare take a shower – gross!" "Is this Amsterdam or Gitmo?") And even the best-rated hostels get criticized on occasion for perceived cleanliness problems or rude staff.
But with every passing day – and, indeed, every negative online rating – they just keep getting better.