A first-timer’s guide to staying in a hostel

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Dorm rooms, bunk beds and sharing a room with strangers from around the world isn’t for the faint of heart. But some hostels can be the best-kept secrets in budget travel. Here are a few tips to guide you through your first hostel stay.

If you’re new to the world of hostels, the thought of staying in one of these backpacker havens might fill you with dread. Dorm rooms, bunk beds and sharing a room with strangers from around the world isn’t for the faint of heart.

But, you might be surprised to learn, hostels often offer many of the amenities found at larger hotels, as well as private rooms if you’re looking to have your own space or traveling as a group on a budget. There are also an increasing number of “luxury hostels,” upscale hostels offering luxurious amenities and stylish interiors at budget prices.

If you haven’t stayed at a hostel, you’re missing out on one of the best-kept secrets in budget travel. Here are some tips to guide you through your first hostel stay.

Why choose a hostel?

Af Chapman
Hostels come in all shapes and sizes, including ships like Af Chapman in Stockholm, Sweden (Image: Magnus Johansson, af chapman via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are many benefits to staying at a hostel. Here are a few of the qualities that make hostels such an attractive option for travelers.

  • Inexpensive: Staying at a hostel is much cheaper than a hotel. Travelers are often paying for a bed in a shared room or minimal comforts in a private room — this drives down costs significantly. Oftentimes, bathrooms are shared, communal experiences and the amenities, like a gym or lounge, may be limited or nonexistent.
  • Social: Part of the appeal of hostels is the communal atmosphere. Hostels offer the chance to meet other like-minded travelers. Whether traveling solo or as part of a group, bunking at a hostel provides opportunities to make friends from around the world.
  • Location: Hostels provide a budget alternative when staying in some of the most expensive cities in the world like New York and Hong Kong.
  • Free breakfast: It’s not always included, but many hostels offer free breakfast to start your day. While some breakfasts are little more than a piece of bread, others are more lavish affairs with smoothies, eggs and even buffets.
  • Unique: Some hostels provide the opportunity to stay at historic locations that you would not ever have the opportunity to stay at, from Stahleck Castle, a 12th century castle in Bacharach, Germany to Af Chapman, a steel ship moored on the western shore of the islet Skeppsholmen in central Stockholm, Sweden.
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Things to keep in mind

Casa de la Musica, Budapest
Backpacker beware: do your hostel homework before booking. (Image: Hannu Makarainen, Hostel Casa de la Musica, Budapest via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Staying at a hostel isn’t the same as staying at a hotel. Here are some things to remember.

  • Community living: Staying at a hostel is a social experience. From sharing a room with complete strangers to shuffling back-and-forth to the sole bathroom on your floor to sharing your table at breakfast with other guests, hostel living is not for travelers who crave solitude. Even if you book a private room, the hostel experience skews toward a communal lifestyle.
  • Limited staff: Unlike hotels that often have front desks that are staffed 24/7, hostels tend to have much smaller staffs that don’t always provide help around the clock. The front desk won’t always be open at night, you will almost always be expected to carry your own luggage to your room and housekeeping is typically non-existent during your stay.
  • Curfew: Some hostels impose a curfew, requiring travelers to be back before a certain hour or risk having to spend the night elsewhere. Some hostels also have a “lock out” during the day, when residents must vacate their rooms during the day to allow the housekeeping staff to clean up.
  • Humble: Hostels are a humble affair, from simple furnishings and limited luxuries to locations in older buildings. Hostels are mostly a bare-bones, no frills experience. Ubiquitous amenities you would typically find at a hotel, like an in-room television, telephone and alarm clock, are seldom seen in hostel rooms.
  • Sketch factor: Some hostels might not be in the best neighborhoods or may have guests who might be tempted to take your stuff. Plus, rooming with complete strangers isn’t always easy for some travelers to accept.

Do your research

Albareda Youth Hostel - Barcelona
Many hostels rival posh boutique hotels. (Image: Oh Barcelona, Albareda Youth Hostel – Barcelona via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Not all hostels are created equal, and no two hostels are alike. Some offer luxurious beds and spacious private rooms, while others are little more than basic bunk beds and shared bathrooms with filthy showers. Most hostels have their own unique styles of decor and amenities are varied.

Keep in mind that different hostels attract different types of travelers: some are best suited for high-energy party animals while others are great for low-key travelers looking for a quiet place to rest their heads. Here are some tips for booking the best hostel for you.

  • Read reviews: Use websites like hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com to view photos and read honest reviews of hostels before you book a bed.
  • Choose wisely: Book a hostel that fits with your trip. If you’re traveling alone, perhaps you want to stay at a hostel that offers single-sex shared rooms or private rooms, 24/7 security and close proximity to public transportation. If you’re traveling with friends or family, then a hostel that provides double, triple or quad rooms might work best. If you’re a couple that wants to room together, be sure to check if the hostel allows couples to share a room (some hostels don’t let folks of the opposite sex room together, even if they are married). Most hostels have twin beds, so if you want to share a bed, be sure the hostel has double beds. Few hostels offer queen or king beds.
  • Plan ahead: Book early to ensure you get the hostel you want and stay within your budget. In general, avoid hostels that are near railway stations, bypasses and red light districts. Ask for recommendations from friends and family who have traveled to your destination for neighborhood and hostel recommendations.
  • Sleeping situation: Part of the charm and fun of staying at a hostel is the shared dorm room experience. The options can range from a private, single room to a co-ed shared room with up to 20 or more people. Some rooms have private, separate en suite bathrooms while others have a shower in the room and still others have no restroom, leaving guests to share one or more bathrooms with the entire floor.
  • Budget: Determine how much you can spend on accommodations. Booking a bed in a shared room can cost as little as a Starbucks coffee and up to $30 or more per night, depending on the room size and hostel location. Rooms with fewer beds and single rooms start at a couple of dollars up to $100 or more per night with the average typically costing less than a budget hotel.
  • One-night stand: Once you’ve selected where to stay, book one night only. This way, you can try out the hostel without having to commit to a long-term stay.

Hostel checklist

Hostel In Florence
Triple room = triple the fun. (Image: Henry Burrows, Hostel In Florence, August 1995 via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most hostels can be booked online. If the website and reviews don’t answer all your questions, be sure to send an email or call the hostel. Get answers to the following questions before booking.

  • Can you see a room before booking and/or checking in?
  • How many beds and people are in a room?
  • Are rooms single sex or coed?
  • What size beds are in the room and are linens included?
  • Are the bathrooms shared or private?
  • Is there a safe or lockers to store valuables?
  • Is there a kitchen?
  • Is breakfast or any meal included?
  • What amenities does the hostel have (i.e. laundry, gym, lounge, etc.)?
  • Are there any hostel pets? (Some hostels have cats or dogs in residence, info that would be good to know in advance if you’re an allergy sufferer.)
  • Is there Internet or Wi-Fi available?
  • What is the address and directions for getting to the hostel from the airport, subway, train station or cruise ship port?

Check-in checklist

sakusa Sakura Hostel
Check off this checklist at check-in to ensure a memorable stay. (Image: Ari Helminen, Swedish party @ Asakusa Sakura Hostel via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

You’re tired and just want to crash, but follow this checklist upon arrival for a stress-free stay.

  • Ask if you can see the room before you check-in and pay.
  • Double check the room and note if it’s not as described or if there are any issues.
  • Check the price you’ve been quoted matches what you’ve been charged. Double check there aren’t any hidden costs.
  • Double check that linens and towels are included. If not, ask about renting these items.
  • Ask if the hostel has a safe or lockers for storing your stuff.
  • Confirm if there is a curfew or lockout as the rules and policies may have changed since the time of booking. If the front door has a code for access after hours, be sure to get it.
  • When you leave the hostel, do you need to leave your room key at the front desk or can you take it with you?
  • Is there someone to show you around?
  • Be safe. Ask to see where the emergency exits are. Ask if there are smoke detectors. Ask if the windows are secured for safety and if can they be opened in an emergency.
  • Hostels typically have a business card with the hostel’s name, address and phone number. Take one and keep it in your wallet to ensure you can find your way back. This is particularly useful if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language. Be sure the address is written in the local language. Ask the receptionist to highlight the hostel on a map.

Hostel etiquette

Be Hostel Mar - Barcelona
Meet backpacking buddies. (Image: Oh Barcelona, Be Hostel Mar – Barcelona via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Don’t be that person. Ensure you and your traveling companions have the best trip possible by heeding this advice.

  • Arrive on time: Most hostels aren’t staffed 24/7 so be sure you let the hostel know if you are checking in late or running late to avoid being locked out should the hostel have a curfew or daytime lockout.
  • Get ready to share: The hostel experience is a communal one. Whether or not you decide to sleep in a shared room, you’ll be sharing a host of other amenities: restrooms, showers, computer and Internet stations, TVs, living rooms and kitchen. Don’t let this intimidate you. Instead, embrace it. Spend some downtime in the living room meeting new travel buddies over board games and beers, and don’t be afraid to chat up that pair of backpackers over the complimentary breakfast. They just might tell you about a must-try restaurant or offer to show you an under-the-radar landmark in the area.
  • Kindness matters: Be considerate of your roommates. If you get up early or come home late, do so quietly. Consider bringing a small flashlight to help navigate your way around the room to avoid switching on the room light and lay out your clothes to avoid having to rummage through your bag in the dark or disturb sleeping roommates. Clean up after yourself in the bathroom and kitchen. Keep your belongings organized and tidy. Shared rooms often have lockers for safely stashing your stuff. If in doubt of the security of your stuff, carry your valuables in your money belt or daypack and take them with you when you go out sightseeing.
  • Go with the flow: The good times often outnumber the bad, but it is inevitable that you will experience something not to your liking: the disruption of a drunk roommate barging in late at night, a roomie that snores, a dingy bathroom, or you may even fall victim to having something stolen. Setting expectations that not everything will go as planned will help you keep perspective that you’re saving money, living like a local, meeting new people, making friends and making memories.

Hostel packing list

packing list
Make a packing list and check it twice. (Image: Terminals & Gates, Essentials via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

In addition to packing the usual travel goods, be sure to pack these essentials for your hostel stay.

  • International travel cards: Investing in an International Student Identity Card or a Hostelling International card can help you save money on your hostel, particularly if you are staying at more than one hostel. Research what hostel cards are available for the hostel and destination you are headed to during your trip. The cards can also help you save on transportation, attractions and even clothes!
  • Quick-dry towel: Many hostels do not include towels in the nightly rate. While you can rent towels for a small fee, the fees can add up when you are traveling for an extended period of time. A quick-dry swimmer’s towel is lightweight and dries quickly so you can shower, pack and go.
  • Sheets or sleeping bag liner: Since linens aren’t always included in the nightly rate, it’s a great idea to pack or purchase cheap sheets at your destination. For backpackers and long-term travelers, a sleeping bag liner is a great investment that can be reused on camping trips too.
  • Lock: Protect your valuables with a pad lock or combination lock that can be used on the hostel’s lockers or lockable cabinets. If the hostel doesn’t have lockers to store your stuff, then suitcase locks can help keep your valuables safe.
  • Money belt or pouch: Keep your passport, visas, credit cards, ID cards, cash and documents safe by storing them in a money belt or pouch that is worn around your waist or neck.
  • Flip-flops: Share a shower, but not germs! Pack a pair of shower shoes that can be worn to and from the bathroom and at the beach.
  • Earplugs: Sharing a room with others means you’re likely to encounter noise, from roommates chatting with each other to guests coming and going. Drown out the chatter and snoring by investing in a set of earplugs.
  • Eyeshade: Get your zzz’s with the help of a blindfold. Block out the light from your roommates reading late at night or the sun streaming in at the break of dawn with an eyeshade.
  • Toiletries: You’re unlikely to find free miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and bars of soap at your hostel. Be sure to bring your own toiletries and a container or bag to carry them to and from the bathroom. Toiletry bags that have a hook on them make it easy to hang on a hook in the bathroom, keeping your items organized and within arm’s reach.
  • Flashlight: Use the flashlight on your cell phone or pack a mini flashlight on a keychain to help you navigate your room at night or your path to the bathroom.

Main image: iStock.com/martin-dm

A first-timer’s guide to staying in a hostel was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (163 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.