Hostels have long been a favorite of backpacking teenagers and college students. But, they’re becoming a common choice for plenty of other budget-conscious trekkers, too.
Think about it: Hostels can provide cheap lodging with like-minded travelers around the world and a non-touristy experience in a major city. And while, yes, some can be bare-boned with bare beds and communal baths, many offer private rooms and more upscale amenities.
If you’re looking for a different experience (and a way to save some cash) on your next vacation, hostels are worth checking out. Here’s how to find the right one:
1. Read (the Right) Reviews
To start off your search, skip TripAdvisor and log on to hostel websites (good starts include Hostelworld, Hostelbookers, Hostelling International, and Hostels.com) to review traveler feedback ratings. Look specifically for hostels that have earned an 85% rating or higher—below 80% can be a warning sign that the facility needs improvement.
Reviews may vary, but what people say about a hostel can clue you in to the vibe of a place and whether it’s a good match for what you’re looking for. Pay attention to complaints about rude staff, uncomfortable beds, dirty bathrooms, or noise from a nearby pub or nightclub. As with any online reviews, it's also key to consider the source—a first-time traveler staying in a hostel on a two-week trip from the U.S. might rate it very differently than a veteran RTW Aussie on a gap year.
2. Check Out Photos and Location
After narrowing down your selection, visit individual hostel websites and check out the photos. Many times, hostels only display pictures of their private rooms—something to be wary of if you’re planning to stay in the dorms. A major red flag is if a hostel’s website doesn't show any photos of the bathrooms.
Also check out the map. Pick a hostel in a central area that's close to public transportation, entertainment, and attractions.
3. Determine your Wants and Needs
Like anything, finding the right hostel depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re heading to Europe, and want to be sure to get good night’s sleep, try a Youth Hostel Association (YHA) or Meinenger hotels.
Keep in mind, too, that some hostels enforce a curfew or lockout period. If you’re planning to be out late, be sure you find a hostel where that won’t be a problem. In general, independent hostels are less restrictive (later curfews and shorter lockout periods, if any) than Hostelling International (HI) hostels, an organization of more than 90 Youth Hostel Associations around the world.
Also decide how important personal space is to you. Most hostels now have a variety of sleeping arrangements—from a private room with two to six beds to bunk beds with 15-30 people sharing one room. Bathrooms are often (but not always) shared, too. If you crave privacy, consider booking yourself in a triple room, even if you and your traveling companion equal two—this move may eliminate a random person from bunking with you (though it’s no guarantee).
4. Assess the Amenities
Some hostels offer perks for guests for free or for a small fee or deposit. So what should you look for? Definitely Wi-Fi, and also a kitchen if you’re looking to save money by cooking your own food. Also try to pick a hostel with lockers, 24-hour reception, and common areas. Other great-to-haves include a laundry facility, rental of sheets, blankets, and towels, low-cost meals, bike rentals, and an on-site bar.
Find out about discounts, too. Depending on which countries you’re planning to visit, you may be able to purchase memberships that’ll give you discounts on your stays. For example, if you’re headed to New Zealand, check out BBH.
5. Safeguard Your Stuff
You may want to find a place that has lockers or luggage rooms for storing your backpack while you’re out exploring during the day, though many people do leave their (locked) luggage on or under their bed. Many hostels have room locks, so, at the very least, there’s some restriction on the number of people who have access to your room. Think about what you’re comfortable with before you book. And while theft at hostels is relatively rare, always keep your passport, money, credit cards, camera, and any other valuable items with you at all times—not in your luggage.
The hostelling experience may not be for everyone, but it’s a great choice if you’re on a budget and like to meet new people abroad. After all, traveling isn’t just about seeing exciting new places—it’s about connecting with exciting new people, too.
Photo courtesy of Barnacles Hostels.
Michele Herrmann is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in print and online publishing. Her beats include arts and culture, travel, technology, higher education, and general business. She is a regular contributor to The Lost Girls, a women’s travel website, and is pursuing a master’s degree in communications from Sacred Heart University. In her spare time, she likes to go hiking and enjoys festivals and general exploring. Follow her on Twitter at @micheleherrmann.More from this Author