I’m not a fan of hostels. That said, sometimes there are no other options, and I’m glad they are readily available in those situations.
In general, hostels provide a safe environment for an incredibly low price. But with that low price come a lot of tradeoffs. You can’t expect to buy a Ferrari for the price of a Ford, and in the same way, you can’t expect to get four-star treatment at a hostel.
1) You don’t meet locals in hostels
Hostels are made for travelers. That includes not only the people staying at the hostel, but the staff working at the hostel as well. Getting work at a hostel is a popular backpacker job.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I want to hang out with locals. I want to get a feel for what it’s like to live in their city, and I want to do things and go places that only locals know about.
If you’re set on staying in a hostel, but want to hang out with locals, head on over to CouchSurfing and search for a Group in the city you’re visiting. CouchSurfing Groups get together regularly and do everything from hang out in cafes/pubs/restaurants to go on day trips to sand dunes.
2) You don’t get much of your own space
Your space is your bed (usually a bunk) and your locker. That’s pretty much it. If you grew up in the same room as a sibling you had more of your own space.
The easiest way to make more room for yourself is to use the hostel for one thing, and one thing only: sleep.
Then get out and explore.
Don’t become a “hostel resident.” These are the people who hang out at their hostels all day long watching TV, playing pool, drinking, and generally utilizing the hostel as a safe haven from the outside world.
If that’s really what you want out of travel that’s perfectly fine, but you could probably save a lot of money by watching TV, playing pool, drinking, and just living with your parents instead.
My one and only goal when staying in a hostel is to sleep. When I wake up I get out of the hostel as soon as possible and when I come back I go to sleep as soon as possible.
3) They’re party houses
When you’re a young backpacker traveling the world this is kind of perfect. Nothing like getting wasted with a bunch of your peers, right?
Personally, I’m over that. Not that I don’t enjoy partying every once in a while, but my life’s goal isn’t to get wasted.
So when I’m searching for a hostel (usually on Hostelbookers), I look for hostels with low “fun” ratings and no attached bar. These are the “boring” hostels that most young backpackers hate.
When I stayed in a hostel in Melbourne, Australia a girl told me she left a previous hostel because they didn’t have anything going on there. She wanted to party. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the hostel she checked into was much the same.
4) Hostels are set up to sell you tours and attractions
I don’t know who invented hostels, but I’m guessing it was a tour operator.
Walk into any hostel in the world and you’re immediately bombarded with pamphlets, booklets, fliers, posters, postcards, and handouts selling day trips, night trips, extended trips, pub crawls, and other touristy fun.
If that’s what you want, perfect.
I’ve done tours myself and lots of hostels will actually get you some kind of backpacker discount on whatever tour you’re interested in. Very nice.
But instead of buying whatever tour your hostel is selling, get online and check out what else is available. You might find a similar tour more to your liking, or you may find the same tour at a lower cost.
5) Hostel internet is usually horribly slow and you have to pay for it
If you want slow internet, find the local library in the city you’re staying. I’ve found most libraries have free internet, but it’s slow. I’ve found most hostels have slow internet that you have to pay for. 🙂
Even better, most cities you’re visiting will have cafes with free WiFi. Buy a coffee/a tea/food/anything and hang out for a while. Support a local small business and get your internet fix at the same time. Double whammy.
Bonus tip: The ubiquitous McDonald’s has free WiFi at most locations and it’s decently fast.
6) Sleeping well while sharing a room with nine strangers isn’t easy
If you choose your hostel wisely you won’t have a big problem with loud parties, but people come and go all day and all night anyway. Everyday noise and lights turning on and off make it difficult to sleep well.
When someone books an early tour and has to get up at 5am you can’t expect them to be completely quiet while getting up and out.
But getting a good night’s sleep at a hostel is easy and it will cost you less than $5. Not $5 per night. $5 for your whole trip.
Buy ear plugs and a sleep mask.
You may feel silly sleeping in a sleep mask, but it will be the best sleep you’ve probably ever had. According to a sleep disorder study published in Wiley InterScience “earplugs and eye masks were a relatively cheap intervention with notable improvements for some critically ill patients.” I sleep in my sleep mask at home and on the road and it cured my insomnia.
As far as ear plugs go, they don’t block out all noise, so an even better alternative if you can handle the discomfort is to wear noise-canceling headphones or earbuds and listen to soft music or podcasts. My preference is listening to Mitch Hedberg.
Hostel ensuite isn’t what it’s cracked up to be
Lots of hostels offer ensuite bathrooms instead of shared facilities. I thought ensuite would be a lot better, but it’s not at all.
If your facilities are ensuite, people checking out early in the morning do not leave the room. A few showers, doors opening and closing, and general bathroom noise makes for an environment not conducive to sleep.
If I can help it I’ll never stay in ensuite again.
7) Hostels are not particularly clean
This has less to do with the hostel cleaning staff and more to do with the fact that most people staying at hostels seem to put cleanliness on the backburner. I still don’t understand how someone expects dishes to get clean when using a filthy sponge, but I digress.
I’ve had fairly good luck by picking hostels with high “cleanliness” ratings. You probably won’t get around staying in a dorm with messy people, but at least your bed and hopefully the bathrooms/showers will be clean.
Roll with the punches
As I was falling asleep at a hostel in Cairns, Australia a drunk mess of a guy came into my dorm and specifically woke me up to ask a stupid question. Yes, my first reaction was to punch him square in the face. Instead, I got out of bed, went to reception, changed rooms, and all was good.
Even if you follow my tips, your hostel experience might not be perfect. That’s part of the fun. When something goes wrong it usually makes for a good story.