What comes to mind when you hear the world “hostel?” A gaggle of 20-somethings on a weeklong bender? Smelly hippie-types barefoot hiking around the world? A movie series that managed to combine enough torture and grunge to scar a generation?
What if I told you that for the majority of the last five years I’ve traveled all over the world, and in that time stayed at some of the most incredible places … that just happened to be hostels? That I’ve met dear friends and adventurous companions, all while paying a fraction of what a hotel would charge? Hostels aren’t what you think, at least, not anymore. While every hostel is different, I’ve stayed in over 100 across six continents and feel comfortable offering some general observations.
What you’ll find in today’s hostels
In the most general terms, a hostel is just like a hotel, except you usually have to share a bathroom. For the lowest room rates, you’ll also share a room. Additionally, most hostels have a kitchen and a lounge. The most common dorm, or shared room, has 4 beds, usually in the form of two bunk beds. Most hostels will have rooms with more beds that are cheaper per night, and rooms with fewer beds for slightly more money per night. Only hostels in the most touristy areas will have rooms with a dozen beds or more.
The more people in a room, the lower the rates, but it’s just by a few dollars a night. Unless your budget is very tight, a smaller room will generally be quieter and worth the small premium. Most hostels also have private rooms, which are their most expensive rooms, but still usually cheaper than a hotel. These can be good for couples, families, or even just an individual looking for a quiet night’s sleep. In addition to the bed, sheets and a pillow, you’ll nearly always have a locker to hold your bags or valuables. Just like a hotel, almost every hostel locks their doors at night, and has keys, cards or codes required to access both the hostel and your room.
Some hostels have “en-suite” rooms, as in there’s a bathroom attached to the room, like you’d find in a hotel, just shared with the people staying in that room. Personally, I’m not a big fan. Usually that means you’re all fighting for that one bathroom all at the same time. Plus, if someone creates an odorous mess (I’m talking about a deluge of Axe body spray, obviously), then the whole room will smell like that too.
Very, very rarely is there an upper age limit at a hostel. At 40 I’m almost never the oldest, although the average age is younger. Almost all, however, have a lower age limit. Travelers under 18 usually can’t say in dorm rooms. Nearly every hostel will have women-only dorms available, though the majority of rooms are coed.
How to find and book a good hostel
Just like hotels, hostels have review and booking websites to help you find where to stay. Hostelworld and Hostelz are two of the big ones. These feature reviews from recent travelers, lists of amenities, and most importantly, pictures.
The pictures tell a story, directly and indirectly. Sure, you get to see what the hostel looks like, in a best-case “we’re having photographs taken today” fashion, but they’ll also give you an idea what the hostel is about. Is every photo a bunch of people drinking? Party hostel. Are there lots of photos of people reading or playing board games? Probably chill and relaxed. These sometimes go beyond the description and inform you what staying there will be like.
Since you’ll likely be sharing the space, be extra aware of your person and your belongings. For example, don’t eat chips at 1 a.m. Don’t leave your durian orLimburger or lutefisk sandwich on your bed. Also, and this is a personal pet peeve, don’t use plastic bags in your luggage. The loudest sound in the universe is someone packing their belongings into plastic bags at 5 a.m.
But my biggest advice? Say hello and introduce yourself. Most people in hostels are traveling alone. Break the tension with a smile and a handshake. After all, you’ll be living with these folks for a night or more. Who knows, you might even make a new friend. I sure have. As an inveterate introvert and part-time misanthrope, no one was more surprised than I to find that most travelers are good people. Many are amazing and well worth meeting.
Hostels are not perfect, and like hotels will vary considerably region to region. There is an adjustment, of course, needed to sleep next to strangers. But for that adjustment and lack of perfection, you’ll be able to travel longer and cheaper. Especially if you’re considering slumming in a cheap, possibly questionable hotel instead. I’ve stayed in bad hotels and bad hostels, and the latter is far easier to take when it costs a fraction of what a cheap hotel costs.
Oh, and the Wi-Fi is almost always free. Can’t say that about hotels.
Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer covering tech and travel. He’s the editor-at-large for Wirecutter and you can also find his work at CNET. He’s the author of the best-selling sci-fi novel “Undersea,” and you can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
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