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.
Table of Contents- How to Chose a Hostel
- Check-In/ Check-Out Time
- Hostel Size
- Common Area
- How to Get a Good Nights Sleep in a Hostel
- Immediate Disqualifiers and Red Flags
- Hostel Etiquette
- How to Choose and Book the Best Hostel: My 9 Step Process
- Final Thoughts on How to Choose a Hostel
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. 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
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.
Tip: 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.
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 read the fine print to find out 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. They know their guests. Backpackers generally aren’t early birds. Some people are hungover from the night before. Some just like to take their time. It’s nice to be able to sleep in and relax a bit in the morning.
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 them time to clean the room after check out so it’s ready for the next guest. Some hostels have a strict check-in time. They won’t let you check in until after the designated check-in time. Good hostels offer a flexible check-in time. When the room is ready, they’ll let you check in whenever you arrive. Even if you arrive early in the morning.
One of the worst parts of travel is arriving in a new city early in the morning then being told that your room won’t be ready for 8 more hours. There is nothing better than arriving at your hostel being able to check in there and then.
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 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.
The size of the hostel can impact your experience.
- Large hostels- 1000 bed hostels feel more like staying in a hotel. The staff doesn’t interact with the guests. People tend to keep to themselves. These places feel more corporate and are usually run pretty strictly. Any hostel with over 150 beds is considered a large hostel.
- Small hostels- Usually, hostels of 50 beds or less are much more social. After you’ve been there for a few days, you’ve met pretty much everybody. The staff tries to get to know every guest and often they 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.
When searching for a hostel online, I usually sort by highest reviewed first. If reviews are high, chances are the place is well managed. Highly reviewed places also tend to have the best location and highest standard of cleanliness.
Remember to look at the number of reviews as well. If a hostel has 10 stars but only 2 reviews, it’s meaningless. If a hostel has 9.2 stars with 6000 reviews, it’s probably a pretty good choice.
A note about censorship of reviews: I do have a suspicion that some of the booking sites sensor reviews. Specifically Hostelworld. I ran into this interesting post on Reddit where a guy claimed that the site removed his review about bed bugs in the hostel. I don’t know for sure if this happens or not but I find it unacceptable if it did. Removing a review if it is hateful or irreverent I understand, but some things travelers need to know about. Even if it hurts the business.
Some hostels are bare bones. Some are like an all-inclusive resort. The best facilities to look for in a hostel are:
- Free breakfast- I try to always stay in a hostel that has free breakfast. Even if it’s just toast and coffee, it saves me the hassle of having to prepare my own. It also saves me a few dollars every day.
- Lockers- This is important for securing your belongings. I like hostels that have lockers large enough to accommodate my whole backpack. Be sure to bring your own lock in case the hostel doesn’t supply one. The best hostels have power outlets inside the locker so you can securely charge your laptop, camera, phone, etc without having to worry about it being stolen while you’re out.
- Kitchen- Having a full kitchen at your disposal is valuable. I enjoy cooking my own meals. It saves money and is a good way to make sure that I am eating healthy while I’m on the road. I usually won’t stay in a hostel without a kitchen unless I have no choice. Tip: If your hostel doesn’t have a kitchen, you can still cook if you pack the right gear.
- Linens- Some hostels try to charge extra for sheets, which I find incredibly annoying.
- Wifi- These days, it’s pretty much expected except in rural or remote areas.
- Bar- When a hostel has a bar, it’s much easier to meet fellow travelers. Prices are usually pretty fair in hostel bars as well. One downside is that bringing in outside beverages is usually forbidden because they want you to buy your drinks from them. I understand this but it is an annoyance.
- 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.
- Parking- If you’re driving a car, motorcycle, or bicycle, you need to make sure that the hostel has somewhere secure for you to store it.
- 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.
Are they open 24 hours? Can you check in and out at any time of day? Transport schedules are weird. Sometimes you’ll arrive somewhere at 3 in the morning and just want to check in and go to sleep. In this case, it’s best to choose a hostel with 24-hour reception.
I feel bad when I arrive at an odd hour and have to wake someone up to check me in. Some hostels require that you prearrange an after-hours check-in before you arrive. Before booking, make sure you know your expected arrival time so you can plan ahead.
Tip: 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 usually done for security reasons.
Before selecting a hostel, I always check the photos on the booking site to get an idea of what the common area looks like. That’s where I’ll be spending most of my time while I’m at the hostel, after all.
One of the main reasons that I stay in hostels is to meet fellow travelers. A well thought out common area makes that much easier. The ideal common area is clean, well lit, and has plenty of comfortable seats facing each other.
Hostel staff are a mixed bag. Sometimes they are knowledgeable and eager to help with directions, bookings, and recommendations. This is the type of person that should run a hostel. They clearly love their city. Sometimes the staff doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing or where they are.
In general, I find hostel staff to be pretty poor. They’re oftentimes just backpackers who work for free in exchange for a bed. This cuts labor cost for the hostel and saves the backpacker money on accommodation. Many hostels probably wouldn’t be profitable without this arrangement.
The drawback to this arrangement is the fact that the worker does the bare minimum because they aren’t being paid. They also don’t know the city and are generally unhelpful.
This is a controversial opinion, but I prefer when the hostel staff act like staff, not friends. When a hostel employee is drinking and partying with guests, it feels unprofessional and gives the hostel a bad look in my mind. I like to drink as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to have to deal with a drunk 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.
Most hostels have the house rules posted on the booking site or in the common area. You can check them before you check in. Some good rules to look for are:
- Quiet hours- I like when hostels shut down the bar at a reasonable hour. It allows people to get a good nights sleep. It also makes you go out to experience the nightlife of the city. When I’m traveling, I’d rather experience a local bar than sit around the hostel all night.
- No visitors allowed in the rooms- This is an excellent rule for security reasons. I don’t want some random wandering around my room unattended with my belongings. If I get robbed by a random, there is nothing that can be done. If a dorm mate robs me, 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 and can be aggressive.
- No food or drinks in the room- This one can be annoying but is probably for the best. It keeps odor and pests from the rooms. 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.
How to Get a Good Nights Sleep in a Hostel
Don’t forget about maybe the single most important part of any hostel stay, and the reason that you’re there. To sleep! Before choosing a hostel, think about your sleeping habits. Do you need absolute silence? A dark room? A firm mattress? Or can you sleep anywhere like me? Take the following into consideration:
- The bed- Every hostel with new or high-quality beds will talk about it in the description. For some people, having a good bed to sleep on is the single most important factor. I’ve slept on decade-old mattresses with broken springs and craters torn out. I’ve slept on inch thick foam pads. These days, I try to find a place with decent beds.
- Darkness- Some dorms have no windows and are pitch black until someone turns on the lights. I hate this. When there is no daylight, my body thinks it’s still night and I want to sleep all day. I try to stay in a dorm with a window. I sleep much better that way. It’s also safer in the event of a fire.
- Noise- If you’re a light sleeper, you should look for a hostel with designated quiet times. Also, consider booking a private room if you have the budget. Downtown areas tend to be louder.
- Dorm size- The larger the dorm, the greater the chance of someone being annoying or waking you up. I’ve slept in large dorms with 100 beds. In these types of hostels, someone is always up and around making noise. Smaller dorms of around 4-6 are better for light sleepers.
- Location of the bed in the hostel- You don’t want to get stuck in the bed next to the bathroom. You don’t want to be in a room located directly above a nightclub. Consider where you are being placed when you check in. If you’re not happy with the situation, you can always request a different bed or leave.
- Temperature- Some hostels offer ac and non-AC rooms. When traveling in a region with a tropical climate, you may want to consider spending a bit extra so you can sleep in a comfortable air-conditioned room. I’m a hot sleeper and have trouble falling asleep when I’m sweating and uncomfortably hot.
Tips for Getting a Better Night Sleep
No hostel is perfect. There is always something annoying to disturb your sleep. Maybe you got stuck with a loud dormmate. Maybe the street light shines in the window. To help improve your quality of sleep, consider packing:
- Sleep mask- Most airlines give these out for free on international flights.
- Earplugs- You can buy a cheap pair of foam pads for less than $1.
- Sleep sheet or sleeping bag liner- These are great if you’re uncertain about the cleanliness of the bed. They can also add a bit of warmth if the AC is turned up too high. I recommend the Vumos Sleeping Bag Liner and Camping Sheet from Amazon
- Mosquito net- Most hostels supply these but it’s a good idea to bring your own just in case. Malaria is a problem in many parts of the world. My buddy caught it in a hostel in Nairobi that didn’t have mosquito nets. I like the Dimples Excel Mosquito Net. It only requires one mount which makes hanging quick and easy. It also packs down pretty small.
Immediate Disqualifiers and Red Flags
There are a few red flags that immediately remove a hostel from the running for me such as:
- Poor location- I usually won’t stay in a hostel where I have to take the bus into town. I’m less likely to go out exploring if I have to spend time and money to visit the city.
- 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 so I won’t stay at these places.
- Curfew- I don’t want to stay somewhere where I can’t come and go as I please.
- Party hostels- This is a personal preference. These days, I avoid party hostels. When I stay in one, I end up spending too much on booze and never feel like doing anything during the day. I’d rather have a chill night with few beers and get a good nights sleep.
- Bed bugs mentioned in reviews- If I so much as see the word, 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 they 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.
A Note About Hostel Etiquette
I never really expect much comfort from hostels. I expect to be woken up and slightly uncomfortable during my stay. Every dorm seems to have one person who is oblivious to their dorm mates. Having said this, I try my best to be a good dorm mate. Some things to remember include:
- Don’t turn on the light in the middle of the night when others are sleeping- I find it infuriating when someone comes in late, turns on the light, then proceeds to get ready for bed. All while the rest of the dorm is asleep. If you need light, use your phone or a flashlight. Better yet, let your eyes adjust to the darkness for a moment.
- Don’t hog the temperature control- Many dorms have wireless heat or AC controllers or thermostats on the wall. Occasionally someone will keep setting it to an extreme temperature. Usually, Max AC setting. Just keep the room at a reasonable temperature where everyone is comfortable.
- If you have to leave early in the morning, pack the night before- No need to wake everyone up with your packing in the morning.
- Don’t use the snooze button on your alarm- If you have to set an alarm, just get up when it goes off.
- Don’t scatter your belongings all over the room- Some people are just messy. They unpack their bags all over the floor. It’s unreasonable to expect me to walk around your stuff when it occupies half the floor space of the room.
- Keep clean- Hostels are smelly places. Body odor, dirty laundry, and general filth add to the stink. With so many people living in such close quarters, the room is bound to stink. Do your part to make it a little better. Take a shower, bag up dirty laundry, and try to stay reasonably clean.
- Plastic bags- These things are great for packing but are incredibly noisy. When packing in the morning, consider the sound.
How to Choose and Book the Best Hostel: My 9 Step Process
- Open up Booking.com and Hostelworld.com- I prefer Booking these days. Many properties allow you to make a reservation without paying a deposit. Their cancellation policy is usually better as well. Sometimes 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 I 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.
- Sort by lowest price- This way, I 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, I look for a hostel with a price comparable to the lowest price list. Basically, I’m looking for the highest rated place with the lowest price.
- Check the map- Once I find a few contenders, I check the map to see where they are located within the city. I like to stay near the city center because the area is usually walkable. I also read the directions to the hostels to make sure that it’s not too difficult to get to or find.
- Read the reviews- I just skim a few and look for any red flags or disqualifiers listed above.
- Read the fine print- If it’s looking good so far, I read their description. I want to know what kind of hostel they are. If they have any crazy rules. I search for disqualifiers. By now, I should have it narrowed down to 1-3 potential hostels.
- Check to see if I can book directly with the hostel- This is generally 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- I’ll make the reservation on the site with the lowest cost.
How Far in Advance Should I book my Hostel?
This depends on when and where you are traveling. Generally, I try to make a booking 1-3 days in advance. Sometimes I miss out on a particularly popular hostel, but most places have room. I don’t like making plans too far out. It removes spontaneity from the trip. Here’s when you should book:
- Peak season travel- If you are traveling to a particularly popular destination like Paris or Bangkok during peak tourist season, you may need to book a couple of weeks in advance to get a bed in one of the top rated hostels. Even if you wait until the day before, you’ll usually be able to find something.
- Offseason travel- If you are traveling in a non-touristy region or offseason, you can book day-of if you want and still easily find a room.
- During an event or festival- If you are traveling during a major event like to Rio during Carnival or Koh Phangan during a Full Moon Party, you’ll have to book well in advance. In some cases several months is necessary to make sure that you get a decent price. Top rated hostels can fill up a year in advance for major events.
Just Showing Up
If I’m traveling offseason or somewhere that doesn’t get a lot of tourists, I usually don’t bother making a booking. I just use the booking process above to find a few places that I wouldn’t mind staying, make a note of their address, and show up.
Some booking sites don’t give you the exact address of the hostel until you’ve booked. In this case, just search for the hostel on a GPS or maps app to find the exact location.
Sometimes, I have found that it makes things easier to not have a reservation. For example, while traveling in Africa, I noticed that most hotels and hostels don’t check their reservations.
There are four benefits to just showing up:
- You can negotiate the rate- For 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. On a few occasions, I’ve taken longer than expected to arrive in a city and lost my reservation.
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. Not a single dorm bed was free. 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 8 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.
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? Share your experience in the comments below.
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