How To Choose A Good Hostel
How To Choose A Good Hostel
The first time I stayed in a hostel, I opened the door to my room to find three beautiful Swedish girls walking around in their underwear. They looked at me for a second, smiled and turned back to doing whatever they were doing. It was certainly one way to be introduced to what staying in a hostel is all about.
Over the years, I estimate that I’ve stayed in at least 200 different hostels around the world. I continue to do so, not because I enjoy trying to fall asleep while someone’s snoring or taking in the combined eau du jour of everyone staying in the room. I do it because I continue to meet some amazing people this way. People who I would end up traveling with for days and even weeks at a time, and stay in touch with long after we’ve parted ways.
Sharing a room in a game of strangers roulette is worth it for these experiences, but of course with the comforts of a hotel room or a hip Airbnb as options, I am more discerning about where I stay when I choose to stay in a hostel. These are the things I look for and dealbreakers to help me choose a good/great hostel.
Narrow Down My Options
I start on Hostelworld.com and narrow down my options in a city. In a place like Franz Josef, New Zealand, there’s only a handful of options. Bangkok, Thailand on the other hand has about 400 different hostels you can choose from. This takes a little longer to research, but it’s a good thing. You have choices and options (and I’ll get to that in just a bit). Although hostels are rated on a scale of 1-10, I don’t take this as an objective scale across the site. A 8.5 in one place, might be a 9.5 in another, or lower in a different city. I look at how the top hostels score relative to each other and how many hostels have at least a 8.5 rating.
Sometimes, they all have low scores, but that can be ok too. I don’t expect the same standard across everywhere I go, and I do take the prices into account. Someone paying $60 for a dorm bed in Amsterdam, might expect more for their money and give it a lower score than a hostel in Vietnam where they paid $8 a night. So that’s where the next thing is important.
Read The Negative Reviews
Sort the reviews by most recent and look through the not so glowing reviews. What is the person complaining about. Do they sound like someone who knows what they are talking about or just complaining because they suck as human beings and didn’t get invited to the pub crawl.
Figure out what’s important to you and see if any red flags are raised. If are plan to sleep early, look to see if people are complaining about the noise level past 10 pm. Did the showers work? Was it hot? Were there bed bugs? How recently? You’ll get more from the negative reviews than the glowing ones from people who just are reviewing with rose-colored glasses on.
I find the ones that don’t sound or look great from the pictures and remove from them from contention.
Price Does Not Always Equate To Quality
This is obviously important. A lot of times I find the price range to be pretty tight across all my options in a particular city. Sometimes a couple might stand out on the either end. Cheap sounds great, but consider what makes it so cheap. What are you giving up on? Likewise, if a place is much more expensive, consider what you are paying for? Is it because there are better beds, more amenities, better location, or are you just paying because it’s where everyone comes to party. Or because they were listed in Lonely Planet? It’s important to know what you’re paying for and that comes to my list of things that I look for and my dealbreakers.
When I first started traveling, I’d be lucky to find a hostel with a private lockbox to keep my passport and money. You just kept your backpack at the foot of your bed and hope that there’s honor amongst travelers and no one steals your copy of Time Traveler’s Wife. And then we started traveling with more expensive cameras, laptops, cell phones. While I don’t think thefts went up, there was value in the peace of mind in knowing your stuff was secured. Hostels started providing individuals lockers. Before I knew it, it was strange if you didn’t have a place to lock up all your possessions.
I believe that people are generally good and my stuff is safe in a dorm room, but I’d rather not have to test that theory and have it ruin my trip. This is a must.
I’ve gone with bathing for over 8 days three times in my life. Once at Burning Man, and twice during my trip to Mongolia. Still, I prefer to stay clean and if I’m not in a tropical destination, I’d like a hot shower. I definitely look to see if anything’s wrong with the water or water pressure in the reviews. Don’t forget to bring some sandals for the showers.
Not all wifi is created equal. While it’s nice to unplug and socialize when you’re at the hostel. It’s also nice to be able to check your emails and do your research/bookings there too, especially if you might not have free international data on your phone. Check to see if the wifi is working and whether it extends into your room or is limited to a small area.
The liveliest hostels are the ones where the common room is strategically placed in a way that forces people to interact. It could be in the form of a bar, a rooftop space, or just a bunch of cushions on the ground. If there’s something to do there and it’s comfortable, you’ll find more people choose to retreat back to this space after a day out on the town, instead of hiding in their rooms. It’s hard to tell just from the photos, but you might get a sense of this in the reviews.
I know I can always go out on the town and look at different tour operators, but it’s nice when the hostel has already narrowed it down for me. I know they are earning a commission, but their reputation is on the line as well, so I hope that they have curated a list of activities that might be of interests to their guests. Bonus points when the hostel organizes activities of their own that allows you to get to know the other people staying there. Pub crawls, BBQ, hiking trips are few options.
This is not a dealbreaker, but it’s nice when the hostel has invested in some decent mattresses and sheets. More and more, I’ve been finding beds that are similar to ones I find in hotels. Even the sheets smell of lavender sometimes. This is not a dealbreaker, because I usually carry one of these with me just in case.
Another thing becoming more common are capsule like beds. Though not a full on pod like the ones you find in Japan, each bed has it’s own built in locker, a privacy screen that pulls across the entire length the bed, and your own outlets. This small offer of privacy is amazing and I’m glad that it’s catching on with newer hostels. Now it’s 10% less obvious that someone is having sex in the bed across from you.
Kitchen and Free Breakfast
I love to eat, so I prefer to eat out, but in some cities, that can get cost prohibitive. It’s nice to have a kitchen where I can cook up a nice dish from home or share a meal with new friends. You’re not going to get restaurant quality pots/pans/knives, but having a decently stocked kitchen is nice. Bonus if they have things like salt and pepper, spices or oil, so I don’t have to carry my own from city to city or buy more than what I can use. Some places offers free breakfast. It’s generally not going to be that great (though I’ve been surprised more than a few times), but it can save you some money and get you some free calories in the morning before you start your day. It’s also one of the best time and place for socializing. Most travelers never turn down a free meal.
Flexible Check-In and Late Check-Out
I’m a fan of places that allow you to check in when your bed is available. As travelers, you might show up at 6 am in desperate need of a place to lay down. I get it when the bed or room is not available, but it’s always nice when the places is a little flexible. A later check-out is so nice to get just an extra hour or two of sleep. Most hostels will allow you to store your luggage if you’re leaving later in the day, so this is also important.
These are just a few things that have value to me. I don’t expect it all the time, but I will choose one hostel over another if it provides me with some of these comforts. At the end of the day, you’re on the road to see and experience things. A hostel is just a place where you can rest your head at night without paying too much. Temper your expectations, but know that you can still get good value for you money.
If you are ready to travel, check out The Only Real Way To Find Cheap Flights to get that trip started. If you need some inspiration, check out my Bucket List for some cool places, adventures, and experiences.