Hostels are fantastic for solo travellers. Contrary to belief, hostels are not just for young people and have stepped up their game. They no longer have a dodgy, dingy reputation (although you can still find basic ones like this). Hostels now cater for all kinds of people and come in all types from eco hostels, boutique hostels and party hostels.
I've stayed in so many hostels over my twenty-five years of backpacking alone. If you're unsure how to choose a hostel or even how to book a hostel, I've written this article to help. I share my favourite hostel brands too!
Some hostels are more like hotels with a pool, laundry service, a bar and evening entertainment as well as a travel desk. There are shared kitchens so you can cook your own food, saving you money on eating out, then there’s the social element with communal lounges and bars or bbq nights to meet other solos. Many also offer a laundry service.
Rooms vary from dorms of four to ten people sharing, and even up to twenty (which is the cheapest). If you’re planning on staying in a few hostels consider getting a membership card such as Hi Hostels or YHA.
Some universities open themselves up as hostels during the summer and the benefit to these is that your room will probably be less than a four-bed dorm and more likely just two beds. Some hostels include breakfast and towels too. Plus if you really don’t want to share your sleeping space with others, there is usually the option of private rooms too.
Staying in hostels has never been easier but with so many, it’s worth researching them before you book to ensure the hostel is right for you. Some are musical, some have a hippy vibe whilst others attract the hard-core teenage partiers. Some even have an age limit, although these are quite rare.
Bear in mind that you do get what you pay for so choose wisely as there are no international standards for hygiene or security so look for those with lockers to store your valuables. Unless it’s peak season, just book a couple of nights at first then decide to stay longer when you get there. Below are my 10 tips on how to choose the right hostel so you know how to book a hostel that is right for you.
1. Look for which area you want to be in
The more expensive hostels tend to be right in the city centre whereas the ones that will save you money can be a walk away. Decide whether you want to be within walking distance of attractions that you want to see or if you don't mind paying a bit less to take the train or bus into the city.
If you want to be where the action is and love nightlife then choose a hostel in the action. Bear in mind that if you’re too close to the bars and nightlife, you may not be able to sleep with the noise anyway. Make sure that the accommodation is in a safe area. Would you feel comfortable walking around the location at night? You don’t want to jeopardise your safety just to save a few pounds or dollars off your accommodation.
2. Is Reception Open 24 Hours?
If you are arriving late at night or early in the morning, check if they have a 24/7 reception desk. Arriving late at night and finding out that you can’t check-in is the last thing that you want to happen. if you are arriving by bus or train, check if it is also walkable distance to the bus station or train station. That way you can walk instead of having to barter with a taxi driver.
An eco property just outside of town may look like the most amazing place to stay but being stuck outside at night not being able to get in isn't the safest option when you are alone. Make sure you can get to your hostel in the evening and that there will be someone there to greet you.
3. Reviews From Other Travellers
There are booking sites where you can choose your choice of town and city, select your dates and hey presto – all the available hostels are shown. You can then sort through the most recommended or the cheapest price and unless it is a brand new hostel, there will be ratings and reviews from other backpackers who have stayed there.
You can see how great the location really is, how secure the property is and if the staff are friendly. If a hostel comes highly recommended then it’s fair to say there’s a great reason why.
4. Female-Only Dorms
Look for female-only dorms if you feel more comfortable staying with just girls. Some properties are even dedicated to girls only whilst others have female-only showers and toilets as well as dorm rooms. Plus Hostels in Europe have fantastic girls-only dorms which are pink!
5. Is it clean?
Leaking toilets, dirty kitchens and bed bugs aren't what you're looking for when staying in a hostel. I've stayed in some hostels which I don't think should even be open to guests. These have tended to be the cheapest I could find at the time and ones that I have just wandered into. If you're in the area, ask to see the room before you pay for the night.
If you're booking online, my advice is to not go for the cheapest and to instead for the next rate up. You can always take a sleeping bag liner with you if you don't feel comfortable sleeping in the linen that the hostel provides.
6. Spacious Lockers
Make sure that the hostel has somewhere secure to store your things. If the hostel doesn’t have lockers, see if there is a safe at reception where you can leave your passport. Most hostels have lockers in the room and some are large enough to store your main backpack. You’ll need to lock away your laptop and phone at night if you are sharing a room with others.
7. Bathroom Facilities
There’s no point in checking into a hostel with a single bathroom shared by up to 10 people especially if you have a train, plane or tour to catch in the mornings. It could also mean that there may not be hot water left when you have a shower. Some hostels have ensuite bathrooms that are just for the room. Also check if they charge to rent towels. Most include free towels and some even have shampoo and hair dryers.
8. Internet Connectivity
If you don’t have all your trip planned then chances are that you’ll need Wifi to plan the rest of your travels. This is also crucial if you want to stay in touch with friends or family and need to Skype them. Pick a hostel with a strong Wifi signal all around the building.
9. A Kitchen
Eating out is all part of experiencing the culture but eating out every day can add up, especially if you are staying in expensive cities. Look for a hostel which has a kitchen so you can prepare your own meals. You could also check if there is a supermarket nearby too. Some hostels include breakfast which is ideal and a great way to save money.
10. Any Extras?
Some hostels offer freebies such as breakfast, to free tea and coffee and even filtered water. If you are staying for a few days, these little extras can all add up so choosing a hostel with free breakfast will save you money in the long term. Some also work with local tour companies and will offer discounted prices on restaurants, activities or attractions in the city too.
11. Can You Leave Your Luggage?
Maybe you are looking to base yourself in a city or town then travel somewhere else for a couple of days. Some hostels will let you leave your main luggage there if you check-in for the evening when you return. Even if you are just staying at that hostel, this is also handy if you have a night bus and hours to kill beforehand.
You may be able to leave your luggage at the hostel whilst you explore for the day before catching your bus. Check that they have a stored luggage facility that is always locked. This saves you from carrying around items that you don’t need and gives you peace of mind for when you return.
12. Is it Sociable?
Hostels are one of the best places to meet others, but some can be more like hotels with only rooms to sleep in. Hostels with common rooms, roof terraces or gardens are ideal to strike up conversations with strangers. Look for hostel-arranged tours, pizza or bbq evenings and bar crawls. If they name any of the above then they are likely to be sociable and you are guaranteed to have some company to hang out with.
13. Restaurant and Bar
If the hostel has a restaurant and a bar then you’re onto a winner, especially if there aren’t any restaurants in the local vicinity. It makes dining so much easier, especially if you are having a travel planning day or a rest day and don’t want to leave the hostel for a day of sightseeing. The prices are usually competitive too.
14. Power Outlets
To be honest, it’s extremely hard to stay without tech devices these days. Your smartphone, camera, laptop, and tablet will need a consistent supply of power. You don’t want to book a hostel in which you have to walk 20 yards to get your phone charged. Choose one with multiple outlets, including one near your bed for the times when you need to use a device when it's charging.
15. Air Conditioning/Heating
It’s so important to have heating if you are visiting somewhere in the winter months. Look for a fireplace or if it has heating to ensure that you don’t spend your days and nights there freezing. This is equally the same in the summer months when you should make sure that there is air conditioning or a least a fan. Sharing a dorm room with several strangers in the humidity is not fun.
16. Word of Mouth
Lastly; word of mouth is the best way to choose a hostel. A traveller may have just stayed in a hostel where you’re heading to next and unless you have completely different ideas of travelling from the person who recommended it (i.e they’re a party animal and you like quiet nights), then you’re probably onto a winner.
17. My Favourite Hotel Brands
All the above are just a guideline on what to search for in a hostel. There are so many hostels out there especially if you're planning on travelling in Europe so read the reviews to find the right one for you. Here are my favourite hostel brands that you can find on Hostelworld:
- Selina in Europe, USA and Latin America for wellness and co-working.
- Plus Hostels in Europe as they are more like hotels and some have a pool.
- St Christopher's Inns in Europe as they generally have a bar.
- Staysafe in the UK as they are great to work from and have a pink colour!
- Generator in the UK, Europe and USA as they generally have big common areas.
- Lud d Hostels in Asia as they have restaurants and evening activities.
Staying in hostels when you travel nearly always means sleeping in a bunk bed. Jane Clements, founder of the blog: Scarlet Jones Travels shares her insight into sharing dorm rooms and most importantly how to survive hostel bunk beds.
Staying in dormitories in hostels often involves a bunk bed and as I always wanted to sleep in a bunk bed as a child I am more than happy with this arrangement. But choice for me is a bad thing. I can never make up my mind. Take the issue of which bunk to choose for example.
First there are the logistics of getting up into the top bunk. Contrary to logic you will often find top bunks in hostels without ladders. Dormitory etiquette says that you should never sit or stand on any bed (or person in it) which is not your own without an invite but it is quite beyond my physical capabilities to haul myself up or flop back down in anything like a ladylike fashion without trampling over the poor stranger who is attempting to sleep below when there is no ladder.
Anyway, assuming that you do end up in the top bunk my top tip is to prepare a little bedtime bag. The little cloth bags with a drawstring are perfect – you can loop the cord around the bedpost or your ankle so that it doesn’t fall out and you now have easy access to a torch, water, book or your locker key which can reduce those annoying treks up and down to terra firma.
Apart from the nuisance of a bathroom run in the night there is also the obvious hazard of falling out. Contravening common sense many hostel bunks do not come with any form of barrier or side bar and I have heard of several occasions when drunk or mobile sleepers have plummeted off.
I also know of one instance when the top bunk collapsed (there were three people sat on it at the time watching a DVD). I always make a quick check of the slats underneath to ensure that they have not migrated off their tracks – and this will hopefully minimise the risk of a swift descent in the night or worst a severe squashing.
If you end up in the bottom bunk lets assume that you have a courteous guest above who is not going to trample you or fall on you in the night. You have the floor where you can store your things you need for bedtime and it is a whole lot easier to go to the bathroom in the night.
But be aware that if you're in a party hostel, you could find yourself getting more than you bargained for if the person sleeping above you comes back drunk or worse still decides to hook up with another traveller and get frisky in the hostel. Top or bottom bunk there is always the potential to crack your head on the ceiling or the underside of the bed above so if you suffer from night terrors and you have an inclination to sit bolt upright in your sleep, calculate the clearance space before settling in.
And don’t think that bunk beds come as standard either. Some dormitories offer triple tier beds, some have a double width bottom bunk and I have even been in one hostel where both the beds, top and bottom were for two people. There's also some very unusual bunk beds out there too from small lofts to a tree trunk bunk bed. Some of the most comfortable beds that I have slept in have been bunk beds, and some of the highest, with no safety rail and that wobble with every breath that you take have been the scariest.
Some of the best dorms have rigged up little curtains around the beds which allows for a bit of privacy in a room, and some have individual reading lights, fans and electrical sockets. Space is usually at a premium in dorms where sometimes you are crammed in like the proverbial sardine, but generally the more beds in a room the cheaper the price. You have to weigh up all the options when deciding which room and bed to opt for, although you can never outguess what sort of guests will be occupying the other beds.
If there is a ladder I always opt for the top bunk. Make your choice wisely.