As a backpacker, I’ve stayed in my fair share of hostels whilst travelling Europe. I’ve written this article to help those who are about to backpack and for those who have never stayed in a hostel before.
Before you do it yourself, you often have absolutely no idea what to expect. Hopefully this should clear a few things up for you and let you feel a little more at ease with any hostelling adventures you have planned for the future.
What Are Hostels?
What Do Hostels Look Like And What Do They Provide?
What To Bring To Hostels
What To Expect And Know About Hostels
How To Apply For And Book Hostels
How To Find Cheap Hostels In Europe
How To Meet People And Make Friends In Hostels
How To Avoid Bed Bugs In Hostels And Other Annoyances
So what exactly are hostels, and why are hostels so cheap? These are excellent questions to start with. Basically a hostel is a building that contains multiple rooms that have bunk beds and other simple facilities.
As a backpacker, you can pay for a night in a hostel, and you will get a bed in a dormitory style room that you will share with other backpackers. Because the hostel will receive money from everyone staying in the same room, they can charge a lot less for a bed then at a hotel for example.
It’s the perfect setup for any traveler or backpacker that wants to see Europe cheaply and on a budget. Hostels are extremely popular in Europe, and not only do you get a cheap place to sleep but you will also meet loads of awesome people and make heaps of great friends (I know I have and do!).
Every hostel looks different, and many hostels try to give their hostel a theme or a real sense of style. And just as they look different, some hostels will provide more facilities then others.
I’ve stayed in huge hostels that have hundreds of rooms and their own bar, and I’ve stayed in other hostels that are more like a small house. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages.
Either way, there are a couple of things that you can almost guarantee will be at every hostel you stay in:
The GOOD hostels (in my opinion) will also include the following features:
There is not a lot that you HAVE to bring to hostels (apart from your own toiletries and clothes etc) – but there are some things that you can bring along to save yourself a bit of money.
Your own travel sheet and towel means you won’t need to hire them from the hostel and will save you a couple of Euros at each place you stay.
An open mind and a friendly attitude. Yes, it sounds lame, but no-one likes a grumpy bum or someone with a narrow cultural focus. You will meet all sorts of people of all different nationalities from all around the world – there is no room for people with closed minds!
In my opinion, there are two different main categories of hostel. There are the big and commercial hostels and the funky lo-fi hostels – and then there is everything else that falls between these two types.
The commercial hostels have their advantages; they are normally great for partying and will organize lots of various events. On the flip-side, I love a good small and funky hostel, it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere (think a few beers, a game of chess and great conversation).
In your travels, I have no doubt you will come across both these types of hostels, and then you can decide which one you like best!
If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, you may be unsure of what to expect. Don’t expect a hotel – you are not going to get your own private bathroom and a luxurious king bed. Hostels offer great value, but you do need to be prepared to share a sleeping area and bathroom with other backpackers.
If you’re a light sleeper, you may need ear plugs, as people will often come in late and others will snore. That’s just the reality of hostels – but if price and friendliness is a factor for travelling, then I would pick a hostel over a hotel everytime.
The two best sites for booking hostels are:
HostelBookers.com – currently has no ‘booking fee’ and claims to be cheaper than its competition.
HostelWorld.com – charges a booking fee, but offers more features like a ‘MyWorld’ section, a route planner and a great reviews system.
I would sign up for both of these and see which one you like best. I personally use HostelWorld and always have, but have also heard good things about HostelBookers too.
Once you’re signed up and logged in, booking is just a matter of searching for the city you are going to be staying in along with the dates, and picking a hostel from the list.
My process for choosing a hostel is first and foremost to take recommendations from other backpackers I’ve met along the road, and then I will look at the ratings and reviews for the hostels available, and also factor in things like location (can I walk to all the things I want to see or will I need to use public transport?) and the amenities offered (is there a kitchen?).
Here’s an example screenshot of searching for a hostel in Amsterdam using HostelWorld:
See where I’ve arrowed in red how many customer ratings there have been. In this example, CocoMama has 93% with 233 customer ratings and St Christopher’s at The Winston has 85% with 747 customer ratings.
The amount of ratings can also play its part, as 747 people saying the hostel is an 85% is just as good as 232 people saying a hostel is 93% in my opinion. There are always going to be fussy people who can bring a rating down.
When choosing between those two hostels in the example shown, I would pick based solely on location and price of their largest dorm room and disregard their difference in review/customer ratings as they are similar enough.
If you’re only after the cheapest hostels, then here’s a quick trick to always ensure you’re getting the cheapest available hostel.
It’s pretty simple, and I’m sure most people will figure it out themselves, but if you search hostels by city name and then sort the hostels by ‘price’, the cheapest will appear at the top of your search.
Check out the screen shots below:
I would check what you’re ‘getting’ for the cheapest hostel price however, if there is no kitchen for example, you can end up spending MORE because you won’t have anywhere to cook your food. Of course a reasonable price is important, but I certainly do not consider that the only factor when choosing a good hostel to stay in.
There is one thing you won’t be able to avoid, and that is the fact that all hostels will raise their prices during the summer months which constitutes the peak season for them.
There is nowhere better than a hostel in Europe for meeting other backpackers and making new friends.
Here is what I always do when I’m staying in hostels, and it seems to work great for meeting people.
Introduce yourself to everyone and say hello, almost everyone else you meet in a hostel will be backpackers, and most of them want to meet people and make friends on the road just like you do!
Drop into the common room or lounge room after doing the days sightseeing. It’s generally an unspoken rule that most backpackers (especially solo or independent travelers) will drop in at the hostel hangout spot to meet and greet.
Use the kitchen facilities and cook in the hostel at least once during your stay. Not only will this save you money, but is also a great spot to meet some new people, share food and have a good time!
Organise a game of something. If you’re into drinking games, board games, card games or chess – this can be a great way for everyone to introduce themselves and start the night off with a bang. I remember fondly many games of chess, beer pong and card games.
Suggest a night out. Most backpackers will want to check out the nightlife of each new city they are visiting. So you won’t find it hard to get a group going for a night out on the town.
Remember, people are backpacking to see new things and meet new people – that’s the whole point! So don’t be shy, get out there!
I get questions sometimes from friends and family about hostels, ‘Aren’t they dirty?’, ‘Aren’t there bed bugs in hostels?’ Most of it is a myth.
Sure, some hostels are not as good as others – and guess what? That applies to hotels too, and restaurants and everything else you do. That’s just life. For backpackers, I believe a great hostel will always be so much better than a hotel.
As to bed bugs, a 5 star hotel can just as easily get bed bugs as the cheapest hostel in Asia. It all comes down to WHO checks in to the hostel, did they stay somewhere with bed bugs and they’re bringing in eggs on their clothes and backpacks? It’s never the hostels fault if they were to get bed bugs, but a good hostel would always act immediately to eradicate them if this were to happen.
Let me tell you something else – I might put this in bold for extra emphasis!
It really is an unfounded misconception that hostels are not clean and are filled with bed bugs and backpackers drinking all day long. Many hostels pride themselves on their cleanliness.
So that’s all for now, I trust you got something out of this article, and have a better understanding of what hostels are and how you can go about booking into some! Trust me, you won’t regret staying in hostels whilst you backpack through Europe, the people you meet and the things you’ll see will give you fond memories for many years to come.
If you have any further questions about the security and safety of staying in hostels, check out my post on the matter here.
Bye now, and safe travels out there!