Not Just a Cheap Sleep

Hostels offer low-budget accommodations — and some are wheelchair friendly

What’s the difference between a hotel and a hostel? Hostels have considerably lower rates and a more informal environment. Although private rooms are sometimes offered, the dormitory aspect of hostels increases the social factor, and they generally attract people who are looking for “adventure” rather than leisure travel.

These alternatives to hotels were originally called youth hostels, but the word “youth” has largely been dropped; it is no longer just young people who seek economical travel adventures and the three S’s: shelter, showers and security.

People also use hostels for socialization and exposure to the views of travelers from all over the world — things they might not find in a standard hotel or motel. Shared sleeping accommodations and bathrooms bring people together across cultures.

The concept of hostels began in Germany in the early 1900s. These facilities are now available worldwide. In fact, lists 19,460 hostels in 75 countries.

Unfortunately, not all hostels are accessible to people with mobility issues.

“Since many of our hostels are old, historic buildings and ADA compliance isn’t always readily achievable, it’s best to contact the hostel you’re interested in staying at to find out the features they offer,” says Netanya Trimboli of Hostelling International–USA. “The bigger hostels in urban areas tend to be accessible, but it’s definitely recommended to contact them individually.”

In the United States, you can find wheelchair-accessible hostels from coast to coast. The following examples are in urban areas on the East and West coasts as well as in America’s Heartland.

Hostelling International – Washington DC (HI-DC) is located near the city’s most famous attractions. Set in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., it is close to the White House, the National Mall, Chinatown, bus stops and taxi stands, and near bars, restaurants, performing arts centers and other attractions. HI-DC has a wheelchair lift as well as an elevator, and all restrooms are reportedly wheelchair accessible. For more information, visit or call 888-464-4872 (toll-free) / 202-737-2333.

Two miles from Chicago’s city center, in the University District/Loop Retail Historic District, is the HI Chicago Hostel ( / / 312-360-0300), now renamed the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel. This is said to be America’s second-largest hostel, with more than 500 beds. It is open 24/7 and has no curfew and no age limit. It is located within two blocks of all major train and bus lines.

According to Paul Coley, HI-Chicago general manager, the facility is fully accessible. “There’s a ramp at the entryway. Signage and switches in bathroom facilities are also designed and placed to accommodate wheelchair sitting height,” he explains. “[There are] several roll-in showers and others with seats and bars for support.”

Coley reports many wheelchair users have enjoyed the facility: “We’ve always been able to accommodate.”

On the West Coast, San Francisco is a popular tourist destination. A wheelchair-accessible hostel right on San Francisco Bay is the Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel. It has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Because it’s an old military facility located on government property, it has no tax, and the rate as of June 2013 is a standard $30 for everyone (no membership fee), according to the informational video on the website

A wheelchair ramp provides access to the main floor. While not all areas are wheelchair accessible, most facilities are duplicated. For example, the kitchen, TV room and laundry are downstairs, but an ADA wing provides accessible facilities on the main floor. With enough notice staff can book specifically into the ADA wing, which contains a private room and four-bed dorm. For more information, visit /

Some hostels may have maximum-stay and other restrictions. They may offer clean beds, lockers, activities, free Wi-Fi, TV, kitchens, laundry facilities, hair dryers, Internet, etc., although these amenities may vary from location to location. The best thing to do is to check the online facilities list on the websites of the hostels you are interested in.

Just do a search for hostels in the city you plan to visit. The following sites are among many offering information:


Here's a story on accessible hostels in Canada from our friends at

Gallery photos courtesy



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