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Originally published Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Senior couple's hostel adventures

The young backpackers who put hostels on the map have grown up to be senior citizens. Two of them, a veteran traveling couple, write about trying out hostels in their travels for several years with mixed but promising results.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Is a hostel

right for you?

— If you've never been to a hostel, talk to friends or relatives who have. They can probably say whether you will enjoy the experience.

— Visit a hostel near you. Look at the rooms. Talk to the staff and visitors. There may be someone there who has firsthand knowledge of hostels in areas you plan to visit. (In Seattle, there's a Hostelling International hostel in the International District, www.hiusa.org/seattle.)

— Most of the more popular guidebooks have some information on hostels. For more details and booking options in a broad range of hostels, see: www.hihostels.com,

www.hostelworld.com, www.hostelplanet.com and www.hostels.com.

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Ah, travel in the tie-dyed good ol' days, when young travel junkies hosteled their way around the world. When all they asked were a dorm-style bunk bed and rented sheets, a bath down the hall or down the stairs, and a party-hearty crowd yukking it up from dusk to dawn.

That was then, when hostels came with the word "youth" firmly attached. And this is now, when many of us jet-vets would pale at the thought of staying in a hostel.

Not so fast, folks. Some of those young backpackers have grown up to be ... us! And we've been trying out hostels in our travels for several years — with mixed but promising results.

In Berlin we recently found a newly-opened hostel a few blocks from the main train station.

Our private room looked like it had been transplanted from Sweden — the furniture was blond and the linens crisp and blindingly white. The room even had a hair-dryer. The lobby had TV, a kids' play area, a modest bar and five computers for guests to use.

Breakfast, when the dorm-rats from the "youth" side of the hostel mingled with the families and seniors from the private rooms, was noisy in the extreme, all clattering dishes and hollering kids.

But we loved the action and getting acquainted with an older Canadian couple who asked to share our table two mornings. A young German girl made room for us to sit down another morning and taught us how to say "let's go" in German ("lass uns gehen").

In Turkey, our hostel in the middle of Istanbul's tourist zone was old-world faded. But it was clean and our private room had its own bathroom and free linens.

The only downside was what it didn't include: an elevator. Our room was on the third floor, at the top of a narrow, uneven staircase that was a struggle to negotiate with roller-bags.

The thing hostels do provide — unlike the Hiltons of the world — is "a sense of community," says Mark Vidalin, marketing director of Hostelling International, USA. Its nonprofit parent company began in 1934 in Germany to promote low-cost youth travel.

The core of the hostel biz is still travelers aged 18-25, but about 15 percent of hostelers are seniors.

A huge plus for the Social-Security crowd is cost — a hostel may be 20 percent less expensive than a B&B, says Steve Smith, a spokesman for Rick Steves, whose budget tours, guidebooks and PBS television shows on traveling in Europe have fans that go back decades.

Seniors account for up to 80 percent of Steves' tours and half of book sales. The company plans to increase the number of hostels it recommends in guidebooks, Smith says.

But be wary. All hostels aren't equal.

Our first hostel experience as seniors was a few years ago, when we booked a couple of hostel nights in Athens.

We got in late from an island cruise to find a lumpy bed that looked like someone had already slept there, a broken air conditioner and no towels. The bathroom was down a dark hallway filled wall-to-wall with sweaty college kids in smelly sleeping bags.

Not exactly the clean, cheap, room-with-a-bath we thought we'd booked online months before. Since we had only a couple of days in Athens and planned to spend very little time in a room, we just toughed it out.

Sally Macdonald is a former reporter for The Seattle Times; John Macdonald is the former travel editor for The Seattle Times.

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