Chicago hostel: clean, safe, prime location

To Cristina Causone of Italy, $34.50 is a lot to pay for a place to sleep. Even if it is clean, safe and in the heart of Chicago.

She is 24 and says she has been a tourist in the United States five times. 

To retiree Shirley Hart of Arizona, the lodging price is more agreeable. She’ll stay almost a week, until her plane leaves for a European study-tour.

How does $34.50 – tax included – sound to you? Horrifying? Intriguing? Unbelievable? Fantastic? 

That’s the cost of a bed at the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel, 24 E. Congress Parkway, the second largest hostel in the United States. There are 250 beds here year-round, and 500 during the summer, when Columbia College students vacate dorm rooms in the building.

Thomas Applegate, the hostel’s executive director, wants you to know that this is more than a cheap place to stay. The mission is “to help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hosteling.” The facility opened in 2000.

Each room has four to 10 bunk beds. Guests are separated by sex, unless a couple or group arranges to pay for an entire room. Each room has easy access to at least one sink, private shower and private toilet.

The place usually is full on weekends, Applegate says, and “we’re a big hit with Girl Scout troops, in several states, maybe because of the American Girl” doll store that is downtown. About one-half of the travelers are from outside of the United States; the age typically is 18 to 26, but families and older adults also are welcome.

This is the way that I chose to travel recently, and I intend to repeat the experience. To me, it just makes Chicago that much more of a fascinating place.

 — 

I took the last train from Kenosha to Chicago on a rainy Sunday this month, ending up at the Oglivie Transportation Center around 8:30 p.m. I was a little wary, having noticed that a recommended bus route didn’t run on weekends. The bus advice had come from the hostel, after my e-mail inquiry.

But I had an alternate plan and it was a smooth/fast journey, even at a bus transfer spot, where I stood dry under a canopy while watching two cabs collide in an intersection. It gave a few strangers something to talk about until the next bus arrived.

The hostel, in a bright and airy building, had huge rooms to eat and read, with big windows to watch the rain and traffic. There is Internet access, $1 per 10 minutes, and a disclaimer that the hostel takes no responsibility for malfunctioning equipment. There are grocery-like coolers to stash food.

Maps detail neighborhood tours, bus routes, free or discounted attractions in the city. There is a ping-pong table, a library, a couple of rooms to watch television.

Upon check-in, and pre-payment, guests receive a set of sheets and the thinnest bath towel that I’ve seen in a long time. A key card also is assigned; it is needed to get into the building, to go anywhere on the elevator and to get into the right sleeping room.

Maybe the rain made a difference, but my first set of roommates weren’t in the mood to chat much. One was on her way home to Taiwan, after ending a semester of college in Boston. Another was an architect from France, in Chicago with work colleagues. We each had an assigned bed, which had a mattress pad and pillow. There also were lockers; most of us had brought our own locks.  

Before sunrise, seven of the eight beds in my room were occupied. I know this because of the symphony of snoring that I heard and contributed to; at one point, I looked around and was amazed that I hadn’t heard most of the others arrive.

When I awoke again, around 7:30 a.m., only one other woman remained. That seems typical; the people who stay are here for shelter, and to see as much of the city as possible.

My advice, to come out of this experience with good memories, is to bring earplugs (or buy them for 50 cents), an eye mask, soap, shampoo and an open mind. You can ask for a lower bunk berth, and should if mid-night bathroom treks are a part of your routine. If you’re a heavy sleeper with a need to rise at a specific time, bring a travel alarm clock.

Causone gives the Chicago facility high marks for cleanliness, but says most hostels in Europe include some type of meal. Here, there are vending machines and an adjacent restaurant. 

”Hostels are the only way to travel alone,” she says, “especially if I want to look at art.” I wouldn’t go that far, but this one is a great way to explore Chicago on a tight budget. Although an elevated train route cuts close to the hostel, the sound is muffled by sound-proofing.

”We spent a lot of money for that,” Applegate says. 

To be a part of Hostelling International, a hostel operator must uphold a uniform standard of service. Rules ban alcohol and illegal drugs; limit a person’s stay to 14 days in six months; and set up “quiet hours” (11 p.m. to 7 a.m. in Chicago). 

The Chicago facility also is smoke-free; call (312) 360-0300 or go to www.hichicago.org. Reservations are accepted. 

Internationally, there are about 4,500 hostels in more than 70 countries; go to www.hiusa.org for more. Hostelling International members get a discount on room rates.

 — 

”There used to be small home hostels, spaced out by what was a day’s bike ride from one place to the next,” Applegate says. Establishment of the urban hostel, he says, started in earnest after World War II.

Hosteling began in Europe in 1909, and a new hostel that opens during Memorial Day weekend in Wisconsin will be more like the historical stereotype than its urban counterpart. 

Eagle Home Hostel, a cream city brick farmhouse on Highway 59 – halfway between Palmyra and Eagle, is next to the National Scenic Ice Age Trail and in the Kettle Moraine Forest. It is 35 miles southwest of Milwaukee, 45 miles southeast of Madison.

The property is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and operated by Kristie and Greg Corrao, who hadn’t secured their first reservations yet when we called. Kristie describes the accommodations as “one step up from camping”.

There are a total of eight beds in the three rented rooms. Nearby are the Old World Wisconsin historic site and a charming, sandy lake beach. The cost is $18, plus tax, for an overnight stay.


For more, call (262) 594-2473. 

– 

Wisconsin has two other Hosteling International properties. 

One, in Madison, celebrates its sixth anniversary this summer. In a 110-year-old building at 141 S. Butler St., manager Lee Givhan says capacity is 31 people. The non-member rates are $40 per room (for up to three people, with a shared bath down the hall) or $20 per person in a room with four to six beds.

For more, call (608) 441-0144 or go to www.madisonhostel.org. 

The other hostel is 66 beds on one floor of the McCormick dormitory at Marquette University, 1530 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee. It is open May 31 to Aug. 4, and this is the third summer of operation.

Director Bill Johnson says Hosteling Wisconsin rents the rooms from Marquette. Average occupancy during the first year was 35 percent; last year it was 72 percent. Average age of customers is 23-30; people from 27 countries stayed there last year.

For more, call (414) 961-2525 until May 31, then (414) 288-3232, or go to www.hostellingwisconsin.org. 

”About 20 percent reserved their space with us in the past, and the rest just show up,” Johnson says. It’s $20 for a bed.