I have stayed in a hostel during nearly every international trip I have taken since I started traveling – and let me tell you – the right hostel makes ALL the difference. Sure, you’re still going to see the Eiffel Tower regardless of which hostel you sleep at in Paris, but not all hostels are created equal! Furthermore, the building itself might not even be what is most important when considering a hostel! The following are my tips to remember when looking for a hostel…
***As a general note, most hostels can be found by searching Hostelworld.com or Hostelbookers.com; occasionally in a small town you can find more options that aren’t listed on these services by using a simple Google search for the “city name” + the word “hostel” ***
1) Can I Meet People There? – “Meetability”
Many people advise you to prioritize “cost, location, and amenities,” when booking a hostel, but be warned that these people are forgetting half the reason why you travel and stay in hostels to begin with! Yes, I’ll talk about these in a minute, but my top priority in hostel booking is usually the “Meetability” factor. Does the hostel have a common area or areas that look fun to hang out in (maybe some games, a fire ring, or a roof deck)? Is the hostel typically pretty full? Do they have programs every night (i.e. hostel dinners, karaoke, free pub crawls, free tours, etc.) Is there a hostel bar? Are the dorm rooms separated male/female or mixed?
While some of these ARE amenities, you’re looking to see if the hostel has intentionally created an environment to foster chance encounters and new friendships with fellow travelers. Traveling affords people the ability to experience not only the culture of the city and the country that you’re in, but also the diversity of the people traveling around you. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to explore the city with a new, crazy cool friend just because you ignored the “Meetability” factor of your hostel.
2) Can I Get Everywhere Easily? – Location
I’ll admit, this is actually a contender for #1, as it affects everything you actually do in a city while you’re traveling. Many European and Asian cities have extensive public transportation systems, but just because you can ride the metro/bus into the city center from your hostel doesn’t mean you want to every day! I walk almost everywhere when I’m traveling since you see and experience so much more – and my hostel’s location drastically affects how much I enjoy this. However, a good location isn’t just about being close to the biggest tourist attractions.
Yes, as I mentioned before, you’re not going to travel to Rome for the first time and NOT see the Coliseum or Trevi Fountain; but having a hostel on the doorstep of tourist attractions isn’t always the best choice for a few reasons. First, everything is going to cost more in your immediate vicinity since you’re in the “tourist zone” – restaurants, souvenirs, bars, entertainment, snacks, etc. Additionally, chances are you’re going to be experiencing a “tourist version” of the city you’re trying to get to know. A restaurant that makes a commitment to providing authentic, local, and affordable food isn’t going to be able to set up shop under the Eiffel Tower – the same is true of the night life.
Be sure to quickly research which areas of town are exciting during the day and which ones are exciting at night; check to see if there is a main “student section” of town – chances are the food and drinks will be cheaper around university campuses to cater to this crowd. Are there any parks around your prospective hostel for you to enjoy some free entertainment and relaxation? Finding that balance between the tourist sector and the authentic city is what makes a hostel location truly great. Additionally, if you plan on drinking at night, it’s always more enjoyable (and safer) to have a hostel location with a relatively short walk home at night from the bar or club scene.
3) Does It Have What I NEED? – Necessities
As a budget traveler, this category is kind of oxymoronic because I tend to stress that all you “need” is a passport, the clothes you are wearing, and a way to access money in an emergency. However, if I’m going to pay to stay at a hostel, there are a few amenities that I want to make that money worthwhile.
First and foremost, I want solid WiFi in the common areas AND my room – something I’ve ranted about before (see Top Travel Pet Peeves). Nothing worse than attempting to check-in with family/friends in different time zones and having to leave your bed in the middle of the night to do so. Planning your next day in a foreign city often requires a little internet research at the hostel, unless you really planned ahead (I don’t, haha). Additionally, when you’re traveling solo sometimes you just want to watch a quick Youtube video in bed to feel at home before you go to sleep.
Need number two: Lockers (with outlets in them!). Very few hostels have realized the pure awesomeness that is the outlet WITHIN a locker (not having to worry about your phone being stolen as it charges overnight is glorious), but the hostel you choose should at least have lockers. Check to see if they provide a lock/key or if you have to bring your own (I usually carry two small zipper locks with me when I travel for this reason). Also try to see if they hostel has posted pictures of the size of the locker – while I can fit my travel backpack in some tiny lockers, if you plan on bringing a larger bag, a substantial locker might be more important to you.
The third need that I look for in a hostel is 24-hour reception availability. This might seem a little demanding from a place you’re only paying $10 a night to sleep at, but it’s pretty important. Since travelers are often leaving early to catch 6am flights or coming in early around 3am on a night bus, there is nothing more frustrating that being stuck outside your hostel’s locked front door, or worrying about missing a flight because you can’t get your key deposit back in time to leave.
*As an afterthought, it’s a good idea to check that Linens are included with your booking. While all hostels will have sheets/blankets/towels available, on some rare occasions they charge a small fee (typ. $1-$5) for rental of sheets and/or a towel. I bring a small travel towel and always sleep without sheets if there is a charge, which is why this is an afterthought, but many people would rather not do this*
4) Does It Have What I Want? – The Extras
By definition, hostels are typically a more minimalist way of traveling. However, with tourism in large cities at an all-time high, hostels are offering more and more for the same price to compete with the dozens or even hundreds of other lodging options. Here are a few of the most important “extras” I look for:
A (Good) Free Breakfast: Let me warn you right now, “free breakfast” does NOT mean the same thing at all hostels. I’ve had a free breakfast range from a half of a piece of toast with a Dixie cup of orange juice to a full-on spread of meats and cheeses with different types of fruit, pancakes, made-to-order omelets, and even a latte machine! Just read the first two or three reviews on a hostel with free breakfast and someone is bound to mention the breakfast quality. If the breakfast is particularly good, it’s typically worth an extra few dollars to avoid paying tourist prices for a bagel in the city center – and you can get your day started quicker!
Hot Showers: This one is less of a concern in Europe and larger cities, but if you plan on traveling Central/South America or other primarily warm regions, hot showers are not usually a given at a hostel. I’m fine with a cold shower here and there, but there is definitely something nice about a hot shower after 5 hours on a crowded chicken bus – or after the rainforest just lived up to its name and soaked you from head to toe.
Laundry: If you’re taking a longer trip, this is something that is often extremely underestimated. Many non-western countries don’t have the typical laundromat “do-it-yourself” style of laundry – instead, they charge by the kilogram to wash, dry, and fold your laundry for you. While occasionally you can find a cheap provider for this, oftentimes they take advantage of tourists and charge an exorbitant rate (looking at you Monteverde, Costa Rica). If your hostel has a machine you can use (free or at least somewhat cheap) or even a reasonably priced laundry service like the one described above, it can go a long way in easing your travel burden. Naturally, the option always remains to wash your clothes in the sink!
The Final Word on Hostel Booking:
A typical hostel ranges from $5 to $25 per night, with $4 – $10 being the standard around Central/South American and Southeast Asia, and $10 -$ 20 being more typical in western Europe, with the USA/Canada being slightly more expensive than that. Keep these ranges in mind when debating what a “good deal” looks like on a hostel. A few hostels charge slightly more for weekends (10-20%) and a rare few require a minimum length of stay (i.e. 3 nights and therefore might not come up on your search for 1-night stay).
While it is certainly prudent to book hostels ahead of time (especially in Europe during the summer as they fill up quickly), I very often just show up at a hostel and ask for a bed in a dorm. This leaves more flexibility in my travel plans and frankly is just kind of fun. However, if you are arriving between the hours of midnight and 6am, I highly advise making a reservation and emailing to confirm that someone will be awake to let you in/give you your key. It was a long, wintery hour in Poland between 2am and 3am when I made this mistake.
And finally, if this is your first time staying in a hostel, get excited and keep an open mind! Staying in hostels will soon become one of your favorite things to do. Please don’t wimp out and stay in a hotel. Just don’t. They are expensive, boring, and you don’t experience any culture of the area or the people around you; trust me, hostels are where it’s at!