Backpacker’s Guide: How to Choose the Perfect Hostel

It is easy to go to hostelworld.com, punch in your destination, book the first hostel that pops up, and cross your fingers. As one may guess however, this can lead to a stay that is less than expected or downright horrible. Booking the right place to lay your head and mingle with other travelers (or not mingle if you’re so inclined) can determine how you end up feeling about the entire city you are visiting. Experience teaches that a crappy hostel can breed stories of dissatisfaction with entire countries and, as superficial as that sounds, it will pay to take steps to avoid finding yourself in this position.

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While most of the following can loosely apply to booking budget (or not so budget) hotels, the focus is on hostels. Generally I have found that hostels suit solo, budget travelers more than those in groups. Booking an inexpensive hotel and splitting the cost with a travel partner can oftentimes be the same price or cheaper than individually paying for a bed in a hostel and comes with more privacy. Traveling alone and on a budget you will almost invariably find booking a single bed in dorm style accommodation more economical. For starters it is most important to understand what a hostel actually is.

Marsalforn Hostel
View from a Hostel in Marsalforn © Joonas L.

What You’re Booking Yourself Into

There are many preconceived notions about what type of accommodation a hostel actually is. The simplest way to correct these is to say they are all wrong.

A hostel can be anything from an old abandoned factory – gutted, cleaned and converted into a truly modern place to lay your head – to a small boat with a few beds inside, floating in a canal. It can be an old three room apartment filled with cots or a historic castle that once housed wearisome royals.

The sleeping accommodations can range from a private room with 2-6 beds to bunk-bed type sleeping arrangements with 15-30 people in one room. It is safe to say that most hostels nowadays have a variety of sleeping arrangements to choose from but one can usually find the dorm style sleeping as a choice in any place that calls itself a hostel.

What probably defines a hostel more than anything is a more communal atmosphere. Travelers tend to mingle more and facilities may be offered that you would not find at a place considering itself a hotel such as a usable (in reference to permission to use, not necessarily its cleanliness) kitchen. Those choosing this type of accommodation usually provide their own or rent towels and sometimes bed linens and the crowds tend to be younger.

Although a younger generation of travelers tend to frequent hostels more than the 30-something crowd, the days of “youth hostels” are gone. Today you would be hard-pressed to find any place turning away Euros because of age and sometimes (although this seems to be fading out) rules of conduct, such as smoking and drinking are ambiguous at best.

Most of all however you will not find a rating system such as the 1-3 star rating hotels use (besides user ratings found on websites) which means doing your research is important. Unless of course you love the thrill of walking into the unknown and taking things as they come. If that were the case however, you probably didn’t make it this far into the article.

Use It! Clean It!
Curry Cooking in Honduras © mercybell

Know Yourself Before You Know Your Hostel

What kind of person you are and what kind of traveler you are is not always the same thing. At home you may believe yourself to be neat and tidy, not very social and always punctual but the truth of the matter is once you’re on the road in a foreign country things can change. In fact your trip may be just the release from clean, reclusive time keeper you have been looking for. Of course this doesn’t mean you are likely to buy a new wardrobe and make people call you moon-flower but think about the type of person you are and what you want out of your trip or your next destination. Try to anticipate how you will feel once you arrive at your destination.

Hostels have personalities and hopefully so do you. Try to match yours with your hostel and you may find a “friend” to visit again. Ask yourself; “Am I or do I want to try being more social?”; “Am I someone who drinks or smokes?” ; “Am I someone that can deal with or sleep through people coming in and out of my room at any time or would a curfew be more desirable?” “Am I someone who carries a laptop when I travel and need extra security in my room or do I just have dirty socks that will just stink up a locker?”; “Am I the type of person who needs a restaurant cooked breakfast and a latte to start the day or will price inclusive bread, Nutelle and tang at the hostel last me until dinner?”; and the like.

They Have More Amenities Than a Motel 6

Once you have figured out what kind of stay you will be looking for you will want to see what your options offer. It is safe to say that hostels tend to offer more in-house perks than budget hotels. Finding the cheapest bar in town right in the basement of your hostel is not uncommon. This can be a great way to unwind on a budget while exchanging future hostel tips with other travelers after walking around the city all day. Many hostels also have common areas where relaxing around a TV, trying to decipher the Simpsons in French or partaking in a game of fussball can pass more time than expected while waiting for your next train. You might be surprised at the number of facilities that are beginning to offer huge projection TVs with cable or Satellite as part of the entertainment included in the price of a bed. On a similar note, with the decrease in the size of laptops and the increase in travelers who can’t leave those behind, WiFi connections are becoming standard in many locations. If this isn’t available there is in most cases some way to access the Internet and write home or download your videos to YouTube.

Then there is breakfast. Although the offerings can be meager and its inclusion becoming less and less standard many hostels provide some sort of breakfast to get you up and on your way. The usual fare is toast, cereal, jam, butter and coffee or tea but here and there you will run into a selection of deli meats or even pancakes and eggs to order (The Generator in London and Berlin have some of the best breakfast selections to be had at a hostel). The key is to get up early enough to stumble into the dinning room before the 2 or so hours breakfast is served comes to an end.

Be aware that some hostels enforce a curfew or lock-out period. While the practice of curfew is dying it does exists and you will probably want to avoid it. How annoying would it be to be enjoying a city, loose track of time only to find that you are not able to enter the hostel until the sun comes up? Not a great thing. Just pay attention to the description of the hostel when booking; it will tell you if there is a curfew or not. The lock-out period is also a feature that you will likely just have to deal with from time to time. Usually happening between 11-3 or thereabout a hostel will ask you to leave your room (or maybe the entire building) while they clean up, change sheets or prepare for new arrivals. While this may seem annoying, it is likely that you will be out and about enjoying the city anyways.

Khao San Road
Khao San Road © TheLawleys

Know Where You Are Going

Of utmost importance when choosing a place to sleep is to consider what you will be doing when you’re awake. Knowing what sites to see in any given city is a give-in but knowing where they are at in relation to your hostel takes a little investigating. Look through your guide book or find a map of your next destination and get an idea of where things are at. Finding a hostel in the vicinity of where you are headed will certainly minimize your walking time and the costs of metro tickets. This will not only give you more time to see more things but by consequence give you some bearings in the city when you arrive. Paying attention to the maps on sites like hostelworld.com usually gives you an idea of what to expect.

Just as important as knowing where the sites are will be knowing where the train station or airport you are arriving at is in relation to your sleeping quarters. There is little worse than arriving tired in a city at 10pm only to find that your hostel is still two bus rides and a four block walk from the station. Never ever forget to write down directions to your hostel from the train station or airport you will be arriving in; trying to find an Internet cafe just to look up directions which were right in front of you when you booked the place is annoying and a waste of time. Understand the scale of the maps and talk to other travelers about what areas you should avoid. It isn’t necessary to plan out each day and route you will take while city scouring but knowing you won’t have to travel far every time you forget you camera or need your jacket is a comfort. Also, just like knowing what you want in a hostel, knowing what you want in its surrounding area is helpful. If you plan on bar hopping you might want to figure out where your type of crowd goes. Younger travelers tend to be found in one area, travelers with money to burn in another and the gay and lesbian crowd likewise has its own popular districts. If art is your thing a close proximity to popular museums might be something to look for and etc.

It’s Going to Cost You

Being close to major tourist attractions and ritzy neighborhoods however comes at a price. On a budget it sometimes pays to stay a bit farther out of the city center. Overlooking the arc de triomphe or having the Roman Forum as your front yard will obviously cost more per night. Staying a bit farther away from these types of locations will translate into savings and walking through or getting lost in a new city has its perks. You really never know what you will find off the beaten path. If you plan on buying city transportation pass, such as the Roma Pass, that provides unlimited travel anyways you can save a few dollars by looking beyond the borders of the average tourists’ range of sight.

Generally you can expect to pay anywhere from 10 Euros to 35 Euros (15-51 dollars currently) per night per bed. A rule of thumb however is that if you’re paying more than 25 Euros you can probably do better. This will in the end depend on what city and country you are in and how much the majority of travelers there are willing to pay. Likewise, being right in the middle of the action also brings with it the crowds and noise that some may be wishing to avoid; all things to consider.

Word of Mouth

When using booking sites like hostelworld.com and Hostel Bookers take the time to read a couple reviews. These reviews are written by people who have stayed there and can give you a sense of what to expect. Keep in mind however that a great review does not always translate into a great place and vice versa. More than anything talk to the people at your current hostel. They have just come from somewhere and know exactly what that somewhere is like. More often than not the best hostels are hostels someone will tell you about. Let’s face it people are going to talk about places they love and places they hate. Timeliness is also a benefit of talking to your fellow travelers. A great hostel one year is not always the same 12 months later. Keep your ears open and you may just find a jewel not even listed on the web.

Ultimately there are going to be times when you just have to pick the cheapest place to stay or only have 3 minutes left in an Internet cafe and have to pick a location. This only adds to the excitement of a European trip. With a little planning though, you can limit the stress of hunting down a bed after you arrive in a city, dealing with a lack of vacancy and hating every minute you have to spend under the sheets of a poor decision.

  1. Very well written & informative. Would like to see more articles by this writer. Karrie in California

  2. Very well written and very informative. I like the one on one approach down to earth writting. Makes me want to go to europe this year. I think I will go to noambit.com and read some more information on traveling to europe. bob the casman

  3. For anyone interested in Jamaica for vacation I would first suggest that you not spend the ridiculous amount for all-inclusives, even though they tell you about the great savings. who is really going to eat and drink that much? Come on, and then you have to pay crazy amounts for the activities they offer. I suggest a nice bed & breakfast or hostel. There are pretty nice ones in the Ochi Rios area. I personally stayed at Paradise Jamaica (you can search for it online) and it was really nice. I mean nothing will really compare to thebig hotels, but when you are going on vacation you just want somewhere nice and comfortable to fall asleep. You will save sooooooo much by going this route, and have a chance to really experience what Jamaica has to offer, rather than the fakeness and pretending that goes on in some of those big hotels.

  4. I’m impressed.
    I am off for 12 months in 4 months and have come accross a lot of articles and this is by far the best I’ve read!
    Thanks for the advice,
    Ed

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