The purpose of staying at a hostel is to save money with cheap accommodation, but it’s also for the social benefit because hostels are great for meeting people, and the people often make the place. Where you stay and the people you meet, or don’t meet, will have a big impact on your trip. You could stay at a nice hostel, but not meet anyone and be bored, or you could stay in a dump and meet the best people and have the best time. Where you stay can make or break your experience in a place, so you want to choose a good hostel.
If you’ve never stayed at a hostel and the idea of it freaks you out, know that hostels are safe places. If you’re concerned about cleanliness, a lot of hostels are very clean and some cities have beautiful boutique hostels, if you’re willing to spend a little extra money. If you really want your own space, but you still want to meet people, many hostels have private rooms. Then you can get the best of both worlds- privacy, but social fun times when you feel like it.
In many cities and countries, I’ve stayed in the heart of town at very cheap, good hostels that have rooftop terraces with amazing views of the city (like the hostel I stayed at in Istanbul, with the view of the famous Hagia Sophia mosque in one direction, and the sea in the other). To stay in a hotel in areas like this would cost hundreds of dollars or Euros. I loved the hostels in South America because a lot of them were once old mansions, so they were full character and historical intrigue.
For finding and booking a hostel, I typically use HostelWorld, and sometimes Booking.com or Hostelz.com. When searching a hostel site, you can sort the hostel choices by price or review, you can set a price range and a rating range, and you can set filters for other things you might want or need like 24 hour reception, type of room (private, dorm or female only), a bar, kitchen, free wifi, free breakfast, and parking, etc. The sites also have a map where the hostels are located in each city. Some major cities will easily have over 100 hostels to choose from (and tons of good hostels to choose from), whereas some smaller towns and less touristy destinations may have less than five hostels to choose from. It’s also great to get recommendations for good hostels from other travelers.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN FINDING A GOOD HOSTEL:
1) Narrow it down to these key factors:
- Location – A good hostel will be in or very close to the heart of a city, in a desirable neighbourhood and near public transport. It’s worth it to pay a little more to be in a good and convenient location, than to pay a little less and stay far away from everything and then have to take public transport to get everywhere, which is not only a waste of money, but time too. You’ll definitely want to be near a train or bus station if you need to leave early in the morning.
- Price – Don’t always go for the cheapest hostel. I often go for one of the cheapest hostels (as long as the reviews aren’t horrific), but with that being said, cheaper isn’t always better if it means that it’s a complete dump with terrible reviews and in the middle of nowhere. In that case, it’s worth it to spend an extra $1-2 for a better hostel. The famous hostels are famous and popular for good reason- they have great facilities, social atmosphere, location, staff and activities (which is what makes a good hostel), so they’re often worth the slightly higher price. Also, know that prices will differ greatly between certain cities and countries. You could pay €20-40 per night at a hostel in Barcelona, compared to €10 per night for the best, most popular and one of the cheapest hostels in Sofia, Bulgaria (which also included the greatest buffet breakfast ever and an ok dinner- Hostel Mostel)
- Rating – A good hostel will have a rating of 80% and higher, but I’ve also stayed at a hostel with a rating of a 6 and had a great time and no complaints.
- Reviews – You should notice an overall trend with the reviews. But take some reviews with a grain of salt because some people are impossible to please, like the woman who gave a hostel a less than average review due to their book exchange lacking more excitement. Also look at the amount of reviews- a high rating with only 5 reviews isn’t overly valid, but a high rating with 1000+ reviews is legitimate and clearly a good hostel. As a solo traveler, reading the reviews to get an idea of the social atmosphere is an important priority for me.
- Vibe – Decide if you want a party hostel or a chill hostel. The vibe will clearly be stated in the hostel’s description. I often choose party hostels, not because I want to party every night, but because I know the hostel will have a good social atmosphere, which will attract fun, social people. I’ve often found that the party hostels are also usually the famous and popular hostels, so they’re typically very well run. However, there are different levels of party hostels- some are cool and respect the fact that some people need to sleep, while others can be downright obnoxious. For some party hostel recommendations, see Matador Network’s The 22 Craziest Party Hostels Around The World. But if I need some chill downtime, then I find a chill hostel. While it can be inconvenient to plan in advance, with the most popular hostels and in high season, you need to book in advance, especially if you’ll be there on a weekend.
2) Look for these important basics:
- Lockers – They’re very important and they should be free. You shouldn’t have to pay extra for security.
- Kitchen – It’s nice to have the option to buy and make your own food.
- Free wi-fi – This is common pretty much everywhere in the world, except for Australia (wtf Australia?).
3) Great to have:
- 24 hour reception is really nice and convenient. If you’re going to be arriving in a city, I consider this a must. Even if your flight, bus or train is scheduled to arrive in the morning, afternoon or early evening, you never know what could come up and significantly delay your arrival. It’s not fun to arrive late at night, after an unnecessarily long journey due to a series of unfortunate events, only to find out your hostel is locked and closed (this has happened to me). Another perk of 24hr reception, is that you likely won’t have to worry about having a key or remembering the code to get in the hostel because they let you in. The less responsibilities, the better 🙂
- Breakfast – Many hostels provide an unsatisfying breakfast of bread/cereal, coffee and tea, but it’s nice that they make the effort. A hostel that includes real food, like eggs and fruit, are the best! And preferably a breakfast that doesn’t end too early, especially if you’re staying in a city with good nightlife.
- Late check out – 11am is standard and acceptable. 12pm is amazing. Any hostel that makes you checkout at 10am or earlier is questionable.
- Hostels with a flexible check-in – If you arrive at 6am off a night bus, train or flight and if your bed is free and they let you in, they are good people.
- Luggage storage – If your flight time is much later than your checkout time, you’ll need a place to leave your things.
- Helpful, knowledgeable and friendly staff – Great staff definitely enhance a hostel experience.
- Age limit – Some hostels allow children, which is not the vibe I’m looking for.
- More than one toilet and shower for the whole hostel – This is usually only a thing when an apartment has been converted into a hostel. It’s not a total dealbreaker, but it’s definitely not a selling feature. I’ve stayed at hostels like this, which have been good hostels, but waiting forever in the mornings and evenings gets really annoying and it’s a waste of time.
- Good social atmosphere – This is vital, especially if you’re traveling solo.
- A bar – It’s not necessary, but a bar is a good indication that the hostel will be a fun, social place.
- Daily activities – A really good hostel will have activities like BBQs/dinners, pub crawls, walking tours, day tours, and other activities to get people together and have a good time.
- A good common area – They’re always a great place to be social and meet fellow travelers.
4) Nice to have:
- Laundry service
- Towels included
- The bed already made for you (instead of making it yourself, which is really inconvenient if you arrive in the middle of the night and you have to make your bed quietly and in the dark in your dorm room)
- Book exchange
- Privacy curtains and personal outlets for each bunk bed are money!!!
Choosing a good hostel is a process of elimination and you’ll figure out which things you can and can’t live without. Even good hostels won’t be perfect and they’ll all have their quirks, but basic security, cleanliness and comfort are key.
Once you find a good hostel, see Hostel Etiquette.