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Hostel Tips - How to Stay in Hostels
Anyone who has ever dreamed of backpacking around Europe, bumming through Australia, or budget traveling most anywhere, has likely also wondered about how to stay in hostels.
There are a lot of myths swirling around hostels and everyone has heard at least one horror story about thieves, dirty bathrooms, bedbugs, party hostels, hostel hookups, and so on.
I was a skeptic too, the first time I took a major trip. But the reality is that that, with a bit of helpful information about choosing a good hostel, hostelling can be a lot of fun! It can be a great place to meet people, especially for solo travelers, and most hostels are an unbeatable value for the money.
Here are some hostel tips for first-time hostelers.
How to Choose a Hostel
The first step to a successful hostel stay is choosing a good hostel. There are two types of hostels: private hostels and hostels that are part of an international association, such as Hosteling International.
The difference between private hostels and HI hostels are that HI hostels have certain rules and standards that all their hostels must follow. Choosing an HI (or YHA -- Youth Hostel Association -- in New Zealand and Australia) hostel means that you can expect it to be clean and safe, and to offer a similar level of service most anywhere in the world. HI hostels are popular with school groups and families, so they’re usually a bit boring and impersonal. But if you’re unsure about hosteling, they’re a safe bet. You must be an HI member, or otherwise pay a small additional fee per night, to stay in an HI hostel.
Private hostels are independently owned. This means that their quality can vary a lot. Your best bet is to do some research online before picking a hostel. If you have a guidebook that lists hostels for the area, do a quick search and see if you can find a web site, pictures, or visitor reviews.
Two sites that have a lot of hostel reviews are HostelWorld and Hostelz. You can also book your hostel online with these sites. HostelWorld provides ratings on several dimensions, including cleanliness and security. A score of 75% and above is usually quite good.
Additional features you want to consider:
Location: If you’re using public transportation (train, bus, metro) to get around, make sure you pick a hostel that’s easy to reach without a car. While most hostels are situated conveniently in accessible areas of town, it’s not guaranteed. Check the map and directions before you book.
Hostel size: Small hostels can provide a much better atmosphere to meet and get to know fellow travelers and the staff. Larger hostels usually provide better amenities, including meals, wireless internet, and laundry. Some hostels even have their own bars, which is usually an easy way to spot a party hostel.
Co-ed or single-sex dorms: Female travelers, especially those traveling alone, will want to pick a hostel with female-only rooms. They’re usually cleaner and quieter (and less smelly -- sorry boys) than co-ed dorms, and a single sex sleeping environment is much more comfortable for the less seasoned hostel traveler.
Room size: Hostel dorm rooms can range from 4 to 16 (or more) beds in a room. Logically, the more beds in the room, the cheaper it is. If you're new to hostelling, or generally looking for a more restful atmosphere, I recommend 4- or 6-bed rooms. Lots of hostels also offer single rooms, which might be a good choice if your budget allows it and you really want privacy. However, I don't think single rooms in a hostel are a very good value compared to budget hotels and they tend to keep you isolated from other travelers.
Security features: Definitely look for hostels that have in-room lockers. I’ve never had anything stolen from a hostel (even those without lockers) but it provides extra peace of mind, especially in bigger cities. Other security features includes curfews (though these may be more of a hassle if you enjoy late nights out), a round-the-clock staffed reception desk, and rooms that lock.
En-suite vs. shared baths: While en-suite bathrooms sound nice, they can actually be quite a hassle in multi-share rooms. With multiple people in a room, everyone will inevitable get in or get up at various hours and an en-suite means that there could be activity (and lights, and noise) in your room at all hours of the night. A shared bathroom down the hall means that people can take care of their business outside the room. This means that they are more likely to respect that the room is for sleeping only and keep their disruptions to a minimum.
How to Stay in Hostels
This section is about making the most of your hostel stay. For first-time hostelers, the thought of staying in a hostel tends to be very intimidating. You’ll inevitably have lots of worries and anxieties about what it’ll be like, but if you’ve picked a good hostel according to the above tips, chances are you’ll have a lot of fun.
When you first arrive at a hostel, you’ll check in and receive your room assignment. When you pick or are assigned a bed, try to get a bottom bunk. They’re much easier to get in and out of and provide a more comfortable space for you to settle in.
Put your stuff in your room, make your bed (if necessary), and just take a minute to take in your surroundings. Is the bed comfortable? What is the view from the window? Are there other people in your room? Introduce yourself and share something about your travel plans.
Spend some time to look around the building. Figure out where the essential areas are: bathroom, kitchen, common room, internet access, etc. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people as you meet them. Most everyone staying in hostels loves to meet fellow travelers. Aside from the fact that they’re cheap, it’s probably the biggest reason why people stay in hostels. Connecting with fellow travelers will immediately make the hostel feel more comfortable.
In the kitchen, familiarize yourself with what’s available. Most hostels provide at least some common cooking items. There might be a “free food” shelf. Or they might offer free tea and coffee.
If you’re spending an evening at the hostel, don’t be afraid to venture into the common areas. You will usually always find people talking, reading, or using their computers. Most hostelers are happy to have a stranger join their conversation, so don’t be shy. If you want your privacy, it’s easy to just withdraw a bit and people will usually get the hint.
When bedtime rolls around, you’ll be much happier if you have earplugs. Hostels will never be completely noise-free, so bring some earplugs and you’ll be fine. A sleeping mask might be a good idea too, as your roommates might turn lights on and off as they come and go. Finally, dress in layers. Hostel rooms can get surprisingly hot at night, but they can also get very cold. If in doubt, turn down the heat when you go to bed. It’s surprising how much body heat a room-full of people can generate.
Hostel Myths and Reality Checks
Myth: Hostels are dirty.
Reality Check: When you’re dealing with shared facilities (kitchen, bathroom, etc.), things will never be as clean as they would be at home or at a top hotel. But any good hostel will be thoroughly cleaned every day. Yes, you might find a few strands of someone else’s hair in the shower drain, but overall, a good hostel will be clean enough to use all the facilities without worry.
Myth: Hostels have bed bugs.
Reality Check: Bed bugs are a very serious problem, and hostels take very aggressive measures to contain any bed bug outbreaks. The biggest cause of bed bugs is people bringing them in in their own bedding and sleeping bags. Therefore, you’re better off in a hostel that has a policy of only allowing their own linens on the beds.
Myth: All hostels are party places.
Reality Check: Some hostels, especially the HI ones, are incredibly tame. Others, like the ones with their own bars, can be hopping all night. With most hostels, you can find a party if you’re looking for it, but it doesn’t take over the whole place. It’s not unusual to have people drinking and laughing until morning in some common areas, but you probably won’t know it if you’re sleeping soundly in your bed.
Myth: People go to hostels to hook up and have sex.
Reality check: Again, like the parties, this is something you’ll find if you’re looking for it. But if you’re not, it won’t necessarily find you. There’s also the myth that people constantly have sex in dorm rooms while others are sleeping, or pretending to sleep. I’ve stayed in hostels many, many times and this has never happened to me. But if you’re really worried, then stick to female-only dorm rooms and you’ll be fine.
I hope these hostel tips have cleared up some misconceptions and given you the confidence to stay in hostels. One of the great joys of traveling is meeting other travelers, and hostels are truly the best place to do that. Combine that with the fact that they’re an incredible value and I think everyone should try hosteling at least once in their travels.