Why You Should, What to Expect and What to Pack: Tips for Staying in a Hostel
It hits you in the face like a big fat cream pie.
You’re planning your solo trip to Paris, London or another fabulous (expensive) city and the cost of lodging is busting your bubble, the budget bubble that is. You could go ahead and book that beautiful hotel room but by doing so, it won’t leave you with a lot of money to do much of anything once at your destination. So now you’re faced with a big reality check: Do you save more money to afford that hotel room or do you select a more affordable lodging option?
Because unless you’ve won the lottery or money is no object, if you travel as a solo traveller keeping expenses and budget in check is a constant reality.
While other budget accommodation choices are available, staying in hostels vs hotels – or even private Airbnb rooms – offers solo travellers more than just a break on their finances, it provides welcomed social interactions which add to the whole travel experience. Having personally used hostels while on a 10-month road trip in Latin America and now in Europe, socializing with fellow travellers is indeed an added feature you get when staying in hostels.
Unfortunately, hostels or “youth hostels” often get a bad rap with horror stories of rowdy young backpackers, dirty showers and bedbugs.
In this how-to guide for travellers staying in a hostel for the first time, I wanted to put some of those urban legends to rest because while some of these tales might have been true back in the 70s now things have changed in the affordable lodging realm. In fact, the hostels I’ve lodged at offered similar, if not better, amenities and services than many budget hotels and motels.
Plus you’ll find tried and tested hostel tips and tricks to help you have to best experience on your first time staying in a hostel.
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Table of contents
Hostels vs Hotels: Is it worth it?
Now, obviously, if you are travelling to an affordable destination like South East Asia, choosing hostels vs hotels might not be as necessary to accommodate your budget. On the other hand, visiting iconic cities like Paris, London or even Copenhagen on limited funds can be challenging. Let’s do some quick math here.
An average hotel in London, in the city central radius, starts in the nightly rate average of $120 US (155$ CAD). That seems reasonable enough, oh and don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the luxury of a comfy bed all to myself, in fact, this rate might suit some solo traveller’s budget on a short getaway.
Yet, that 290$ US – the difference between the cost of 360$ US for a 3-night stay in a hotel room against 70$ US for a bed in a dorm with ensuite – is enough money to make anyone reconsider. Multiply this equation to several weeks of travelling and you quickly understand why staying in hostels is a viable option for solo travellers in Europe destinations where lodging rates can be expensive.
The regular clientele of hostels is not solely made of backpackers. From retirees, law students, fiancées travelling alone before getting married, gap-year travellers of all ages, location independent or transient digital nomads, these are the type of travellers that make out the eclectic tapestry of today hostels’ clientele.
Staying In A Hostel For The First Time: What to Expect
As mature travellers, we tend to be a little more set in our ways and staying in hostels for the first time can be even more intimidating than for most, pushing us way out of your comfort zone. I admit that the thought of staying in a hostel for the first time can be frightening and even give you a queasy uncomfortable feeling in the stomach.
You’re thinking “isn’t travelling suppose to be fun and relaxing?”
Yes and just like other not-so-young solo female travellers discovered, you might start staying in hostels because of budget restrictions but keep on using them because they are convenient, comfortable and yes, fun!
What Is It Like Staying In A Hostel?
Let’s Start with Hostel Rooms and Dorms
Long are the days of solely huge mixed dormitories as an option, now you’ll have lots of choices for staying in hostels. Although the most common configuration is a 6-8-bed dorm, many now offer 2-4-bed rooms and even private rooms with ensuite. You can have your pick of same-sex or mixed dorms, some with private bathrooms and many with a least a sink in the room.
Furthermore, pod beds with privacy curtains (gotta love those), outlets for your electronics and integrated reading lights are quite common nowadays. As for safety features, electronic card keys for the hall and room keep unwelcome visitors at bay plus most hostels provide in-room lockers to secure your valuables.
Pod Beds at Yes Hostel Porto/ Photo Credit ~ Booking.com
You might be concerned about younger roommates thinking, “What’s this older woman doing in our dorm room”? …well don’t. This one is on you. In my personal experience of staying in 5 different hostels dorms in Europe, I never once felt excluded because of my age difference. On the contrary, I met younger, yes, but more confident female solo travellers along the way that inspired and reassured me about solo travelling.
Most of your roommates will be considerate but do expect some inconveniences from sleeping with strangers such as snorers or someone coming back late at night. Nothing that can’t be remedied by some good earplugs or using my proven recipe, sleeping earphones with relaxing music or a meditation app playing.
St-Christopher’s Inn Bath/ Photo Credit ~ Booking.com
What About Public Spaces in Hostels?
The public areas are multi-purposed often used for breakfast, working during the day and then turn into a lounge area in the evening. Some hostels have “chill out” rooms with games, TV and shelves with books to choose from. Generally, the public areas will be more animated in the evening but nothing too rowdy unless it’s a “party hostel” but then the party is usually in the bar area. If you’re in dire need of true peace and quiet after supper, a local coffee shop or your bunk is probably your best option.
St-Christopher’s Inn Gare Du Nord Paris/ Photo Credit ~ Hostelworld
Wombat’s London, Uk / Photo Credit ~ Booking.com
Kitchen: Meals and Drinks
I’ve mentioned it before, if you travel long term as I do, cooking for yourself becomes more than a budget necessity its also a healthier choice. Although a lot of hostels have self-serve kitchen some don’t so inquire ahead of time if this is an important feature for you.
Then again, there’s no reason to cook your own supper if you’re staying at the Yes Hostel Porto or Lisbon and can enjoy a 3-course family-style dinner with an open bar for 10 euros, a tremendous value and fantastic way to meet your fellow ‘’hostelers’’.
On the other end, expect most hostels breakfast to be somehow ordinary. It usually consists of bread, butter and jams, some cold cuts, cereals, and scrambled eggs, and of course, caffeinated beverages, all of it generally served between 8h-10am. A quick solution to a boring hostel breakfast is to buy cheese, fruits or spreads to supplement the bland offering.
Yes Hostel Lisbon / Photo Credit ~ Booking.com
Most hostels will let you bring your own as long as you don’t consume it in their bar section, fair enough. In that respect, I recommend packing a ‘’rum runner’’ flask to transfer any wine or spirit into. It serves a dual purpose, it makes alcohol much more inconspicuous and less tempting for potential disappearance in the fridge, and in addition, makes transporting any unconsumed portions easier to bring along than opened glass bottles.
Note: Rum runners flasks are leakproof and pack flat!
Bathrooms: Toilets & Showers
Even in dorms with ensuite, sharing a room with strangers comes with certain considerations. A top concern of many female travellers is sharing the bathroom and the shower units and probably more so for us mature women. From waking up to go wee in the middle of the night to simply looking frumpy in the morning, these are sincere preoccupations for many. Add the walking around in your PJ in public hallways…well, let’s just say I hear you Ladies!
With that in mind, dorms with privative bathrooms are the preferred option for obvious practicality reasons. The ideal situation is when the toilet, shower and sink are all separated, enabling anyone to use each independently, a perfect set-up found in my Wombat dorm in London.
In the case of a shared bathroom room, a sink in the dorm is an added bonus where, at the minimum, you can freshen your face and brush your teeth before heading out. If neither is the case, I prefer getting dressed in the clothes I would wear that day, put on my flip-flops, bring my toiletries case and head out to the showers, get everything done in one go. You might have heard horror stories about gross hostels showers but I’ve yet to experience one, then again, experiences may differ in different parts of the world.
As for the loo….I know it’s a touchy or should I say smelly- topic.
I use these discreet and convenient Poo-Drops in my toiletries case (and my purse), use a few in the basin and voilà!….Incognito. Then again, most toilets in hostels have the automatic fragrance sprayers, so don’t overly concern yourself with this.
Amenities and Services
All that said, keep in mind that not all hostels are created equal with loads of variations on mood, location and services. You will have choices for the picking between boutique hostels, privately owned and even chain hostels. You can join networks like Hostelling International and YHA (UK-based Youth Hostel Association) whom now offer a combined membership which provides reduced rates to their members.
Just as with any accommodation option, you should verify that the amenities and services of the hostel you’re considering are on par with your expectations. Some will even have on-site restaurants, pubs and self-serve laundry facilities. In some cases, room rates include linens and towels as in other cases it can involve an extra charge, so do inquire.
Read reviews, testimonials and the fine print, check for pictures of the dorms and the premises and be on the lookout for direct booking promotions on the official site. I always like to cross check rates between booking.com and hostelworld.com, the most popular sites to find hostels, you might be surprised that they often beat the rates of booking directly with the hostel.
Staying in a hostel in Bath, one of the least affordable city in the UK, makes financial sense for solo travellers.
Going about your touring of the city on your own is definitely an advantage of solo travelling but so does joining a walking tour. Many hostels organize or host small tours and activities in the area for their guests. From cultural city tours, food tasting tours (and yes pub crawls), outings to special interest sites, these tours are usually appropriately priced and convenient to join.
Partaking in your hostel tours will give you the opportunity to mingle and meet other guests as well as other tourists visiting the destination. Inquire at the hostel’s reception for availability and prices, some tours do sell out fast.
Other types of activities might include BBQ’s, movie nights and games, there’s usually some type of entertainment you can join in.
I was lucky to visit the Douro Valley thanks to these young ladies met on the hostel walking tour
Interact with others: That’s probably the best part of staying in hostels, the social aspect. Go on and talk to people, I guarantee you will make acquaintances and even long-term friendships.
Book a tour: If you plan to be in that city for a few days, booking through your hostel is a perfect way to mingle with other travellers.
Be spontaneous, ask to join in: You’ve just heard someone’s heading out to a place you might have been hesitant to go alone or a fun game is being played, just ask if you can join, you’ll be surprised by the response.
Clean up after yourself: Self-serve kitchen, bathrooms and public areas, keep it as you found it.
Dorms Do’s & Dont’s
Certain things should go without saying but here are few reminders of what not to do when sharing a room with strangers.
Keep quiet at night: This includes talking on the phone or having a messenger conversation with sounds.
Pick up and tidy up: It should be the motto here, everywhere and all the time.
Don’t spread out: Keep your belongings within a respectable radius. It’s totally fine and common practice to keep your toiletries in the ensuite, just remember that your roommates are entitled to the same, so don’t be a hog.
Don’t turn the overhead lights if you come in late at night: Most of us now have smartphones that can be used as a torch, no need to wake up everyone with bright lights.
Plan ahead for an early morning departure: Early checkout? Organize your belongings and pack accordingly, avoid rummaging with your locker’s lock and waking your roommates.
Wombat’s London, Uk / Photo Credit ~ Booking.com
Questions to Ask Before Booking Your Hostel
You will find on the booking site the answer to most of these but double check as sometimes the listings need updating.
– 24-hour reception
– Late Check Out Option
– Lockers in rooms
– Luggage storage
– Free Wifi
– Shared kitchen
– Grocery store close by
– Proximity to transport
– Central Location to sightseeing
– On-site Restaurant or Pub
– Freebies like breakfast or welcome drinks
– Lounge / Chill-out room
– Walking Tours and activities
– Linens and towels – included or not
– Laundry service or self-service facilities
What to Pack for Staying in a Hostel
If this your first time staying in a hostel, you might think of packing the following items:
Hostel Survival Kit
– Waterproof toiletry bag
– Toiletries: soap, shampoo, conditioner
– Rum Runners for wine or spirits
– Ear Plugs / Sleeping Earphones
– Poo Spray
– Flip Flops
– Combination Padlock
Chain Hostels I’ve Used In Europe
Although some of these hostels* are considered party hostels, their ideal and perfect centroid location made it worth sleeping with good earplugs.
Hopefully, this guide will inspire you to consider staying in a hostel the next time you travel. Staying in hostels is not always optimal, you might be awakened by loud noises or you might even get your food stolen in the fridge I promise you that you will have memories that will last you a lifetime. it’s a way to keep on travelling with limited funds and rest assured, you will have fun and meet marvellous people.
When you consider the good, the bad and the ugly about staying in hostels, it’s a way to keep on travelling more with limited funds and rest assured, you will have fun and meet marvellous people if you do.
Have you stayed in hostels?
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…