“I stayed in hostels,” I said as I described how I afforded a month in Europe.
My friend looked at me aghast, “You stayed where? Weren’t you scared?”
Now it was my turn to look baffled. Scared of what? I thought. A hostel was basically no different than a college dorm.
I must admit my initial idea of the word hostel was… colored by the movie Hostel… I was thinking more along the lines of hostile. The first time I stayed in a hostel, a coworker invited me to come out with her boyfriend and her to see a concert, then informed me we wouldn’t make the journey back to Suwon that night. Every other hostel was full except a new one just on the outskirts of Hongdae. I put on the game face of not being afraid of anything and agreed to do so. After all, they were the worldly ones who told me they stayed in hostels every weekend.
How bad could it be?
Not bad at all.
We checked in, me in a 4-person dorm, which I ended up having all to myself. Went down for the free breakfast in the morning, unsure of the ettiquette, and left soon after.
The second time, I was in charge of the booking. A group of friends was visiting me from China and we wanted to stay the night in Seoul together. Feeling especially leery of staying in a larger dorm room, we ended up renting out a 6-person bed dorm, leaving one of the beds unfilled and just paying a few extra won each for the price. The staff was friendly, as were the others staying there, who promptly offered us chicken as we checked in.
Soon after, on a trip to Busan, we lucked out to find a three-person private room. It wasn’t until the following year, in another hostel just outside of Hongdae, that I stayed in a dorm room that had… dun, dun, dun strangers.
The hostel owner, a man whose head practically brushed the ceiling with thick dreads falling all the way to his waist introduced himself as King.
“King?” I questioned, not sure if I heard that correctly.
“King.” He confirmed.
That was a new one. As I mulled over his name, he showed me the four-person dorm and explained, “The fourth person hasn’t checked in yet. The other two girls are from China. I don’t think they speak English, but they shop during the day and stay out every night until three or four am.”
His prediction was true enough. When I walked in later that night, they were just getting spruced up to go out, shopping bags from Tony Moly, Innisfree, and Etude House littering their beds. They looked up when I entered the room and we did the awkward smile-greeting before I climbed into bed and they walked out the door.
Fears tend to disappear after your first interactions with people. After that, I had no problem booking dorm beds wherever I was, whether that was in India, Korea, or Europe. The only exception to my rule of traveling in hostels was using airbnb in Tokyo (because have you seen their hostel bed prices?!) and a hotel room cheaper than get-out in the small, hostel-less town of Ronda in southern Spain.
I’ve stayed in good hostels and some awful ones that I would never stay in again. When looking for a hostel, it’s all about choosing something that goes with your style of travel. For myself, that means I look for some very specific things.
Here’s what I look for:
What is the hostel’s rating?
Whether you found the hostel on hostelworld.com or stumbled upon it from a hotel-searching website, almost every site has a rating. And if it doesn’t have a rating on one website, a swift google search will surely yield results. I generally stay in the range of 3.8 stars or above on hostel-exclusive websites, but that rating drops a little bit on hotel websites (since, y’know, it has to compete with places like the Four Seasons).
How many people gave a rating?
This is highly connected to the first question. Maybe a hostel has a five star rating… but if it only has two reviews, does that even matter? I’ll give you that some hostels are new and therefore don’t have many reviews, but usually hostels with a low number of reviewers don’t stand in the same ballpark as hostels with 1,000+ reviewers and over a 3.8 rating. That means the hostel is good because a lot of people gave it a high rating.
What do the reviews say?
Maybe all the reviewers loved the social atmosphere of the hostel, but the showers were nasty enough they needed a shower from their shower. For some, that might not be a draw for choosing the hostel, but for others, it might be the drawing line. Take every review with a grain of salt. If most reviews are great and there’s a single bad egg, acknowledge that might just be a bad experience among a sea of plenty. But also, if there are a lot of bad to mediocre reviews and one stellar one… take that stellar one with a grain of salt. Because it probably won’t be that great.
What’s the atmosphere like?
I like social hostels, but I also want the hard-partiers to take it outside after a certain time (preferably 11 o’clock). I don’t need to hear thumping music and people throwing up in the bathroom at 3 a.m. But this might be what you want. Check the description of the hostel, read reviews, and look at pictures. One give-away that you’re at a quieter hostel is if it allows families to stay in private rooms. I also look to see if there are any sort of activities the hostel has, particularly if I’m traveling solo such as: dinners, walking tours, day trips, pub crawls, yoga classes, etc. to help meet more people.
How much does it cost?
I have a budget I set before I look at hostels, and I stick to it. The more beds in a room, the cheaper the price will be, but also the more unlikely you will be to sleep. Women-only rooms tend to be more expensive than mixed dorm rooms. I tend to stay in 4-8 bed women-only rooms, but it’s completely up to your preference. Country also tends to play a huge role here. You’re going to pay a lot more in London than in New Delhi. That’s just a fact. Don’t go to London expecting to find a ten pound dorm bed that’s not going to be the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen in your life.
What type of room do I want to stay in?
Hostels aren’t just dorm rooms. There are private rooms from one-people up to a complete plethora. There are huge dorm rooms and small ones. There are all women-rooms and mixed ones. The more people in the room, usually the less it costs. Private rooms can be at least 3-6x more expensive than a dorm room. Some hostels operate more like hotels. Decide what you would feel more comfortable in and test it out.
Some random hostels I liked and why:
Granada Inn Backpackers in Granada, Spain
Beautiful hostel located in one of the old mansions in the city. The center of the hostel is completely open. They really made it easy to check in early and leave your baggage while you wait for your room to be ready (and also to shower, if you want). They also offer quite a few activities, including a dinner and they direct you to the free walking tours of the city (which I would highly recommend).
The location is pretty great, just a short walk from everywhere in Granada with a lot of restaurants around. Staff was really helpful. The dinner made everything really social. While I didn’t eat the first night, I did come by the tail end and ended up meeting a lot of people. I also really liked the rooms. The particular room I stayed in was a six-bed, but it was split into two rooms with four beds in one room, and two beds in the other (I, of course, chose the two-bed room).
The Madpackers Hostel in New Delhi, India
I was really suitably impressed by this hostel. And this is considering that the rooms had that slightly-musty smell and damp feeling that comes with being in such a humid climate. And that the front-desk workers and cleaners had a habit of busting into the rooms without knocking at any time they liked. For one, it was really social. They had a huge open space filled with couches and beanbags for people to hang out, watch a movie, or work on stuff in. The desk staff worked hard to make it social, too, and would take the time to have at least brief conversations with everyone.
The staff was also always ready to give recommendations on where to go and help you uber your way to your next destination. On top of this, they had so many activities. They did trips to Agra, walking tours through different Delhi districts, picnics, basically anything. The breakfast included for free was also pretty legit and people tended to be social around the large table in the dining room. They have a lot of reviews and a high rating to go with them.
Generator Hostel Paris in Paris, France
Generator is a huge chain of hostels that is all over Europe, so they’re really not hard to find. This is a great hostel to start off at if you’ve never been in a hostel because it’s just like a hotel… with dorm beds. After staying in some okay hostels, this one was like a breath of fresh air. The beds are nice and supplied with linens, outlets, shelving space. There were arm chairs, a vanity, and in-room bathrooms along with bathrooms outside.
The location was pretty central, not directly next to any tourist attractions, but in a good place to get to them. Also, if you walked just a little down the street over the canal, there was an amazing block full of food. Some of the best food I ate in Europe was in that random little smattering of buildings. Here, though, I’d have to say that how social your hostel is greatly depends on who is in your room. We had a social room, but you could be in a room where people aren’t so quick to want to hang out.
There are a ton of hostels out there. I’d give them a try if you’re traveling solo or with some friends as a way to save some money and not have to worry about splitting things. Some hostels are great, some are not so great, but the same could be said with hotels. Be aware, watch your stuff, but don’t live in fear of the dorm rooms. They really aren’t that bad at all.
*Note: None of these pictures are of the hotels. I never think to take pictures of where I’m staying. So here are some random street images that, uh, could be hostels. Really.