Though I’m by no means an advanced traveller, I’ve travelled by myself a fair bit (in England, Spain, Australia, and the United States). I’ve heard from many people, especially women, that they don’t think they’d ever be able to do such a thing because they believe travelling alone is unsafe, not fun, or too expensive. I’m here to let you know that’s bullshit and share my experiences. First up, I’d like to tell you a little about (youth) hostels.
What is a hostel?
A hostel (more commonly referred to as youth hostel in America) is a place that accommodates budget travellers. They are businesses that provide dorm-style (male-only, female-only, and mixed) sleeping arrangements and shared bathroom facilities. That is basically it.
As such, what can I expect when I stay in a hostel?
A (bunk) bed, sheets, and a few roommates. Sometimes there will be a complimentary breakfast generally including toast, butter, muffins, horrible coffee, and watered down juice. Sometimes there will be towels. Generally there’s a place to lock up your belongings, but only if you bring your own padlock.
And what can’t I expect when I stay in a hostel?
For staff to cater to your specific needs. Small to mid-sized hostels generally have only one or two receptionists and two cleaning staff on duty. As a result, check-in and check-out at popular hours will take a while. They might forget to give you your sheets. Sometimes the bathrooms won’t be the cleanest ones you’ve ever seen.
Additionally, you won’t get much peace and quiet. Your roommates lead lives of their own, much like you. They might get back late and wake you from your slumber. They might rise at the crack of dawn because they have a plane or train to catch. They return from a bar a little intoxicated. They might snore. If you are looking for eight hours of undisturbed sleep, a hostel is not for you.
Dirty bathrooms, rude guests and a bland breakfast? Where do I sign up?!
Despite the horror stories that make the rounds (and that I, up to a point, perpetuate here), staying at a hostel isn’t as bad as it may seem. Though the facilities aren’t always sparkling, they’re more than usable. Hostel-goers are generally civil about their late night/early hours creeping about the room.
It’s important to remember that you’re probably paying no more than $30 per night. Depending on where you stay, this will obviously vary quite a bit. If you feel like the hostel you’re looking at is too expensive, check the going rates for budget hotels. Also remember that hostels are usually situated in the most popular locations, close to sightseeing spots, bars, metro/subway/tube stops, whereas cheap hotels are usually found on the outskirts of a city.
What should I look for when I want to book a hostel?
Location is important. Make sure your hostel is in a place that makes you comfortable (one, for example, where it would be reasonably safe for a woman alone to walk a block or two from the subway or bus stop to the hostel). Depending on your priorities, you might have to give up proximity to bars, shopping centers, the beach, etc. Figure out what is important to you and go from there.
Then hit up the reviews. Remember that people who review are often people who have a beef with the product. Content customers are less likely to review. Then check the nationality of the reviewer. Are they American? Their review is likely to be reasonably negative. Americans tend to complain about the staff’s attitude, the fact that they weren’t carried around on silk pillows for their entire stay, the cleanliness of the room and facilities, the roommates – well, basically everything. Are they Australian? Then they’re also quite likely to leave negative reviews, unless they’re writing about a hostel in Australia. Much of the Australian tourism economy is driven by backpackers and as such their hostels have a high standard. If an Australian hostel has many negative reviews from Australians, don’t book there.
Also check if the hostel is part of an organisation such as the Youth Hostelling Association in England or Hostelling International USA. Their hostels generally deliver high quality. However, they often require paid membership to get the cheapest rates. If you’re not a member, you may pay up to $5 extra per night.
Meh, I’m still not convinced.
It could be that hostels just aren’t for you. However, there is more to hostels than I’ve let on so far. Though some hostels do provide merely a place to stay, many hostels will have amenities designed to make your stay more pleasant. Among some of the more common ones are: free wifi; TV room; nightly activities, such as movie night, pizza night, or games night; sightseeing tours/walks; pub crawls; or cheap laundry facilities. Some even have their own bars and restaurants where you can eat and drink on the cheap and those that don’t often have kitchen facilities, which is a great option to have when you’re travelling for a longer period and don’t want to eat out every night.
Hostels are designed to allow you to meet people, and people who stay at hostels are generally friendly and open-minded. In a hostel, you can find someone to give you insider travel advice, someone to have dinner or a drink with, or someone to go sightseeing with.
Aren’t hostels a terribly European thing?
It’s true that there are a lot of hostels in Europe. There are also many in Australia and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam). They pop up basically anywhere that’s popular with young people/backpackers. But there are also hostels in the United States. I’ve stayed at several, in Boston, New York, and Charleston; the latter is notorious for its pricey accommodation. They’re not as thick on the ground as in some other places in the world, but they’re definitely an option if you want to do a city trip on a budget.
Awesome, where do I book!?
The most popular website today is Hostelworld. They have a great selection of hostels and list all the amenities on offer (kitchens, lockers, laundry, etc.). However, they also charge a small booking fee. Hostelbookers doesn’t charge a fee, but is, according to some, less reliable. However, they also offer some hostels that Hostelworld doesn’t, so definitely check them out.
Last but not least, go to the hostel’s own website. Particularly those hostels that are part of Hostelling International are usually cheaper when you book directly through them.
Once you’ve booked, make sure that you get a confirmation and print it. The reservation systems these businesses work with aren’t very reliable. Proof that you made a reservation may come in handy.
If you expect you’ll be arriving in the evening, send an email to the hostel after booking with them and let them know your estimated time of arrival. Ask them to confirm that they’ll hold your bed for you. Most hostels have small profit margins and will give your bed to someone else if they think you’re a no-show. Related, make sure you carry the hostel’s phone number with you so that you can call them in case of any delays.
But most importantly: go out, travel, and have fun!
(If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments. A variation of this post appeared on my personal blog last year.)
Image by Dauvit Alexander via Flickr
25 replies on “Budget Travel: Guide for the Hostelling N00b”
This is even a little out of my price range. (But so mega thrilled to see on here!)
I’m holding out for a guide to couch surfing. obviously more limited than hostels, range wise, and dependant on knowing people well enough to be okay crashing, but couch surfing can be pretty fun way of doing the travel thing if you are visiting places where people you know live.
Oooh, I would’ve loved to write a guide to couchsurfing, but the fact of the matter is I’ve been too afraid to try it. I think it’s one step too far for me.
I know a couple of people who’ve done it once or twice, and enjoyed it very much, but I don’t know anyone who’s done it often enough to write something on it.
But you’re right that even hostels can still be pricey. Why does the world need money again?
I’m going to Europe for a month this summer and am dragging my feet about making arrangements. This makes me want to dive right in!
Yes, do dive in! Summer is approaching fast (hallelujah!) and now you’ll still have a lot of options to choose from. In a month or two, only the crappier hostels will have beds in the smaller dorms (the huge ones with 16 or so bed almost always have availability, but yeah. 15 roommates?).
Where are you going to be travelling?
This is not necessarily about hostels, but I’d recommend looking for deals through STA Travel. Even if you’re not a student, they have great deals. I just booked a 4 night stay in Madrid at a reasonable hotel for a trip with my mom. Their agents are super helpful over the phone.
All of this is great advice!
I’d also point out that if you’re booking online and on a budget, prices definitely increase the closer you get to your planned travel date. So the earlier you book this stuff, the better!
I was happily surprised that a lot of hostels in Europe have smaller rooms – while yes, the 28-bed dormitories definitely existed (which is what I picture when I think “hostel”), you could find 2 or 3-person rooms as well. These were a few dollars more, but I found them well worth it.
I, however, am one of those paranoid people who falls asleep cuddling her passport/cash/etc bag, lest they be stolen from me in my sleep.
Oh, yes, the prices. They’re flexible, like hotel fees.
If you’re going somewhere for a major sporting event or cultural festival, you might be able to fly under the hostel’s radar on that if you book early enough. Once they realize something big is going on (and the good ones will have that marked on their calendars before you can even make a booking), they’ll up their prices.
And ditto on the cuddling everything. If you’re really nice, I’ll tell you about that time I had my everything stolen in Madrid (but not in the hostel, which was actually really helpful with keeping a roof over my head and food in my belly until my parents could MoneyGram me some money).
Wait, I’m going to Madrid in two weeks! Is there anything specific I should watch out for??
Oh, Madrid is great! They just have spectacularly talented pickpockets. I had the misfortune of having everything (passport, bankcards, phone, money, camera) in a single bag, which was stolen without me noticing even though it was right next to me while I was sitting in a park. A few hours before someone had attempted to lift my wallet out of my bag. This was my first day. But if you’re aware of the talent of Madrilene pickpockets then I’m sure you’ll be just great. Keep your passport in the hotel safe, make sure you bag is attached to some part of your body at all times. And enjoy the marvellous museums (Thyssen is vastly superior to Reina Sofia, IMHO).
What’s your backpack essential for hosteling? I always carry a silky sleeping bag liner with me just on the off-chance sheets aren’t provided or are thin/scratchy. It packs down small and it’s my cheap, lightweight piece of luxury.
Oh yes, I have one of those too! Most hostels don’t allow people to bring in their sleeping bags (thank goodness), but they never notice a sleeping bag liner. I’ve actually torn mine open on one side, because I found sleeping in it a little restrictive, but it’s still great for wrapping myself in.
I thought about including a must-pack list, but this post was getting a little long as is. I definitely always bring:
– shower shoes/flip-flops
– ear plugs
– toilet paper
– small flashlight (because I hate feeling like I’ve woken my whole room up when I get back late)
– sleeping mask (when I can find one. I have several floating about my house from long plane trips, but I won’t spend money on one). It’s good in case you don’t have considerate roommates and you NEED to sleep, for whatever reason.
I almost always stay in hostels when traveling alone, not only because it’s cheaper but because it’s really nice to have people to chat with when you’re by yourself. I always book through Hostelworld and I’ve never had a bad experience. Try to book one with a high rating (85%+) if you can find one within your budget; if not, read the reviews carefully and look for common complaints. One person out of dozens complaining about something is probably an overly picky person; lots of people complaining about the same thing means that the issue should be something to consider.
That’s a very good point, about the number of complaints, too.
And even then it depends on what your tolerance for certain things is. If several people complain that the reception forgot to give them sheets, but you don’t mind going back to get some, then that’s different to complaints about it being a party hostel when you’d like to get at least some sleep during the night.
I’ve had a version of this bookmarked on my computer for months, just in case I ever get a chance to travel again. Ever.
Traveling alone is THE FUCKING BEST. I had the greatest time of my life running wild over the trains and moving walkways of Japan a couple Augusts ago; if it weren’t for my crippling fear of flying and panic attacks I’d try to do it every year!
I ran into snags when trying to book hostels in Japan that I’d like to tip ya’ll to:
– Japan has a vast domestic tourist industry. Thus, most of the people staying in Japanese hostels are Japanese themselves. AS SUCH, you can not expect the hostelers to be able to communicate to you in English. If you want to book a hostel in Japan, learn how to ask if anyone there speaks English. Try, “Dareka eigo o hanasemasuka? (Dar-ray-ka ay-ee-go oh hah-nah-say-moss-kuh)” (Is there someone there who speaks English?) or “Eigo o hanasemasuka?” (Do you speak English?) In this instance don’t worry about being polite. They will understand that you are an uncouth foreigner and forgive you.
– To make reservations at many Japanese hostels, particularly in ones off the beaten the path that don’t see a lot of foreign tourists, you will probably have to call them as emails often go unanswered. Calling Japan is tough! If you don’t have access to international calling options, give Skype a shot. It’s something like 2 cents a minute to call Japan through Skype and the call quality is usually better than what you’d get with a cell phone. Remember the time difference! Yelling into your computer might be awkward, but it’s a hell of a lot better than trying to decipher hostels’ emails or websites.
– Quality and price of a hostel stay is a mixed bag. I generally planned to spend anywhere from 27US to 40US a night, and even at those prices there is vast, vast variation. If you’re traveling in the off-season (middle of the sweltering Death Heat Summer or middle of the Bonechillingly Cold Winter) you might have more options and better prices available to you. Keep in mind that the best times to see Japan, in the spring and fall, are when much of the country is on the move taking their own vacations.
– Make yourself aware of big national and regional holidays and either plan to be there for them or avoid them altogether. Don’t do what I did and show up around the New Year expecting parties and good times. The entire country shuts down for a week while people head back to the home towns to visit their families. Like every fucking bank is closed, too, so if you suddenly need money you are so fucked.
– If you plan on taking more than a few rides on the Shinkansen (bullet train), buy a rail pass. They’re about 400US but are worth it for the sheer convenience alone. They work on all Shinkansen lines (except for one special one) and many of the regular rail lines (rail is privatized in most of Japan so rail pass acceptance varies by company.)
– Be flexible. You might meet another traveler who gushes about what the fuck ever and it sounds just so dang good you can’t pass it up. So don’t! I left 4 days at the end of my trip completely unplanned so I could spend them in Tokyo if I liked or do something else entirely. I ended visiting Hiroshima (and crying, so much crying) and meeting up with an internet friend and hanging out with a German flight attendant while we visited temples by the sea.
– GET OUT OF TOKYO. In fact, get off the east coast altogether, and get off the main island!
– Bring a watch.
Great tips! I’ve never been to Japan, but would love to go some day. And I’d definitely get out of Tokyo. I have a feeling that city would give me claustrophobia.
The holiday thing reminds me of the times I’ve gone to Italy in August only to find basically every single shop (including major fashion houses) closed for holidays. So far for fun-shopping in Florence.
SOLO TRAVEL HIGH FIVE!
Just when I thought I’d manage to put the travel-bug to bed until I have a bit more cash, here it comes right back. I’ve actually never done the hostel thing, but minus the movie Hostel, it seems like a pretty good deal.
I’ve never seen Hostel, and not just because I have to stay at hostels and can’t deal with the OMG TRAUMA. I just don’t like scary movies.
But when I was in Australia I went to the Childers Backpackers Memorial and that had an impact alright. I now always make sure I know where the emergency exits are and that I can get out easily in case of fire or the like.
When I was in the UK, not only would none of the other people in my group travel and stay in hostels (or even cheap hotels), they also wouldn’t go anywhere within the city we lived in, even in large groups, because of the movie Hostel. They were absolutely terrified. It was kind of ridiculous.
Those people in your group were distinctly less-than-fabulous. Because the UK has some spectacular hostels! Water mills, mansions, CASTLES. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to stay there?
Some of the best hostels I’ve stayed in would rival an average 3-star hotel and the freedom they offer is fantastic. I’ve had a single poor experience – a hostel in the centre of Amsterdam where the windows didn’t close at the top. It was January and the only way to deal with the cold was the choice selection of contraband and wearing everything!
Oooh, I’ve had a hostel where the windows didn’t close. But as the heat was on at full blast and couldn’t be turned down (this was January as well) it all worked out in the end.
I feel like Amsterdam hostels might rely on their guests having a somewhat addled state of mind a little too much.
My “worst” experience was in Cairns, Australia (a hostel which has now closed up its business), but even there I had a ton of fun. I just didn’t shower or sleep a whole lot.
I also had a bad Amsterdam hostel experience. It was 30 min outside the city, and consisted of cabins and trailers with bunk beds. I had to sleep in my coat and mittens too. But that’s we got for not during our research!
*not DOING our research
I’ve never liked Amsterdam much anyway! ;)
But yeah, research can really make all the difference. You might still choose to stay at a crappy hostel (because of location or price), but at least you’ll make an informed decision.
Awesome hostels are so worth the price though. I once stayed at a mansion in Yorkshire and an 19th century palace in Madrid.