A Guide to Staying in Hostels For the First Time

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Calling all future-backpackers: here’s how to handle hostels like a pro

Believe it or not, one of the best things about backpacking is staying in hostels. I’ve heard it so many times from people returning from their travels - and I can vouch for it myself. You get to meet people from all over the world, make lifelong friends, experience things you never would in your average hotel or B&B. Not to mention the obvious perk: it’s cheap.

However, we understand that for first-timers it can be a daunting experience. We’re here to help answer those questions running through your head to put your reservations at ease. This is coming from someone who stayed in a hostel for the very first time last summer - and trust me, I had all of the same doubts.

Hostels are all different; some cater to the party-animals and some offer a more relaxed vibe for the weary traveller to get some rest. It all depends on what you’re looking for from your trip - and you can choose your hostel based on that. Here are some tips to guide you, whatever hostel you choose to stay in…

Need more advice? Read our guide on How to Travel Europe on a Budget

A hostel room at St Christopher's Barcelona

A funky dorm room in St Christopher’s Inns, Barcelona. Voted the most Popular Hostel in Barcelona 2014.

Do hostels live up to their negative stigma?

This is a complete misconception. Just like hotels you can get good and bad ones. One important thing to remember though: READ THE REVIEWS on Tripadvisor and you’ll be just fine. Take advice and recommendations from other travellers and be sure to book in advance (rather than just rock up hoping for a bed - they get booked up fast). They really are a safe and affordable option and you can get some really modern, funky ones. I recommend checking out hostelworld.com: it’s so simple. Just type in the city you want to stay in and a whole list of hostels (and their ratings) will pop up so you can scroll through and find one you like.

Hostel World Banner

Essential in the initial stages of researching and booking a hostel

I was not looking forward to staying in a hostel my first time. I just didn’t think it was for me, mainly because I naively believed the negative stigma attached to them. Plus, I did not know what to expect.

I was proven completely wrong.

I soon realised that some even come pretty close to the standard of a hotel. In fact, the one I stayed was great! Spacious and clean with about 7 bunk beds and perfect for a backpacker on the go. I was lucky enough to share my room with my trekking group so we were only joined by two boys we didn’t know (who turned out to be pretty quiet and kept themselves to themselves).

Solo-travelling can get lonely but hostels enable you to meet other travellers

Staying in a hostel is one of the best ways to meet people on your travels. The social aspect is honestly amazing, especially if you’re in an upbeat, popular hostel that’s always organizing fun group activities. You’ll find like minded travel-hungry solo travellers like yourself who are in the same position as you, looking to meet others. Make friends, explore the city together, go on wild nights out and keep in touch for the rest of your life. That’s one of the best things about travelling: you never know what’s going to happen or who you’ll bump into.

Belushi's Bar in Berlin

Connect with other travellers and have the time of your life

On the other hand, if travelling with friends, book out a dorm

It doesn’t get more fun than sharing a dorm with all of your best friends. If you book out a dorm, do it as early as possible to guarantee that you will all be together. Some beds get booked up fast. One thing to keep in mind is that, say there are only three or four of you, you may be sharing with others too so that the hostel can fill up a room.

Hostel bunk beds

A dorm in St Christopher’s Gare Du Nord, Paris

You can get female-only dorms

When booking a room in a hostel, assume that it will be mixed-sex. Most of them are. If you’re a female not so keen on sharing a room with the opposite sex, there are always solutions. Some hostels provide female-only dorms; one great example is St Christopher’s Inns at The Oasis in London that has an entire floor catering exclusively to girls (and can only be accessed by a special key card).

Something I must say though is mixed rooms are honestly fine. I remember pulling up in front of our hostel in the Yosemite National Park in America and our tour guide said “there’s one dorm room that’s all-girls, and the other one is mixed”. Straight away my predominantly-female group all looked at one another, the really outspoken ones calling first dibs on the single-sex room.

The 5 of us who didn’t care as much and felt a bit more comfortable (although secretly we did want that all-girls room), ended up in the mixed room and it was fine. The only thing I was really worried about was the getting dressed/undressed part - but I just changed in the bathroom and it was absolutely stress-free. The boys in my room were only about 18-19 years old. It’s not like you’ll be greeted by an old man every morning (let’s hope).

Or don’t share a room at all

Either you’re the person strolling in at 5am drunk waking everyone up - or you’re the person being woken up. If you can’t handle the authentic hostel experience and those dreaded snores coming from the opposite bunk, then you should explore other options. Maybe sharing a dorm isn’t for you. Sometimes a shared room for the first time can be a bit of culture shock - you never know who will be in your dorm or what kind of people they are. If this idea is really scary to you, some hostels do offer private rooms (with an en suite) at an extra cost.

A private room at St Christopher's Inns in Barcelona

One of the lovely private rooms at St Christopher’s Inns, Barcelona

In our opinion though, a mixed dorm room is way more fun, cheaper, sociable and great (and less daunting) if you’re sharing with friends.

Worried about the bed? Take a sleeping bag liner

If you’re booked into a well-known, popular hostel with great reviews and modern photos, it’s likely that the beds will be cleaned and changed daily - or at least before you move in. However not all hostels are going to give you that same service so we advice to pack a light, portable sleeping bag liner. If you feel like your bed linen is dirty, you can just slide into the liner and voila! You can pretty much sleep anywhere with one of these saviours in your armoury.

Pack flip flops

One thing I found handy was packing a pair of flip flops to wear in the shared bathroom or while I showered. It wasn’t that the floors weren’t clean (they absolutely were) - I just found it a more hygienic option that worked for me.

Security. Are they safe?

The first thing that people worry about is the safety of a hostel. But most of them are super safe and sometimes it depends on the area you’re in (so again, do your research to ensure the hostel doesn’t lie in a dodgy area)! Each hostel room will have a lock and only guests of that room will have a key.

Are my valuables safe?

It’s more than likely that the people who you’ll share a dorm with will be young travellers just like yourself. Not thieves looking to steal your hair straighteners or laptop charger. But as our parents forever drummed into us the notion of trusting no-one, keep your suitcase locked when you leave the room. And don’t leave valuables in sight. That’s common sense. Most hostels provide padlocks at a small cost but I just like to bring my own - it saves the hassle when checking-in. Sometimes even a towel can go missing, and who’d want to steal a towel? Who knows.

Location is important

Always show a hostel location up on Google Maps to see if it’s near the town centre or close to things you want to see and do. It will make your life a whole lot easier and you’ll be able to walk pretty much everywhere in some cities if you’re in a good location.

Prague

Caption: Prague in all its glory

Keep in mind that some hostels are cheaper if they’re further out of the city but for a reason! You don’t want to have to uber/train/bus half an hour everyday to get to the main attractions. If you’re looking for a party holiday, find a hostel near to the nightlife and best club and bar spots! It will ensure an easy walk home (and avoids cab fares).

To ensure you get a good night’s sleep, find out that the hostel isn’t located above a thumping club! Unless of course, that’s the whole reason you want to go!

Find out if a meal is provided, like breakfast or dinner

Breakfast at St Christopher's at the Oasis

Brekkie is served for free at St Christopher’s

This will help you keep costs down on your trip and will allow you to have a clearer budget. St Christopher’s Inns offer free breakfast to its guests which is great as it will energise for you day. Fill yourself up - and then have a yummy late lunch out somewhere in the city - and splurge a little if your budget allows you too. I remember the hostel I stayed in served up delicious hot home-cooked meals in the evening (in a cosy little lodge-canteen) and it was a little pricey - but we didn’t mind so much as breakfast was free.

Take part in fun hostel activities

A cycle tour in Copenhagen

Cycle tour around Copenhagen

Often hostels organise fun things to do like a bar crawl, free walking tour or a movie night. It’s the best way to meet people as well as really embracing the hostel experience. This may seem spontaneous and out-of-character for some, but even the most introverted person will thank themselves for getting involved when you have amazing memories to look back on.

Beer Pong at Belushi's Gare du Nord

Fancy a spot of beer pong back at the hostel bar?

Pack a towel

Not all hostels provide towels: and you may want to use your own one anyway even if they do.

Bring a torch

The last thing you want to do is turn the lights on at 5.30am to find that missing pair of socks in the midst of packing in a rush to make that early flight. A torch solves the problem without ruining everyone’s morning.

Eye-mask

On that topic bring an eye mask. To avoid being blinded if lights are turned on in the middle of the night.

An eye mask

Caption: Make sure you have a good snooze

Ear plugs are an essential

To block out the snoring...

Pack snacks

Breakfast bars, cookies, crips. Anything that fits in your case. Then, if you’re ever feeling peckish or want to re-energise you’ll have some light snacks to keep you going throughout the day.

Do they provide washing machines?

Some do have laundry rooms, yes. If you know a washing machine will be a necessity on your trip, make sure to double check the hostel has one. Whether you’ll need one really depends how long you go for - if you’re away for a while, you can’t really pack a month's worth of clothes in your bag - so if your hostel has a laundry room it is much more convenient than heading out to find one locally to give your stuff a quick wash. Nobody wants smelly clothes.

Ask for food/drink recommendations from reception or bartenders

The staff know everything. From where to get an affordable lunch to the best clubs to hit to places you should completely avoid. It’s their job to have the pulse on the city. There’s a reason certain places are recommended to you: because people have been here and LOVED it. So definitely take some tips to gain the best experience as possible.

Some hostels also have a 24 hour reception

Hostel Reception

The award-winning Copenhagen Downtown hostel boasts a 24-hour reception

So you can roll in from your night out at 4am, no problem. Check all of the perks your hostel offers before you book!

Some hostels allow you to rent bikes

Probably the fastest way to get around a new city is by bike. If you’re a confident cyclist you’ll find renting out a bike will be extremely handy in allowing you to explore as much of an area as possible. Some hostels offer this option so if you know you will be using a bike, make sure the hostel caters to this important need.

Make use of the living room

Sometimes you just need somewhere to put your feet up after a long day. Most hostels have a fun communal area to socialise, chill out or watch some TV. Whether it’s a small living room space or a massive game room with pool and a foosball table, make use of it!

Hostel living room

A place to rest. St Christopher’s in Bruges.

And there you go! We hope this helpful guide has answered all of your questions. Happy travelling!

Article by Shereen Sagoo

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