Hostelling podcast: 7 reasons hostels rock and how to really enjoy them
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Following 7 reasons hostels suck, here’s 7 for the other side of the fence. The podcast edition of this post talks through the points in both posts.
To listen, hit play below or find episode 130 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
1. Hostels are sociable
Hostels are excellent places for meeting like-minded travellers. With a constant flow of people from all over the world, hostels are a global melting pot for people interested in the region where the hostel is based and the people who live there. It seems that hotels create a feeling of individualism and people tend to be closed and reserved. On the other hand, hostels have common rooms and a friendly vibe that promotes meeting your fellow travellers.
I’ve found most of my best “secret” travel tips and destination pointers in hostel common rooms. Need to know the cheapest way to get there? What the border crossing is like? Where to get a good exchange rate? Need a travel companion for a couple of days or weeks? Hostels provide.
Really enjoy it by being friendly, helpful and avoiding dumb arguments. Share travel information without being overbearing. Be considerate of the group’s mood and individual needs and move the party to a local bar mid-evening.
2. Hostels are well-located
Urban hostels tend to be located near the popular tourist attractions and on main public transport lines. This couldn’t be better for the indie traveller; using public transport is often a financial necessity, but some of us love it to get a taste of public life. Being a few minutes away from your must-see attractions can be a lifesaver and, because of the small size of most hostels, they’re able to get closer to the centre for cheaper rent than hotels.
Hostels can also be found in wild and weird places. The historic hostel movement provided places for urban youth to get out of the city and spend time in rural or wilderness environments. This is the basis for the HI/YHA movement (and some hangovers remain, like single-sex dorms and late-night curfews!). From reconditioned train carriages in highland Scotland to the middle of New Zealand‘s Arthur’s Pass, hostels can be comfortable gateways to amazing hikes.
Really enjoy it by booking something that suits your plans; think of transport, location, and your travel style — if you want to party all night, book somewhere near the nightclubs.
3. Hostels have friendly staff
Saying any industry has “friendly staff” can only ever be a gross generalisation, but I’m going to try anyway: in my experience, hostel staff have been more friendly, relaxed and helpful than in other accommodation services I’ve used. Admittedly, some have been so relaxed as to be completely useless, others have been so hung-over as to be quite unfriendly, and there was one hostel run by an elderly lady in Sofia that was kind of like staying with your Auntie Gertrude.
I find hostel staff generally fall into three camps: The ex-traveller owner-operator has plenty of stories from their own travels and occasionally stories they’ve stolen and adapted from passing guests. The local expert is normally young and enjoys the metropolitan feel of working in a hostel. He or she knows the cheapest place to buy beer and can give you a working brief of even the most obscure local legends. Then there’s the out-of-cash backpacker who is spending a few weeks or months working in the hostel, for free accommodation and a few bucks an hour. This might be in order to stay in the city they love or just to get cashed up for the next leg.
Really enjoy it by having a decent chat with your hosts. Rather than treating them like parts in the vacation machine, treat them like people and fellow travellers on the road.
4. Hostels have cheap services
Ever paid $1.50 to have a sock washed? Paul once had to after misunderstanding the laundry price list in a guest house. I’ve used hostel washing machines for as little as $2 a load (Vienna), and that fit in all the clothes I currently owned. Sitting around in a towel while things dry is a bit weird — I’ll admit that. Talking of sitting around in a towel, our hostel in Tallinn came equipped with a free sauna — perfect for the blazing summer temperatures of under 12°C.
The Kismet Dao hostel in Brasov, Romania was never going to be expensive, but they were the only hostel in Transylvania with 24-hour hot water. That’s flash! We took the “shagging room”, got given a free beer for every night we stayed and they had a free laundry service. They organised a tour of all the famous (and not so famous) local castles for a small group of us. The tour was great: a minivan full of people for about $12 each plus entrance fees to some of the castles. The driver — who pointed at the map for us more than he looked at the road — dropped us at each gate, gave us an approximate time we should move on by, then left us to it. Cheap, relaxed, indie, perfect.
Really enjoy it by making use of what specials they’ve got now. Other hostels probably won’t have these deals, so make use of them while you can.
5. Support the local economy
Most hostels are locally owned and operated, meaning that your money goes back into the local economy. The is the complete opposite to most big-brand resorts and hotels which are owned by overseas corporations (although there is a trend towards multi-national hostel chains). Leaving money in the local economy is part of responsible travel.
Admittedly, backpackers tend to spend less, sometimes much less, than their family vacation and business travelling counterparts; however studies in Australia have shown that more money remains in local circulation and — although they spend less per day — backpackers spend more time in a region which greatly improves their contribution to the whole tourism sector.
Really enjoy it by being conscious of where you’re money is going. Shop local where you can — pay fair prices, and shop with a clear conscience.
6. Hostels have free wifi
I’ve never stayed in a hotel that has given me free wifi. Never. But I’ve stayed in at least two dozen hostels that have. To be fair, we actively look for wifi and internet access while we’re choosing our hostel — as more and more of our income is moving online, it’s a necessity rather than an option. I’ve also been in quite a few places that had free computers for use.
Really enjoy it by doing your research ahead of time and figuring out how much you need internet access in a given time period.
7. Hostels have bars
This might be a pro or a con, depending on your temperament, but I really like hostels that have built-in bars or cafes — as long as there is another quieter common room and the rooms are sufficiently far away. Bars give another social element to a hostel and mean that, after a hard day’s sightseeing, you don’t need to head out again for a drink after dinner. Long-term travelling isn’t a continual party, so you don’t always want to be out on the town. There’s a need for space sometimes and a hostel bar can give you that along with the beverage of your choice.
Some bars more closely resemble nightclubs though and, personally, that’s something I try to avoid. I guess the classic example that comes to mind is in Vienna, Austria. There’s a hostel area around the Westbahnhof, at the top end of Mariahilferstrasse. One hostel there, Wombats, is a well-known party hostel with a loud bar and loud clientele. The smoked-glass windows allow people on the street to look into the front lobby. Five minutes down the road, Hostel Ruthensteiner has a bar between the kitchen and the lounge. There’s a piano and a couple of guitars hanging from the wall. Sometimes guests play, other times they just chat and drink with the radio playing in the background. Two hostels with bars; two very different atmospheres — you get to choose what you want.
There are reasons hostels suck and reasons hostels rock. In the end, you have to find something that suits your travel style and what you like to do.
If I had an eighth point to make, I’d definitely give props to hostels for their kookiness, strangeness and general individualism. I like hostels with straggling bookshelves, unusual owners, and rather oblique understandings about the way things work. Hostels with spa pools (Queenstown, NZ), hostels with immigration police interviews (Belgrade, Serbia), hostels with free beer (lots!), hostels with a river in the backyard (Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic), hostels that open just for you and don’t appear to have any staff (Melk, Austria), hostels with pet dogs (Dunedin, NZ), hostels where you have to show a marriage license to get a private room (Northern Italy): in short, hostels rock.