By Isabel Clift
The first hostel I stayed at was Design Hotel DDR in Berlin, and to say I was sceptical before arriving would be an understatement. I’d seen the movie Hostel. I’d heard tales from friends about tiny bunks and snorers and toilets shared between twenty. And at the time, I worked for a luxury hotel agency, and had stayed in some of the fanciest digs in the world for free. What could a hostel stay possibly offer moi, apart from a slightly less depressing post-holiday bank statement?
Well, a lot actually.
Hostels are fab – a fact I learnt pretty much as soon as I found my dorm-mates were girls my age full of awesome tips about Berlin (they’d been before), and not psychopaths plotting to kill me in my sleep. After that, I could appreciate the hostel’s cool points – kitsch DDR-era design, a location around the corner from Berghain – and easily get over the occasional wait to use the bathroom, or having to keep the light off when I crept in at 7.30am (again, Berghain).
Fear of staying in hostels is fear of the unknown – once you try it, you’ll know it’s not difficult or scary. You’ll book your next one in no time without hesitation. But you have to take the plunge on that first stay to make it happen…
Hostel newbie FAQs
I did a quick friend poll and trawled Yahoo Answers for the most frequently asked questions about hostels – and woah, there are a lot of worried people out there! I’ve done my best to turn those frowns upside down with my answers below…
1. What are hostels like?
No hostel is cookie-cutter the same, but all have shared dormitories for sleeping (where you and other travellers have your own bed and locker) and some kind of communal area for hanging out. Most hostels also have private bedrooms, and kitchens where you can cook your own food – check out our easy recipes for backpackers. Most will do a buffet breakfast in the morning too. Hostels are naturally social places, and there will often be organised activities like free city tours, movie screenings and themed parties. Read An Open Letter to Anyone Unsure About Staying in Hostels… for more on what hostels are REALLY like.
On HostelBookers, previous guests can rate their stay, so you can read through reviews on the hostel page to check what kind of a property it is. Some hostels rate really highly – check out our Introducing…. our 99%+ Hostels and Hotels for the top scorers. We also give out annual awards to our customers’ best-rated hostels. See 2013’s best hostels around the world here.
2. Who stays in hostels?
People in the same situation as you: who want to travel, but save money on accommodation so they’ve got more left over for seeing the world. See our advice on How to Make Friends in Hostels so you fit in right from the start.
3. Look, seriously, will I get murdered in a hostel???
No! Staying in a hostel isn’t a risk. The biggest annoyance for people is probably other travellers making noise. On the scale of things, it’s really not such a big trade off for a bed that costs under a tenner a night. And you can wear ear-plugs. If, on the rare occasion another traveller really is bothering you, you can tell the hostel staff who are around 24-7: they have processes in place to deal with stuff like this. Our post Hostel Horror or Safety? Separating Fact From Fiction goes into more detail on how hostels are safe and secure places to stay.
4. Do I have to stay in a dorm?
Most hostels have private rooms as well as dorms – they just cost a little extra. Check the ‘Private’ rooms column on your HostelBookers search to find properties with private rooms.
5. Shall I book hostels ahead of my trip, or wing it when I’m there?
A bit of both! It’s best to book ahead for when you first arrive in a city, to avoid rolling down the main street at 11pm with a massive backpack and nowhere to go. However, once you’re in a hostel, your plans can change – you might meet a group, hit it off and end up at Exit festival with them, for example – so you don’t want too rigid an itinerary to stick to. If you do get to a destination without a place to stay, head to the nearest tourist information office for a list of close-by hostels to try.
6. Are hostels just a European thing?
No – there are hostels are wherever there are travellers who need cheap accommodation. The most popular backpacker routes are Europe, Australasia, South American and South East Asia, so it makes sense that hostels are well-established here. But you can find top hostels in the USA (like Green Tortoise in San Francisco), Canada, India, South Africa and China too.
7. Do I have to bring my own bed linen and towel?
Check the hostel information on the booking page – it varies. I’d always bring my own towel, and expect the linen to be free – but some places might carry an extra charge for linen, so do check ahead.
8. Isn’t there an age limit to staying in a hostel?
Some hostels are specifically for 18-35s (and say so on their information page), but most are for all ages. You can happily stay in a hostel aged 50+ (see our baby boomer backpacker guides for more in this series) or even as a family.
9. Can I check in to a hostel at any time of day?
It varies per hostel – generally there’s a standard time you’ve got to be checked out by so the hostel can turn your bed, but if the hostel’s open (and most are open 24 hours a day) and there are vacancies, you can check in any time.
10. Is it safe for women to stay in hostel dorms?
Yes! Like with the safety issue discussed above, it’s a rare and unlucky situation if you get singled out because of your gender. If you need extra peace of mind, check into a female-only dorm (lots of hostels have this option), or even find an exclusive womens’ hostel – we’ve listed our Top 10 Female Hostels to help.
11. What do hostels look like?
Again, it hugely varies – but the interesting thing I’ve found is, generally hostels have much more creative, interesting and trendy design then hotels with equivalent or higher room rates. This is because those hotels have to have as broad appeal as possible, which often translates as blandness. See our 50 Gorgeous Hostels for Design Lovers for an idea of the kind of cool surroundings you can get on the cheap.
12. Are hostels unhygienic?
Not if they’re a good hostel! People vote with their wallets, so it’s in hostels’ interest to remain clean and tidy so they get repeat business. Check the hostel’s ‘cleanliness’ rating on HostelBookers’ review panel to see how others rated the place. A high hygiene score is very important to any reputable hostel, so they’ll work hard to keep it that way.
What do you think? Ask any questions we’ve missed below!
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Thanks to pulguita for the image off Flickr! Please note, all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.