I am a solo female traveler. That’s how I identify myself when I travel and it speaks to both how I like to travel and also what my limitations are. I’m not independently wealthy, nor do I have the inclination to wait for friends or family to find the time to travel with me so that means that I travel alone and I also try to travel as economically as I can. Check out my article here on how to survive as a solo traveler.
A consequence to my circumstance is that I spend a lot of time staying in hostels. After over 10 years of hostel life I feel overly qualified to help new travellers who are hesitant about staying in a hostel for the first time. Read on for a guide on what you can expect from a stay in a hostel.
What is NOT a hostel?
Sometimes when I speak to someone from an older generation and mention that I’ve been staying in a hostel they get a look of horror on their faces. Recently when visiting family in Toronto, my uncle described the only hostel he knew that was located in a shady part of the city. It was frequented by drug addicts and was often raided by the police. It was known to have a queer smell and respectable people generally stayed away.
Words I would use to describe these types of lodgings include halfway house, flophouse or lodging house. These types of accommodations cater more for transients, people on the fringes of society and more commonly addicts and people with mental disabilities. Modern hostels are not like this.
What is a hostel like?
Choosing your right kind of hostel is very important as there really is something for everyone out there. You might not want to stay in an eco-hostel because of the smell from the compost and the marijuana smoking residents but someone else might treasure the opportunity to make a difference to the environment and jamming into the night with a band of makeshift instruments.
A party hostel, on the other hand, is filled with booze-crazed 20-somethings and can be a good time until you’re woken up by the guy across the room throwing up on the bunk below him - true story!
Generally speaking, here’s the experience you can expect from a decent hostel:
You walk in and are greeted by someone at reception. Often this is another traveller like you who has opted to stay a while in the city and is working a few hours a day in exchange for a free bed and maybe some meals. They’ll check you in and probably ask for your passport as identification. They will offer you a map of the city and explain how the hostel works, point out the facilities and show you to your room and your bed.
I usually take this time to either introduce myself to anyone hanging out in the dorm or head to the common area to meet people and feel out the vibe. It’s better to do this sooner so that you know what’s on the cards for that evening and what everyone has planned for the next day. This way you don’t miss out on anything!
A hostel might offer breakfast and this may as simple as toast, butter and jam with tea or coffee or as elaborate as a fully cooked breakfast with fruit, cereals and fresh juice. Some hostels offer a make-your-own pancake breakfast which is a happy medium. They provide the batter and syrup and you cook it yourself. Generally you will have to do all your dishes yourself in any scenario.
Most hostels will have some sort of kitchen access and it can be a fun activity trying to find a knife capable of actually cutting. Even if you don’t plan on cooking, a kitchen is great to store and reheat leftovers the next day. There will usually be a pen or marker to label your food so it’s not thrown out. The hostel kitchen is also a good place to meet new people. Offer to share your meal with a hungry looking backpacker who’s got a sad looking bowl of cereal for dinner and you will have made a friend for life!
There should be some sort of common area and often there are multiple including a living room; tv room; courtyard; balcony; roof top; or terrace space. A good hostel has many places to just hang out and relax, perfect for those days when you are exhausted from a 20 hour bus trip or you’ve had enough of sightseeing.
A good hostel will have at least one activity organised during the week. This could be a walking tour, a pub crawl, a bbq or a trivia night. This will be another great opportunity to meet people!
Lastly, a hostel usually has all the regular amenities that you would expect from a good hotel or guesthouse, including wifi, computer access, book exchange and all the tourist information you can handle.
There are eco-hostels, party hostels, luxury hostels, youth-only hostels, all-inclusive hostels, meditation hostels, capsule hostels and the list really goes on and on. Once you decide what type of hostel you prefer that will dictate the type of people you’re likely to be surrounded with.
Check out my guide to booking travel to make sure you pick the best hostel in each location.
What are the people like?
One of the benefits of a hostel is that you can meet people from all different walks of life who will have at least one thing in common with you; they love to travel! I’ve met people who are well off in their careers and could easily afford a nice hotel but choose to stay in a hostel because of the unique opportunity to meet new people.
There will be a mix of solo travellers, couples and groups of friends. You’ll meet people who are travelling for years, months or just a couple of weeks. I’ve stayed in dorms with people as young as 17 and one gentleman who was 75 and everyone in between. I'm almost 30 but have been staying in hostels since I was 18. There are lots of 20 years olds but also a fair number of people in their early 30's.
There will always be the night owl, who is incapable of going to bed before 3 in the morning, the early bird (usually me!) who quietly creeps out of bed at 6 am, the open-mouthed snorer and the guy with the smelliest pile of clothes you ever thought possible.
Some people you won’t click with and sometimes you get the opportunity to meet a new friend. I am lucky enough to have several people that I have met while staying in hostels that I consider to be some of my closest friends. At the very least you might meet someone who offers you a couch for some future destination.
What are the rooms like?
In a hostel you often find dormitories and private rooms. In each option you might have an ensuite or separate shared bathrooms. Costs are dictated by the level of privacy involved, for example, a private room for 2 people with a private ensuite would be more expensive than an 8-bed dormitory with a separate shared bathroom located down the hall.
In a dormitory you will commonly find bunk beds of varying quality. Sometimes it will be the stock standard bunk bed that you can find in the shops and sometimes you will find some custom made bunks. These days I’ve started to expect the latter from my hostels, as a cheap bunk bed that squeaks and sways when someone gets in doesn’t cut it anymore. Some hostels will do only separate beds but that’s a rarity.
Sometimes they expect you to make your own bed and hand in the sheets when you leave. You should always be provided with sheets and blankets if you need them. You will often be offered a towel either for free, a deposit or a small fee.
Better hostels will often have some extras built into the bunk including a lamp for reading at night, your own power outlet, a bedside locker, small shelf or cubby and the ultimate indulgence - a privacy curtain!
Dorms can have anywhere from 4 beds to 12 beds and above. I’ve stayed in a 20 bed dorm and heard stories of whole floors of bunk beds! They will often be priced based on how many beds are in a room. For female travellers traveling on their own, there are often female only dorms available to give you a greater sense of privacy and you get to avoid the smelly boys at night.
Most importantly, is the epic struggle for the bottom bunk. Bring it up when you first check in and if there isn’t one available make sure to find out when you can switch!
What about the facilities?
You should either have a locker in your room or somewhere in the hostel to keep your electronics, cash, cards, passport and whatever else you want to keep safe. Most of the time you will need your own lock so make sure to bring a couple with you but often the hostel will rent or sell locks.
If the bathroom isn’t attached to the room, then you can expect a separate male and female shower area. As I mentioned, towels are not provided and the it’s likely that shower soap won’t be either.
Often the hostel will have some sort of honesty system for snacks and beer. This is basically a fridge where you can take a drink when you need one and write your name down on a tab and pay for everything when you check out. Some hostels also have a bar or cafe within or attached.
Luxury dorms and hostels
There are more luxury and up-market hostels popping up for those who still want the hostel environment but enjoy the finer things in life. I’ve stayed in some hostels that offer a separate wing, floor or area for VIP-style accommodation where you have access to faster wifi, fancy bathrooms, a separate common area and nicer dorms and private rooms. You can still mingle with the common folk but can retire to your nicer digs at night and when you want a break.
Hostel Pros and Cons
- Potential to share with smelly/noisy/snorey people
- May have to wait for a toilet or shower
- Certain etiquette to be followed e.g. lights out at a reasonable time, no chatting in the room too late etc.
- Drastically reduced accommodation costs
- Breakfast often included
- Increased opportunity for meeting people
- Access to a kitchen
- Access to common areas
- Bar or café located on the grounds or connected
Are hostels for everybody?
Hostels are not for everyone. Sometimes even the private rooms can be below expectations and sleeping in a dorm with a group of strangers can certainly take some getting used to. That said, if you can get past the dramatic loss of privacy, staying in a hostel is a great option for those looking to stretch their money out and has the extra benefit of being the perfect place for solo travellers looking for temporary travel buddies.