Whether it’s your first backpacking trip during a gap year or you’re a seasoned solo traveler – staying in a hostel is not just a way to save money while traveling but also an opportunity to meet people and get local travel tips. This backpacking basics guide tells you exactly what to expect from a hostel stay, how to book the best hostels for your needs, and how to prepare a hostel stay.
What is a hostel and why it’s not just for backpackers
The definition of a hostel is quite simple:
An hostel is an establishment which provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as students, workers, or travelers.
Famous hostels with a long history are YMCA and YWCA hostels and, of course, Hostelling International (or HI Hostels) and their global network of hostels.
Today, there are thousands more hostels and backpackers that you can easily find online. Many are independently run by backpacking enthusiasts. Some are organized in large hostel chains with several properties in a region (like Generator Hostels, AO Hostels & Hotels, or Wombat Hostels), while other hostel groups are associations of independent hostels trying to increase their marketing power and bypass booking engines (like Israel Hostels or The Hostel Group).
The lines between hostels, backpackers, guesthouses, and hotels are blurring more and more. There is no need to share a dorm in a backpacker hostel with ten party monsters dropping their smelly socks everywhere!
Many hostels offer private rooms. And some Boutique Hostels have become a real competition to guesthouses and hotels for business and couple travel.
Don’t think you can have a romantic getaway in a hostel? Check out, for example, The Loft Boutique Hostel in Paris, France!
Even if dorms are more your budget,
- Yes, you’ll find party backpackers that are unabashedly looking to attract the party crowd like Hanoi Party Backpacker Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam (the name isn’t leaving much to the imagination).
- And you’ll find the cheapest of the cheap budget hostels offering beds never mind any amenities ($3-a-night Light Jatujak Hostel-Subway Phaholyothin in Bangkok, Thailand is one of the better variety that at least has air conditioning).
- But you’ll also find dorms for grown-ups. If you are older than 30 and don’t like partying you can still stay in dorms, such as Florentin House in Tel Aviv, Israel. I had the pleasure of spending a few nights in a plush, big bunk bed in one of their elegant dorms. Even though there are few common areas or amenities outside the rooms, it was worth every penny.
- If you like your privacy in a dorm, look for beds with privacy curtain or even pod-style beds with three walls and a curtain. I loved the Song of Travel at Inle Lake, Myanmar for their room and bed layout.
Are hostels safe (for solo female travelers)?
Simple answer: Yes!
I think this might be the most common objection I get when I recommend solo female travelers look at hostels so they can afford to travel more and stop worrying about how to meet people while traveling.
Of course, I cannot guarantee that there will never ever be a weird or uncomfortable situation in your hostel dorm when you travel alone. And yes, I have had people in my dorm who had sex or who were drunk or who were snoring up a storm. But what I can tell you is that in hundreds of nights that I have spent in hostel dorms on four continents over the years – both female-only and mixed rooms – I have never had anything scary happen. In the case of people enjoying sexy times or being drunk, it helps to either approach them directly or to request hostel staff to step in.
Let’s look at two common fears about staying in a hostel:
1. What if somebody steals my stuff?
Most hostels these days offer lockers. These lockers are usually in the dorm room (occasionally, they will be in the hallway).
Sometimes they are just big enough for your laptop and a handbag, sometimes they fit your 70l-backpack or large rolling suitcase. Fancy hostels like the Island Hostels Mount Lavinia, where I recently stayed during my Sri Lanka trip, have two lockers: one for your backpack and another one in your bed for small items like your phone that you want to keep with you overnight.
I’ve also noticed that more and more lockers come with plugs inside. So you can charge your computer or camera without worries.
Though some hostels will give you a key for the locker, I always carry a padlock (I prefer number-lock padlocks with a key code so there’s less chance of me losing the padlock key).
How do you find out whether your hostel has a locker? Follow my advice below for finding the perfect hostel! Read the room description on the hostel page, look at the photos, and read the reviews!
2. What if creepy guys watch me in my sleep?
Though I have never had that happen to me if you are a female traveler you can always opt for dorm rooms only for females. Not every hostel has them, but, at least in destinations that see a lot of backpackers (like Thailand), you’ll usually find a good selection of hostels with female-only dorms. Occasionally, you might even find whole hostels that cater solely to women, like the Hostella Female Only in Rome, Italy.
Personally, I don’t really care whether I stay in a mixed or a female-only dorm. However, I should note that what you will often find is that in hostels that offer dorms only for women, the mixed dorm often becomes the de facto becomes a “males-only and couples” dorm as dorms only for men are much rarer than the girls’ dorms variety.
At the end of the day, most hostel-dwellers are respectful of each other and each other’s space. So you don’t have to fear that just because you share a dorm every guy will hit on you. And should you feel harassed, make sure you talk to hostel staff (same goes if you are a guy who feels uncomfortable).
Hotel vs Hostel
With private rooms available and hostels catering to different traveling styles, there is no reason why couples and older solo travelers – grown-up backpackers if you will – shouldn’t opt for a hostel on their next trip. The main benefit of staying in a hostel is the community aspect.
Many hostels have common areas where you can hang out, gather more information on your destination – often compiled by the local hostel staff – and meet other travelers.
Some common areas are coffee shops, restaurants, or bars also open to the public. Others are rooftops reserved only for hostel guests.
In addition to lounge areas, you might also find a shared kitchen, a pool, a game room, etc.
Hostels also often offer tours so you don’t have to figure out public transport to that temple and you can share the experience with other travelers (not to mention the benefit of having someone to take pictures of you).
At the same time, as much as a hostel is an excellent option for all kinds of travelers, budget travelers shouldn’t rule out staying at a hotel or guest house. If you are backpacking as two or more people together, you might find that a private room costs just as little (or less) than individual dorm beds. Make sure you shop around and use the tips & tricks mentioned below.
The Hostel Booking process
How to find the best hostel rates
There are endless accommodation booking platforms you can use for your hostel search. As I mentioned in the last segment, even if you are a backpacker or budget traveler without a backpack there is no reason why you should limit yourself to hostels only. Instead, look for a booking platform that combines a broad selection of hostels, hotels, bed & breakfasts, guest houses, apartments, etc. with the best prices and benefits.
These are some of the hotel/guest house/holiday rental/hostel booking engines out there that seasoned travelers swear by:
Note that not all properties are listed on all sites. Agoda has only a few hostels, Hostelworld has a limited selection of hotels and guesthouses, and HomeAway focuses on apartments and houses.
Naturally, you’ll have an even more extensive choice on the aggregator sites where you can compare hostel and hotel prices across different booking platforms:
But be warned: the prices on aggregator sites are often not the lowest prices. Booking sites will have “Member rates” or offer additional discounts based on your previous travels with them. Take, for example, Booking.com: their prices go down when you log in and can go down again once you’ve booked a few nights via the platform. So it’s worth checking more than one site if you want to get the best deal on accommodations.
Furthermore, when comparing room rates across accommodations and booking platforms keep an eye on the fine print:
I noticed, for example, that Agoda prices are listed as nightly rates without taxes while Booking.com lists the total cost for your stay including VAT (and often also other fees). Hostelworld shows the price per person per night, not the room price, which means when you are looking to book a private room for a solo traveler, a double room will be listed in search results for half the rate you’ll de facto have to pay. Hidden costs are also the main reason why I don’t often use AirBnB – the so-called “service charges” and “cleaning charges,” etc. mean that I waste time on checking out rentals outside my budget range.
I’ve said it before, and I’m not scared to repeat it: I am a big fan of Booking.com. The three reasons for my preference for this booking website/booking app are:
- “Genius” membership rates that are lower than the competition 9/10 times
- Easy search & filter engine with final prices for my stay
- Great service
And if you are thinking: ‘But aren’t the booking engines evil corporations taking hard-earned money from small businesses?’ Yes, the small businesses are paying for a service: being featured in a large booking engine means there is a better likelihood of that cute 3-room backpackers being found by prospective guests than if they relied on their own marketing and word of mouth. And – at least in the case of Booking.com – the guest house only pays when the guest has actually completed a stay.
Regardless, of where you book – directly with your hostel of choice, via a booking engine or a booking aggregator website – some other fees might be excluded from the nightly rate such as WiFi, air conditioning, tourist tax, toweling fees, breakfast, etc.
One last note on the “super-discount rates” that you see on some booking sites – sometimes as high as 80% (especially on private rooms). Ignore those percentages! Because many accommodations will set they “regular room rate” way too high to be realistic. However, the massive discount means the hotel will be highlighted and receive a better rank in the search results list.
Last-minute hostel or hotel deals
When to best book a hotel or hostel is an age-old question.
The answer is: It depends!
In sought-after destinations such as Paris or during peak travel times such as Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia you need to book ahead to secure quality. You’ll always find last-minute openings. But the quality might be lower than what you’d hope for.
In most destinations and if you are flexible you can wait until a few days before – or even the day of – your arrival, and you will see prices drop on the remaining rooms.
Personally, I barely ever book more than a few nights before my planned arrival. But when you are vacation planning, I would recommend that you look into whether your travel dates fall into peak travel time for your destination and that you browse the booking sites before your trip and test last-minute availability by simply searching for a room tomorrow or next week from now. This should give you an idea of how much flexibility you have in your booking decisions.
There are a few apps/websites out there specializing in last-minute deals, most notably HotelTonight. While they might have great last-minute discounts on regular room rates, their target audience is not the budget travelers, and even their best discounts can hardly compete with the price of a dorm bed.
Booking discounts (long-term travel and people who travel often)
Many of the booking websites offer loyalty programs. For example:
- You become a “Booking.com Genius” after five nights, which – depending on the accommodation – can give you freebies such as an extra 10% off the room rate, a free welcome drink, or late check-out/early check-in free of charge.
- Hotels.com gives you a free night for every ten nights paid within twelve months. However, that free night cannot cost more than the average of the ten paid nights. So you can’t stay ten nights in a cheap hostel dorm and then upgrade to a luxury room.
If you travel in a region, you should check for hostel group discounts or hostel loyalty programs, For example:
- If you have a Hosteling International membership card from any of their national associations you will get the membership price at all HI Hostels worldwide (up to $5 per night).
- Israel Hostels gives you a 10% voucher when staying at any of their affiliated hostels to be used at any of the others.
- Generator Hostels offers discounts when you book directly with them.
- My favorite Kuala Lumpur hostel, BackHome has a stamp card – pay six nights and get a free night in a 6-bed dorm (or get a discount on a private room).
- Abraham Hostels in Israel gives you 10% discount on their Abraham Tours through Israel, Palestine, and Jordan on top of the 10% for repeat guests. Click here for a review of their Hebron Dual-Narrative tour.
- Other hostels have coupon cards or discounted tickets for major sights and activities at your destination.
Regardless of whether you plan on staying at a hostel, a guesthouse, or a hotel, look at credit card rewards, whereby every dollar you spend on your travels yields points that you can swap for rewards such as free nights or free flights.
Finally, there is ThreeStepsApp. The name is a bit misleading as you don’t have to have the app but can also use it via your regular browser. ThreeSteps partners with a long list of travel booking engines – for accommodation, flights, car rentals, etc. – and gives you a few percent cashback after your stay (or your flight or your rental). So even if you stay in $7-a-night hostels for three months while backpacking Southeast Asia during your gap year, you’ll have earned enough money at the end of your trip for a few pints or extra nights. I have used ThreeSteps a few times in the past year, and payment was always prompt and correct.
I find that airline add-on discounts advertised when you book a flight usually don’t hold better deals (lower prices) than if you book hostels via your favorite booking websites – even when it’s “half-price.”
How to choose the best hostel (for you)
Now, access to the best hostel or hotel deals won’t help you, if you don’t know what you are looking for. There are a few natural filters you can apply to narrow down the hostel selection. Needless to say, that the same principles apply to accommodation bookings for any budget:
- Price (budget)
While I usually have an accommodation budget per night in mind, I like to start by looking at all the available options to get an idea of what to expect. Keep in mind that the price displayed by your booking website of choice might, in fact, not be the final price to be paid at the accommodation when tax, WiFi, breakfast, and other fees get added. You should find information on additional hotel or hostel fees in the fine print.
Now I have an idea of where prices are; I’ll filter by budget.
By the way, on most sites, you cannot just filter by maximum budget but also exclude low budgets.
Hostel Amenities (Features)
Next, I have a couple of amenities (features) that an accommodation just has to have for me: Free WiFi is non-negotiable; if a hostel, hotel or guest house needs money for a better WiFi coverage they should just increase their room rates.
Accommodation in Southeast Asia – at least when temperatures rise above 30°C during the days, and nighttime temperatures (lows) are above 22°C – for me has to have air conditioning. I’ll compromise on that requirement if I stay for less than three nights and a fan is available, but I don’t like fans if I have a choice.
Since I like to spend my mornings writing and usually only make it to the shower and into my “grown-up clothes” by noon I like to have breakfast included. However, if the accommodation choice in my destination becomes too small with the “Breakfast included” filter activated, I’ll look at alternatives: Is breakfast available on site (for an extra fee) or next door? Is there a kitchen?
In more expensive destinations such as Western Europe or Israel, I’ll also prefer hostels with a kitchen so I can prepare meals and don’t have to dine out every night.
I try to book accommodation in walking distance to public transport and local food. To me, eating local and using public transportation is not just a question of the travel budget. It’s a question of immersing myself in the local culture and experiencing my destination differently than I could via taxis and restaurants catering to European and North American tourists. Of course, if you’re planning a romantic getaway, you might be perfectly happy staying in your Bali resort and ordering in – I would. But for budget travel and backpacking, having a working kitchen available can free up some of your monetary resources for once-in.a-lifetime activities like seeing wild gorillas in Uganda.
These are my personal preferences that I have developed in years of travel. Before you start your gap year and book a lot of accommodations, it might be worth to sit down and list your favorite features and determine where you are willing to compromise. This should make your hostel search go a lot more smoothly.
Hostel reviews and ratings
Now that you have narrowed the selection down even further it’s time to pull in the hostel ratings and reviews. Some people like to filter by rating, and I also believe it’s a good starting point. However, I want to keep an eye out for those sweet deals on hotels and guesthouses that are new on the market. More about that in a moment.
Ratings and reviews are an essential part of booking engines. They are also the reason why I don’t entirely trust TripAdvisor. Have you heard about the man who made a restaurant the #1 restaurant in London on TripAdvisor? Only, the restaurant didn’t exist.
So do take note of whether having completed a stay is a requirement to leave a review (such as on Booking.com and Airbnb) or whether anyone can leave a review (such as on TripAdvisor). And even then you want to take note of the quality of reviews. I was just in Sri Lanka, and most Sri Lankans will give 6 to 8 points only – even for the best hotels and guesthouses. If you find a Sri Lanka guest house with five reviews by Sri Lankans of 9.5 and more in a row you can expect that there is something fishy about those reviews.
So, in addition to the ratings also have a look at the review texts. When combing through hotel reviews I like to sort them by latest as great places to stay can slack over time and bad hostels can improve with new management.
Things I look out for are the cleanliness score, quietness, windows, cold showers, weak customer service, etc. but also positive amenities like tours offered by the property, additional (free) services like airport pickup (or bus station drop-off), etc.
If you want to stay connected (or stream movies at night), some reviewers will also mention WiFi quality. And if you use Booking.com, you will be alerted to the WiFi review score, if it’s better than average for the destination.
Let me quickly say something about bed bugs in hostels (or any other accommodation): I take those reviews that mention an infestation with bed bugs in a hostel with a grain of salt. As laid out in my post on bed bugs while traveling (click on the link to read the post and learn more): it’s a bit of a game of luck and any, even the best hotel can be hit. I am more concerned with how the staff reacts to the news that I have found bed bug bites and what the overall cleanliness of the hostel is.
Now, while I tend to stay in accommodation with 8+ rating on Booking.com and four stars on AirBnB, I also keep an eye out for brand new properties with not enough reviews for a rating. Any reviews that the property has received will still be shown; they are just not aggregated into a rating score. I have already found several great deals where I got brand new amenities and an extra eager staff at a low price because the property was working towards their initial rating (and a higher rank in search results). Booking.com makes it easy to find those as it lists the date the property was added to the booking platform.
BTW: Don’t forget to leave your own honest review after completing your stay! You can help fellow travelers avoid terrible accommodation or find the best guest houses, and you can reward great hosts by assisting them to attract more guests to their excellent hotel, homely guest house, or outstanding hostel.
Some features lead me to prefer one hostel over the other:
- Windows in my room
- Large and welcoming common areas with tables or desks. So I don’t always have to sit in my room when I’m in.
- A desk in my room
- In dorms: pod-style beds and privacy cushions, outlet and light right by/in each bed
The best way to see whether any of the above is present is to check the photos of the property. I just won’t book a hostel – regardless of private or dorm – if the listing doesn’t show the room and the bed. I think it says something about the service quality you can expect from the property if they don’t bother adding informative images.
Another advantage of photos: when you arrive and the room is not as you expected it to be, show the pictures to the staff and demand an upgrade to at least what the photos promise. I’ve had cases where the management will use the most beautiful hostel pictures for all dorm room categories and then try to tell me “That’s not what you booked.” Just keep smiling and adamant that the photos on Booking.com say otherwise (unless it’s obvious the images are misleading such as showing only four beds in a 20-bed dorm).
Staying in a hostel
Before you arrive
Before you finalize your hostel booking, check the room features list to confirm the features you expect are included in your room rate. Some – usually smaller guesthouses, budget hotels and hostels – list that they have air conditioning in all rooms but then charge extra if you want to use it.
When finalizing your booking online, there is usually a box allowing you to send special requests to the accommodation. I use that box to let them know about my preference for windows and quiet rooms.I will also add my arrival details if I know them.
Some hostels will send you an email before you arrive. The email might include details on the hostel location, how to get there, airport pick-up services offered by the hostel, and a request for your planned arrival time. Save that email offline just in case you need to call the hostel or show the address to a taxi driver. Make sure you look up the hostel address (and the directions) in Google Maps or on Maps.me before you travel. I have had instances where the Google Maps location of my accommodation was wrong but the address the hostel sent me was correct. So save yourself the hassle and confusion of showing up at the wrong site by confirming the location before you travel.
With smaller guesthouses and hostels there is a high likelihood that taxi drivers don’t know the location and that the hostel signage is limited. Keep the hostel phone number ready for the taxi driver (or helpful local bystanders) to call and ascertain the location.
You can also send an email with additional questions you might have to your accommodation such as payment options (credit cards are not always accepted), public transport options or how much you should expect to pay for a taxi.
The hostel check-in time is usually listed in your booking confirmation and the listing on the booking site. While hostels in Europe tend to adhere to these check-in times (which can be anywhere between noon and 4 pm), hostels in Southeast Asia (as well as small hotels and guest houses) are often more flexible and will allow you to move into your bed/room as soon as it’s ready.
You might have to show your passport upon check-in (or other ID for travel within your country). Some hostels will hold on to your passport as a guarantee that you return your key or pay at the end of your stay. Others will request payment upon check-in and an additional key deposit of maximum $10.
In Europe, I usually pay via credit card, and outside Europe, I prefer paying cash and in local currency as I can draw free cash from the majority of ATMs worldwide with my German comdirect credit card.
The reception staff will give you a run.down of the hostel amenities, WiFi passwords, breakfast times, available tours (if applicable), etc. If you are missing any info, just ask.
Depending on the hostel, reception might also hand you your towel, a key to your locker, and even your sheets to make your beds yourself. I prefer that over having the staff prepare the bed as it guarantees that no roommate has sat on my pillow or blanket.
During your stay
Some hostels in Southeast Asia (as well as guesthouses and small hotels) request that guests take off their shoes before entering the building or before going upstairs to the guest rooms. Just carry a pair of sports socks if you feel uncomfortable walking barefoot.
Now, the hostel is your home for your stay. Set up your bed, lock your valuables in your locker and mingle with other guests!
However, remember that your dorm room is a shared room, and so are the toilets and showers. Respect that your roommates also need space for their belongings, that not everyone loves listening to your favorite song or breathing in your favorite deodorant, and that you are not the only one who prefers going to a clean bathroom/toilet/shower and cooking in a clean kitchen.
Once night comes, most hostels request that you turn down the volume (and the lights) between something like 10 pm and 7 am. Of course, you are always free to use your nightlight by your bed but be mindful that you don’t point it straight at another bed.
If ever you feel like a fellow roommate is not behaving respectfully, talk to them don’t just sulk. A smile and a friendly request often solve problems before anyone gets angry.
I am a big fan of doing my laundry in the shower. That allows me to travel with less baggage and means I won’t lose my precious t-shirts to the laundry service. Have a look around the hostel for a drying rack or a drying room rather than occupying the dorm with your wet clothes.
Note that in budget accommodation (and even mid-range hotels) in Southeast Asia rooms are not cleaned daily but only every few days or on request.
Of course, you can expect hostels to change the linen between guests. To ensure that the next guest who stays in my bed gets new linen, I like to remove the sheets and take them to reception, regardless of whether the hostel requires it or not. If you would like new sheets or a fresh towel after a few days during an extended hostel stay, just ask at reception.
Finally, note that hostels occasionally still have lock-out times. That’s less and less common, but some of the Hostelling International hostels in Europe still won’t allow guests in the rooms between 11 am and 4 pm.
The check-out time also depends on the hostel and can be anywhere between 10 am and noon to give staff enough time to clean your room and bed before the next guests arrive. If you are on a late flight, you can request late check-out, which is sometimes a free perk when booking with Booking.com or has to be paid at a percentage of the nightly rate.
If you want to use your day to go sightseeing before you move on to your next destination, ask whether you can store your bags in a luggage room (sometimes paid) and whether you can have a shower when you get back (usually free).
Go around the room and check that you haven’t left anything behind in the locker, under your bed, in the bathroom,… before you vacate your room.
Hostel packing list
My packing list, regardless of whether I stay in a hostel, guest house or hotel, always includes:
- padlock (most hostels also sell them)
- earplugs (my favorite kind is only available in Europe)
- eye mask (can also be bought almost anywhere in the world)
- flip flops (avoid walking barefoot in bathrooms)
- socks (for barefoot-only hostels and cool evenings)
- sarong (doubles as a dress, skirt, towel, blanket,…)
- adaptor (depending on country)
- headset (for listening to music/watching videos)
Ask whether the hostel provides towels or bring your own (travel towels or microfiber towels are light and take up little space).
You shouldn’t need to bring any sheets or a sleeping bag when you stay in a hostel. In fact, because of the risk of bed bugs, most hostels would prefer you never use a sleeping bag on their beds. However, sometimes you might get cold at night. Don’t be shy! Ask for an extra blanket at the reception.
If you plan on cooking in the hostel kitchen, think about packing a few basic spices, so you don’t have to buy large packets when you get to your destination.
Wow! You made it through this monster post about hostel booking! Do you have any advice about staying in a hostel to add or stories to tell? Sound off in the comments below!