On the up ... Bounce Sydney, Surry Hills. Photo: Patrick Boland
Enterprising hostels are casting off the dingy tag with cool decor and features.
The words ''backpacker accommodation'' have long been synonymous with dingy decor, bedbug-riddled bunks and tatty shower curtains. In the past few years, however, hostels around the world have been overhauling the image of thrifty travel.
When they come into this place, people are taken aback by how nice it is.
Design hostels, also known as boutique hostels or poshtels, have embraced hip interiors and cutting-edge architecture to attract the budget traveller with an eye for style.
Chic and cheerful
Bounce Sydney, Surry Hills. Photo: Patrick Boland
Although the trend is more prominent overseas, upmarket hostels in Australia have increasingly drawn international recognition for their funky appearance.
Last year, the website hostelbookers.com named Bounce Sydney in Surry Hills as one of its 50 gorgeous hostels for design lovers, citing its open-air roof terrace and leopard-print furnishings as highlights.
The hostel's general manager, Mark Baldwin, acknowledges the clean-cut and edgy aesthetic of the five-star hostel, which opened in October 2010, contributes to its appeal.
''When they come into this place, people are taken aback by how nice it is,'' Baldwin says.
Bounce is a far cry from the shabby backpacker digs of popular imagination. The bunk beds remain but the decor has the clean, modern feel of a hotel, with walls, carpets and bathrooms in vibrant hues of blue, green and red. The spacious rooms have crisp white walls and contrasting coloured ceilings, while the top floor features a bright common dining area and modern kitchen facilities. A series of kooky graffiti motifs painted in the fire stairwell make for a colourful journey between storeys.
Bounce's clientele has not been limited to typical backpack-toting graduates on their first overseas trip. Although its visitors are generally between 20 and 35 years of age, budget-conscious travellers aged upwards of 50 have also opted for the hostel over a hotel.
''There's a lot of people who choose to stay in a higher-range hostel because they want that nicer experience,'' Baldwin says. ''I'm sure there are a lot who try [hostels] for the first time and go to lesser places and say, 'Well, that's the last time I'm doing that.'''
In Melbourne, St Kilda's Base Backpackers hostel has also received accolades for its design, including a spot on Lonely Planet's ''hippest hostels'' list. The most radical renovations, however, are found abroad.
A former military prison in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was redesigned by a team of more than 80 artists to create Hostel Celica. Its 20 cells function as dorm rooms, each with a unique artistic style. Goli&Bosi in Split, Croatia, features a vivid yellow interior, paying homage to the city's historic sulfurous baths. Hamburg's Superbude offers a Rockstar Suite with a flip-up performance stage and stackable beds, while Singapore hostels Matchbox and Wink provide visitors with futuristic pod-style beds. Other establishments boast cinemas, spas and swimming pools.
Not all design hostels are shrines to modernity. Berlin's Ostel takes its aesthetic cues from socialist East Germany, incorporating ''communist kitsch'' furniture, decorations and appliances.
Travellers appreciate the effort.
''For me, the benefit of staying in a boutique hostel is that, although they may cost more, someone has put a lot of thought and effort into the guest experience,'' the travel blogger Stephanie Yoder says.
This contrasts with some of the dingier places she's visited, including ''enormous dorm rooms with weird odours'' and ''stifling hot six-bed closets''. Yoder posted a video to her Twenty-Something Travel blog earlier this year, depicting a wobbly hostel ''bunk'' comprised of two wooden beds nailed together. Other horror stories shared on blogs and websites range from soiled sheets and rodent infestations to communal showers in filthy bathrooms.
While design hostels certainly look more pleasant than their shabbier counterparts, the overall experience isn't necessarily improved by groovy decor. ''It was really pretty inside but I can't say that the experience, service or cleanliness was any better than other hostels I've stayed in,'' says Justine Aenishaenslin, speaking about a boutique hostel in Paris.
''I have the distinct memory of thinking, 'This is nice, but I'd rather they invest the money in a proper cleaner.'''