Mulberry Street center promotes hostel hospitality worldwide


The world has come to Baltimore. More specifically, to West Mulberry Street, where a Hostelling International Travel Center opened March 4 on the site of the Baltimore International AYH Hostel.

The Travel Center is an all-purpose resource center where aspiring adventurers can book discount flights, buy Eurail passes and travel packs, peruse guide books and seek advice on budget travel. "You can have it all here," says Joelle Porter, manager of the Baltimore hostel.

Most important, the Travel Center, part of a network of American Youth Hostels and Travel Centers, serves as a way to broadcast the glories of hostelling, a means of travel that "people here still haven't heard of," Ms. Porter says.

Unlike Europeans and Australians, Americans tend to vacation in hotels and interact little with fellow travelers. "They just have no clue" that hostelling is an attractive alternative to hotels and camping that offers both cheap lodging and an opportunity to socialize with other tourists, Ms. Porter says.

Hostels number over 6,000 worldwide and offer rates ranging from $3 to $20 a night. Generally, hostel lodging is dormitory style and separated by sex. Most hostels have either kitchens where visitors may cook their meals or inexpensive cafeterias. A new Hostelling International reservation system allows travelers to book accommodations in more than 80 hostels around the world for a $2 fee.

Often perceived as modest shelters where young, backpacking guests are pressed into kitchen duty and expected to return by an early curfew, hostels in reality are open to people of all ages, including families. And house rules have loosened somewhat, Ms. Porter says. In some urban areas, hostels are now open 24 hours a day.

Staying in a hostel also is a good way for children to realize at a young age that "you don't have to have a lot" of gear or money to travel, Ms. Porter says. If families choose to travel during traditionally slow seasons, they may be able to room together, she says.

Ms. Porter envisions the AYH Travel Center -- the first to be based at a hostel -- as a bustling hub where Baltimoreans pondering vacations can talk to actual travelers, many of them from abroad, and "get a feel" for hostel culture.

Seasoned hostel guests are also a reliable source for advice on great destinations and ones to avoid, Ms. Porter says.

As for adjusting to hostels' communal climate, a good attitude helps, Ms. Porter says. "People can be happy almost anyplace. It's all in how they are. Some are not happy with anything." Disenchanted hostel guests are directed to a nearby hotel, Ms. Porter says.

There are 250 hostels across the United States and Canada, Ms. Porter says. More than 1 million people stay in North American hostels annually. Some of the smaller ones in the United States are closing because "they are not very profitable." The Travel Center will funnel some profits into the Baltimore hostel as well as drum up business for foundering hostels across the country.

The Potomac Area Council of AYH also operates Travel Centers in College Park and Washington. About 20 Travel Centers are in operation across the country.

In many ways, the Travel Center functions like a travel agency; for example, it can book hostels and flights, Ms. Porter says. However, "We don't want to help you plan your trip. We want you to plan your trip, and then we can help you," she says.

The Travel Center is also a source of common-sense advice on estimating travel budgets, choosing frame packs, taking security precautions, finding clean bathrooms and other essentials. Throughout the spring, a series of free budget-travel seminars will take place at the Travel Center. Travel Center consultants are seasoned travelers with hostel experience.

Ms. Porter's own cardinal rules of travel are to pack light and be flexible. "Travelers who plan and plan and plan are so unhappy," Ms. Porter says. "Cars break down, trains aren't there, hostels close."

In the process of assisting travelers, Ms. Porter hopes to assuage their fears of the unexpected. "People here are not flexible. They panic about everything," she says.

And maybe, as they see different parts of the world, timid travelers will take a break from stressed-out lives and learn something about themselves.

"Through traveling, you get to see a view of who you are through someone else or someplace else that helps you to grow," Ms. Porter says, "even if you hate it."

LTC The AYH International Travel Center is located at 17 W. Mulberry St. in Baltimore. Hours are from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (410) 576-8880.

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