When it’s time to crash for the night (or longer), a hostel will probably be your first choice to stay. These budget sleep houses now occupy some of the most interesting residences you could imagine, including clipper ships in Sweden, jails in Canada, underground caverns in Australia and bomb shelters in Switzerland. For travelers watching their wallet, hostels are the place to stay.

Backpacks in a hostel.

Not an uncommon sight in a hostel dorm.

What is a hostel?

Hostels are usually quite inexpensive (compared to local hotels) and offer the essentials you need for a night or two. The rooms in hostels are often dormitory-style; large rooms equipped with several bunk-beds. The bathrooms are usually shared by several different rooms in a hostel. Because it is dormitory-style, you may have to put up with snorers or people leaving to the bathroom at all hours. That’s why you are taking earplugs, right? But all of this sharing adds up to a cheaper place for you to sleep. And just as important, it gives you a venue where you can meet travelers from all over the world. Here, you can chat and exchange stories and advice and maybe even hook up with a travel mate.

Essentially, there are two major types of hostels: those that belong to an organization and those that are private. Hostel organizations include Hostelling International (HI), American Youth Hostels (AYH), International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF), and Youth Hostel Association (YHA). All of these are run under the Hostelling International network. Private hostels are often owned by travel enthusiasts and offer a wide range of prices and services. They have been growing in numbers as more and more people travel the world on a budget.

Hostelling International is a non-profit association that provides simple, inexpensive and comfortable accommodation to travelers of all ages around the world. All Hostelling International facilities are required to maintain the high standards set by the International Youth Hostel Federation in the areas of cleanliness, security, friendliness, comfort, privacy and affordability. Facilities commonly found at HI hostels include modern kitchens for cooking your own meals, restaurants/bars/caf├ęs, game and activity rooms, laundry facilities, bicycle rentals, television or movie lounges and internet access.

The official HI hostel in Chefchauoen.

The official HI hostel in Chefchaoen (Morocco) turned out to be far out of the city, and closed. We found a great little backpackers hotel in the city center though.

If you plan on staying at any of the 4,000+ HI hostels in over 80 countries around the world, we recommend you get a membership. Membership can be purchased in your home country and will run you around $20 (US) for one year, depending on your age. If you want to stay at an HI hostel and don’t have a membership card, you can usually get a membership card at the hostel too. Although not necessary for all HI hostels, a membership will allow you to book a bed in advance (very important in the busy seasons) and get a slightly cheaper rate in most cases. You can also participate in hostel programs and activities and enjoy many local discounts.

It is a good idea to book your next hostel from your present one, essentially creating a chain of places to stay as you move about. Reservations can be made by phoning, faxing, mailing or e-mailing the hostels directly. The easiest way though is to make reservations online. This will require a credit card with which you’ll pay an up-front deposit of 10 percent. Hostelling International members can also use HI’s online booking service to make reservations world-wide.

Finding a hostel

Upon arriving in a city, your first instinct may be to open your travel guide, search for the highest rated hostel they have listed and then head off to find the place. However, this would not be the best, nor the most efficient way, to go about looking for accommodations. Going from hostel to hostel in search of an available bed is only going to frustrate you and waste your time, especially if you are traveling in the busy season.

Your best bet is to sit down behind a computer and browse around first before making any moves. An online hostel booking service can help you find a hostel, check availability, and book you a bed. If use of the internet isn’t within your reach, you can also get on the phone and call around before making any moves. Your travel guide will have hostel phone numbers or you can visit the nearest travel office.

Sleeping on the roof of a hostel

In some hostels you can sleep on the roof if the dorms are full.

When deciding on which hostel to stay at, you have a few resources to help make your decision easier. Your travel guide will no doubt include a list of their recommended hostels – usually (but not always) a reliable source. Besides the difference in opinions, because your guide book may have been published up to a year before you actually visited the place, their recommended hostel may have moved, may have new management or, worse yet, have a new night club built right beside it. Don’t forget that the higher the rating in the travel guide, the more travelers there will be vying for a limited number of beds (look around and they will probably all have the same travel guide).

You can also ask other travelers what they thought about a particular hostel. This may come up in a discussion weeks before you even arrive in the city, as you and another traveler meet as you both cross a country in opposite directions. Or you might run into travelers in train stations or even at the hostels themselves. Either way, it is a good idea to talk to other travelers about their good and bad experiences at different hostels. Be sure to ask for specific details about what was good or bad about a hostel, rather than a general ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ response.

You can bet that touts will be throwing their hostel advice into the mix as well. Paid to ’round-up’ travelers and take them to less popular or out-of-the-way places, these occasionally pushy backpack-herders will be in your face whether you like it or not. But don’t think that they are all out to deceive you – you might just be taken somewhere that is really special and has been overlooked by the popular guide books. Be sure and ask plenty of questions before going anywhere with them.

If you wind up at a hostel only to discover that it is full, don’t just walk out and begin the search anew. Ask the person behind the counter if they know of any other good available hostels nearby. Chances are, they have a pretty good sense of the local hostel scene (and they may even let you use their phone!). Keep in mind that arriving at a hostel earlier in the day will improve your chances of getting a bed.

Upon arrival

When you finally arrive at a hostel and make your inquiry about bed availability, there are several things you will need to know before accepting. There are some things that you should be aware of before you pay your money.

Be sure and see the room that you will stay in. Rooms near the street may be noisy while those close to stairs are more susceptible to theft. A picture of a room on a brochure is not a good indication of what you may really be getting. A hostel might also offer several rooms at different prices. Find a room that seems comfortable yet is within your budget.

Find out the full price of the room, including any optional or included amenities like breakfast or internet use. These features may be free, which means their price will most likely be included in the cost of your bed, or they may be services which you could pay extra for if you wanted to use them. On the topic of breakfast, found out what exactly this includes. Some hostels offer an exceptional buffet of fruits, buns, cold cuts and juice while others may provide you with a single hard-boiled egg and a cup of coffee.

You should also inquire about available deals for staying a certain number of days. If you do plan on sticking around for a while, see if a multi-day deal is negotiable. On the other hand, if you pay for three days in advance and then later find out that the hostel is not exactly what you though it was, you may have a difficult time getting your money back. A tough decision either way, so check out the place thoroughly first.

If you do pay for a bed, ask where you can store your backpack and any valuables that you might not want to lug around. If you have arrived early in the day, you may not be able to get into your room until sometime in the afternoon (due to cleaning). But you should still be able to use the lockers (if available) to store your bag.

To hostel or not to hostel

Don’t automatically assume that hostels are always where the deals are. If you happen to be traveling with one or more people, depending on where you are in the world, you just might be better off finding a hotel room that you could all share, saving you money and offering more privacy, better safety, amenities and security, and quite possibly a better sleep. In Cairo, for example, a hotel room for three would end up being less expensive than three hostel beds, yet you would be sleeping on a king size bed in your own private room. See accommodation options for advice on other sleeps.

Hostel advice

Considering all of the above, here are some useful tips to improve your hostelling experience:

  • Travel guides list recommended hostels (and places to avoid), so consult your guide book before deciding on a hostel.
  • Talk to travelers about hostels they have been to or have heard good things about. They can help you decide which one is worth staying at.
  • During the busy season, step into an internet cafe and book a bed in advance, or call ahead to the hostel itself. Otherwise, you may show up to find that the hostel you wanted to stay at is full up.
  • If you are walking to your intended hostel and you run into a friendly group of people who are going to a different hostel, join them if you feel welcome to.
  • Try to arrive at a hostel earlier in the day to get a good bed and avoid being bumped. Some hostels close in the middle of the day for cleaning, but you can still book a room and drop your stuff off.
  • Many hostels have a kitchen that backpackers can use. Kitchens usually have basic cooking utensils and pots, pans, and dishes. Buy your own food at a store (cheaper than restaurants) and cook it at the hostel.
  • Some hostels offer a meal or two as part of the price. They are usually decent (eggs, toast, oatmeal, etc.), but if you wake up late they may have already run out of food.
  • Keep your bag in a locker at the hostel (if it has one) when you are out during the day. Some hostels have safety deposit boxes for smaller things like cameras. Otherwise, take your bag with you.
  • Some hostels aren’t as clean as others, so take a pair of flip-flops with you to keep the fungus off your feet.
  • Some hostels have curfews so ask before booking a room. If you plan on staying out until late in the night, you may come back to your hostel to find yourself locked out. If you do arrive late, respect your roommates and keep the noise to a minimum and the lights off.
  • Take a sleep-sheet with you. You can make one easily by folding a sheet in half and sewing it up one side. Keep about half a meter un-sewn at the top so you can fold it back a little when inside. A sleep-sheet will keep the bed clean and more importantly, keep the bugs off of you. Put your pillow under your sleep-sheet as well so your head isn’t directly on it.
  • Some hostels won’t allow sleeping bags. They may require you to have a sleep-sheet and will offer to rent you one or sell you one.
  • You will probably need to take soap and towels with you when staying at a hostel.
  • Beware of hostels located above or too near nightclubs. The noise may be too much for you to get a good sleep.