Travel Lessons Learned: Hostels (Part 1)

I fell in love with travel while studying abroad. As an international business major, studying abroad was a requirement of my undergraduate degree… and I really took that requirement to heart. I studied or volunteered abroad every single summer during my years as an undergraduate student, and I graduated college having visited a total of 9 countries. While I was studying abroad I usually stayed with a large group of other students at a budget/efficiency hotel or I stayed in a dorm room.

My experience staying in hostels really began after I graduated college. For the next two posts, I’m sharing some of my experiences staying in hostels (and tips for choosing a hostel you'll love). Check back this weekend for Part 2!

The Pros and Cons of Hostels

When it comes to hostels, I’ve heard it all (and I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced it all, but I’ve certainly stayed in quite a variety of hostels over the years). What makes a hostel bad? What makes a hostel good?

What is a hostel? Let’s start there.

I would define a hostel as a type of budget accommodation that offers shared spaces including dormitory-style accommodation, shared bathroom facilities and sometimes shared kitchen facilities. Hostels generally cater to younger travelers (many have a maximum age limit) and are often focused on providing opportunities for social interaction between guests. (Merriam-Webster is basically in agreement on that definition, so I’ll call that a win.)

All that being said, most hostels also offer private rooms (some of which include private bathrooms). This can get confusing, because there isn’t a lot of difference between a private room in a hostel and a private room at a budget hotel. In general, hostels tend to go light on the luxuries (you’ll need to check what types of linen are provided and if any type of breakfast is included), but that lack of added amenities helps keep the rates low. Hostels also tend to focus on offering some type of shared space for guests to interact more than a hotel might. Even with these differences, hostels and budget/efficiency hotels have a lot of similarities, and deciding where you should stay is primarily dependent on what your priorities are.

Should you stay in a hostel?

I get the feeling based on conversations with friends (particularly with friends who haven't traveled much internationally) that there are some widely-held misconceptions about staying in hostels. I’ll be the first to admit that the party hostel of your dreams (or nightmares?) probably is a real place somewhere in the world… but there are other types of hostels available as well.

If you want to meet and go on pub crawls with young people from all over the world, make sure you see the inside of every bar and club in every city you visit, drag yourself home at dawn every morning and don’t care much about sleeping… there is definitely a hostel for you. On the other hand, if you want to be able to meet people over breakfast, run around the city on walking tours with new friends and have a drink at the downstairs bar before getting to sleep early every once in awhile, there’s a hostel for you too. And if you are completely unsocial (perhaps you are attempting to recover from stays at party hostels in back-to-back cities), you just want to lay in bed in your own room for a night or two, eat pizza, read and catch up on sleep, you can find a private room for yourself in a hostel that would work great too.

Overall, having a good experience staying in a hostel is about choosing one that matches your priorities.

What makes a hostel bad?

While there are certainly objectively bad hostels (just as there are objectively bad hotels), most of what would make you dislike a hostel is a matter of opinion. If we are all agreeing on basic cleanliness and a manageable location, then the only remaining factor in choosing a hostel is to choose one that matches your priorities. My personal worst experiences in hostels have always been for one of the following reasons:

1. I chose a hostel that didn’t match my priorities

2. I waited too long to book accommodation in a city and was left to book the last (and only) available hostel

If you want to sleep and you choose a notorious party hostel, you are going to be unhappy. If you want to party but you choose a notoriously unsocial hostel, you are going to be unhappy.

Overwhelmed about choosing a hostel? Don’t be. You have Hostelworld!

Not only does Hostelworld provide a rank of every hostel available on the site based on a customer reviews in a variety of categories including cleanliness and location, it also provides access to read those customer reviews. I depend on those reviews to tell me the type of things that may not show up on a hostel’s main page: is it conducive to social interaction? Are the people who work there cool? Is it a party hostel? Do guests keep to themselves? Are there any weird quirks I should know about (tenth floor with no elevator, construction outside the window beginning at 6am, etc.)?

While some of the social aspects of hosteling will be based on the crowd that is there when you are there, the reviews tend to provide a wealth of information. And in my experience, they’re usually pretty spot on.

Any tips for choosing hostels? Feel free to share in the comments… and check back this weekend for part 2!