HostelbookersWhat is a Hostel Like? 

Just like restaurants, hotels, schools, and bars, hostels run the gamut.  Some are fabulous, some not so much, but they tend to have some things in common.

Hostels are social. They are place to mingle with other travelers.

Hostels are inexpensive.  Most hostels have dorm beds (reduced rate) and private rooms available.  Bathrooms are usually shared. These days, hostels do not require you to vacate during the day, nor do they require you to be a “youth”.

Many hostels offer more than just a place to sleep.  There are common areas which may include, TV, internet, book exchanges, cooking and laundry facilities. Hostels can hook you up with day tours, advise you on local transportation and maybe even help you with your booking for next town.  Many hostels include restaurants and bars.

young shanahan's photo of the common area in Abhrams Hostel, Jerusalem.

Common areas for “hanging out” are a special feature of hostels. Photo by young shanahan.

Hostels are not the creepy places depicted in horror movies.  Indeed, as a woman traveling alone, I always feel safer in a hostel.  If something bad is happening, there are other people around to help me.  And if I’m unsure about journeying out after dark, I can find fellow travelers to join.

Many of the hostels I’ve stayed in have been in spectacular settings such as the 12th-century castle on the Rhine at Bacharach, Germany; the Zhengjia International Youth Hostel, a historic home with a charming courtyard  in Ping Yao, China; or the residence of a master jade carver in New Zealand (travelers would sit around in the dining room table in the evenings drinking beer and sanding down a jade necklace which had been cut just for them).

Should I stay in a Hostel?

Stay in a hostel if:

–       You are on a budget.  Hostels are substantially cheaper than hotels and second only to sleeping free, they can really help to stretch the your lodging funds.

–       You’re traveling solo and are in need of some conversation (or are not traveling solo, but really like contact with other travelers).  Of course, you’re always welcome to hide away alone on your bunk. But if you need some contact with other travelers, this is a good way to get it.

–       You’re desperate for some “home” cooked food.  Amazingly enough, a person can get really sick of eating out, especially if you’re someplace where every restaurant seems to offer the same the menu.  Access to a kitchen can be truly priceless.

–       You just want to.  When I fantasize about a future in which money is less of a factor in my decisions, I still imagine staying in hostels.  They’re fun.  A richer me might splurge on a private room, but I wouldn’t want the isolation of a hotel.

Roger Wollstadt's photo of Burg Stahleck, a 12th century castle turned youth hostel in Bacharach, Germany.

The “castle hostel” in Bacharach, Germany. Photo by Roger Wollstadt.

–       When might you not want to stay in a hostel? When you’re on a romantic getaway and looking for privacy with that special someone; or when you’re suffering from “Bali belly,” “Montezuma’s revenge,” or any other euphemism for diarrhea and would really be better off with your own room, and more importantly, your own bathroom; or when you’re just extra crabby and absolutely can’t stand to be around other people.

How to book a Hostel: 

These days there are a million and one ways to book a hostel.

Consider which hostel is right for you, then head to any of the following sites:

Hostel Bookers

Hostelling International

Tips for Staying in a Hostel:

–       Ear plugs will serve you well. Years of travel and hostelling have taught me – snoring is a universal language, and one you really don’t really want to hear.  Be prepared.  Other essential items include a flashlight (you may find yourself stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night while trying not to wake anyone) and pad lock. Most hostels have lockers where you can leave your pack during the day. Some travelers carry a sleeping sheet. This is a good idea if you’re freaked out by the idea of less than impeccable linens (of course, you’d be running that risk in a hotel too).

Henry Burrows photo of a hostel in Florence.

If you don’t mind shared sleeping quarters, a hostel might be right for you. Photo by Henry Burrows.

–       Chat up the staff.  These are locals who know the travel business.  They also know that you are on a budget and if they’ve been at their jobs for a while, they have a feel for what kind of activities different types of travelers like. Make use of their knowledge.

–       Chat up other travelers.  This is one of the main advantages of staying in hostel.  When you arrive, spend some time the first evening in one of the hostel’s common areas talking to travelers about their recent experiences.  These are people who have just been to the place that you’re about to go to.  There is no better resource.  They will know if the day tour offered by the hostel really gets back by 5:00, how much a taxi really costs, and whether or not the attractions in the next town over live up to the hype.  Since they, like you, are just passing through, you can trust that they have no stake in selling you something and will give you an honest assessment of their experiences.

–       Eat in.  Staying in a hostel will not only save you money on lodging, it can also save you a lot on food.  Most hostels have kitchens and many provide breakfast.  Hostelling makes it easy to only eat out one meal per day.  It also means that if you want to top off an adventurous day of traveling with some pleasant conversation and a couple of cold beers, you can get those beers at supermarket prices rather than bar prices.

Staying in a hostel is an excellent way to extend your travel budget, and take advantage of other traveler’s knowledge.  Once in a while, you may have a bad night, but that could happen anywhere.  And if it does happen, it will make a funny story later.  Happy hosteling!

It’s loud and dirty, but a lot of people seem to really like it anyway,” the guidebook said of my hostel in Jerusalem.  That was exactly how I felt about the place.  It had a good vibe.

What worked for me back then, might not work for me now, but I have learned that really liking the place you stay in matters. You will enjoy a locale more if you like your lodging. Therefore, it’s only fair to your destination to stay in a decent place.  So, beyond the basics of clean and safe, how do sniff out a good place to spend the night? Here are a few thoughts on how to choose the right hostel for your needs:

Location, Location, Location

The best place to stay depends on why you’ve decided to come this corner of the world in the first place.  Are you only planning to stay one or two nights? Blowing into to town to see that one famous site that’s been on your bucket list for years and then leaving? If so, you may be best off staying in the hostel that is closest to the bus/train station or airport.

If you’re going to be hanging out for a while then location is all about access- access to the town, to the sights, to restaurants and grocery stores, to the beach.  Look for a central location.  If you’re in an isolated place than you may find yourself stuck eating at only one restaurant, which can get old fast.

What you don’t know can hurt you – so try to be as observant as possible.  A friend and I arrived in Yangshou at five in the morning and checked into a quite and cozy hotel room.  I remember thinking that since we were checking in so early, I was really getting my money’s worth. That evening we had a rude awakening.  The hotel was above a nightclub that blasted techno music until 4:00 AM.

Hostel. Photo by Henry Burrows

Party Animal or Party Pooper

Many hostel rating sites have a “fun” factor.  This can give you an idea of whether a particular hostel is the place to get a good night’s sleep or the place to drink all night with fellow travelers.  “Fun” equals noise.  On the other hand, if you’re going to be hanging out in town for several days, a comfortable public area (TV room, garden, etc) will make your stay much more pleasant and relaxed (and possibly cheaper as you won’t need to  be hanging out in a restaurant).

Size Does Matter

You need to have enough space to get in and out of your bed without crashing into strangers.  Too many bunks in a room means an overload of body order, snoring and tripping over other people’s packs.  Also, after a certain age, you might find yourself unwilling to climb into an upper bunk.

A well-planned hostel, can make all of this easier.  I once stayed at a place that had a reading light for every bunk, curtains that you could pull around your bunk, and large lockers to put your pack in. (This was Sims Cozy Hostel in Chendu-  and they also had one of the best hostel restaurants I’ve ever eaten at.)

The Air in There

Heat, air conditioning, ceiling fan? The air conditioning in a lot of tropical places smells musty and a night of sucking it in will leave me sick for a week.  On the other hand, I’m likely to spontaneously combust if there isn’t a ceiling fan.  You need to be comfortable so you can get a good night’s sleep and have energy for the next day’s activities.

And for Breakfast…

If a hostel serves breakfast and has a kitchen where you can prepare lunch or dinner, than it’s pretty easy to limit your eating out to one meal a day.  This can save you a lot of money.  A six-pack of eggs, a few veggies, some instant rice, soy sauce packets carted along from the last time I ordered take-out Chinese.  I’ve got a couple of fried rice dinners and can hard boil some eggs to supplement the bread, fruit and coffee breakfast that the hostel provides.

And if you happen to be in Merida, Mexico, the Hostel Zocolo has an awesome breakfast which includes made to order omelets and crapes.!


Hostels that are on a major travel circuit compete with each. Therefore, they frequently offer extra conveniences such as Wifi, travel booking services, lockers, laundry service, and book exchanges.  These little extras can go a long way towards making your stay more pleasant.  And of course, the most important commodity a place can offer is friendly professional staff.  Check reviews on the internet and talk to other travelers.  Word of mouth is your best bet for getting information in advance.