Sunday, April 15, 2012

New York City Hostels: The Best and Worst Budget Accommodations

By my count, I have visited New York City on overnight trips perhaps 30 times in the last 5 years...and lately, it’s been one a month. I don’t have my own place in the Big Apple, so that means I need to rent accommodations. And I have to admit, with all of the entertainment, nightlife, shows, restaurants, and events taking place in NYC, the *last* thing I want to do is blow hundreds of dollars on a room and a bed that I’m only going to use for a few hours each night – especially when a hundred dollars will buy me a show ticket or several great meals.

In all this time, I have learned that the most cost-effective way to stay right in Manhattan is to locate a good student hostel. Hostels are budget accommodations without many frills, and you share bathrooms with others on your floor. But they allow you to spend your money enjoying New York, rather than funding pricey real estate.

But I have also learned that some hostels are absolutely perfect for the budget traveler – and some are absolute horror stories. There are a number of websites that offer information about budget accommodations n New York, and even some that permit comments by visitors. Unfortunately, many of those comments are left by people who have only visited a location once, or who were unfamiliar with the concept of hostelling to begin with. Based on multiple trips to each of these hostels, I offer you my opinion of the absolute *best* - and *worst* - that New York City has to offer in accommodations.

The BEST – The Chelsea Highline Hotel (Link) at 184 11th Avenue, on the corner of West 23rd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood. Owned by Jazz Hostels, which has multiple locations, this has become my number one choice anytime I am staying in New York City. It is located across from Hudson River Park,
and is only three blocks from the C-E Subway (the “Blue”) line that runs, generally, along 8th Avenue with stops at Times Square/Port Authority, Penn Station, Central Park West, Washington Square Park, downtown Brooklyn and the World Trade Center. In essence, you can get *anywhere* in New York City with this as your base of operations. The neighborhood itself is a mix of nice residential brownstones, apartments, and an explosion of Art Galleries. Crossing overhead on West 23rd street is High Line Park, an elevated train platform that has been transformed into a walkway along Manhattan’s west side with gardens and benches. At the entrance to the High Line is the Half King Restaurant, a pleasant tavern with outdoor sidewalk seating (and a rear Garden Patio) owned by “Perfect Storm” author Sebastian Younger. Interested in a budget meal? Two blocks from the hostel, on the corner of West 23rd Street and 9th Avenue, are two diners, the Chelsea Square (my favorite) and the Moonstruck…and around the corner is Famous Ray’s Pizza, an absolute *must* for people who like their pizza slices delicious and BIG.

The Hostel itself appears to be just another undifferentiated grey-ish white apartment building from outside. But inside, one realizes one has found the best hostel in New York. The front desk staff are always attentive and as diverse as New York City itself. They are always pleasant and helpful. The small lobby has free wireless access if you bring your laptop, and in the mornings the hostel provides bagels and coffee gratis. (OK, I have to admit, the bagels were not classic NY bagels, and there was no cream cheese, and they offered powdered creamer instead of milk, so I didn’t really partake – but it is an amenity that most hostels do not offer at all.)

The rooms are located on the second, third, and fourth floors; I have been in nine of them on all three floors (picture at the top of this post).

The rooms are the largest I have ever experienced in a NYC hostel. The paint is fresh and neutral-colored. Each room has a sink/vanity/mirror, and new furniture that includes beds, night stands, rugs, a stool or chair, and some paintings. And amazingly, they all match, as if someone actually put some thought into making the guests’ stay pleasant. Double rooms (for couples) feature single, low platform beds or twin beds; “Family” rooms feature one queen bed and a bunk bed. The so-called “Family Rooms” are as roomy as a hostel gets; I have brought student groups to this hostel and four people can actually live in one room without tripping over each other. Doors close soundly and lock securely with no ‘gaps’ that characterize other hostels, and the rooms are pretty much soundproof. I have never been awakened by noise from other rooms.

The bathrooms are small “one-seaters,” located three to a floor. They are bright, clean, and newly-tiled, with efficient shelves to hold soap or shampoo, and hot water that actually works.

And unique to the Chelsea Highline: there is actually housekeeping service! Yes, someone comes in and makes your bed and empties your trash.

What would you pay for a night in NYC like this? If you like to be pampered at a hotel, a couple will easily spend between $200 and $400/night. The Chelsea Highline? Try $100 per night for a private double, or as little as $135 for a family room that sleeps four. And since the charges are based on the room, not the number of people, that means 4 friends can share a Family Room for about $35/night (plus NYC room taxes.)

As I said, I have *never* had a bad experience at the Chelsea (and I promise, the fact that my two favorite NYC nightspots – the Rawhide and the Eagle – are both within an easy 5 minute walking distance had nothing to do with my positive review. But of course, it doesn’t hurt either!)

The WORST – The Bowery’s Whitehouse Hotel, at 340 Bowery, between East 2nd (also called “Bond Street”) and East 3rd Street (also known as “Great Jones Street”). I will not even give you their web address: I do not want to be responsible for ever sending anyone to this house of horrors.

I will say this: if you are looking for the excitement, nightlife, and bohemian atmosphere of the East Village, the location of this hostel is unbeatable. The website makes it look like a pleasant stay, with subway access, on the funky east side. I beg of you – do not be deceived. It is beyond comprehension that the City of New York – which comes down hard on hostels – allows this place to exist.

I have stayed here on multiple occasions for a few reasons: first, the location really is fantastic; I can never believe that it could actually be so horrible every time, so I try it again; and, most often, I have stayed here because every other hostel in NYC was booked full. I will never do that again.

The Whitehouse is designed more like a homeless shelter than a hostel.

You may not take your key when you leave the hostel – it must be handed back in to the staff at the front desk. The staff may or may not be there when you return, or may be arguing with someone on the phone, and you may have to wait to get into your “room.”

I wrote “room” in quotes, because in actuality, there are no rooms. They have simply erected ‘partitions’ to divide each floor into units, slapping lime green and other cast-off paint colors on them. The partitions do not reach the ceiling: your ‘ceiling’ is a lattice work (with spaces large enough for you to stick your head – or entire body – through). That means that there is no quiet at all, because there is no ceiling blocking noise form the next unit. On multiple occasions we were awake for hours because we could hear every conversation taking place on the floor – even when people whispered.

The units are literally only large enough to fit a bed: you open your door, and there is about 10 square feet of floor space, and a bed fit into the unit and surrounded by partition walls on three sides. There are no sinks, no electric outlets (although there were exposed and capped wires dangling in the last unit I stayed in). The doors do not close completely flush: there are cracks and holes through which any passer-by can peer in.

Like the rooming units, the shower doors are broken and gaping. The first time I turned on a shower, the handle was improperly fitted against the broken tiling and I sliced open my knuckles. Long hair was wound around the shower curtain holders, and the water drained away from the drain flooding the floor and making it slimy.

The pipes are in need of serious repair. Hot water in the shower is a luxury; but as it courses through the building’s heating system, it bangs so loudly that the floor literally vibrates throughout the building. On my last night there, one toilet on the floor above us clogged and overflowed continuously; it completely drenched one neighboring unit, as the toilet water splashed on several more of us.

There is no wifi, breakfast, or amenities. Instead, the Whitehouse actually scams guests to hold on to funds. All guests are required to not only pay, but to put additional charges (an extra night) on their credit card as a “hold” against damages (how in the WORLD they would ever know how a room was damaged is beyond me, given their poor condition). When I checked out, I was told that the “hold” would take 10 days to clear, which is total nonsense. The desk clerk rolled her eyes at me when I objected, and insisted that this is their bank’s procedure and they couldn't change it. That, of course, is absolutely bogus. I launched into a speech about how I had paid several hundred dollars and was unable to sleep at all for two nights in a row and that the City Consumer Affairs Office was going to hear about this scam of my debit card. The ten-day hold (which was supposedly their ‘bank’s procedure”) on my debt card was suddenly lifted by the next day.

The Bowery’s Whitehouse entices unsuspecting travelers with nice pictures, a good website, a fantastic location, and available ‘rooms’ (for good reason!) – and then traps people in units with no room, no amenities, no ability to engage in peaceful sleep, and additional charges that normally stay on your card for 10 days.

If you’re thinking of staying here – don’t. Run. Far. Quickly.



Anonymous said...
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0s0-Pa said...

I'm always weary of staying in hostels, but it sure is a lot more affordable than staying in hotels in NYC!