I had no idea what staying in a hostel was until January 2013, when I attended a conference in Serbia. We had to stay somewhere before our flight back home. I was with a bunch of friends from AIESEC, and our crowd opted to spend the night in shared accommodation. So we ended up occupying the entire place. As a consequence, it wasn’t quite a real hostel experience you get when you travel.
Nowadays, whenever I am visiting a new country, I usually rotate between hostels, AirBnBs, guesthouses and hotels. It all depends on how much privacy I want to have, and if I am travelling solo or with friends. But I definitely stay in hostels at least 60% of my time. Well, 4 years and hundreds of hostels later, I know the drill at this point. Let me share with you what I learnt about staying in hostels and my love-hate relationship with it.
Have questions about hostels? Contact me or leave a comment below and I will help you out.
What is the hostel?
If you never stayed in a hostel, you are probably asking yourself what a hostel is. The hostel is a cheaper and friendly accommodation, where you pay for a bed in a dorm room, and you also share the bathroom and common area with a bunch of other broke people. If we talk about hostel vs hotel differences, then the biggest one is privacy. A former one has everything shared, it’s usually smaller, and you are literally sleeping in a room with strangers.
A lot of people, regardless if they travel solo, in a couple or with friends, choose to stay in hostels. First of all, it’s an excellent opportunity to meet other travellers from all over the world and socialise. It’s also easy on your wallet if you pay for a bunk bed in a dorm room. On top of that, hostels are usually located in central areas with easy-to-access public transportation. In case if you want to have a social aspect of hostels but still have some privacy, you can get a private room there. All sounds good, right? Well, later I’ll explain why from time to time I swear to never stay in hostels again.
Social anxiety: For some people, hostels can help to overcome social anxiety. Staying in a hostel pushes you out of your comfort zone. In dorms, lounge areas and during breakfast – you are always exposed to a bunch of other travellers just like yourself. There is still one rule I follow: “We are all strangers until first “Hi.”
Usually, hostels are youth-oriented. There are always different types of both hostels and people staying there. The party ones attract a younger crowd (typically 18 to 25), who will be binge drinking and shagging until they blackout. 3 years on the road and I learnt that the smaller hostels usually accommodate a more mature crowd. You know, that kind of people who would socialise over something else than alcohol. I have nothing against alcohol, I quite enjoy a good party and cocktails every now and then, but it should be responsible drinking. No one wants to see another person falling from a top bunk bed and breaking their arm because they were drunk. Or being woken up to someone puking in the dorm. Ewww… Yep, I witnessed all of it and more.
Some hostels have an age limit. Usually, it ranges from 18 to 45. It makes sense why they wouldn’t accommodate anyone below 18. If it is a party place, then there is a bar and you better not have kids running around. In some occasions, you stumble upon someone much older than anyone else in a hostel (I’m talking about 60y+ old dudes). I still didn’t figure out why they are in hostels, but most of the times they are quiet and just do their own thing. They can be just ordinary travellers passing by, or someone who literally does nothing and just stays all day there hanging out, or some absolute weirdos. Once you meet someone like that, you will know who is who. And your common sense will tell you how to behave around them.
6 Tips for staying in a hostel
Here are some of my personal tips on how to have a safe stay in a hostel:
- Choosing a good hostel is an art you master over time: recent reviews are always a good indicator, check if they have security and lockers (it’s written in hostel’s description), and where it is located.
- Always carry your own padlock. Some hostels give it for free or rent it, some have advanced lockers with a digital code or card, but most of the time good old padlock will help you.
- Do not leave your belongings unattended. I saw some people leaving their phones, laptops, wallets just on the bed while they are somewhere else.
- If you are a female solo traveller, you might want to stay in female-only dorms. First of all, no men are allowed to enter the dorm. Oh wait, I have a story about my stay in a female-only dorm in a hostel in Udaipur, India. There was a guy there because his female friend booked 2 beds for them and staff thought it was okay to put him with all girls *rolling eyes*. We all kinda laughed it off, but you definitely have a right to complain and move a male guest to another dorm.
- Drink responsibly. I really mean that you should not go overboard with alcohol. It’s only your responsibility to take care of yourself. Get to know people before you hang out with them. I can’t stress enough how important it is for all travellers to trust their instincts whenever you meet someone new.
- Pay attention to the staff AND the people staying there. I know it sounds silly, but the more you get to know who runs the hostel, the better you understand the vibe. If they don’t give a shit about your stay, well, you are in the wrong place. So if anything bad happens, they won’t be any help.
Location is important: Knowing where you are and how to go back to the hostel (especially when it’s dark), is crucial. I prefer hostels with a central location as it’s easier and safer to explore the town. Write down the name of the hostel and save its location on the map. I use “maps.me” app for offline GPS. Unfortunately, Google Maps offers limited offline GPS functionality.
Social aspect: Booking a hostel tour is an excellent start to meet people and share experiences together. Usually, everyone gets together for dinner or drinks after, so it definitely brings people together.
Common rules: Remember a few standard rules of the good hostel stay. Waking up at 5 am and start packing bags in the dorm is not okay. Coming back late from the party, turning the lights on and being loud is unacceptable as well. Don’t do that yourself. And I think it’s needed to call out someone on inappropriate behaviour. I don’t mean you have to yell at them on the top of your lungs, but just be polite, it always works. It’s a shared space, everyone needs to remember to respect one another.
Are hostels safe?
I have stayed in 100+ hostels throughout my travels. Some were so great that I kept extending my stay. Some were so bad that I ran away after 1 night (mostly because it was anti-social or bed was terrible). As a long-term traveller, I get asked a lot whether hostels are safe to stay in.
My travel experience proved that safety of the hostel depends on the type of it, location, security available, people working and staying there. However, the most important is to use your common sense and trust your gut.
Another question is what to expect when you are staying in a hostel alone, and it’s your first time. Well, the secret of a happy
life travels – do not expect anything. But on a serious note, staying in a hostel as a solo traveller makes a big difference on your trip. It is one of the easiest ways to meet people, find a travel buddy and get free tips and recommendations. Keep an open mind, talk to people, become friends with staff, don’t be shy to talk to other travellers and most importantly, don’t spend all your time in a hostel, ffs. Go out and explore the town!
Throughout my travels, I learnt there are 3 categories of travellers you meet in the hostels:
- Super extraverted, will create connections, and it doesn’t take much time for them to make friends.
- Shy or reserved, but once someone starts talking to them, they will open up, and you can have quite a good time together.
- They don’t give a shit about socialising, and they just do their own thing.
How to choose a good hostel?
Now let’s talk about deciding on a hostel. What is essential for me when I choose a hostel? First of all, I check different platforms where hostel booking is available. Usually, it’s Booking.com and Hostelworld.com. The place must have proper and recent reviews (for me, the benchmark is a rating of 8.0+). Then the size of the dorm and price. My personal preference nowadays is smaller hostels and smaller dorms. I much rather pay a little bit extra and stay in the 6-people dorm and have relatively more privacy. Also, smaller hostels usually attract crowd, which has similar interests as mine.
Location is important as well. How accessible it is via public transport, how central it is, and if it’s in a safe area. Next on the list is to see if the place has 24h reception and security. Sometimes you arrive too late or too early, and it sucks to wait somewhere else because no one will open a door for you. Free breakfast was never a top criterion for me. Especially when I practice intermittent fasting and skip breakfast. Typically, hostel’s free breakfasts include but not limited to toasts, butter and jam; eggs (fried, scrambled and boiled); cornflakes, muesli and milk; some local food if available; tea and coffee. So it’s not a bad deal if you pay 10$ for a dorm bed and you have a free breakfast.
Personally, I don’t care if a hostel has a kitchen. I never cooked during my travels. My inner foodie would instead go out and stuff myself with local food. So it’s up to you if you want to have a kitchen or not. I met a lot of travellers who tried to save money and cooked their own food. So everyone does what feels right for them. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend you hang out in a lounge area and be social. I met so many cool people, exchanged travel stories and planned activities together because one of us said “Hi”.
It’s worth mentioning that some hostels will offer deals, discounts and even jobs for their guests. You can easily get a hostel job as a receptionist, bartender, tour guide or housekeeping if you want to stay there for free. Usually, it requires a minimum stay of a week or more, but if you are travelling long-term, why not?
You can negotiate terms of your stay aka land a job when you get to the hostel already or by reaching out directly via email or social media. You can look up the offers on Workaway, but you need to pay for a membership before you can access a pool of available hostel jobs. Also, if you stay long enough but don’t want to work for a hostel, you definitely get better prices as a long-term guest. I once stayed for 2 weeks in a hostel in Penang, and they were kind enough to give me a 30% discount. On top of that, we became good mates with owners, and they invited me for a farewell dinner.
Every country has a different way of running a hostel. But what each hostel has in common is a strict rule about hosting other people, who do not stay there. You can invite a friend to hang out in a common area until 8 pm or 10 pm, but then they need to leave. Incidentally, a lot of hostels are clean, but you might occasionally run into people who will be leaving their stuff all over the room. Nowadays, there are more and more hostels with advanced facilities: CCTVs, each bed has a curtain, plug socket and bed light. In hot countries, it’s widespread to have a pool. For example, 90% of hostels in Bali have a pool.
Staying in a hostel: yay or nay?
Remember how I said I will tell you why I swear not to stay in hostels from time to time? I think it all comes down to feeling emotionally and physically drained by staying in shared accommodation. We all need privacy and “me” time to sort ourselves out. And it’s absolutely fine to feel that way. When you are travelling long-term, hostels and people you meet just blend in and everything becomes the same. Repetitive small talks, identical scenarios of making friends, one and the same problem with someone snoring or being excessively loud.
When such “hostel burnout” hits me, I usually go to AirBnB or any other private accommodation. A few days to treat yourself to a feeling of peace, privacy and alone time is healthy and necessary for a long-term traveller.
In spite of everything, I love hostels for their friendly and social environment, really awesome people and affordability. Staying in a hostel definitely tests your patience limits, you might get sleep deprivation (get earplugs and a blindfold to avoid that!). But you get to experience an exciting backpacker life and choose for yourself if it’s something you like. You can read hundreds and one blog posts about a hostel experience, but you need to live through one.
Let’s talk about hostels experiences, share yours in the comments!