Forget the spooky, dirty, downtrodden hostels you’ve seen in movies or heard of from a friend of a friend who had a bad experience one time. My motto has always been, and remains, “Try it yourself.” Don’t get me wrong, many hostels don’t exactly compare to your favourite celebrity’s house on MTV Cribs (remember that show?). But I can say with sincerity that every hostel I’ve stayed in, has been well kept and provided me with a few decent nights of sleep.
Lately I’ve been getting asked, “How can you afford to travel so often?” The answer is simple. I travel as cheaply as possible everywhere I go. I shop around more than an a sale hunting mother on Boxing Day for cheap airfare weeks and sometimes months in advance. Also, I almost exclusively stay in hostels. In the past 14 months, I’ve stayed in more than 15 hostels. I’ve had amazing, horrible, and flat out weird experiences. Here’s a first-aid kit of advice for your next (or first) stay in a hostel.
Do Your Homework:
One of the best ways to land a cheap flight is to book the cheapest airfare you find, worry about the destination after (as long as it’s somewhere interesting or new). Booking hostels is different. It pays to read hostel reviews carefully. Make sure the location suits your needs as a traveler. And of course, make sure the price is right. It’s great to pay next to nothing for your hostel, but it’s not so great to stay in a hostel with a 10:00 pm curfew (what is this, grade 6?), terrible wifi, that’s hours away from the all the action or a staff you can’t communicate with. Research is king.
Choose With Care:
Choosing a hostel is sort of like being 6 years old at a kiddy party, and the mother of the house has tastefully put together neat little party bags for all the kids in attendance. There’s something for everyone. I’ve stayed in hostels that felt more like resorts or 5 star hotels than hostels. I’ve also stayed at hostels that provide nothing but the bare bones of accommodation. Some hostels even go as far as describing the kind of hostel they are in their names, IE: luxury hostel, backpackers hostel, youth hostel, party hostel etc. But beware, depending on the hostel you choose, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of noise or an overabundance of alone time. Balance is everything.
You Are not Alone:
Unless you’ve booked a private room in your hostel (more expensive, but at times needed), you’ll be sharing your room with at least one other person. The more people you share your room with, the cheaper your accommodation. Don’t be that guy or girl who leaves their cellphone ringer on loud, pops open a crinkly bag of potato chips or candy or sits on FaceTime talking to their best friend or partner while people are trying to sleep. Not a cool move. Be considerate of your roommates, keep it down, or find a location that permits you to make a bit more noise.
Eat in the dining area or outside. Talk as much as you want in the common room. Planning an early morning trip the next day? Prepare whatever you need the night before, wake up, and get dressed in the bathroom.
Prepare For The Best, Expect The Worst:
Like anything else in this big beautiful world of ours, when things can go wrong, often times they do. What matters most in these situations is how you respond to the less than favourable circumstances. Don’t book a $7/night hostel in a developing country and expect to walk in and be greeted with a red carpet. The amount you pay doesn’t always equate to the quality of hostel but it may be a small indicator. However, I’ve stayed in ”5 star” resorts that I wouldn’t return to if they were all expenses paid, and I’ve stayed in budget hostels that really had the whole hospitality thing covered from A to Z.
Things go wrong, deal with it. Some hostels give terrible directions. Others will have squeaky beds. Some will have broken air conditioning in the middle of the summer. Others will screw up your booking. Roll with the punches and make the best of it.
I never used to review anything. It seemed like a waste of time. But reviews really do help fellow travellers decide where to stay. Even if you’ll never get a direct “Thank you,” from the person who decided to book a hostel based on your reviews and others, traveller’s karma is real. Pay it forward my friend, or it will find you, and it will get you.
You spent money on airfare. You spent money on a hostel. And sure, you want to taste the local food too. After all, it’s one of the best parts of traveling. But you don’t have to break your bank eating out every single day. Book a hostel with a proper kitchen. Find a grocery store, buy the basics and prepare your meals (sandwiches, fruits, snacks). It’ll go a long way towards stretching your dollars as far as possible when you’re out discovering the world. Look for hostels with microwaves, full-sized refrigerators, cupboard space, toaster ovens and the like (read the reviews).
What’s better than cooking your own food? Splitting the bill with a group of friends and taking turns cooking. Can’t cook? Use the internet and look up a simple recipe. You have no excuse. Everyone should be able to cook. Make your mother proud. This also gives you the chance to test out ingredients and seasonings you may not have access to in your hometown. Who knows? Maybe you have a hidden talent.
Tip: Put your things in a plastic bag, grab a marker, and write your name on your stuff.
Steve Jobs wore the same black turtle neck and jeans daily. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt. Barack Obama has someone in his staff choose his suits for him. What do the three have in common aside from being extremely popular, intelligent, successful men? They take guesswork out of their daily routine to save time and energy. Choose a hostel that offers breakfast with decent hours or that has breakfast restaurants very nearby. You’re traveling, and time is of the essence, so speed up your morning routine. It may cost you a few dollars more, but you’ll save hours of valuable explorer time.
Not a personal favourite of mine (if it doesn’t emit music, I don’t want it in my ears), but I’ve seen countless backpackers/travellers cosy up with ear plugs to ensure a solid night of sleep. You’ll share rooms with sometimes up to more than a dozen people. You’ll have a few heavyweight snorers in the bunch, I guarantee it. Ear plugs are the perfect snore stoppers. Snoring won’t be the only thing your sleep is competing with either. If you’re in a busy neighbourhood, there’ll be cars honking, music blasting, people shouting, things falling (people included). Ear plugs are the solution to all of these. Get yourself some.
I was never a fan of wearing anything on my feet while indoors, not socks, not house shoes, not flip flops. That changed when I started staying in hostels. With so many people using the same shower, pool or even kitchen, chances are, something unsavoury may end up under your feet. Avoid being hurt, infected or grossed out by wearing a pair of flip flops. You should contact the hostel you’ve booked to ask if they provide complimentary flip flops. Many of them do, but not all, better safe than sticky.
This is more relevant in exotic, mosquito ridden locations like the Caribbean or southeast Asia. I’m convinced that there’s a united nation of bugs somewhere whose mission statement is to ruin as many tropical vacations as possible. That beachfront hostel is great for dozens of reasons. But do you know what’s not so great? Swatting and slapping at flies or itching all of your mosquito bites that seem to multiply exponentially with every passing day. They’ll get into your hostel and make your stay a living hell. Reject the little bastards with some repellant.
The possibilities are endless. From laundry, to having liquids spilled on you inadvertently, to being shoved into (or willfully jumping into) a body of water. You may need to dry a few things off throughout your stay at a hostel. Pack a few hangers, latch them on to your bunk, or hang them in the washroom to save yourself the hassle of paying for a laundry service or lugging around a bunch of wet clothes in your suitcase. Hang dry them.
Tip: If you’re going out for a night on the town but your nice clothes are wrinkled, hang them in a bathroom stall away from the water, block as many gaps in the stall as possible, and let the steam from the hot water remove the wrinkles for you.
Another not so favourite of mine (voluntarily blinding myself feels weird), but I can’t deny it’s practical use. I’m a morning person. As a matter of fact, I’m usually up way before the sun (even if that means I forgot to sleep). But for those among you who need 8-10 hours of sleep to function, at a hostel, an eye mask is golden. They also come in handy when you get stuck on the side of the room with the window (if your hostel has windows) and borderline see-through drapes. I cover my head with a pillow, or blanket, or both. But if you’re traveling, there’s probably an airplane involved somewhere, snag a free eye mask and bring it along for your journey.
I had a conversation with some friends I made in a hostel in Hong Kong about the use of Kindles, Kobos and other eReaders versus physical books while on the road. As practical as eReaders are, I don’t use them. But hats off to you if you do, to each their own. There’s something about the smell and feel of a real book that gives the words on the page, life. And the best part about proper books is that you never have to recharge them or wait for a wifi connection to use them.
Many travellers make use of book swapping at hostels as a way of getting new reading material for free or sparking up great conversations about their favourite author or how the director of that movie adaptation of a book did a horrible job.
Aside from a tube of toothpaste, I’ve never had any of my belongings stolen from any hostel that I’ve stayed in. Maybe it’s my traveller’s karma kicking in or maybe my hostel mates have simply been aware that I’m a high ranking ninja from a secret clan that they’d rather not mess with. For the rest of you, a padlock is a good idea. While some hostels offer lockers and keys upon check-in, many do not. You don’t want to have your gadgets, money, documents or memories stolen. Lock ’em up.
If it’s electronically powered, it’ll die on you eventually. Nowadays we travel with more gadgets than clothing: laptops, tablets, cameras, phones, eReaders, the works. These devices won’t charge themselves. Buy a universal adapter with a few USB ports built-in and charge all (or most) of your devices at once. Also, the universal adapter will work in any outlet in the world. I bought one as soon as arrived in China. It’s been one of my best small investments.
It’s good to have an extension cord as well. I once stayed in a hostel with 1 electrical outlet and 4 beds (c’mon guys, it’s 2015, get with the times). Finally, spend a bit of money on a portable (lithium) battery. I’ve seen hundreds of people all over Asia with them. They aren’t allowed on airplanes, so put them in your checked baggage. But they’ll definitely bail you out of a few dead phone situations.
Not a fan of washing another person’s dishes in order to cook and eat your own food? Me neither. Head down to a local coffee shop or fast-food joint and grab yourself a spoon, knife, chopsticks and fork. If your hostel doesn’t provide these in the form of proper silverware in the kitchen. They’ll come in handy. Wash them and reuse them for the duration of your stay, toss them when you leave.
Tip: Starbucks has excellent (durable) plastic cutlery, if I do say so myself.
Laundry bags come in handy for two reasons. First, if you didn’t read the part of this post where I suggested you pack a hanger or two, you can stuff your wet and dirty clothes in your laundry bag. Second, laundry bags come in handy when showering, particularly in cramped spaces. Throw all your toiletries in, hang the bag on the shower head and freshen up. Many hostels (especially budget hostels) don’t provide space for toiletries in shower stalls, people generally leave them on the floor.
Make shower time a little easier on yourself with a laundry bag. It also guarantees that your underwear and socks don’t go missing if you decide to use the hostel laundry service. Many single sides of socks have perished that way.
If you’re on the road for an extended amount of time, you’ll need to wash a few things. Why waste money on the overpriced laundry service at your hostel when you can roll your sleeves up and get the job done for a fraction of the price? Remember those hangers I mentioned? Yea, they’ll come in handy here too. Once you have your detergent, all you need is some sort of scrubbing tool (one you can probably find at the hostel for free) and a bucket or something to plug the sink. The more you save on the little things, the longer you get to stay on the road, and that’s the ultimate endgame.
You should have a water bottle with you 24/7 whether you’re traveling or not. Drinking water is the best and easiest way in the world to stay sexy. But a water bottle can be used for so much more than drinking water. You can use it to drink any other kind of liquid or even small meals like salads. You can also use it to keep important documents dry when you’re on the go. But please, if you’re going to turn your bottle into a multipurpose tool, make sure you clean it regularly and thoroughly.
Hostels aren’t for everyone. The fact of the matter is, not everyone has what it takes to rough it, even a little bit, on the road. But I do think everyone should try staying in a few different hostels before they knock the whole hostel experience. You can find hostels for solo travellers, couples, families and pretty much any other category of traveller there is out there.
As for budget travellers, hostel accommodations are one of the best ways to extend your travels, make new friends and see the world.
Ready to book? Head to these sites to get started!
- Hostel Bookers – Hostels, Hotels & Youth Hostels
- Hostels.com – Great Deals On Hostels Anywhere
- Booking.com – Hostels Around The World
- Hostel World – Home To The World’s Greatest Hostels
- Agoda – Cheap Hotel (& Hostel) Reservations [Best for booking in Asia]
- Hostelz.com – The Hostel Information Data [compare rates between Hostel Bookers and Hostel World].
- Skyscanner – Find cheap flights and compare rates for the previously listed hostel sites at the same time.
PS: Having a hard time finding a cheap hostel in the developing world? Search guesthouses instead via TripAdvisor for unlisted properties with good rates.
Until next time,
Have you ever stayed in a hostel? Do you have any tips to make staying in a hostel more enjoyable? Share an intelligent comment below in the comment section. Your fellow readers and I would love to hear from you. Hit me on Twitter [at]DriftAway2015 or on Facebook on the Drift Away – Travel Blog fan page.