Choosing a hostel can be a daunting task. If you are only beginning to consider the option of staying in a hostel, and have no experience of them, then finding the right one is especially important.
One thing to be aware of:
If you are a more mature person like myself, look in the small print for age restrictions. There are few hostels that have an upper age limit.
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The most important thing is research, research and more research!
I hadn’t even thought of a staying in hostel until just over 3 years ago when I started looking for accommodation on Booking.com. Because I sorted by price the hostels all came up first and I was amazed at how inexpensive they were. I began to look at the photos and many of them looked really nice. This was for Portugal, and I now know that Portugal, in particular, has really good hostels. However, there are great hostels all over the world, you just need to be clear on what you are looking for.
Where I Start
I always start with Booking.com but then, when I find somewhere that looks good, I will also look for reviews on Tripadvisor. I often find interesting little snippets on Tripadvisor that previous guests have written, for example things like
The smoking area was right outside the dorm and the smell of smoke wafted into the room, plus people were out there half the night talking.
There was only one bathroom for the whole hostel and the water pressure was dreadful.
So a visit to Tripadvisor is well worth the time spent, (and also check out my previous blog posts and watch out for future ones, I am slowly adding reviews on all the hostels I have stayed in). I also sometimes have a look on Hostelworld but they don’t show photographs of the actual bedrooms that you are booking, the bedroom photos are only in the general gallery, so I don’t like that. In fact, I recently stayed in a hostel, which I adored, but while I was there a couple of people who had booked using Hostelworld refused to stay once they saw the dorm!
The First 5 Things I Look For
On Booking.com there are a lot a various criteria that you can select. So to start with I alway select the following 5 criteria:
- Free WiFi – for me this is a must, and it must be in the dorm as well as the communal areas
- Free cancellation – I always like to keep my options open
- Distance – I always try and stay within 1 km of the city centre, or in the Old Town if there is one. With some cities you can select the particular area, if this is not available you can select a specific distance
- Reviews – I always select a score of 8+
- Type of Accommodation – Hostels + shared – this just cuts out the 100s of other types of properties and speeds up the search
I then sort by price low to high but rarely take the lowest price, I start by looking at the photos and check out the following.
An absolute non-starter for me are 3 tiered bunks. The top one is far too high, the bottom one is usually at floor level, and difficult for me to get up from, and the head height can be very low, sometimes you are not even able to sit up in the bunk.
I also try and avoid metal bunks because they can be very rickety and creak every time someone rolls over. Nor do I like bunks that are standing in the middle of a room, I like to have a wall to one side of me, it gives a bit of a feeling of privacy.
And I’m not keen on just single beds, I prefer the privacy of being in a bunk but I have stayed in one hostel with single beds and lived to tell the tale!
What I do like are good solid wooden bunks that have been built into the room and ones with privacy curtains. Sometime the curtains are only on the lower bunks but I usually message the hostel and ask if they can keep me a lower bunk if possible. If you think you may have to take an upper bunk look carefully at the steps you will have to climb, some are easier than others.
Another style of bunk that is even better, as long as you are not claustrophobic, is the cubicle style, or pod type bunks, that you crawl into rather than lie along the wall. I have even had a cubicle that was high enough to stand up in.
What Is Provided Within The Bunk?
Sometimes there is nothing! What I look for are bunks with individual reading lights, at least one electric socket so I can charge my phone, and a shelf is also great.
Are There Lockers?
I really do like to have a locker, preferably a wooden one, under the bed. Metal lockers are very noisy and are usually so narrow that it is difficult to get a carry on case into them.
I have stayed in one hotel where the lockers where outside on the corridor and one where they were in the ensuite bathroom, this wasn’t ideal.
Sometimes there are metal basket type lockers under the bed but as long as they can be locked they are fine.
You can usually tell from the photographs if you are going to need a padlock with you but some lockers will require a key that the hostel will provided. Be warned though, if you lose it you will probably have to pay a fine. Some may lock and unlock with a key card.
The Type Of Dorms
Next I look at the type of dorms, for instance, what size are they and are they all mixed gender or are there female dorms.
If you are new to hostelling, and a female, you may wish to start with female dorms only so it may be worth checking this first. If you are a male, it seems you are doomed to stay in mixed dorms, I am not sure if I have ever seen all male dorms!
On Booking.com just scroll down to where the rooms are shown and you will see what type are available and what size they are, you can also see photos of the dorms. If the same photo is being shown for all the dorms then I am generally put off because I want to see the actual dorm I am booking. Obviously in a very large hostel all the dorms may look the same but in smaller ones they can vary quite a bit.
I usually opt for mixed dorms now, because I find them to be much quieter, apart from the snoring. Men tend to come in to the dorm, step out of their jeans and get straight into bed. Women, on the other hand have a very annoying habit of rummaging through bags and trotting in and out to the bathroom repeatedly.
If opting for a mixed dorm I try and get ones that have between 8 – 12 beds, any more than this and it does get noisy, hot and stuffy. It is surprising how much heat comes off multiple people. I stayed in an 18 bed female dorm once and that was a total nightmare.
Equally, if it’s a mixed dorm I avoid small ones. In a dorm with only 4 beds it can feel a little unsettling if you end up with just yourself and one male and I imagine it feels just as awkward for a man.
There are various options for bathroom and it’s worth taking a very close look at any photos that are shown.
There may be an ensuite bathroom for the dorm, or the bathroom may be outside of the dorm somewhere. They can be individual type bathrooms which are great, you can go in there, lock the door and have it all to yourself, or they may be more of a shower block type of set up.
They all have advantages and disadvantages.
An ensuite bathroom may sound wonderful but don’t forget you will be sharing it with however many people are in your dorm. There may be more than one shower and toilet in there, but if not you could be waiting a long time to get in. The biggest disadvantage, in my opinion, is that people will go in and out repeatedly to get stuff from their bags and if they are leaving really early it is going to disturb your sleep. On the other hand, if they have to go up the corridor they are much more likely to gather everything up (preferably the night before) and only make one trip. It also means that you are removed from the noise of a hairdryer being used.
The main advantage of an ensuite is that if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night you don’t have to leave the dorm and risk locking yourself out. There is nothing worse than having to rap on the door of the dorm in the hope that someone is going to let you back in. I usually keep my key card, or key for the dorm on a lanyard and sleep with it on so that this doesn’t happen to me.
A shower block type set up usually gives a larger number of showers so the advantage of this is that you may avoid a wait for the shower but they can sometimes be cramped and lacking in any dressing space. Take a careful look at the photos and you may be able to determine how much room there is.
Individual bathrooms are wonderful, if you are inside, not so wonderful if you are waiting outside and the occupant is luxuriating in the privacy and space they offer.
One of the most sensible things you can do is plan to have a shower at any other time other than first thing in the morning. If you can wait until later in the day there is more chance of getting peace and quiet to use it.
Another thing to watch out for is seperate toilets. If the only toilets available are in the ensuites, or inside the individual bathrooms you could find yourself standing with your legs crossed!
The Communal Areas
If you are seeking out a bit of social interaction then the communal areas are key to this. Some hostels have what can only be described as a soulless reception area, I found this particularly in a hostel I stayed in once in Geneva, there was no chance of interacting with people.
What I look for are comfortable looking communal areas where you might feel comfortable having a snooze on the sofa. If it looks too modern and high techy, there may be loud music and that’s a big no no for me.
There may also be a roof terrace and/or outdoor space of some sort and if there is look and see if there is an outdoor bar, BBQ area, large speakers, these are all indications of what sort of events may happen there.
I am usually only staying one night, possibly two at a time and so I don’t tend to cook for myself much BUT if there is a good, well equipped, kitchen in the hostel not only will it save you money if you cook for yourself, it also will means that there will be more people around the place in the evenings and more opportunities for social interaction.
Some kitchens can be pretty dire. The worst one I ever saw had no sink, no running water, no grill, no hob, no oven, no pots and pans!
Is There A Bar?
If there is a small bar, for residents only, it creates a great social hub but some hostels have bars that are open to anyone and in this case it is going to be difficult to identify fellow travellers and therefore more difficult to interact.
Look in the photos for signs that indicate a Happy Hour, this may or may not be a good thing, it depends on what you are looking for in a hostel. I don’t really want to be in a hostel that is a ‘party hostel’ so I would avoid hostels with names such as ‘The Drunken Monkey’ or include the word party in the description.
Can You Have Dinner?
Many hostels will have a snack bar or restaurant and this is very handy BUT for social interaction a communal dinner cannot be beaten. Some hostels do a dinner every night, some do something a couple of times a week, maybe a BBQ or a themed dinner. I find that very often this is not mentioned on Booking.com but sometimes get mentioned in the reviews on Tripadvisor. You can also look carefully at photo and try and spot notice boards that may mention such things.
Check the prices to see if breakfast is included, or if it is extra, this can alter the price by quite a bit. If there is no mention of breakfast don’t assume that you won’t get any, this is another thing I sometimes only discover by reading reviews on Tripadvisor.
I was booking a hostel in Zadar, Croatia once and saw mention of a breakfast bag that was left in the dorm each morning. That was a nice surprise. They left a bag with a couple of items (bread and a couple of pastries), jam and butter and then you could make your own tea or coffee in the small kitchen. That particular hostel also did a phenomenal breakfast if you decided to pay the extra.
Other Points to Consider
You may wish to check to see if there is air conditioning, heating, luggage storage, laundry facilities, a lift, free walking tours ……………………
There are too many criteria to mention, you will know best what your needs are.
But You Rarely Get Everything You Want
It’s rare to find everything you want under one roof so be prepare to do a trade off. To get the most comfortable beds you might have to compromise on location. Or to get the location you may have to compromise on the communal spaces. My compromises tend to be due to wanting a specific location but everyone will have different priorities.
And sometimes you find some real unexpected touches like a rooftop pool, a spa, or even a ball pit!
Are You Going To Take The Plunge?
I hope I have given you enough information to encourage you to take the plunge and give it a go. I remember the first time I had booked a hostel I was very nervous about it but someone said to me, “What have you got to lose? If you spend one night and it’s awful you have a credit card, just go and book in somewhere else.” I think that was good advice and I also think if you can just try it out for a short trip of one or two nights first it will give you confidence to continue. You will soon learn what works and doesn’t work for you.