Have you ever stayed in a hostel that was so perfect that you wished you could just live there? The kind of hostel with an unforgettable atmosphere, excellent location, and beds as comfortable as your own? This guide is designed to help you have that kind of experience more often. I’ll break hostels down into 12 categories and explain exactly what to look for in each to help you choose the best hostel every time.
What is a Hostel?
A hostel is a budget-friendly, shared short-term accommodation option that offer a social experience. Guests typically sleep in dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds. Hostel dorms typically accommodate 4-10 people. In addition to dorms, some hostels offer private hotel-style rooms. The rooms are usually mixed but many hostels offer single-sex rooms as well. Most hostels include linens.
Restrooms and common lounge areas are shared. Some common facilities offered by hostels include a shared kitchen, secure lockers to store your gear, a bar, a restaurant, a laundry facility, and WiFi. Many hostels offer tours, parties, communal dinners, and other types of social gatherings.
While staying in hostels, you meet an interesting mix of characters from all over the world including backpackers, bicycle tourists, overlanders, digital nomads, perpetual travelers, students, local workers, etc. Hostels tend to attract a younger crowd. Most guests fall in the 18-35 age range. It’s not uncommon to meet people in their 50s, 60s, or 70s as well.
Different hostels attract different types of travelers. For example, some hostels are known for their all-night parties. Others are designed for people who want to relax and chill out. Some hostels offer basic accommodation at a low price point. Boutique hostels offer upscale shared accommodation. Some hostels cater to people with a particular interest like surfing or yoga. There is a hostel for everyone.
Most hostels are locally owned and operated. They are run as small mom and pop style businesses. Small hostels often hire long-term guests to work reception and help out for a few hours each day in exchange for free room and board. Some larger hostels belong to a chain.
You’ll find hostels all over the world. Pretty much every major city has at least one. Some big cities have dozens of hostels to choose from. Hostels tend to be centrally located near points of interest, restaurants, public transport stations, etc. You’ll also find hostels in rural areas, in small beach towns, and pretty much everywhere tourists go.
Why Stay in a Hostel?
If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, the first night or two can feel a bit intimidating or uncomfortable. After all, you have to share bathrooms and bedrooms with absolute strangers. Some fellow guests are inconsiderate, smelly, loud, or generally annoying. So why stay in a hostel? There are two main reasons:
- Hostels are social- The main reason to stay in a hostel is to meet other travelers to socialize with, go out with, and maybe even travel with. This is particularly important if you’re a solo traveler. There is no easier place to meet fellow travelers than a social hostel.
- Hostels are cheap- Staying in a hostel dorm is usually cheaper than a private room in a hotel or Airbnb. I’d estimate that a bed in a hostel costs 30-50% less than a budget hotel depending on the region.
How to Choose the Best Hostel
In this section, I’ll outline 10 factors to consider when choosing a hostel.
Location, Location, Location
The hostel’s location plays a major role in your overall experience of a city. If the location is great, it doesn’t matter if the hostel is a dump. It doesn’t even matter if the other guests are boring or unfriendly. As long as the location is convenient, you can walk out the front door and explore the city and have a good time.
If the location is poor, you’ll waste time and money traveling between the hostel and the interesting parts of the city. You may even feel unsafe walking around if the hostel is located in a bad neighborhood. In my opinion, the hostel’s location is the most important factor to consider when choosing a hostel.
A few things to think about when considering a hostel’s location include:
- Neighborhoods- In a big city, the atmosphere from one neighborhood to the next can be like night and day. Different neighborhoods attract a different crowd. For example, a hostel in a working-class neighborhood may be full of locals or students. A hostel in a trendy upper-class neighborhood attracts a completely different crowd. Consider whether you prefer urban neighborhoods, historic neighborhoods, trendy neighborhoods, etc.
- Safety- You will be much more likely to go out exploring if the neighborhood is safe. You don’t want to risk getting pickpocketed or mugged every time you go out. I have stayed in a few cheap hostels in sketchy neighborhoods. In those situations, I just stayed in at night.
- Proximity to the bus station, train station, or airport- If you are arriving in the middle of the night or early in the morning, sometimes it’s best to just book something near where you’re going to arrive. That way, you don’t have to deal with the stress of figuring out public transport or, arranging an Uber, or walking around town in the middle of the night. You can just check-in and get to sleep. You can always switch to a hostel with a better location the following morning.
- The location of points of interest in relation to the hostel- Consider the transportation time and cost between the hostel and places you plan to visit in the city. For example, if you book a cheap hostel that is located way out in the suburbs but then have to pay a few dollars for transport and spend an hour on a bus anytime you want to go anywhere, you’ll end up staying in the hostel more and spending more money than you would if you just booked a more expensive hostel in a more central location.
- Nightlife- If you plan on going out, consider choosing a hostel that is located within walking distance of the bars and clubs. That way, if you feel like calling it a night early, you don’t have to bother with a taxi or Uber by yourself. You can just walk home.
- Public transportation stations- In a big city, chances are you’ll have to take a metro or bus to get around. Try to choose a hostel near a station.
- Proximity to a supermarket- Cooking your own meals is a great way to ensure that you eat healthily and save money while traveling. You’re much more likely to cook for yourself if you can just walk a few blocks to a market to pick up ingredients. Try to choose a hostel that is located within walking distance of a supermarket.
- Noise- Are you a light sleeper? Then you may not want to stay in a hostel located downtown. Sirens, construction, and loud music may keep you up all night. Look for a hostel in a quiet suburb.
Price of a Dorm Bed
Most of us have a limited budget to work with so the price is one of the most important factors in choosing a hostel. Hostel prices vary greatly by city and country. For example, in Cambodia, you might be able to score a room for $2. In Norway, the cheapest bed might go for $40+ per night. Facilities and location within a city also play a major role in the price.
The average hostel dorm bed in a developing country goes for $8-$15 per night. In developed countries, expect to pay $20-$30 per night. Sometimes you can find a bed for less than $5 per night in extremely cheap destinations. In expensive destinations, the cheapest hostel might charge $50.
As a budget traveler, it can be tempting to book the cheapest bed available. The problem is that cheap hostels can be uncomfortable and unhygienic. After all, you don’t want to sleep on a centimeter thick mattress in a cockroach-infested room. Sometimes it pays to spend a couple of bucks extra per night for comfort and cleanliness. Sometimes the cheapest hostel actually ends up costing more when you factor in some added expenses. When choosing a hostel, there are a few hidden costs to consider including:
- Taxes- When booking online, make sure to take the time to read the fine print so you know exactly what you are paying for. For example, some cities charge additional taxes on hostel and hotel rooms (like a VAT). Some hostels may choose to exclude that tax from the advertised price to make the bed appear cheaper. When you get your bill, there is an unpleasant surprise of an extra fee that you weren’t expecting. Maybe a better, more honest hostel down the street includes that tax in the quoted price and is actually cheaper.
- Transportation- If you have to spend money on transportation every time you want to go to the city, you may end up spending more than if you had just booked a more expensive hostel in a more central location within walking distance to the attractions, restaurants, etc. Hostels on the edge of the city may seem cheaper but after a few bus trips into town, you’re paying more. Price out public transport if you plan to stay outside of town.
- Free breakfast- Many hostels include a simple breakfast of toast or pancakes. Take this into consideration when evaluating the price of a bed. Free breakfast has value. It saves you at least a couple of dollars per day not having to buy your own breakfast.
- Linens- Do they charge extra for bedding? European hostels are notorious for this. I once arrived at a hostel in Copenhagen then upon check-in, they informed me that sheets and blankets cost like 7 euro extra. Suddenly, the already overpriced room was going to cost 30% more than the rate I saw online. I told them they can pound sand and began to walk away. In this case, they stopped me and gave me the linens for free.
- Internet- Some hostels charge an extra dollar or two per day to use the wifi. You might find a better hostel that includes WiFi for the same price.
- Other freebies- Many hostels offer perks for guests. It could be a free welcome shot, coupon for a meal, free map, or a discount for booking tours through their travel agency. This stuff has value. Take it into consideration when comparing hostel prices.
Tips: When searching for a hostel online, don’t exclude hotel rooms from your search. Occasionally, you can find a hotel budget room for less than the cost of a dorm bed. I don’t know about you but I’ll take the private room over a dorm any day. Particularly if it’s cheaper.
When you’re ready to book a bed, check to see if you can book directly through the hostel. Hostels usually charge less if you book directly because they don’t have to pay a 15%-25% commission to a booking company like Booking.com or Hostelworld.com. Just search the name of the hostel to see if they have a website with a direct booking option.
For more info on pricing and budgets, check out my guide: How to Make an Accurate Budget for Long Term Travel. For help further reducing costs, check out my guide to ultra low budget travel on $10 per day.
When you stay in a hostel, part of what you’re paying for is the atmosphere. Most hostels offer more than just a place to sleep. They are a social experience as well. Different types of hostels appeal to different types of travelers. The hostel’s atmosphere is determined by the staff, facilities, location, layout, guests, and amenities.
Before booking, you’ll want to ask yourself what type of hostel experience you’re looking for. Do you want to party or just chill out? Are you looking to meet people or are you just looking for a place to rest your head? Do you like big busy hostels or small cozy hostels? Are you traveling alone or in a group? Maybe you’re just looking for the cheapest option.
Below, I’ll outline a few of the most common types of hostel atmosphere.
- Party hostel- If you want to stay up all night and party with other backpackers, book a party hostel. These places usually feature a bar or club and no curfew. They often offer cheap drinks and organize drinking games and themed parties. These places get pretty wild and can be a lot of fun. Party hostels usually identify themselves as party hostels in the description on the booking site. They know this kind of hostel isn’t for everyone. Most guests will be on the younger side between 18 and 24. Some party hostels even have age limits. For a list of some of the best party hostels, check out this great article from The Broke Backpacker.
- Chill out hostel- This is your average hostel. These kinds of properties stay pretty quiet most of the time. Guests might have a few drinks in the evening. These types of hostels have a good mix of younger and older guests. They might close the common area around 10 so guests can get some sleep. These days, this is my favorite type of hostel to stay at.
- Budget hostel- This is just a cheap place to sleep. Budget hostels don’t offer a bar, organized activities, or any events. They are often located outside of the city center where rent is cheaper. These places are great for when you need a good, quiet night of sleep and don’t care if you meet any fellow travelers or not. Occasionally you will meet local workers or students living in this type of hostel in some parts of the world.
- Boutique/Flashpacking/Luxury hostel- These hostels feature more upscale amenities and appeal to travelers who are on a higher than average budget. They may feature high-end fixtures such as leather furniture, high-quality mattresses, and fancy lighting. Many offer large rooms with private bathrooms. Boutique hostels are generally centrally located in wealthy neighborhoods. They are also spotlessly clean.
- Homestay style hostel- This kind of hostel that is basically somebody’s home with a few rooms that they rent out for guests. Sometimes it’s just a room with a few bunk beds. These hostels can be incredible with the right owner. You’re basically part of the family. These hostels are usually quiet, very clean, and friendly. Many homestay style hostels offer group meals for a reasonable price.
- Adventure/lifestyle hostel- These hostels are designed to accommodate guests who are participating in a particular activity. Some examples include surf hostels, yoga hostels, diving hostels, skiing hostels, rock climbing hostels, hiking hostels, etc.
- Eco hostel- These properties aim to be as environmentally friendly as possible. They aim to save energy and reduce waste. Many eco hostels grow organic food and utilize solar energy.
- Odd or unusual hostels- Occasionally, you’ll come across a hostel with some kind of gimmick. Maybe it’s located inside a historic building or a building that was designed for a different purpose like a jail, courthouse, or bank. Maybe the dorm is located inside of an airplane, boat, or train car. For some more examples, check out this list of unusual hostels from Hostelworld.
Tip: When choosing a hostel, take your personality into consideration. If you’re not the party type, avoid party hostels. If you don’t care about fancy amenities like a pool or theater, choose a basic hostel to save some money. Also, consider the circumstances. If you’re just arriving in a new country after a 24 hour bus ride, you probably don’t want to stay up all night in a noisy hostel. If you’re a solo traveler, you may want to choose a more social hostel so you have a better chance to meet some fellow travelers.
Check-in / Check-out Time
Before you book a hostel, always look at their check-out time. Most hostels have a check out time of 10 or 11 Am. The best hostels have a check out time of noon. These places know their clientele and tend to be more relaxed. They aren’t trying to rush out the old guests to bring new ones in.
I hate feeling rushed. I avoid hostels with a checkout time before 10 am. Before checking out, I want to have time to sleep in, take a shower, enjoy some coffee and breakfast, pack, and plan out my day. Even though it makes me sound lazy, I don’t want to do all of that before 10 o’clock in the morning when I’m on vacation.
You should also consider the check-in time before booking. Most hostels have a check-in time of 1 or 2 pm. This gives housekeeping time to clean the rooms after check-out so they’re ready for the next guest.
Some hostels have a strict check-in time. They won’t let you check in until the designated check-in time or later, even if the room is ready. This is annoying if you arrive early in the morning. Good hostels offer a flexible check-in time. When the room is ready, they’ll let you check in, even if you arrive early in the morning.
Tips: If you plan to arrive at an odd hour like late at night or early in the morning, you should notify the hostel of this when you book. The reason is that some may hostels give your bed away if you don’t show up after a certain time. You don’t want to show up in the middle of the night and find that you don’t have a place to sleep. Some small hostels also close reception at night. If they expect you, they’ll stay open so you can check-in.
Also, check for curfews. This is rare these days, but I have encountered a few hostels that lock the doors at a certain hour and don’t let anyone in until the morning. This is done for security purposes.
A spacious common area gives travelers a place to hang out, eat, read, share stories, plan their trip, etc. outside of the dorm room. A well designed common area facilitates social interaction between travelers. This makes it much easier for solo travelers to meet people to go out and sightsee with.
The ideal common area is clean, well lit, and has plenty of comfortable seats facing each other. Before selecting a hostel, check the photos on the booking site to get an idea of what the common area looks like. That’s where you’ll spend most of your time while you’re at the hostel.
Staying at a hostel with a bar makes it much easier to meet fellow travelers. Pretty much everyone tends to hang out around the bar in the evenings. Most hostel bars also offer events, parties, and activities to bring guests together. For example, drinking games, trivia night, and themed parties are common at hostel bars. As an added bonus, drink prices are usually lower than the local bars.
One drawback to staying in a hostel with a bar is that bringing in outside beverages is usually forbidden. The hostel wants you to buy your drinks from them. This means you can’t buy cheap drinks from the corner store or split a bottle with friends and enjoy your drinks in the hostel. You end up spending more money.
Hostel Security and Lockers
Perhaps the most important security feature for a hostel to offer is lockers. These days, most travelers carry thousands of dollars worth of valuables including a laptop, phone, camera, eReader, tablet, etc. as well as cash, cards, and a passport. You need to be able to secure your belongings when you’re out.
Before booking, make sure the hostel has a large locker where you can secure your belongings. I like hostels that have lockers large enough to accommodate my whole backpack. The best hostels have power outlets inside the locker so you can securely charge your electronics without having to worry about them being stolen while you’re out. Be sure to bring your own lock in case the hostel doesn’t supply one.
If the hostel doesn’t offer lockers or charges for them, stay somewhere else. If you’re not sure if lockers are available, scan through the reviews. Guests will complain if the lockers are too small or insecure or non existent.
You also need to feel safe when you sleep. Particularly when you’re traveling in a country with a high rate of crime. You should consider the security features when booking a hostel. They should have a locking front door so random people off the street can’t come wandering in. Reception should only allow guests to enter. Good hostels also have locks on the dorm rooms so only people staying in that dorm can come in. Avoid hostels with lax security.
Choose a Hostel with Breakfast Included
If possible, always try to book a hostel that includes breakfast. It saves you the time and hassle of having to prepare your own. This gives you more time for sightseeing. It also saves you money. It would cost you at least a few dollars to go out and buy breakfast. If the hostel offers a big breakfast, you can snatch some snacks for later, further reducing your food budget.
When booking, try to find out what kind of breakfast the hostel serves and whether or not they charge extra for it. Most hostel breakfasts are very basic and are included in the price of the room. They usually consist of just toast, tea, and coffee. It’s kind of disappointing when a hostel advertises breakfast and you wake up to find a loaf of bread and tub of butter full of crumbs. Good hostels offer eggs or pancakes and some kind of fruit. The best hostels offer sliced meats and cheeses or an all you can eat continental breakfast.
Also, look at the hours that breakfast is served. If breakfast only runs from 7-8 am, you might miss it if you sleep in. Ideally, you want the breakfast to run until at least 9 am.
Chose a Hostel with Free and Fast Internet
These days, pretty much every hostel offers Wi-Fi with the exception of hostels located in rural or remote areas. You’ll use the internet to plan and book your trip as you go, keep in contact with your family and friends back home, and entertainment. The best hostels offer strong WiFi that you can connect to all over the property. Most hostels include Wi-Fi in the price but there are still a few that charge extra. Make sure you check this before you book so you’re not surprised with an extra charge.
Some hostels offer common computers. These are fine to use for planning your trip but avoid logging into any of your online accounts or entering any personal information. You never know if there are keyloggers or harmful malware installed. Common computers are much less common these days as everyone brings their own devices.
Chose a Hostel With a Kitchen
Many hostels have a shared kitchen with a stove, fridge, pots and pans, cooking utensils, and everything you need to cook except for the food. Having a full kitchen at your disposal allows you to save a nice chunk of money. It’s always cheaper to buy food at a grocery store and cook it yourself than to eat at a restaurant. You also tend to eat healthier when you cook for yourself. I usually won’t stay in a hostel without a kitchen unless I have no other choice.
As an added bonus, the kitchen is also an excellent place to meet fellow travelers. It’s easy to strike up a conversation when you’re cooking next to someone. It’s also fun to share food and cook meals together with the other guest.
Tip: If your hostel doesn’t have a kitchen, you can still cook if you pack the right gear.
A Few Additional Hostel Facilities and Amenities to Look For
Some hostels are bare bones. They offer nothing more than a place to sleep and shower. Others are like an all-inclusive resort. Which facilities and amenities you need depends on the type of traveler you are, where you’re traveling, and personal preference.
A few facilities and amenities to look for when booking a hostel include:
- Free tea and coffee- This is a common perk that many hostels offer. I love having a cup of coffee in the morning and a cup of tea before bed.
- Towels- Some hostels offer towels. Sometimes you have to bring your own.
- Hot water- This is rare to come by in some parts of the world. It’s always nice to take a hot shower after a long day of sightseeing.
- Free maps- Some hostels offer a city map when you check in. The best hostels employ knowledgeable local staff members who can give you an overview of the city and point out a few bars, restaurants, and points of interest to visit.
- Laundry facility- When you’re traveling long term, you need to wash your clothes. Many hostels offer a laundry service where they send your clothes out to be washed. Some hostels have washers and dryers that you can use. There is almost always a fee for using the laundry facility.
- Bathrooms and showers- Good hostels offer plenty of bathrooms so you don’t have to wait in line or wake up early to take a shower. Ensuite bathrooms are nice. That way, you’re only sharing a bathroom with 4-8 people in your dorm.
- Power outlets– Chances are, you’ll be traveling with a few electronic devices including a camera, phone, and maybe laptop. You need a place to charge them. At some hostels, power outlets are limited. For example, there might only be one outlet in an 8 person dorm. The best hostels offer every guest their own power outlet either next to the bed or in the locker. I love having an outlet next to my bed. That way, I can use my phone or laptop without having to worry about my battery dying. It’s also more secure because I can keep an eye on my device while it charges.
- Parking- If you’re driving a car, motorcycle, or riding a bicycle, you need to make sure that the hostel offers somewhere secure for you to park it. If they don’t offer parking, you’ll want to see if there is secure parking nearby.
- Linens- Pretty much every hostel offers sheets and blankets. The problem is that some hostels try to charge extra for them. Be sure to check this before booking so you’re not surprised with an extra charge. To get around this charge, you can bring your own blanket, sleeping bag, or sheet. Some hostels don’t allow you to use your own sleeping bag or sheets out of fear that you’ll bring in bed bugs.
Dorm Type and Size
When booking a bed in a dorm, you’ll often have a choice between a few different types of dorm rooms. For example, most hostels offer different dorm sizes. You may also have a choice between mixed dorms, female-only dorms, and male-only dorms.
Common dorm sizes include 4 bed, 6 bed, 8 bed, or 10 bed. Some large hostels might have a big 20 bed dorm. Generally, larger dorms are cheaper because the hostel can split the cost of the room between more people. The drawback is that larger dorms tend to be noisier and harder to sleep in because there is always someone moving around or snoring and making noise. Personally, I like staying in large dorms because they offer more opportunities to meet people. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper though.
Many hostels also offer both mixed dorms as well as separate male and female dorms. This choice comes down to personal preference. Some people feel safer in segregated dorms. I like staying in mixed dorms because I like meeting different types of people.
The size of the hostel can also impact your experience. For example, large 1000 bed hostels feel more like staying in a hotel. The staff doesn’t interact with the guests outside of checking them in and out. People tend to keep to themselves more. These places feel more corporate and are usually run pretty strictly. Any hostel with over 150 beds is considered a large hostel.
Small hostels with 50 beds or less tend to be much more social. After you’ve been there for a couple of days, you know everybody. The staff tries to get to know every guest and they often party alongside. Any hostel with fewer than 75 beds is considered a small hostel.
Both types of hostel are good for different circumstances. Sometimes you just want a clean, secure place to sleep and sometimes you want a family-like experience
Generally, I prefer smaller hostels. Making friends is much easier. You can get to know everyone there over the course of a couple of days. In larger hostels, you can meet someone cool then not run into them again for the rest of your stay. There are just too many people.
Another benefit of staying at a small hostel is that you get to support the fellow traveler or local family that runs the business. It’s always nice to support local business when you travel.
The hostel staff plays a major role in your overall experience. The best hostels employ knowledgeable locals who are friendly, and helpful. When the receptionist clearly loves their city and is eager and able to help with directions, recommendations, bookings, and tips, you know you’re staying in a good hostel. A friendly staff gives the hostel a warm and welcoming environment.
Unfortunately, many hostel employees are pretty poor in my experience. Part of the problem is that hostels like to employ backpackers who work for free in exchange for a bed. This cuts labor costs considerably but the service often ends up suffering.
The reason is that workers who aren’t getting paid do the bare minimum. Many don’t have hospitality experience. In addition, backpackers don’t know the city like a local so they aren’t helpful in making recommendations or giving directions. Of course, many hostels wouldn’t be profitable without this labor arrangement.
At some hostels, the staff likes to party with the guests. This can be fun but usually causes poor service and creates an unprofessional environment. Personally, I prefer when the hostel staff acts like the staff. I don’t want to have to deal with a drunk person when I’m checking in or asking for directions.
Some booking sites allow you to rate the staff. Checking this rating can help you weed out the poorly run hostels.
Look at Hostel Reviews
The reviews can tell you a lot about the overall quality of a hostel. If reviews are high, chances are the hostel is well managed and offers a decent value. Highly reviewed places also tend to have the best location and highest standard of cleanliness.
When reading through reviews, remember to look at the number of reviews as well as the rating. If a hostel has 10 stars but only 2 reviews, it’s meaningless. THose reviews probably came from the owner and their friend. If a hostel has 9.2 stars with 6000 reviews, it’s probably a pretty good choice.
When searching for a hostel online, I usually sort by highest-reviewed first. Of the highest reviewed hostels in the city, I look for the one with the lowest price. I’ll then search by lowest price first. Of the cheapest hostels, I look for the one with the highest rating. I’ll read through the reviews of both of those hostels. Basically, I’m looking for the cheapest hostel with the highest rating. I rarely stay in the top reviewed hostel or the cheapest hostel.
When reading hostel reviews, you should also take them with a grain of salt. Some booking sites censor reviews or remove negative reviews. Some people just like to complain and write a negative review about every hostel they visit. Usually, if there are at least 15 or so reviews with an average of 8/10 stars, the hostel is decent.
Most hostels have the house rules posted on the booking site and in the common area. You should give them a quick read before you check-in. For the most part, the rules are pretty similar from hostel to hostel. Most involve keeping the place clean and respecting the other guests and the property.
A few good hostel rules to look for include:
- Quiet hours- Most hostels turn the music off, shut down the bar and common area, and ask everyone to be quiet starting at around 10 or 11 pm until around 8 am. This way, people who don’t want to stay up partying can get a good night of sleep. Some party hostels don’t have quiet hours. Personally, I prefer when a hostel has quiet hours because it forces you to go out to experience the nightlife of the city instead of sitting around the hostel all night. You can also get some sleep if you don’t want to stay up partying.
- No visitors allowed in the rooms- This is an excellent rule for security reasons. You don’t want some random wandering around your room unattended with your belongings, even if they’re locked up. If some random person comes in and steals something, there is nothing that can be done. If a dorm mate robs you, the hostel has their information on file. There is at least a hope that the police could help.
- No pets- This helps with the cleanliness of the hostel. Dogs and cats are cute but are messy. They can also be aggressive if they’re poorly trained.
- No food or drinks in the room- Eating in the room can attract pests. You don’t want ants, cockroaches, or rats crawling around when you’re trying to sleep. Hostels have plenty of places where you can eat.
Immediate Hostel Disqualifiers and Red Flags
When I’m choosing a hostel, there are a few red flags that immediately remove a hostel from the running for me. These include:
- Poor location- I usually won’t stay in a hostel if I have to take the bus into the city. I’m less likely to go out exploring if I have to spend time and money on public transport every time I want to go out.
- No outside food allowed- Some hostels have their own restaurant and don’t allow you to bring in your own food. I’m on a budget and enjoy cooking for myself. I won’t stay at these places if I can avoid them. Hostels with bars also prohibit outside drinks. I avoid these places too when possible.
- Curfew- I don’t want to stay somewhere where I can’t come and go as I please.
- Party hostels- These days, I avoid party hostels. Even though they’re fun, I end up spending too much on drinks and never feel like doing anything during the day. I’d rather have a chill night and get a good night’s sleep so I can spend my time sightseeing.
- Poor reviews- I avoid hostels with an average rating below below around 70%. If the rating is this low, there is usually a good reason. Either the place is filthy or the staff is unfriendly in most cases.
- Bed bugs mentioned in reviews- If I so much as see the words bed bugs, I’m out. I have experienced bed bugs before and I’m not going to risk it again. For help checking for bed bugs and getting rid of them, check out my guide: How to Avoid Bed Bugs While Traveling.
- Lots of up charges- If the hostel charge extra for towels, sheets, or unexpected taxes, it’s usually a bad sign. They will be nickel and diming you for the duration of your stay. Avoid these places.
How to Choose and Book the Best Hostel: My 9 Step Process
- Open up your preferred booking site- Booking.com and Hostelworld.com are probably the most popular. These days, I prefer Booking.com because many properties allow you to make a reservation without paying a deposit. Their cancellation policy is usually better as well. Oftentimes prices are lower. I used to always use Hostelworld, but I’m not a fan anymore for various reasons. I still go there to search through as some properties aren’t on both.
- Enter the city and dates that you plan to stay- I usually book 1 or 2 nights then extend my stay while I’m there. That way, if I don’t like the place, I’m not stuck. I can move to another hostel after a couple of days if I want. If you’re traveling during busy season, you’ll want to book your entire stay. Hostels can get booked up weeks in advance during peak season.
- Sort by lowest price- This way, you can see what the going rate is for the cheaper end of the spectrum. Browse the top few results and take note of the average price for a bed.
- Sort by highest rated- From this list, look for a hostel with a price comparable to the lowest price list. Basically, you’re looking for the highest rated place with the lowest price.
- Check the map- Once you narrow down the list a bit, check the map to see where the properties are located within the city. I like to stay near the city center because the area is usually walkable. Also, read the directions to the hostels to make sure that it’s not too difficult to get to.
- Look at the amenities and facilities- Make sure the hostel offers all of the features that you need including Wi-Fi, breakfast, a kitchen, etc.
- Read the reviews- Skim a few recent reviews and look for any red flags or disqualifiers you may have.
- Read the fine print- Skim the hostel description to find out what kind of hostel they are. Look for crazy rules or disqualifiers. By now, you should have it narrowed down to 1-3 potential hostels.
- Check to see if you can book directly with the hostel- This is almost always cheaper than booking through a booking site the cheapest option. If the hostel has its own website, they usually welcome direct booking. They can charge less for this because they save on paying Booking.com or Hostelworld a commission.
- Book- Make the reservation on the site with the lowest cost.
Booking in Advance Vs Just Showing Up
You should book in advance if you’re traveling during a busy season, in a busy location, or arriving at an odd hour. Generally booking 1-3 days ahead is fine. In particularly busy destinations like Paris or Bangkok, you might need to book a week in advance to make sure you get a decent hostel. If you’re traveling during a major event or festival like Carnival or Christmas, you may need to book a couple of weeks in advance to make sure you get a bed.
If you’re traveling offseason or somewhere that doesn’t get a lot of tourists, you’re often better off just showing up without a booking. You can use the booking process above to find a few places that you wouldn’t mind staying, make a note of their locations, and show up. Some booking sites don’t give you the address until you’ve booked. In this case, just search for the hostel on a GPS or maps app to find the exact location.
There are four benefits to just showing up at a hostel instead of making a reservation:
- You can negotiate the rate- At small hostels, the price is usually negotiable. They are particularly flexible during slow times and offseason. If you plan to stay for several days, you may be able to negotiate a long term rate as well.
- The room price is cheaper- Because the hostel doesn’t have to pay a commission to Booking.com or Hostelworld, they can rent the bed for less. Some hostels pass part of this savings to their customers.
- You get to see the place first- If it’s a dump, you can always walk away and keep looking. On a few occasions, I’ve looked at hostels that were run down or just didn’t seem to friendly. If you don’t have a reservation, you have no obligation to stay. You can just leave and look for something better.
- If your plans change, you don’t lose a deposit- Most online booking companies require you to pay a percentage up front. If you don’t show up, you don’t get your money back. There is often a cancelation fee. On a few occasions, I’ve taken longer than expected to arrive in a city and lost my reservation. If you book in person, you don’t have to worry about any of that.
Showing up without a reservation won’t work everywhere. If you show up in a busy city without a reservation, you could be out of luck. Once, I arrived in Amsterdam without a hostel reservation. I spent half the day going to every hostel I could find asking for a bed. Luckily I always travel with a tent so I just took the tram a way out of town to a campground and stayed there. This ended up being cheaper than a hostel anyway.
Final Thoughts on How to Choose the Best Hostel
Over the past 10 years, I’ve stayed in well over a hundred hostels. I found that the hostel you choose can determine your whole experience in a city. I’ve stayed in run-down pits where I had an excellent time because of the great staff and cool guests. I’ve stayed in spotless, freshly remodeled hostels where I’ve been bored to death because the staff or other guests weren’t friendly.
In hostels, I have seen it all from loud snorers to drunken antics. Even with the annoyances, I love the hostel experience. I have met friends from all over the world that I’ll never forget. When you find the right hostel, you never want to go home.
Do you have any hostel tips? How do you choose a hostel? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.