Hostels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Like most people, I do not have an unlimited amount of money. I've rarely felt I could do a destination decently in less than a month. Anything less feels like a "sample" to direct my choices on a future trip. Anytime I can save on a major expense, such as lodgings, I can extend my stay. Hostels are generally about 1/3 the cost of a 4-star hotel. I am happy to give up hotel glitz and glamour for that kind of savings. However, I can only give up so much.


Some travellers look forward to getting away to relax and explore in a place where they are more pampered than at home. I'm not looking for that. My travel goals conflict with that kind of experience. I may no longer be content to sleep on the bare ground under a tarp, but I don't need a king-sized pillow-top mattress. I want a private room, preferably with a private bathroom but the lack of a private loo isn't a deal-breaker. I appreciate pleasing decor but I don't spend enough time in my room awake to make it a priority. My room must be clean and quiet, and the place must have good reviews. Hostels offer all that. Most have private rooms with ensuite bathrooms nowadays. Those of you willing to sleep in a dorm-style room can save even more.


I obviously value how hostels stretch my budget but I have discovered there are other benefits that I value just as much; so much so that even as my budget increased and I could choose differently, I continued to choose hostels. Some of those benefits continued to stretch my budget but the most valued benefit is the social interactions that are guaranteed in a hostel. Almost all hostels have shared kitchen and lounge facilities, many also have coin laundry. It is common for hostels to keep a board of daily activities from game nights to walking tours. Many have lovely patio areas. Hostels attract casual travellers and there tends to be a fair amount of chit-chat in the common areas.

An easy site for searching is hostelworld.com, but all the regular aggregate sites can be filtered to provide results for hostels, so go ahead and use Booking.com ,Expedia, Kayak or whatever favourite aggregate site you choose. Typically, aggregate sites are good for rate comparisons but can be challenging to deal with if changes are needed. For this reason, many seasoned travellers will book directly with the hostel, if possible. I have had excellent customer service with Booking.com, including change requests, especially now I have reached their top "Genius" level.


Since hostel rates are typically 35 - 50% of a 4-star hotel rate, travellers will need to lower our expectations an equal amount. Hostels are not about pampering or luxury. They typically provide a basic bed and shelter for travellers. Hostels are more about the vibe or atmosphere which is provided by the people currently in the building. Staff changes rapidly and standards may also. Most hostels will fit into the "meh" category -- nothing noteworthy good or bad. You'll have a decent sleep, a clean room, and few pleasant conversations. Every so often, however, you'll land in a place with an amazing feel. You'll meet people like yourself and develop lifelong friendships or just spend an amazing few days together with another passing traveller.

Here are my tips for choosing a hostel and increasing the chances of having one of those outstanding hostel experiences.


Get a Private Room

Back in my youth, all the hostels I stayed in were for young folks. They were known as "Youth Hostels". I honestly can't remember anyone over the age of 30 staying in the hostels then. Perhaps, mature adults were there but they were invisible to the arrogant eyes of my youth? Many of my peers are surprised to hear that today's hostels are for all ages and that private rooms are available in most. If a hostel doesn't have a private room, I'm not interested. I have had some very basic rooms but I've also been stunned by the comfort and beauty.


Cheaper is Not Better

When choosing a hostel, the reviews and traveller photos become very important -- more important than the rate. Cheaper is not always better. Read the reviews carefully. There's bound to be a few cranky folks in the comments who have ridiculous standards, as well as those who seem to have no standards. Look for recent reviews, check the amenities, and location. There are some hostels that cater to a party crowd but those can be easily identified by reading the reviews.

Location, Location, Location

A good hostel should be located in a safe area with easy access to the activities (attractions, historical city centers, hiking trails, rafting streams, etc) and/or neighbourhood amenities (restaurants, grocery, etc) and public transportation. A less expensive hostel may be less clean, less safe, or further away and cost the difference in commuting.



Breakfast Included

I don't require breakfast if kitchen facilities are available but it can be a bonus. If I don't feel like eating right away, I can hope to grab something for a mid-morning snack. In Europe, a provided breakfast in budget accommodations might be machine or instant coffee and toast. If provided, it may only be available for a couple of hours -- closing off service by 9 am or not replacing popular items when emptied-- meaning many travellers miss out. Look for places with later breakfast hours and more food options. Some hostels also offer free coffee/tea through the day.

Confirm Hot Water

Many hostel reviews of shared shower rooms mention the lack of water pressure or hot water. Hostels tend to be older buildings and do not have the type of plumbing common in North America. In many, it's a case of old water tanks not being able to keep up with a surge in demand in the mornings or evenings. Don't be too alarmed to initially see this comment in reviews, if you shower in off-peak times. There's no guarantees about the person who showered before you, so it's a good idea to wear shower shoes in shared facilities.


Laundry Facilities

If you're going to be travelling for a while you are going to have to do laundry. Look for washers and dryers in the amenities at least once every week or so. Most machines will be coin-operated and the reception desk will likely be able to sell you some detergent, if you didn't bring any.


Free WIFI

Some hostels offer free WIFI, some don't. Some will have excellent connections throughout, some only in common areas. Most will have a couple of ancient machines available to guests in the lobby. If good internet access is as important to you as it is to me, don't assume you'll have good connection in your room (or at all) unless specifically mentioned. Internet security people recommend using a VPN before connecting to any network, especially if accessing financial record.



Common Areas

Some of the businesses listed as "hostels" are more what I would describe as budget hotels, often without any common areas beyond the hallways. My definition of a hostel includes a common area. I look for reviews that mention outdoor patios or indoor common areas with books, games, and seating areas. I will prioritize those that mention optional activities such as spaghetti dinners, walking tours, or bicycles to borrow.


Most of the time, enough research has been done that I'm confident in the hostel I've chosen. There have been a few good and bad surprises along the way. The photos in this post show some of the good. There have also been a few disappointments or strange room configurations and one terrible experience where nothing was as advertised and came with invasive, grumpy landlords and a curfew. However, even in that terrible hostel in Pompeii the conversation shared with an archeologist was one of the most fascinating of my life. I wouldn't trade that night on the patio for a week in a fancy hotel.


 

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