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Think of the word youth hostel and chances are Europe springs right into your mind. That's because they are most abundant there compared to other parts of the world.

Europe - rich in its old sites, culture, history and close knit communities - has catered to simple and independent travelers for years by providing these inexpensive lodgings in most of its cities and towns for those with a tight budget. Hostels combine the atmosphere of college dormitories with summer camp and are the low price alternative to hotels, without the private rooms, T.V., phones and room service. They are an ideal place to socialize and make friends and travel companions in a communal kind of setting.

They can fill a room of usually bunkbeds up to twenty people, and meals (for a few extra dollars) and showers are almost always included. With the average of ten to twenty dollars (in the country's cuurency), many travelers find them the perfect way to stretch their money and experience a family setting after an adventurous day. Homestyle breakfasts and dinners are always hearty and bring people together at the table for stories, laughs and trading information. Like hotels and bed & breakfast inns, you can call a hostel or walk right in to make reservations, but that's pretty much where the comparisons stop.

You will need a youth hostel card, which you can purchase for about twenty-five dollars at a travel agency or most hostels. Don't let the name youth hostel discourage you if you are twenty-five or older. All hostels, except for in Bavaria, have no age limit, although they have always been most popular with college students. Today more families use them, but men and women are still segregated. In fact, many hostels offer discounts to senior citizens. There are just about two-thousand hostels across Europe, each one fitting right into its town's architectural look. They range from German castles, Swiss mountain chalets, medieval London manor houses, a skipper ship in Stockholm, to college dorms themselves. My greatest experience and knowledge of hostels came from travel writers and talking to people who have wandered across Europe. Rick Steves, a current popular travel show host on exploring Europe, wrote a very encouraging and practical book "Europe Through the Europe" which gave me the confidence to to travel alone and easily get a hostel bed most every night.

I bought a two-month Eurrail Pass through a travel agency (how most travelers I met got around) and carried a "Let's Go" guide book, which listed all hostels and other tourist listings. With my hostel card, I stayed in eighteen hostels in nine different countries. It's a good idea to have a few phone numbers and addresses or directions of some of the hostels you plan to stay at; also which subways to take and where to get off is helpful in saving time and patience. I remember anxiously starting my journey, landing at London's smaller airport and being thankful I had a hostel number to call and subway (or tube in this case) directions to ensure my reservation. If anything, it's peace of mind so you can focus more on enjoying Europe.

Hostels typically only open for reservations mornings and again at 5p.m. for an hour or so - the time when travelers most often arrive in a town by train. I spent many nights sprawling my sleeping bag in a train cabin, arriving in cities such as Venice, Rome, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam early, often having only a short walk to the hostel.

Sometimes a bunch of us would sit outside waiting for the hostel warden to open the doors. One memorable day I had made friends with a group traveling from Lucerne to Venice. We arrived at the hostel by water taxi a little too late, and had to sit outside until 5pm with out backpacks. We shared where we had been, travel mistakes we learned, bread and wine, with a spectacular view of the sinking city across the water. In Paris, a few blocks walk found me face to face with the Notra Dame Cathedral.

Hostels have curfews ranging from 10pm to midnight or later, depending on the town's nightlife. Remote smaller chalets in the Alps have early cerfews for their early rising hikers, while hostels in London and Munich close later for their famous stage theaters and the festive Hoffbrau Haus, respectively. Another exhilerating place was when we got off the Rhein River boat in Koblenz, Germany and took a ski lift up the cliff to our fortress-turned hostel, with a dynamic view of the castle lined winding river.

In the preserved old walled-in towns of Rotenburg (Germany) and Brugge (Belgium), I stayed in hostels nestled right amid the original romantic red roofed houses. For the cheep price of sleeping and eating at hostels, it has been a custom over the years for guests to help clean up the dinner table or similar small chores; and most wardens love offering sight-seeing and entertainment tips. If I could go back to Europe and visit all the same places or as many others, but with unlimited money, I'd still bypass the luxury hotels for the international simplicity of hosteling.