Hostels 101: How Hostels Work and What They're Like

Here's Everything You Need to Know About Staying in a Hostel

A typical dorm room
••• A typical dorm room in a hostel. This one is Coffee Shack Hostel in South Africa. Micah Wright/First Light/Getty Images

If you're heading out on a trip anytime soon and hoping to spend as little money as possible, you'll most likely be planning on spending some time in hostels. If you've never stayed in one before, the prospect of them can be a little daunting. Never fear!

This article covers everything you could possibly need to know about what hostels are like, what to expect from them, and how they work. 

What is a Hostel?

Hostels are a cheap way to lodge safely with like-minded travelers around the world.

Hostels usually feature security, social life, showers, and rooms with multiple bunks. Some hostels are bare bones beds and baths at $5 per night; some are almost luxurious. You can find them in most countries around the world, and they're almost always the cheapest accommodation option available to you as you travel. 

Related: Find out why I believe everyone should stay in a hostel at least once. 

The People Who Stay in Hostels

People young and old, families and solo travelers, opt to stay in hostels, and it's not as rare as you think to check in to a place and discover a 70 year old man who has been traveling the world on his own for a few years. Most of your fellow guests will be international, with far fewer Americans than you might expect -- you'll definitely be in the minority in most hostels around the world! Overall, though, the majority of hostel guests are aged between 18 and 26, and some of the most common nationalities are Australians, Brits, Germans, and Israelis.

What Do You Get at a Hostel? 

Hostels always have dorm rooms with multiple beds, shared bathrooms, a reception area, a dining/cooking area, and lockers. The vast majority of them will also have common rooms for socializing, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi, linen, and pillows. Some will also have bars, a library, and offer breakfast.

You'll also often find private rooms as an option in hostels, which are an excellent choice if you don't mind paying extra for some peace and quiet. You'll still get the social vibe of a hostel and find it easy to make friends, but you won't struggle to sleep like you would in a dorm room. 

If you opt to stay in a party hostel (you can usually tell if a place is a party hostel by the reviews, the description of the hostel, whether they run bar crawls, or even if have a bar built into the premises), prepare yourself for not much sleep. Party hostels can be loud, but a lot of fun if you don't mind staying up late and sleeping all morning.

You can also stay in more upmarket hostels, which are designed for flashpackers (backpackers travelling with lots of technology and with a little more cash to burn) and are more like boutique hotels with dorms. Here, you'll find the rooms are clean and modern, you'll normally have features like your own power socket and light, and the Wi-Fi is fast. 

What Hostels Don't Have

Many of the features you're used to have in hotels you won't find in hostels. Hostels don't have concierges or daily maid services, but they are much cleaner than people believe. Hostels have fewer bed bugs than people think (they're actually very rare, and you'd be more likely to pick them up in a fancy hotel in New York City than a dorm room in a developing country).

Rooms seldom have in-room TV's, but often have common rooms that do have TVs, communal computers, games, a small library, and vending machines. Some hostels require you to pay a towel (if you're not traveling with one), linen, or a refundable key deposit when you check in. 

What's it Like to Stay in a Hostel?

The great thing about hostels are that they're fantastic places to meet other travelers who are doing the exact same thing as you. They're typically very social, with common rooms and communal kitchen areas designed to help you meet other people, and dorm rooms definitely help you get closer to the people in the hostel! If you're worried about not making friends while traveling, my tip is to turn up to a dorm room, sit down on your bed and wait. Within half an hour, someone else will have popped in and started a conversation with you.

I'm shy, an introvert, and suffer from social anxiety, and even I find it incredibly easy to make friends in a hostel.

You can expect a lack of sleep, whether you're staying in party hostels or not, because there'll always be a snorer or someone who comes in late at night and wakes everyone up. Bathrooms are often disgusting, and you'll rarely have a private one, even when staying in a private room. Remember to bring flip-flops with you to wear in the showers otherwise you could end up with foot fungus to deal with while you're away. 

Some hostels will lock you out at midday to clean the place and backpackers' with curfews are usually quietest and safest.

What Should You Bring With You? 

Ear plugs, ear plugs, ear plugs. 

You won't believe the sounds that come out of your fellow humans' bodies until you stay in a hostel dorm room. Even if you're a sound sleeper, you'll be woken up by loud snorers, people having sex in the bed above yours, a drunk backpacker stumbling into your bed, somebody rustling plastic bags at 4 a.m. because they forgot to pack the night before, someone turning on all the lights in the middle of the night, somebody playing on their phone with the brightness on full... the list is never ending! 

You'll definitely want to invest in a pair of high quality ear plugs then, and an eye mask is a good idea, too. 

In addition, look to bring a padlock with you, as many hostels will charge you to rent a padlock to use with their lockers if you've forgotten to bring your own. 

Making a Reservation and Paying for a Hostel 

Making a reservation is easy, and there are plenty of hostel booking engines to choose from. My favorite site is HostelBookers, though I usually check HostelWorld and Agoda to check prices before booking. 

When you arrive on one of the websites, enter in the city you'll be staying in and your dates, and you'll be presented with a list of hostels to choose from. If you're on a tight budget, sort by price to pick up the cheapest stay in town, or if you want somewhere that's guaranteed to be awesome, sort the hostels by highest review. 

Choose the top three or four hostels that meet your criteria and head through to their description page. Here, you'll want to read more about what the hostel's like, take a look at some photos, find out what amenities they offer, check out their location, and read some reviews from other travelers. Take note of things you may not have considered, such as whether they offer a free breakfast or not, as this can help reduce the overall cost of your stay. Also, look for any annoyances, like having to pay for linen in order to stay there, as this will boost the price of the hostel. 

Once you've found the perfect hostel for you, click through to confirm your reservation and pay for your stay. 

How Do You Check In to a Hostel? And What Happens When You Do?

Funny story: when I first started traveling, one of my biggest concerns was how to check in to a hostel -- I had no idea where I would go, what I was supposed to say, and how the entire process would play out. Fortunately, I soon discovered that it's a very simple process and definitely not something to worry about!

Checking in to a hostel is as easy as walking inside and telling the person at reception that you have a reservation -- it's just like in a hotel! At this point, though, you'll likely start spotting the benefits to hostel living: the receptionist may give you a welcome shot of the local spirit, they'll mostly likely show you a map of the city and mark off where the free walking tours leave from in the city and how you can get great food on the cheap. They'll also tell you about all the tours the hostels run and give you an overview of each one. In short, staying at a hostel means helpful staff who want you to get the most out of your experience in their city. 

Some other things to be aware of are that you'll most likely need to hand over your passport for the duration of your stay, you could be expected to give a key deposit, pay to borrow a padlock for the hostel lockers, or to hire a towel for your stay. You'll also be told about when the hostel locks its doors, if at all, so you know when you'll have to be back by. 

Are Hostels Safe? 

Hostels usually take security as seriously as do hotels; in fact, it can be harder to sneak into a hostel than a five-star hotel. Dorm rooms may sound as though they'd be likely to be unsafe -- sharing a room with total strangers does sound a little like a recipe for disaster -- but I've yet to come across anyone who had anything stolen from a dorm room, and I've been staying in them for over six years. Think about it: if someone wants to take your stuff, they've got to find a moment where the seven other people aren't in your dorm room and then sneak it past reception (who, by the way, have a copy of their passport.) So you'll see that hostels actually are very safe environments. 

One thing you can do to keep yourself safe in a dorm room is to use the hostel lockers for your valuables whenever you head outside to explore. And if you want to ensure your complete protection, invest in a PacSafe portable safe for your travels. This will allow you to lock up your things when you don't have access to a locker (which is common in guesthouses in Southeast Asia), and they're most likely to be safer than a hostel locker anyway. 

I've Heard That Hostels Have Curfews? 

Hostel curfews are (thankfully!) becoming less common, though they're by no means a thing of the past. If one exists at your hostel, it may just mean the door is locked after a certain hour, or it may mean that you'll be kicked out of the hostel in the middle of the day for several hours while they clean the entire place. They're annoying to deal with, so if you do see a hostel with a curfew, I'd advise looking to stay somewhere else instead. 

What About Hostel Discounts?

Backpackers' lodgings aren't big on the whole discount thing. However, HI, YHA and Nomads use hostel discount cards that can save you some money. If you'll be staying in multiple hostels of that chain on your trip, you can use their card as a loyalty card for your trip. 

Another alternative is turning up at the hostel and negotiating a discount if you'll be staying long-term. You likely won't have any success with this if you'll be staying for anything less than two weeks, but it's worth a try regardless if you'll be staying for over a week. In Southeast Asia, for example, you'll nearly always be able to negotiate down the price per night at a hostel just by turning up and asking if you can pay a few baht less. If you'll be doing a working holiday overseas, then staying in a hostel for a month or more is the perfect accommodation option for saving money as you work on getting settled in your new city and finding a job. This is particularly common in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand,. 

Hostels Reservations and Money Problems

It's pretty unlikely that you'll need to cancel your hostel reservation, so this isn't something you'll need to put too much worry into. It is, however, worth keeping in mind that hostels and hostel booking websites do have different rules around cancellations and refunds. The typical refund policy is that you'll receive the full amount back if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance of your booking. Many will refuse to refund any of the booking amount if you cancel within 24 hours of being due to arrive. 

What happens if you arrive in a place and it sucks and you immediately want to leave? In that situation, I've always managed to negotiate a refund for the remainder of my stay. If the staff refuse to give you the refund, make sure you ask to speak to the manager and make it clear that you'll be leaving bad reviews for the hostel all over the Internet if they don't comply. At the end of the day, you booked a place based on the description of the hostel -- if it doesn't meet the standards promised, you're entitled to your money back. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Hostels

This article should have covered anything you could possibly need to know about hostels, but if you still have questions, check out my hostel FAQs articles -- it covers some of the smaller details in more depth, like lock outs, curfews, and sleeping arrangements.

 

This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff