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Budget Travel: Guide for the Hostelling N00b

October 10, 2011

Though I’m by no means an advanced traveller, I’ve travelled by myself a fair bit (in England, Spain, Australia, and the United States). I’ve heard from many people, especially women, that they don’t think they’d ever be able to do such a thing because they believe travelling alone is unsafe, not fun, or too expensive. I’m here to let you know that’s bullshit and share my experiences. First up, I’d like to tell you a little about (youth) hostels.

What is a hostel?
A hostel (more commonly referred to as youth hostel in America) is a place that accommodates budget travellers. They are businesses that provide dorm-style (male-only, female-only, and mixed) sleeping arrangements and shared bathroom facilities. That is basically it.

As such, what can I expect when I stay in a hostel?
A (bunk) bed, sheets, and a few roommates. Sometimes there will be a complimentary breakfast generally including toast, butter, muffins, horrible coffee, and watered down juice. Sometimes there will be towels. Generally there’s a place to lock up your belongings, but only if you bring your own padlock.

And what can’t I expect when I stay in a hostel?
For staff to cater to your specific needs. Small to mid-sized hostels generally have only one or two receptionists and two cleaning staff on duty. As a result, check-in and check-out at popular hours will take a while. They might forget to give you your sheets. Sometimes the bathrooms won’t be the cleanest ones you’ve ever seen.

Additionally, you won’t get much peace and quiet. Your roommates lead lives of their own, much like you. They might get back late and wake you from your slumber. They might rise at the crack of dawn because they have a plane or train to catch. They return from a bar a little intoxicated. They might snore. If you are looking for eight hours of undisturbed sleep, a hostel is not for you.

Dirty bathrooms, rude guests and a bland breakfast? Where do I sign up?!
Despite the horror stories that make the rounds (and that I, up to a point, perpetuate here), staying at a hostel isn’t as bad as it may seem. Though the facilities aren’t always sparkling, they’re more than usable. Hostel-goers are generally civil about their late night/early hours creeping about the room.

It’s important to remember that you’re probably paying no more than $30 per night. Depending on where you stay, this will obviously vary quite a bit. If you feel like the hostel you’re looking at is too expensive, check the going rates for budget hotels. Also remember that hostels are usually situated in the most popular locations, close to sightseeing spots, bars, metro/subway/tube stops, whereas cheap hotels are usually found on the outskirts of a city.

What should I look for when I want to book a hostel?
Location is important. Make sure your hostel is in a place that makes you comfortable (one, for example, where it would be reasonably safe for a woman alone to walk a block or two from the subway or bus stop to the hostel). Depending on your priorities, you might have to give up proximity to bars, shopping centers, the beach, etc. Figure out what is important to you and go from there.

Then hit up the reviews. Remember that people who review are often people who have a beef with the product. Content customers are less likely to review. Then check the nationality of the reviewer. Are they American? Their review is likely to be reasonably negative. Americans tend to complain about the staff’s attitude, the fact that they weren’t carried around on silk pillows for their entire stay, the cleanliness of the room and facilities, the roommates – well, basically everything. Are they Australian? Then they’re also quite likely to leave negative reviews, unless they’re writing about a hostel in Australia. Much of the Australian tourism economy is driven by backpackers and as such their hostels have a high standard. If an Australian hostel has many negative reviews from Australians, don’t book there.

Also check if the hostel is part of an organisation such as the Youth Hostelling Association in England or Hostelling International USA. Their hostels generally deliver high quality. However, they often require paid membership to get the cheapest rates. If you’re not a member, you may pay up to $5 extra per night.

Meh, I’m still not convinced.

It could be that hostels just aren’t for you. However, there is more to hostels than I’ve let on so far. Though some hostels do provide merely a place to stay, many hostels will have amenities designed to make your stay more pleasant. Among some of the more common ones are: free wifi; TV room; nightly activities, such as movie night, pizza night, or games night; sightseeing tours/walks; pub crawls; or cheap laundry facilities. Some even have their own bars and restaurants where you can eat and drink on the cheap and those that don’t often have kitchen facilities, which is a great option to have when you’re travelling for a longer period and don’t want to eat out every night.

Hostels are designed to allow you to meet people, and people who stay at hostels are generally friendly and open-minded. In a hostel, you can find someone to give you insider travel advice, someone to have dinner or a drink with, or someone to go sightseeing with.

Aren’t hostels a terribly European thing?
It’s true that there are a lot of hostels in Europe. There are also many in Australia and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam). They pop up basically anywhere that’s popular with young people/backpackers. But there are also hostels in the United States. I’ve stayed at several, in Boston, New York, and Charleston; the latter is notorious for its pricey accommodation. They’re not as thick on the ground as in some other places in the world, but they’re definitely an option if you want to do a city trip on a budget.

Awesome, where do I book!?
The most popular website today is Hostelworld. They have a great selection of hostels and list all the amenities on offer (kitchens, lockers, laundry, etc.). However, they also charge a small booking fee. Hostelbookers doesn’t charge a fee, but is, according to some, less reliable. However, they also offer some hostels that Hostelworld doesn’t, so definitely check them out.

Last but not least, go to the hostel’s own website. Particularly those hostels that are part of Hostelling International are usually cheaper when you book directly through them.
Once you’ve booked, make sure that you get a confirmation and print it. The reservation systems these businesses work with aren’t very reliable. Proof that you made a reservation may come in handy.

If you expect you’ll be arriving in the evening, send an email to the hostel after booking with them and let them know your estimated time of arrival. Ask them to confirm that they’ll hold your bed for you. Most hostels have small profit margins and will give your bed to someone else if they think you’re a no-show. Related, make sure you carry the hostel’s phone number with you so that you can call them in case of any delays.

But most importantly: go out, travel, and have fun!

(If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments. A variation of this post appeared on my personal blog in 2009; this post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 2:25 pm

    When I traveled through South America, we stayed in hostels – they were great. Certainly some were better than others, but I found many had shared kitchen and table spacewhere you could meet people from all over the world. We all spoke in the same broken spanish, shared stories of where we had been and were going. It became like a little family as we ran into each other in various towns and on buses along the route! It has been a while since I have stayed at a hostel, but the memories are still fresh!

  2. October 10, 2011 4:17 pm

    Oh yes, the shared kitchens are definitely one of my favourite features of hostels. People love to chat when they’re cooking and eating. I sometimes find it difficult to strike up a conversation, but put me in a kitchen and I’ll easily find something to talk about. I once spent more than a week having dinner each night with a couple who were three times my age because we got along so well on our first night. I find myself not staying at hostels as often now that I’m a bit older, but I always have them in the back of my mind as a fun budget option.

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