What comes to mind when you hear the word “hostel?” A troupe of 20 years and over for a week of bending? Smelly hippies who hike barefoot around the world? A film series that managed to combine enough torture and grunge to scare a generation?
What if I told you that for the majority of the past five years, I’ve traveled all over the world, and during that time, I’ve stayed in some of the most amazing places…that turned out to be hostels? That I met dear friends and adventurous companions, 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 at over 100 on six continents and I feel comfortable making a few general observations.
What you’ll find in today’s hostels
In the most general terms, a hostel is like a hotel, except you usually have to share a bathroom. For the lowest rates, you will also be sharing a room. Additionally, most hostels have a kitchen and living room. 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 which are cheaper per night, and rooms with fewer beds for a bit more money per night. Only hostels located in the most touristy areas will have rooms with ten or more beds.
The more people in a room, the lower the rates, but it’s only 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 cheaper than a hotel. These can be good for couples, families, or even just someone looking for a quiet night’s sleep. In addition to the bed, sheets and a pillow, you will almost always have a locker to store your bags or valuables. Just like a hotel, almost all hostels lock their doors at night and have keys, cards or codes needed to access both the hostel and your room.
Some hostels have “en-suite” rooms, as there is a bathroom attached to the room, like you would 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 bathroom at the same time. Plus, if someone creates a smelly mess (I’m talking about a deluge of Ax body spray, obviously), then the whole room will smell like that too.
There is very, very rarely an upper age limit in a hostel. At 40, I’m almost never the oldest, even though the average age is younger. Almost all, however, have a lower age limit. Travelers under 18 can’t usually tell in dorms. Almost all hostels will have female-only dorms, although the majority of rooms will be co-ed.
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 biggest. These feature reviews from recent travelers, amenities lists, and most importantly, photos.
Images tell a story, directly and indirectly. Of course you can see what the hostel looks like, best case scenario “we are taking pictures today”, but they will also give you an idea of what the hostel is like. Does each photo show a group of people drinking? Party hostel. Are there lots of pictures of people reading or playing board games? Probably cool and relaxed. These sometimes go beyond the description and let you know what a stay there will be like.
Since you will likely be sharing the space, be very conscious of yourself and your belongings. For example, don’t eat fries at 1 a.m. Don’t leave your durian sandwich or Limburger or lutefisk 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 of someone packing their things in plastic bags at 5 a.m.
But my biggest tip? Say hello and introduce yourself. Most people in hostels travel alone. Break the tension with a smile and a handshake. After all, you will be living with these people for a night or more. Who knows, you might even make a new friend. Of course I have. As a hard-core introvert and part-time misanthrope, no one was more surprised than me to find that most travelers are good people. Many are amazing and worth experiencing.
Hostels aren’t perfect and, like hotels, vary greatly from region to region. There is an adjustment, of course, required to sleep next to strangers. But for this adjustment and this lack of perfection, you will be able to travel longer and cheaper. Especially if you’re thinking of staying in a cheap and possibly dodgy hotel instead. I’ve stayed in bad hotels and bad hostels, and the latter is much easier to pick up when it costs a fraction of what a cheap hotel costs.
Travel trends that will define 2022
Looking forward. As governments around the world ease coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry is hoping this will be the year travel comes back strong. Here’s what to expect:
Oh, and Wi-Fi is almost always free. I can’t say the same for hotels.
Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer specializing in technology and travel. He is the editor of Wirecutter and you can also find his work on CNET. He’s the author of the sci-fi bestseller “Undersea,” and you can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
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