When people hear about hostels initially, they sometimes picture images of prison style bunk beds – 20 to a room – with no personality, cold and dingy spaces crowded with young and cheap college kids, and unclean facilities. This reputation most likely came from those around the 90s or older, when hostels were not as popular and the only ones you could find may have fit the description above. Now backpacking is such a popular way to travel, there are a variety of hostels to pick from to fit any traveler.
I want to take you through a typical hostel experience and what to expect when you step foot in one. Hostel life can have its own set of rules and practices, so it is best to be prepared. Your experience can vary based on what country you are in, priorities (party, location, meeting people) and how much you are willing to spend.
If you will be arriving to the hostel late, you will want a hostel that has late hours that can check you in. Small or boutique hostels, especially those in smaller cities, may have a curfew or reception hours that end before midnight.
When you arrive, you will notice most hostels have a variety of brochures on the city, recommended excursions or tours where you can often sign up to go as a group with other guests, or other announcements of events going on in the city that day or hosted by the hostel.
You will be handed a key, your bedding (often a top sheet, fitted sheet and pillow case) and given general instructions on where the kitchen is, internet cafe and other general info. This is your time to ask any questions you have. Then, off to your room you go!
Hostels in general can be designed as some of the most unique, eclectic or modern spaces you’ll encounter. They tend to have a lot of character as the owners try to make them appealing to a younger crowd and interactive among travelers with travelers that pass through often adding their own touches. Hostel rooms also come in various shapes and sizes. They can be a simple metal bunk bed with lockers, or arranged like bungalows with cool designs on the wall, a sink in the room, or have lamps and cubbies in each bed for storage and added privacy.
When you get to your room, you will claim whatever bed is available. If you have a choice, most people pick the bottom bunk. If you are with a friend, you may want to pick the same bunk set so you to have to worry about waking up someone else in another bed if you come in late. You are responsible for making your own bed, and there is no maid service, though hostel staff do usually come in to pick up trash and vacuum and do basic cleaning. The do it yourself atmosphere is what keeps the prices so cheap compared to hotels. If there are lockers, you can store your backpack and other belongings in there. If not, you can secure your backpack to your bed if you are concerned about theft. See my post on hostel safety and lockers here.
If you have a shared bathroom connected to the room, it will usually be a single shower, toilet and sink. The other alternative is hallway bathrooms that are dorm style, often setup with showers in one area and toilets in another and coed. You will see men and women walking around with towels on (or less) in the hallways on the way to their rooms or when using the mirrors to get ready, so this may make you uncomfortable if you are more conservative, and a bathroom connected to your room may be a better choice. Also, prepare for congestion and waiting in the morning or other peak times if there are a lot of people in the hostel.
Towels are not provided, so make sure you have packed one. Showers sometimes have soap and shampoo dispensers, but plan to have your own just in case. Shower shoes are recommended no matter how clean the bathrooms are (flip flops also work). If you are using appliances (blow dryers, straightener), keep in mind the voltage differences between the countries you are in and consider bringing those with lower voltage or using lower settings. And always make sure you have your plug adapters for the countries you are visiting. See my packing list for more essentials on what you will need to bring to plan for the hostel life.
One of the most important things that contributes to a fun, lively and memorable hostel experience is the common areas. Good hostels will have areas set up with tables easy to share meals, play games, or carry on conversations. Some will also have comfortable lounging areas with plenty of seating designed to gather people together. Many hostels will also have bars attached, movie rooms, pool tables, ping pong tables, or other activities that promote co-mingling between fellow travelers!
When you aren’t out and about, you should take advantage of these spaces. Meeting likeminded travelers and sharing stories is part of the backpacking experience. For me, some of my favorite places I have visited often have to do with the experience I had in the hostel and friendships I had formed there (many being lifelong), and can be especially important for a solo traveler.
Another big difference between a hostel and other lodging options is that many hostels offer a communal kitchen or its guests to cook in, along with a refrigerator to store leftovers or food bought to cook with. Hostels understand that its visitors are on a budget, and cooking your own food is one of the best ways to save money. Even if you enjoy food as part of the travel experience, having a day or two to prepare your own meal can make a difference on your wallet and be a nice break from eating out all the time.
The kitchen area may be large, open and more modern, or cozy and smaller depending on the type of hostel. Kitchens will usually have rules posted throughout, which may be how to store your food, labeling when items expire, and cleaning etiquette. Just try to be respectful and realize you are sharing with many other guests. The kitchen will be fully stocked as far as utensils, plates, pans, etc. so you should only have to buy food. Even some spices and seasonings left behind by other travelers may be available.
Seasoned cooks staying at the hostel may offer to host a large meal one night (everyone just pitches in for groceries), and cooking for others can be a great way to make new friends, too! I suggest to bring recipes for a few simple meals to have on the fly. I have put together a few of my favorite hostel recipes for a few good staples to start with.
Many hostels will provide a free breakfast in the kitchen in the mornings. What is available will vary on what country you are in, but a spread of dry cereals, bread with jam, juice, coffee, and fruit is typical, as well as some traditional breakfast items from the region you are staying in.
Free wifi is pretty standard in hostels now a days. If not, most hostels have a computer room or computers in the common area for use that you pay to use. Internet can be by the minute and get pretty expensive, and the computers slow and outdated.
Washing machines and dryers are hit or miss in hostels. All will have one but it may not be available to the public. If they have a washer or dryer, you can expect to pay a decent chunk of change to use. It may be better to use an outside laundromat in that case, as little expenses like this in a hostel can add up. Finding a hostel with a washer and dryer handy that isn’t too expensive can be worth it if you need a break from washing your socks and underwear in the sink.
Bars in hostels can be good or bad depending on what type of hostel you are looking for. For those interested in a party hostel, a bar in a hostel indicates a more lively social scene. If you are a solo traveler, having a bar onsite is convenient so you don’t have to worry about going out on your own. You can even meet some travelers at the bar during happy hour and go out with them afterwards. It is also convenient on low key evenings when you want to stay in but have a beer before bed or the weather is bad. The cons are the hostel can get pretty noisy with the bar staying open late and a lot of drunk people right down the hall from you, so you better have your ear plugs handy or stay somewhere a little more serene.
While there are some downsides to staying in a hostel, if you do your research, you can find some unique hostels filled with the most interesting and amazing people that will only make your backpacker experience better. I have even been to the same city more than once and left with different feelings on the trip as a whole because of the impact the company at the hostel had on me (both good and bad). Hopefully, having a basic understanding of hostel life will help shape your expectations when going to a hostel for the first time and improve your experience through proper preparation. Still, some hostels will be better than others, some will be regrettable, but you just pack up your things, and move on to the next one.