It took me 24 years of my life to discover hostels. I feel sad to say that aloud. But ever since my first hostel experience in July last year, and successive stays in other hostels since, I’ve not looked back.
There were a number of reasons why I’d never ventured to hostel territory: the most common being the misconception that hostels are unsafe, dirty places where you only meet promiscuous humans. Bad misconception.
After staying in a variety of hostels, from the party places to the quiet, family-run stays, my train of thought is totally different: why pay £50 a night for a posh and pretty hotel (if you’re lucky) where you’ll spend the night most likely sipping expensive drinks in the lobby, with just a bartender for company? Why do that when you can pay roughly half that price or less, for the company of likeminded others, good conversation and satisfactory amenities [made up for by the fact that you’ll probably have a more memorable and exciting experience]?
Convinced? Here are a few things you should know before staying in a hostel.
- Not all hostels are booze fests. Some are, granted. You’ll probably be able to tell by the hostel’s bio: if it says the owners will greet you with a beer when you walk in, it’s likely to be that kind of place.
- The so-called ‘free breakfast’ might not be the buffet you expect. You’ll probably get a few stale crossaints, sugary cereal and some milk if you’re lucky. Beggars can’t be choosers. And remember to wash up your crockery once you’re done.
- Ear plugs are essential. People snore, slam doors and talk really loudly. Don’t get annoyed: just plug in.
- Dorms vs private rooms: pick from four, six, ten or sixteen bed dorms, or opt for a private room if you like your privacy. I’ve always opted for a four or six-bed dorm as it’s way easier to make friends. Also, try and opt for a dorm with a private bathroom – you don’t want to have to trail through a corridor in your towel after showering in a cubicle you have to share with 12 others. You can go for a mixed dorm or same-sex, depending on how brave you are.
- Flip flops for the shower. Essential. You don’t want to come home with fungus on your feet.
- Kitchen etiquette. Most hostels offer kitchen facilities, such as crockery, microwaves, ovens, kettles etc. Wash up after yourself and label any food you leave in the fridge or else you might find it’s vanished tomorrow.
- Most hostels have social areas such as a communal living room, kitchen or maybe an outdoor space. It’s the perfect place to introduce yourself to others and perhaps make some lifelong friends. Make conversation: ask people where they’ve visited so far, how long they’ll be here, where they’re from and the conversation will flow easily. Don’t be shy – you’ll be surprised at how friendly people are and how keen they are to make friends.
- Bottom bunk please. If you get the choice, bag the bottom bunk. It’s way more convenient; no climbing stairs, and it’s quicker to get to the toilet and the door!
- Take a padlock: most hostels provide lockers where you can stow away belongings. Assess the security of them before putting away all your life’s treasures: sometimes it may be better to carry your bits on your person.
- Pick carefully. There are some terrible hostels, but if you choose carefully via sites such as hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com, and assess the security ratings and reviews, and select wisely, you’ll probably end up in a good place.
- Treat your roomies as you’d like them to treat you. I had some courteous party animals sleeping in the beds in my dorm, and although they crawled in at 5am, they kindly used their iPhone torches to seek out their pyjamas and the bathroom before knocking out for the night, with minimal disturbance to me.
- Make the most of your hostel. Participate in its bar crawl/walking tour or any activities it offers. They’re probably cheaper than those offered by actual companies, and also a great way to make friends while experiencing a place properly. Often, hostel workers and owners have some of the best recommendations for places to see or eat at, too – chat to them.
- People may steal things. If you leave your iPad and your money lying around, don’t be surprised if it’s gone in the morning. Keep belongings hidden and try to get to know your roomies. Whilst travelling in Australia, I met a girl who said her clothes were stolen from her suitcase. It happens. Keep it locked when you’re not around.
- Wi-Fi. If you get Instagram/Facebook/Twitter withdrawal symptoms, pick a hostel that gives you free Wi-Fi or an internet connection. It might not be the fastest thing on earth, and it may cut out when you’re half way through posting a picture on Instagram, though.
- Towels, luggage storage, laundry, and similar amenities. You’ll have to pay extra for them if you want them. This ain’t the Four Seasons yo. Try hand washing your pants and hanging them on the rails of your bunk instead – or create a makeshift line dryer if you’re smart enough; make a friend and ask if you can store your luggage in their room for an hour or two if you are desperate to save on cash.
- Grubbiness. Sink holes plugged up with hair, strange smells and bugs in beds (and worse) are all possible. But if you choose your hostel wisely, and book in advance, rather than just turning up at a place and asking for a bed, you put yourself in a better position to avoid this.
- You don’t need a backpack. So far, I’ve always travelled with a suitcase. A full 20kg suitcase sometimes. So if you can’t pack light, don’t worry: you won’t be frowned upon!
- Some hostels feel like hotels. The bathrooms are spotless and the interior is fresh, so if that’s the kind of environment you like, I’m sure you’ll find it if you look hard enough. Every hostel has its own character: check out pictures before you book and you’ll get a feel for what it’s like.