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Ask TF: Should I Stay In a Hostel?

I'm a big fan of hostels. If you go back and pick any one of my posts chances are you'll read about my experience in a hostel in whatever foreign country I happen to be in at the time. A bunch of my friends, however, have reached out to me recently to get help when venturing into the backpacker's lifestyle. I've consolidated my best advice below so that whoever reads this can find the best hostel experience possible. All of this is based on my own personal experience and findings, because I often learn best when learning the hard way. Hopefully this is helpful and you can learn from my own triumphs and mistakes.

Use HostelWorld and Pay For a Flexible Booking

HostelWorld is my go-to. Occasionally I'll book directly with the hostel that I'm staying at if they're offering a discount or running a special if you do so but 90% of the time I'm going through HostelWorld. They don't have the most modern website but it works and it works well even when you find yourself standing around in London with 3G cellular service trying to book a new room because the hostel you booked is being shady and asking for more money in cash only (true story).

Go For Hostels With a Rating of 80 or Higher

I've flirted with 79 rating hostels in the past and have been disappointed by the cleanliness. That's really the biggest difference between something below 80 and something above it. Sure you're staying in a shared space and sharing a bathroom with a dozen other people but it doesn't have to feel like that. Good hostels will keep it tidy and clean so that you don't feel like you're taking a shower at a public pool.

Read the Comments on Ratings

Like on Amazon, comments will tell you everything you need to know. Do they vacuum often? Is the room super loud until 3am when the bars close? Will you find a dead mouse under your bed? Can you expect to make new friends there? All the possible things you may want to know are in the comments section. Read them. Go a few pages deep and keep reading. It's important to go into this knowing what to expect.

Stay in a Room of 8 or Fewer Beds

Prices are typically based on the number of people you're sharing a room with. See that $15 a night bed? It's in a room with 15 other people. It may not seem to bad now but in my experience the more people you add the less civil it becomes. In a 4 person room everyone is cordial and apologetic if they come back in the middle of the night, trying their best not to wake anyone up. In a 20 person room they'll throw on the lights and start talking loudly to their friends when they come back at 4am then sit at the foot of your bed on Instagram for the next hour because it's the one next to the only outlet of the room (both are true stories).

Get a Social Experience - Party Hostel or Happening Common Room

Remember my tip about reading the comments? You should also read the description of the hostel. Does the hostel describe themselves as a party hostel? Do they have a bar in the lobby? Then go into it knowing that everyone is there to be social and have a good time (and probably not sleep much). Does the hostel talk about their popular common room? Do the comments talk about hanging out in the common room? Or activities that the staff organizes? Awesome! Then you've found yourself a hostel where they may not be party animals but people are looking to make new friends. Staying somewhere without either of these things feels more like a shared hotel then an experience - look for a place that people describe as social for the best possible experience.

Going Solo? Consider a Single Room

I hate the top bunk. It is my worst fear when traveling alone and staying in a hostel, that I get assigned the top. With a bum knee and a bad ankle and not nearly enough upper body strength it's a recipe for torture. I've been lucky to only have one occasion where I was assigned a top bunk and had no choice but to stay there for my entire visit. It was torture, especially going out partying all night then having to somehow make my way back up (I had actually considered sleeping on the couch in the common room but when I got back they were all taken, probably by other top bunkers). You can request a bottom bed at check-in but I've found sometimes when I'm traveling alone that it's nice to just have a single room. You get all the best parts of the hostel - other people, activities, adventure - without having any roommates. If it's economical I'll sometimes splurge and get a single room, but sometimes the cost can be just as much as a hotel so be careful and do your homework first.

Check Out Their Website

Even though I usually book on HostelWorld I'll still check the hostel's website. Their site will tell you a lot about the patron they're looking to attract as well as give you a heads up on any activities that you can expect to be happening. They may also have better pictures of the rooms and building to help round out your research from reading all the reviews and descriptions. Rarely you'll find one running a special or find out that it's part of a network of hostels. For those that are part of a larger network it's helped me to steer my decision making on where to stay in other cities where the hostel network may be present, especially if I've had a great experience in sister hostels.

Location, Location, Location

Like with any real estate location is critical. The vast majority of hostels are typically just outside of the city or on the outskirts. There are a few cities where the hostels are in the center but even then it's critical to be mindful of everything else surrounding the hostel. Once you've done all your research and think you've narrowed down the list to a couple of options, open up your trusty Google Maps and see where it is in the city. How close is the hostel to public transportation? The tourist sites? Restaurants? Grocery? Liquor Store? Bar? How far is it from the airport? These are all important questions. There's nothing worse then being at a great hostel but finding that you're a mile away from the nearest bottle shop or on a subway line that is inconvenient to the major ones.


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