Are you about to embark on your first backpacking adventure, but are curious about what a hostel is and how it works? Don't worry I was the same way. I remember the first time I stayed at a hostel in Morocco, and I was super overwhelmed. But I ended up falling in love with hostels and that way of traveling- and I haven't stopped since! Here is a guide to help you with your first-time staying in a hostel:
How do hostels work?
You know how for a hotel you book the entire room for the night? Well, in a hostel you're booking a bed inside of a room for the night. This is called a dorm room. Typically a dorm room consists of a couple bunk beds- you get your bed that you paid for, and the rest is filled with other travelers. For some people this might be a little weird, or you might feel like it's unsafe. But I promise you it's completely safe and normal.
I've been staying in hostels for all my travels for over 4 years now, and I have never had a problem with my safety. Pretty much the only people who are staying in hostels are people just like you- backpackers who don't have a lot of money, but have a desire to see as much of the world as possible! A lot of hostels even have lockers in the room, so you can bring your own lock and lock away all your stuff to help you feel even safer.
Each hostel you book will be different of course. But typically all hostels have either a 4, 6, 8, 10, or 12 bed dorm (mixed or female). Of course the lower number of beds in the room, the more expensive it is and vice versa. I've stayed in a dorm room before with 30 beds! Which actually wasn't as bad as I thought. So it really just depends on who your roommates for the night are.
If I'm traveling with my boyfriend we obviously pick a mixed dorm room, but if I'm traveling alone I always pick female (as long as it's not a lot more expensive). Usually female-only dorms are cleaner, no one snores, and it just gives you that extra sense of security since you're traveling alone.
Where to book?
The 3 main sights I use are Booking, Agoda and Hostelworld. Obviously I go with whichever site is the cheapest, but if they're all the same price I usually go with Booking. This is just my personal preference because I like that you don't have to pay a deposit to hold your reservation. And you sometimes have the option to fully pay for your booking online with a credit card, instead of in cash when you arrive. Also, Booking has their reviews organized in "positives & negatives," so it's easy for me to scroll through and see all the negative things about the place before I book.
For Hostelworld you always have to pay a deposit when you book, and if you cancel your booking you never get that deposit back. Plus, you can't pay online, you always have to pay when you arrive at the hostel.
What to look for when you're booking?
This is obviously a personal preference of what kind of experience you're looking for. Do you want a social hostel with lots of parties and pub crawls? Do you a pod/capsule hostel so you can have maximum privacy? Do you want to be close to the downtown city center or farther away in the nature? These are all things you can easily look for before you book your hostel. Here's my personal process when booking a hostel:
1) Filter all hostels in order of cheapest to most expensive
2) Start scrolling through and only click on options with an 8/10 rating or above AND less than 1 km to city center
3) Scroll through the pictures to see if I like the vibe
4) If I do like the vibe, I'll read the reviews and make sure there are no extreme problems. The main things I look for in reviews are cleanliness, "party scene" (because I hate staying at party hostels), and proximity to restaurants/sights.
5) If there are no extreme problems, I'll add it to my "List" (you can create a Favorites List for anywhere you're planning to go)
6) I'll usually have 3 or 4 saved in my List and then honestly just go off the pictures and how I'm feeling about the place to make the final decision to book. I try to pick pod/capsule hostels as often as possible because I love the privacy you get and makes me feel like I have my own room.
*ANOTHER THING TO NOTE: if you're traveling in a group of 2 or 3, make sure to check the prices of private rooms in hostels too. In a lot of countries in SE Asia, Nick & I found that it was actually cheaper for us to get a private room in a hostel, rather than pay for 2 beds in a dorm room. Always look at all your options!
What to expect?
+ You will meet lots of awesome people- both inside your room and in the common areas. You can swap stories, get advice on what to do in this place or even change your travel plans to go somewhere they told you about that you had never heard of.
+ Cool vibes- a lot of hostels offer awesome common areas with games, a pool, a bar, or even just a bunch of bean bag chairs and hammocks. Either way it's a nice place to enjoy your travels.
+ Saving money- obviously you are saving a lot of money by booking a hostel rather than a hotel, so now you have more money to go do more things during your travels!
- Obviously you never know how your roommates are going to be so you could have some problems with people being messy/smelly, snoring, or even coming home late/waking up early and being loud.
- Sometimes the cleanliness levels can be quite low, especially in the shared bathrooms.
+ My first night in Queenstown, I was in my dorm room trying to figure out my plans for what I wanted to see and how long I'd stay in the country. I really wanted to rent a car and drive around, but I was scared because I was alone and had never driven on the left side of the road before. Then, a girl named Piper came in and we got to talking and she told me she just finished driving around the whole country in her rental car by herself. She gave me her exact itinerary, all the stops along the way, even hostel recommendations. It truly inspired me and allowed me to have the courage to rent a car on the spot, and I left for my road trip the next day. She was such an amazing woman whose story ended up giving me one of my favorite trips of my life.
+ When we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand we met this amazing couple. They're from Canada and randomly picked up and moved to Australia. They worked and saved all their money for 6 months, and then traveled around Asia for 6 more months. The amount of stories they had and the "free spiritedness" of their souls really resonated with me. We ended up doing an elephant sanctuary tour with them one day and then renting motorbikes and going to the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon the next. We said our goodbyes, and then a couple days later we ran into them at our hostel in Pai, Thailand! It was so funny. Ahhh, the beauties of traveling.
+ When my friend & I stayed at our hostel in Marrakech, Morocco, we ended up becoming really good friends with the main worker at the hostel. He is a local Moroccan man who has traveled all over the world playing music- we swapped amazing stories, listened to him play his guitar, and smoked hookah up on the roof with beautiful views. One night he even cooked us a traditional Moroccan meal- Lamb Tagine. It was INCREDIBLE. He was such an awesome guy that I'm so glad we had the pleasure of meeting.
+ I've stayed in some pretty cool and unique hostels, that really give you a one-of-a-kind experience. In Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica I stayed in this treehouse hostel that literally was built around a tree and had hammocks everywhere. And on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam we stayed in this "hippy hostel" that had hammocks and bean bag chairs everywhere, and right across the street directly on the sand they had a beach bar, bed swings, and a big bonfire every night. The uniqueness of these different hostels really are the cherry on top of an awesome trip!
- When we stayed in Vang Vieng, Laos we accidentally picked the ultimate party hostel. Not only was there loud music and drunk people every night, but one night we had something a little more happen in our dorm room. A drunk guy from our room brought a girl back to his bed. His twin top bunk bed- nice, dude. They were extremely loud with their foreplay....and then apparently he couldn't perform & finish the job. He kept apologizing and saying "I'm so sorry, give me a minute I'll try again." And she flipped out and slammed the door and left. So as funny as the situation is now, at the time we were super pissed at how loud they were being at 4am. We switched hostels the next day.
- When we stayed in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka the cleanliness wasn't the best. We saw a huge spider (as big as the size of my hand) on the wall. So I stood on the bed to get a closer look, and it was smashed to the wall. I told Nick it was dead and we continued to sit on our beds and play card games. A couple hours later, Nick looked up and realized the spider wasn't there anymore. So we freaked out and asked the hostel owner to come find it and take it out. It ended up being fine, but I'm just glad we realized it was still alive before we turned off the lights and went to sleep for the night!
- This isn't really a story, but there have been PLENTY of sleepless nights in hostels due to someone in the room snoring. Which to me, is the most irritating thing someone in a hostel can do. Usually if they don't check out that next day, I'll go to reception and ask to switch rooms because someone is snoring. They're usually pretty accommodating. If not, ear plugs or earphones are your best friend.
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