If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, you might not know what to look out for when booking one. On top of that, big backpacking destinations often have countless different hostels available, and they all look great. In this article I’ll give you 20 tips for finding a great hostel. I based these on my personal experiences in dozens of hostels. Ultimately, your fellow guests will play a large role in your hostel experience. However, you can increase your odds of finding a good hostel by doing some simple research based on these tips!
1. Use hostel booking platforms when finding a hostel
Platforms like Hostelworld and Booking.com are powerful tools. You enter a city name and your travel dates and the platform gives you a list of available hostels. You can apply a variety of filters: price range, minimum rating, room type, breakfast and so on. This is a great way to speed up your search because you can easily compare hostels and filter out ones you aren’t interested in. Guest reviews are useful, and I haven’t had issues with fake or false reviews.
I prefer to use Hostelworld when I’m looking for a dorm bed, but I prefer Booking.com when I’m after a private room in a hostel. Hostelworld’s website gives you more information about dorm rooms, whereas Booking.com’s website gives you much more details about private rooms!
2. Book directly through the hostel
You might think that this tip contradicts the previous one but it actually does not! The disadvantage of booking platforms is that they take a fairly large share of the rate you pay to cover their operational costs. This commission fee can be as high as 30%! In the end, you’re the one paying this price, so be smart and try to book direct whenever you can. Sometimes, you get a cheaper price. More often, you’ll be able to communicate specific wishes much more easily if you book directly.
3. Be careful with cheap hostels
The universal rule “cheap is not always cheap” also applies here, just like with flight tickets. Though a hostel might look cheap, it might not offer the free extras that other places do. Think of free breakfast, towels, drinking water, activities and so on! I’ll talk about all these later on as well. Just remember to consider your total costs of staying in a hostel.
Your hostel’s location is very important! Try finding one that is either in or close to the city center or close to a public transit station (bus or train station). It pays to choose a hostel that is close to areas of interest because otherwise, you’ll be paying to get to them anyway. Also, if you like partying or going out, you don’t want to be too far away from bars, restaurants and cafe’s.
I always try to choose hostels that include breakfast. Included breakfasts almost seem like a cultural thing: in some countries, almost every hostel includes a breakfast (e.g. United States) whereas in other countries it’s the complete opposite (e.g. New Zealand)! If you end up going to a country where free breakfast is a rare catch, don’t bother too much with it. Otherwise, always try to find a hostel with an included breakfast. It is convenient, usually saves you money and sometimes even allows you to load up some fruit or snacks for the rest of the day!
6. Bathrooms: shared or ensuite?
Try finding a hostel that has shared bathrooms (outside the dorm) instead of ensuite ones! This does not seem obvious at first, but let me explain. The problem with ensuite bathrooms is that once one of your roommates occupies it, there usually is no other bathroom available for you to use. However, with shared bathrooms, this problem normally does not occur. I would also argue that shared bathrooms are cleaned more often than ensuite ones.
7. Check-out time
Most hostels set their check-out time at 10:00 AM, but don’t settle for anything earlier than that. Some hostels are great and allow you to check out at 11:00 AM or even noon, which is good for those who like sleeping in.
When finding a hostel, try to find out more about its security policy. Does anyone get to walk in, or do you use a key, keypad or card to get in? Do dorm doors lock themselves or do you have to manually lock them (surprise: most people don’t). You don’t want people to bring strangers into your dorm and some hostels are more strict about this than others. A good security policy increases the security of you and your stuff, so keep an eye out for this.
When talking about atmosphere in a hostel, there are two extremes:
- Quiet hostels where there is no atmosphere or a weird vibe. Usual causes: lots of long-term guests, inactive staff or no common areas. (Avoid!!)
- Party hostels. Great for those who like partying every day; maybe not so great for those who want some rest, peace or a good sleep. Easy to meet lots of new people.
I personally prefer the middle ground between quiet hostels and party hostels. I’d describe it as a place with good common areas, activities and staff, but without the late-night partying in the actual hostel so you can still get a good sleep. Guest reviews are your best source of information to get an idea of the atmosphere inside a hostel.
10. Kitchen areas
A decent kitchen is very important if you like to cook your own meals while travelling! Check the hostel’s pictures and description to see if the kitchen is properly equipped and big enough for the amount of guests that the hostel can accommodate.
11. Common areas
Common areas are an essential ingredient in creating a good atmosphere in a hostel. They come in all sizes and shapes; bars, rooftop lounges, game or TV rooms and even the kitchen is a place to socialize! Again, check pictures to see what that particular hostel has to offer.
Most larger hostels offer a decent selection of organized daily and weekly activities. These are a great way to socialize and meet new people, and contribute to the hostel’s atmosphere. Some activities involve free dinner, e.g. a cooking class or a pizza night, which help you save a few bucks. Other examples of fun activities to look out for:
- Walking tours
- Bicycle tours
- Street food tours
- Pub crawls
- Pub quizzes
- Karaoke nights
- Game tournaments
13. Scooter and bicycle rentals
Depending on the region you’re going to, hostels might have scooters (mopeds) and bicycles available for rent. Bicycles sometimes are provided free of charge. Not only is this a convenient way to rent a means of transport; hostel staff can also point you to interesting places to visit with your vehicle.
Every hostel should have lockers available for guests to store their valuables. Not all lockers are created equally; some only are big enough to store your passport and camera while others fit an entire 80 liter backpack. If you absolutely require one, make sure to check if your hostel has one.
15. Wi-Fi and computers
We all know how annoying it is to be connected to a bad Wi-Fi network. On the road, you’ll probably be looking up information, making reservations and uploading pictures all the time. Therefore, a decent internet connection is more than welcome. Some hostels also offer computers for guests to use. These are handy if you’re writing a big piece of text or need a large screen. Check guest reviews to see if there are any complaints about your hostel’s internet quality.
16. Hostel chain memberships
This only applies to a few regions, but one particular hostel chain that offers member discounts is Hostelling International (HI). You buy a membership card once and it gets you rate discounts every time you stay at an associated hostel. Your investment (the membership) will be paid off pretty quickly since the membership usually only costs about $10-20.
17. Check for hidden costs
Some countries or regions like to exclude all sorts of taxes and fees from their list price. (I’m looking at you, America!) It could be a sales tax or a tourist tax that is specific to a certain region. Check fine prints to see if your hostel is going to charge you additional costs upon check-in.
18. Bed bugs!
No one wants to sleep in a hostel with bed bugs. Though it’s terrible for a hostel to have to deal with bed bugs, you definitely don’t want to stay at such a place. In fact, if you do, you might transfer the bugs to your next hostel, spreading the problem. Check recent guest reviews to see if there are any bed bug-related problems.
19. Don’t wait too long
In some cities you will see that hostel demand is larger than the supply. In this case, you might find that all decent hostels get sold out for the night regularly. To prevent having to stay in more expensive establishments such as hotels and motels, don’t postpone booking if you’ve found a hostel that you like and suits your needs.
20. Ask fellow travellers for recommendations
Most of the time, your fellow travellers will be your most valuable source of information. This also applies to finding hostels! You might just meet someone who has already been to a destination that you plan to visit. Ask around and see if people are particularly enthusiastic about a place they stayed at.
Obviously, you’ll have a hard time finding a hostel that satisfies all these criteria, but at least it’ll give you an idea of what to look for and what to avoid. Do you have other hostelling tips? Let us know in the comments!