If you plan on spending any amount of time on the road you’re going to be introduced to hostel life sooner or later. It’s just a part of being a backpacker.
Now, I know some of your right now are screwing your nose up at sleeping in a backpackers’ dorm room, and if that’s the case, you’ve probably got a little bit of catching up to do.
Many hostels today are modern, clean, spacious, and are actually more comfortable and entertaining than a 3 star hotel. I’m talking pool tables, Playstations, big screen TVs, jacuzzis, swimming pools, barbecues, kitchens, tour desks, ping pong tables, bars, computer rooms – everything you could possibly need.
If you’re new to hostel life, you’re in the right place. I’m about to break down everything you need to know for surviving the hostelling world, and give you all the tips you need to make sure your next stay is a good one.
The main reason for staying in a hostel is price. Many of you know I preach budget travel on this blog, and other than Couchsurfing you won’t find a better value form of accommodation on the road. In big backpacking regions like Southeast Asia and South America hostel beds will rarely cost you more than $7 or $8 a night. That’s $2,900 to cover an entire year of accommodation.
Hostels are also a great place to network, meet new travel buddies, seek advice from fellow travellers and immerse yourself in the backpacking community. I can’t even imagine how many friendships, relationships and even marriages were born in hostel lounges and bars.
You might also find that hostels are one of the best places to bring out your inner extrovert and develop your social skills. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t social butterflies. It’s weird for us to go up to a stranger and say hi. In a hostel this is completely normal though and I can honestly say staying in hostels has made me a much more outgoing and socially comfortable person. Just the sheer volume of different people you meet will really open your mind up to the world and make your experience that much richer.
And lastly, travellers understand each other. Not everyone is interested in travelling the world, but when you’re in a hostel everyone is there for the same reason. You won’t need to explain why you’re travelling alone or justify your trip to anyone. We’re all on the same page and we already get it. Just having and being a part of that community is an awesome thing.
Types of hostels
Hostels can be broken down into a few general types:
The Party Hostel
Mihouse Avenue – Buenos Aires, Argentina
These hostels are usually easy to spot. They’ll generally have big dorm rooms available (up to 24-30 people), a bar, lots of events, and lots of reviews on Hostelworld. The rooms and drinks will be cheap and they’ll often have pub crawls throughout the week and a daily happy hour.
The crowd at these hostels will be mostly university students and high school grads, but you’ll get a good number of 20-something travellers on career break and RTW trips too. There will also be the odd creepy old guy (crap, in a few years that’ll be me!).
I stayed in a lot of these hostels on my first trip through South America, and honestly grew out of them pretty quickly. It’s just not my style. I’m bit of an introvert and I like time to myself, and it’s exhausting to be hyper-social all the time. However if I’d started travelling when I was 18 I probably would’ve enjoyed them more. I still stay in them from time to time, but only for a couple of nights before moving on.
The Classy Boutique Hostel
This is the classic ‘try-to-break-all-the-hostel-stereotypes’ type hostel. It’s squeaky clean, got amazing beds, a fully decked out kitchen, a comfy lounge with lots of games and books, tea and coffee on tap, and they probably even serve eggs for breakfast.
Obviously these hostels charge more, sometimes more than double what a typical hostel charges, but you’ll find that there is a huge demand for them now as people grow out of the party hostel scene.
Here you’ll meet a lot more travelling couples, older travellers, digital nomad types and a more laid-back crowd in general.
The No-Frills Hostel
Discovery Hostel – Quito, Ecuador
While the party hostel can charge super low prices because of its sheer number of guests, the no-frills hostel charges low prices because it only offers the bare minimum. There are no bars or computer rooms or ping pong tables, but you should find yourself a clean bed and a working bathroom and wifi – everything a budget traveller needs.
You tend to meet more introverted people at these places, and a lot of really interesting, well travelled people as well. It may also just seem this way because people aren’t drunk or hungover all the time. I’m a big fan of the no-frills hostel and tend to stay in these whenever I can.
Note: “No frills” doesn’t mean “crap”. It means clean and basic. There are many crappy, dirty hostels around the world, but I won’t be bothering to talk about them.
The Quirky Hostel
Every now and then you’ll come across a hostel with something really unique – maybe it’s a big treehouse or on a horse ranch, or built in some big colonial mansion. They tend to be a little more expensive and draw a more social crowd, but not quite as rowdy as the regular party hostels.
I find these hostels always have a very family-like atmosphere – people eat dinner around the table together and sit around sharing stories in the lounge or on the patio. You tend to meet slower, more relaxed travellers at these places, and your fair share of hippie types too. Lots of fun and friendships are made here!
How to survive in a hostel
Hostels are a hyper-social environment, which means you’re going to be dealing with a lot of different people. If you’re an introvert like myself, your social skills will be put to the test and you really need to make an effort to break out of your shell.
Don’t freak out though. Travellers are a very friendly community of people – the friendliest I’ve ever known in fact. People are often shelled up in life because they have fears or memories of getting face-palmed by a girl they tried to say hi to in a bar, or a little secret society of back-stabbing ladder-climbers at their job, but this sort of behaviour does not exist in the backpacking community (or at least I haven’t seen it).
People who enjoy travelling are naturally open people – we want to meet new people and try new things and hear new stories. While in the real world you might feel the need to have a certain social status to mix with certain people, in the travel community everyone is equal. There is no cool kids’ table. The guy who has travelled to 100 countries and the guy who’s on his first overseas trip will have no problems hanging out and sharing a beer in the hostel lounge. In fact, that’s what makes hostelling so amazing – meeting so many different people at different stages of their lives with different dreams and different stories.
To survive in a hostel, all you need is the courage to say hi. If you see a group of people sitting in the courtyard chilling out, go up to them and introduce yourself. They won’t laugh at you or roll their eyes, I promise. This isn’t a nightclub. In fact, I can guarantee you they’ll welcome you so warmly it’ll be like you’ve known them for weeks. Will you meet a few pretentious people along the way? Yeah, maybe. But they don’t tend to last too long in a hostel anyway, so don’t worry about it.
Remember, we’re all away from home without our friends and family, living in a hostel with a bunch of strangers. Everyone’s in the same boat. Just say hi!
Things you don’t do in a hostel
There’s quite a few things here, so I’m going to run them off real quick, bullet point style.
- Don’t leave your shit all over the floor – put it in a locker or on your bed. I’m not the tidiest guy either but you need to understand dorm rooms are small and it helps to keep them tidy. You don’t get many people anal about cleanliness in hostels anyway but people still like their personal space.
- Don’t steal beds – everyone always wants the bottom bunk but it’s first in first serve. Bed stealing goes on more often than you think!
- Don’t take forever in the bathroom – you’ll piss a lot of people off.
- Don’t eat other people’s food out of the fridge – I know it’s really tempting but man that shit is annoying.
- Don’t leave dirty laundry lying around – especially socks because they smell. Plastic bag them and keep them in your locker.
- Don’t turn the light on when it’s already off – if you come in late after a night out, don’t turn on the lights on and wake everyone up. It’s cool to come in late but use your cellphone to light your way to your bed, and be quiet about it too.
- Don’t wake people up – please don’t be that guy at 5am in the morning screwing around with plastic bags and ruining everyone’s day. If you were crazy enough to book a bus or flight that early that’s cool, but it’s best to take your stuff into the hallway and pack your things out there.
- Don’t leave dirty dishes – Every single hostel I’ve been to has a “do your own dishes” policy but there’s always some prick who thinks he’s above the law. Don’t be him! (or her).
- Don’t hang laundry in the window – It’s cool that you’re trying to save money but this gets to people. I actually don’t mind to be honest, but I’m pretty hard to annoy. Just be mindful.
- Don’t be cheap – When it comes to snacks and drinks and booze and cigarettes people are always more than happy to share, but there’s the odd guy that just leeches everything and he’s pretty easy to spot. Bring something to the table (or just don’t dig in to everyone else’s stuff).
- Don’t hog the computers – Quite a few hostels offer computers with internet so you can check your flights and post your TripAdvisor reviews and all that other good stuff. Just don’t be that guy watching Youtube all day. I once spent a few hours watching the NBA Finals on a hostel computer, so I’m guilty too. This is becoming less of a problem now though since everyone has smartphones.
- Don’t talk during the movie – It’s quite popular for everyone to wind down after a day of sightseeing with a movie in the lounge/TV room. Please don’t be that annoying group of friends talking throughout the movie about their day. Go outside! (you f*****g ****s)
- Don’t speak in languages other people don’t understand – This is a big one. If I’m sitting in a group of ten people and we’re all speaking Spanish and then a couple of people join us who don’t understand, we switch to English. This is just common courtesy, and is quite a frequent scenario in travel circles. Sorry to single you out, but Frenchies – you guys are the worst at this! Some people don’t even realise the rudeness of it, but luckily most people in hostels are aware and mindful. I’ve found the Germans and Dutch to be most polite in this regard – props to them!
At the end of the day most ground rules like this are just common sense. Remember you’re sharing living space with a lot of other people and the basic rules of respect apply. If you can’t handle it, that’s cool, just book a hotel room.
How To Book A Hostel
I always book my hostels using either Booking.com or Hostelworld. Hostelworld is probably slightly easier to navigate, but I prefer Booking.com as Hostelworld always requires a deposit. Either way, both are great.
For me, the most important thing when finding a hostel is location. I want it to be as close as possible to the places I want to visit so I can spend as little time and money as possible on transportation.
To do this, I utilise the “map view” in the search function. Here’s an example of the map function in Hostelworld when searching for hostels in Amsterdam:
Take a look at the big cluster of accommodations – it’s safe to assume that’s where the centre is or at least it’s an area with good public transport access and the area is safe. Obviously if there’s a certain school or course I’m enrolled in, I’ll find something situated close to that. To single out the hostels from the hotels on Booking.com, simply filter the prices into the lower price ranges, or simply sort the search results by price.
Once I’ve figured out my prime location, I’ll start filtering out the stuff I want. In the following screenshot I’ve set filters to only show hostels that have been rated 80% and above. You can also set filters for anything else you want such as breakfast, wifi etc. using the options on the left.
From there I will simply sift through the reviews of each hostel, look at the prices and then make a booking.You can hold your mouse over each icon and it will bring up the hostel information and rating. My criteria differs from time to time but I very rarely base it solely on price – it’s more a combination of comfort, location and price. Just from a quick browse, in this example I’d probably pick between The White Tulip, Central Station Hostel and Hostel Van Gogh. White Tulip and Van Gogh have a party hostel vibe while Central Station is more on the no-frills side. It’ll just depend on how I’m feeling at the time.
Note: I’ve never stayed in any of these hostels, in fact I’ve never even been to Amsterdam. This is just to demonstrate the process I would go through when searching for a hostel.
Alternatively, some people just like to show up without booking at all. This allows them to take a look at the rooms and the beds and make a more informed decision. The only downside with this is you can be left wandering around the city with all your luggage looking for a place to stay if your first few choices don’t pan out. In reality this isn’t a big deal, some people actually enjoy the spontaneity of it all. I personally prefer to pre-book.
Ready to go hostelling?
Well, that’s pretty much all you need to know. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before don’t rule it out just yet – some of your best travel memories will probably be made in hostels and you might find the experience a lot more pleasant than expected. I’ve found that hostel culture is also evolving all the time and a lot more boutiques are popping up while the raving party hostel culture is dying down a bit. It’s not uncommon these days to see people sitting around the hostel lounge reading at night rather than in the bar getting loose. Whatever your vibe is, use the search tips above and you’ll find a hostel that fits with you.
Got any hostelling tips or stories? Let us hear em in the comments below.