How To: Choose a Hostel

One of my favorite parts about traveling in Europe was staying in hostels. I know a lot of people have their reservations about hostels, especially concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and personal safety (which I will address in this post), but I can sincerely say I have not had any serious issues.

Reasons why you should stay in a hostel:

  1. It’s typically the cheapest option. In my experience, hostels can range anywhere from 9 – 30 euros a night per person depending on the city, season, day(s) of the week, and room type.
  2. Hostels are very convenient. Many have 24-hour reception and security, free wi-fi, lockers for securing your personal items, free city maps, communal kitchens (if you want to cook dinner), and luggage storage (so you don’t have to worry about dragging your luggage around before checking in and after checking out).
  3. Hostels tend to have a younger, fun crowd. You can make new friends and swap stories with fellow travelers. AND it’s always more fun when you’re the (more) experienced traveler who has the crazy stories to share and impress others with!
  4. There is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, find out their story, and learn about their culture.
Reading room in our hostel in Granada

Reading room in our hostel in Granada

Making friends in Berlin

Making friends in Berlin

Guide to choosing a good hostel

Here’s how I start my search when using Hostelworld. I first type in the city and dates, and then I narrow the search by adjusting the price range (my preference is < €30) and rating percentage (70% or higher is decent). To narrow the search even further, I always read the reviews, considering the following…

You can rank these in any order, but they are important factors in determining how much you will enjoy your hostel. This is my personal ranking of what is most important:

  1. Availability: This seems like a no-brainer. Why look at a hostel that doesn’t have a room for your travel dates? Hostels may have “partial availability” for your dates, meaning there isn’t a room consecutively available for all of your nights but maybe there are other rooms available to make up for that. Example: the hostel I am looking at has a room for three people on Friday and Saturday, but not Sunday. However they have a different room available on Sunday. I can make two separate bookings to stay at this hostel if I really, really, really want to be there, but it’s unnecessary added stress to pack up all of my belongings in the morning on Sunday, check out, move my luggage into storage until I can check in to my new room, and then unpack all over again, just to re-pack for when I am REALLY departing. Trust me, I did this before, and the hostel didn’t even have an elevator!
  2. Location: Always look at the location carefully on a map. Don’t just take the hostel’s word that it is “within walking distance of the main sights.” (In Barcelona, I would be told that what I was looking for was “very close” and that could easily mean a 20-minute power walk!) If you have an address, plug it in to Google Maps and look at the distance between your hostel and the downtown area or historical section of a city where you will probably be headed. By picking a hostel with a centralized location, you can avoid spending more money on public transportation or wasting time spent walking great distances.
  3. Price: It’s pretty even with location, but I rank this third because a cheaper hostel in a far location and a more expensive hostel in the city center might even out in cost. I consider the location and price together since they do have this relationship, but if the prices would break even or if the slightly more expensive hostel had a better location, I would pick the central one. Location wins for me, since it’s frustrating to constantly waste more time or money if I have to take public transportation to enter the city center.
  4. Room type: The price and room type are intertwined. Here is some info about different room types and the terminology used:
    • Dorms: These are the cheapest rooms. Usually you will be in a bunk bed of some type (it could even be a triple bunk). The number of beds can be anywhere from four to well over twenty, depending on the overall size of the hostel.
      • Mixed dorms: I have never been in a mixed room that was segregated. Boys will be sleeping next to girls. If the idea makes you uncomfortable, look for a single-sex room. Once a guy requested to change rooms because he didn’t feel comfortable being the only male… so if you think you’ll feel this way, don’t select mixed rooms.
    • Private rooms: To book a private room, you must fill up all of the beds. If you have only two travelers but want a private room for four, you will have to pay for all four beds.
    • Ensuite: There is a bathroom “attached” that only those in the room can use. These are usually more expensive than shared bathrooms, but on the bright side, there are fewer people to compete with when getting ready.
  5. Cleanliness: Nobody wants to sleep with bed bugs or use a dirty shower!
  6. Amenities: What does the hostel offer? I already mentioned some of the general perks, but what does one hostel have that another doesn’t? What kind of services are important to you? Is breakfast included? (Money-saving tip! Hostel breakfasts are small, usually consisting of cereal, milk/tea/coffee, bread and jams. It’s not much but it saves you the hassle of buying breakfast elsewhere.) Are there free walking tours? Will the hostel charge you to store your luggage?  Is linen included in the price? These are little things to watch out for that can add on to the base price. Other things to consider: Is there 24-hour reception, which makes it easier to arrive late and check-out early if needed? Is there a curfew (consider this if you have an early/late arrival and plan on late returns)?
  7. Security: I have never felt unsafe in a hostel. Maybe a little unsure of if I should leave my valuables in the locker, but I’ve never felt like my physical safety was in jeopardy. Hostels have different standards for keys and lockers, and I think this may be the main reason for the wide range of  ratings. Some hostels do not issue keys because they do not have locked doors for the rooms (but you can store your valuables in a locker, so you should be fine). Others are very strict about who they allow to enter. Some lockers are old and broken down. Others are high-tech. The security rating of a hostel has never worried me much since there is always a way to work with what you are given. However this does NOT mean automatically picking the hostel with a 30% security rating! Read the reviews, and use your own judgment.
  8. Character: I don’t take a hostel’s atmosphere or character into much consideration. The hostel is a place to sleep and shower, and maybe eat dinner. I don’t need a fancy common room to sit in, or a bar or club downstairs. I like to spend as little waking time in the hostel as possible; I’m in a city to explore, not to sit in my room all day. This won’t be the same for everyone; some people like to mingle in hostels and grab a drink.
Time for shots at the Yes! Hostel in Oporto

Time for shots at the Yes! Hostel in Oporto

Other things to look out for:

  • Read hostel information carefully. Some prices listed on the site may not include an additional booking fee charged by the hostel, or a “tourist tax” like in Rome. This will be noted in the description.

My favorite sites for booking hostels:

  • Hostelworld.com – Hostelworld has been voted the most trusted hostel website of 2012. I almost always use this site unless I can find a better deal elsewhere, which is rare.  Hostelworld has an extensive directory of different accommodation types – 27,000 properties in 180 countries, according to their site. You can book hostelsbudget hotels, and bed and breakfastsHostelworld charges a fee for each booking, so book as a single group if you have travel buddies. A single booking also guarantees that you and your friends will be in the same room.
  • Hostelbookers.com – While this site does not charge a booking fee, not as many hostels are listed.

Tip: Check through both (or multiple) sites before booking. Sometimes one will give you a better deal than the other. For example, once booking through Hostelworld required a 3-night stay for the weekend but using Hostelbookers didn’t, so I used Hostelbookers. Occasionally the price or the room availability can also vary between the sites. If the hostel has a Facebook page or its own website, check the price there too since they may offer discounted rates for fans.

I don’t have personal experience with the following sites, but in case you want to have a look:

If I didn’t convince you that hostels are awesome, safe, and easy to book, here are some alternative accommodations:

  1. Hotels: The cost of staying in a 2-star hotel may be comparable to staying in a hostel, which could be a better choice for pairs of travelers who aren’t comfortable sharing a large dorm with strangers.
  2. Couch surfing
  3. Air BnB: I tried going this route once, but found it to be too difficult for the short-notice stay that we needed. There was not as much flexibility, and not nearly as many options, as with hostels. The communication process between me and the host was slow, with an average one-day wait for every sent message and reply. Once we had explained our travel plans, the host wanted to charge extra for things like having to “watch” our luggage while we would be out exploring (and that’s the best deal we found while trying to use Air BnB for Munich!). I know it won’t be the same with every host, but this is just my personal take on using this site. It can definitely work if you plan enough in advance, so you’ll have the necessary time to arrange your stay.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, suggestions, or general feedback, please leave a comment.

Jennifer

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4 responses to “How To: Choose a Hostel

  1. Pingback: Tips For Staying in a Hostel | i who wander·

  2. Very cool. Makes me wish I would have traveled more before settling down and having kids.

  3. Great idea friend. Here a point
    Before booking a hostel, make sure that you are keeping your safety a priority. Get information on the crime in the neighborhood the property is in, check how close the nearest metro or bus stop is, and see what kinds of security measures the accommodation has in place. Do you need a key or code to get in the front door? Can anyone come into the hostel or only people with a room booked? Is there someone at the front desk 24 hours keeping guard? Are there lockers provided to store your valuables? Keep these questions in mind before booking.

  4. Pingback: Hostel Etiquette 101 | I who wander...·

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