Inside the American Hotel hostel. Photos provided by the American Hotel.

Recently, about 50 people crowded the dining room of The American Hotel hostel, located in the Chinatown/International District on 6th and King Street, eager to hear two travelers discuss their backpacking adventures. Among the trekkers’ worldly destinations were India, Kenya and Vietnam. But instead of booking fancy hotels with swimming pools, the pair stayed at economical hostels — stretching their travel dollars to cover more countries for longer periods. As the rapt audience queried the travelers about packing hints and exchanging money, their passion for hostelling was clear.

The first hostel opened in Germany in 1909. Today, Hostel International (a non-profit organization setting hostel standards worldwide) claims a membership of over 4,000 in 90 countries. Although youth were their initial consumers, hostels are now used by people of all ages—including yours truly.

The first time I stayed at one was in 1994 when I discovered how inexpensive it was compared to a hotel. While I’ve had to share quarters with as many as seven strangers during peak season, I rarely spend time in my room while traveling anyway. And since the hostel demographic skews toward 20-something students, the experience is similar to living in a college dorm.

At most hostels, you get your own bed while sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities. I prefer same-sex rooms, but co-ed and (for more money) private spaces for couples and families are also available. My favorite hostel, in Santa Monica, attracts lots of Australians and New Zealanders, although I’ve met Brazilians, British, Japanese, Kenyans, and Taiwanese there, too. To this day, I remain friends with a Haitian living in Paris. Many hostels also provide laundry facilities, libraries, TV rooms, Internet connections, as well as bus schedules, maps and self-guided tours. Some offer planned excursions like “pub crawls” and free movie nights. The one in Santa Monica has free breakfast.

The American Hotel, located on South King Street, opened a year ago with 294 beds in 90 rooms spanning three stories. When I phoned general manager, Larry Larson, he was vacuuming! Unlike hotels, hostels elicit a touchy-feely ambiance.

Built in 1925 to house workers at nearby rail lines, fisheries and other industries, The American Hotel’s structure was most recently a women and children’s shelter. Given its historic significance, developers found it ideal for local and international travelers. Much of the original wood and design was preserved in the remodeling, and splashes of bright colors were added for a more festive look.

According to Larson, the building was chosen because of its excellent condition and convenience to the bus tunnel, light rail, Amtrak and free rides to the ferry dock. SeaTac is 30 minutes by light rail, and the International District station is a half block from the hostel.

The neighborhood is also unsurpassed for eating, shopping and exploring attractions in the vicinity. Larson says Asian visitor rates remain a steady percentage of overall international guests who “love the proximity to great Asian food.”

“Japanese tourists love that Safeco Field is close by, too,” he adds, “because they’re crazy about the Seattle Mariners and Ichiro!”

Not surprisingly, the hostel advertises heavily in Asia and, because the ID borders Pioneer Square and downtown, visitors can easily access nearby tourist sites.

Neighbors have been especially welcoming, says Larson.

“We were immediately embraced by the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Association,” he explains, clarifying how that organization works with local businesses on issues of shared concern.

Besides participating in neighborhood and safety meetings, the hostel also partakes in cultural events like Jam Fest–hosting live music the first Thursday of the month.

“The International District is a small neighborhood with a big impact on Seattle,” Larson declares, “And the hostel’s become a major resource for local families with visitors coming from Asia who need an inexpensive lodging alternative.”

According to him, their largest demographic is aged 19-27, but they also accommodate “a lot of single women over 70 traveling alone from all corners of the globe.”

“Hostellers actively seek interaction with other international travelers,” Larson claims, which is encouraged by their renting only a bed.

“It makes it easier to meet new people, make friends, and arrange local travel and experiences together,” he adds. “Hostellers are passionate about cultural exchange.”

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