The Hostel Survival Guide

Posted on September 1, 2011


Hostels. They’re the subject of a few horribly-made Hollywood B-list flicks, and as a result a lot of young American travelers have serious misconceptions about what a hostel is, or what staying in a hostel means. Here’s the skinny: hostels are a great way for low-budget independent travelers to save money, see the world, and meet other cool like-minded people. Read on for tips on staying in hostels, how to book, and how to make the most of your hostel experience.

By Susannah Watson

When staying in hostels, you can’t always know what to expect when you book, so it pays to take a page out of the Boy Scout handbook and always be prepared.  Here are some steps to take to ensure that you come away from your hostel stay safe, sound, and satisfied.

What’s a hostel?

Good question. A hostel is not like a hotel. A hostel is a low-budget accomodation option often utilized by young backpackers, students or other independent travelers. If you know how to travel in hostels, you can find a super cheap place to crash in almost every city around the world, but as a result you sacrifice some of the privacy and luxury you’d get staying in a hotel.

Staying in hostels are a great way to save money and meet people — but here are some things you’ll want to keep in mind.

Book Ahead

If you know you’re going to be traveling to a certain city, be sure to book your hostel before arriving.  While some people may argue that pre-booking is for weenies with no sense of adventure, planning ahead will ensure that you don’t have to spend your whole day running around worrying about finding a place to stay.  It also ensures that you find a safe place in a convenient location for a decent price.

It’s super easy and it will save you money — there’s really no excuse for not booking ahead.

Listen to Fellow Travelers

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to decide upon a place to stay.  By talking to fellow travelers, you can get firsthand testimonials about the best and worst places to stay.  As an added bonus, you can often find out about interesting activities and restaurants along the way. If you find out someone has been to a city you want to visit, ask them where they stayed and what they thought of the hostel.

Don’t know any travelers? By staying in hostels, you’ll be sure to meet people — but the hostel booking websites listed above also have testimonial sections, where you can read user reviews.

Don’t Stay in Single Rooms

While solo travelers might enjoy the privacy afforded by a single room, one of the best places to make friends and travel buddies is in hostels. Hostels tend to attract young budget travelers, so they’re the best place to meet people with similar interests and similar budgets.  If you take a chance and go for the larger rooms, you’re likely to end up with some lifelong friends along the way.

There are a variety of sleeping spaces in hostels, including:

  • Large co-ed dormitories – Lots of travelers from all over sleep in a large dormitory room with bunk-beds, not separated by sex.
  • Large single-sex dormitories – These can be great for female travelers who don’t want to share a room with smelly, snoring boys. Ew.
  • Small and medium dormitories of the same variety – These might be a little bit pricier than the larger dorms, but will afford more privacy and more security.
  • Single rooms – These might be just as expensive as a hotel room, and will isolate you from the other travelers — go for a single-sex or co-ed dorm room, and don’t be afraid to meet new people.

A Word on Safety

Yes, hostels will be full of strangers and you shouldn’t trust all of them — but there are a few things you can do to keep yourself and your valuables safe.

  • Use lockers. Most hostels have lockers, or a check-behind-the-desk system, so if you leave your room often or if you head out on a day-long excursion you can lock your laptop, passport, or other valuables in a safe place.
  • Don’t leave your purse or valuables lying around. Don’t even leave them on your bunk bed or in your backpack.

Packing List:  There are a few essential items you’ll need to make the most of your hosteling experience.

  • Shower Shoes: Most hostels have communal bathrooms, so for sanitary reasons bring a pair of flip-flops to wear in the shower and in the bathroom.
  • Locks:  Put simple luggage locks on the zippers of your bag, and bring another regular lock to lock your bag to something immovable.  However, if your hostel has lockers where you can stow your things, utilize those.
  • Earplugs:  For light sleepers, earplugs are a must. Hostels can be loud, and in addition to street noises, there may be people coming and going at all hours of the night. Earplugs cut down on the noise and allow you to get a good night’s rest no matter where you are.
  • Headlamp or Flashlight: Hostels generally have a rule about “lights out” around 10 p.m. in shared dormitories. If you come in later than that, it will be courteous for you to use a flashlight or headlamp for reading or digging out pajamas from your backpack.
  • Eye-mask:  Again, for light sleepers, it’s a good idea to pack an eye-mask. People could come in at all hours of the night turning the lights on and off which can really interrupt your sleep.
  • Sheets:  If you’re cautious about the cleanliness of hostel beds, a double sheet folded over and sewn up is a great solution to your dilemma.  That way you can take your own sheet with you and you won’t have to worry about sleeping on dirty linens.

By staying in hostels, you can meet lifelong friends, and they make it easy to travel on a budget.  If you simply take a few steps to prepare yourself, hostels are the best bet for a budget traveler.

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