The Ultimate Guide to Staying in a Hostel

I was 19 before I had my first night staying in a hostel. I was travelling alone, having moved to Sydney on a six month study abroad during my second year of uni, and I was terrified. I’d never solo travelled before, let alone stayed in a room with 11 strangers. I was so apprehensive of the experience, and I had so many questions – what if someone snores, where do I keep my clothes, what if I get robbed in my sleep?! I was lucky that one of my best friends at the time was a seasoned hosteller who I could direct all my questions to, otherwise I’d have been stuck.

My mission for this post is to provide the ultimate guide to budget travel – the best tips, tricks and hints for choosing and staying in a hostel.

Why hostels?

Hostels are the best budget friendly accommodation option. Ultimately, they’re aimed at people who aren’t looking for the most luxurious night’s sleep. They’re more affordable and therefore more basic than your average hotel – they’ll have fewer amenities and they rely on their location, price and atmosphere to win over customers. Of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t comfortable – I’ve had many a good night’s sleep in hostels – but they certainly are more basic to cut down on costs.

Whilst most hotels provide private rooms and private bathrooms, hostels reduce costs by having dorm-style rooms and shared bathrooms. This means that you’ll book a bed in a room with as many as 11 other people. In some cases, and often with larger rooms, each shared room will have their own private bathroom, whilst in some cases there will be a larger shared bathroom facility for multiple rooms close by. 

Hostels aren’t exclusive to young people, and they’re a great option for travellers who are on a tight budget, looking for a social atmosphere, or wanting to meet new people. Solo travellers, I’m looking at you! This was the main reason why I turned to hostels for my travel around the East coast of Australia. Hotels were expensive – far far out of my budget – and an AirBnB for just one person wasn’t much more feasible. Ultimately, staying in a hostel was the best option for me in terms of balancing location, meeting new people, and providing a social fun-filled atmosphere to draw me out of my introverted bubble.

The ultimate newbie's guide - everything you need to know about staying in a hostel for the first time

Do I have to stay in a dorm room with other people?

Hostels generally have shared rooms with multiple rows of beds (sometimes bunk beds!) to sleep multiple people, called ‘dorm’ rooms. This means that you’ll book a bed in a room that will sleep anywhere from 3 – (in some cases!) 17 other people. Though the average sized dorm is somewhere between 6-8. Mixed dorms are the most common, but you can also find single sex dorms, meaning you’ll only be sharing the room with other females or other males. 

Larger dorms tend to have access to their own bathroom, which means you only need to share with the people in your room. In some cases, there will be access to a larger shared bathroom facility – with multiple toilet and shower stalls – close by, which will be shared by multiple rooms.

However, if a shared room isn’t your thing – and don’t be shy to say it’s not – then you absolutely do not have to stay in a dorm. Most, if not all, hostels will also have the option to book private rooms. They generally tend to sleep 2, but I’ve often found private rooms for 3, and you sometimes get the choice between having single beds or double beds. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get the option for a private room with a private bathroom… Soon, it’ll feel like you’re staying in an Intercontinental! (Ok, maybe not quite…)

What types of hostels are there?

Hostels have come a really long way in the past couple of years, and you can now find a lot of variety in the types of hostels available to book. Although these categories aren’t hard and fast, they’re a good reflection of the variety available. The type of hostel I recommend really depends on what you’re looking for on your holiday and what’s important to you. Make sure you consider your budget and your ideal type of holiday before you book.

Budget hostels

Although all hostels are pretty budget-friendly, I’m referring here to the cheapest of the cheap. The ‘I have basically no money left but I need a night to stay’ type of hostel. What they lack in service, amenities and often location, they more than make up for in price. These are the perfect pick if you’re on a tight budget, but make sure you know what you’re getting into! Study the reviews before you book and look for common trends in the comments. You’ll soon get an idea of whether it’s worth considering other accommodation options .. couchsurfing, anyone?

Homely hostels

These are generally smaller, cosier, and often independently-run hostels. They tend to have a more intimate feel and are perfect if you’re looking for the comforts that come with a ‘home away from home’. A homely hostel is a brilliant choice if you’re looking for a more relaxed social atmosphere or are slow travelling. They’re often frequented by long-term stayers – people who are looking to stay in an area for longer than just a few days. This type of hostel is really conducive to making good friends, and perfect if you’re looking to settle down in a particular city.

Boutique hostels

Aimed at most closely emulating a hotel experience, a luxury or boutique hostel is worth the splurge if you’re looking for a little comfort. Particularly in cheaper countries, boutique hostels can come with a really affordable price tag. They typically have the comfiest beds, best amenities (I’m looking at you, hostel in Kuala Lumpur with a rooftop pool!), and a strong emphasis on cleanliness. They still have a strong social atmosphere, but are the perfect starting point for anyone who may be a little unsure about hostel travel.

Boutique hostels can often come with really incredible theming – a new take on a hostel experience that has started to become really popular. If you’re looking for somewhere a little quirky, different and fun, this is the perfect place for you. One of my favourite hostels is still the space themed place we stayed at in Kuala Lumpur – not only did you sleep in your own space pod, but they had a slide!

Party hostels

The common misconceptions, horror stories and funny anecdotes about hostels were most likely born here. Party hostels usually have a bar on-site or have built a relationship with nearby bars and pubs. Typically, they’ll organise pub crawls and nights out, filled with beer, booze buckets and drinking games. These are the perfect pick if you are looking to meet new people, make some new friends and have a fun time. I can guarantee you’ll come back home with a few new drinking games up your sleeve, and some funny stories. I still have fond memories of the Krabi hostel that asked us to sign a waiver at check-in! However, if you’re looking for a good night’s rest, a relaxing atmosphere, or you’re easily offended, it’s better to avoid.

The ultimate newbie's guide - everything you need to know about staying in a hostel for the first time

Amenities

An average hotel will likely provide a TV, fridge, toiletries, kettle and some coffee sachets. In general, a hostel won’t. If they do, in keeping with general hostel values, these will be a shared amenity. Almost all of the hostels I’ve stayed in have had a shared living room and shared kitchen, equipped with a fridge, hob, oven and cooking utensils, for you to cook your own meals. Many have also provided free tea and coffee with breakfast – a huge score for budget backpackers! For toiletries, it isn’t too tiresome to pack your own.

All of the hostels I’ve stayed in have provided sheets – and nice ones, at that. The only feature of the bedsheets that reminded me I was in a hostel, and not a hotel, was when I was asked to strip my bed before I checked out.

For towels, the majority of hostels will provide them. I always double check before I book because I like to travel as minimally as possible but, where they don’t, they often let you rent one at minimal cost. If you prefer to bring your own, invest in a camping / microfibre towel. They’re small, light and dry incredibly quickly – a staple if you’re a frequent traveller or backpacking. See below for my hostel packing list guide!

How to find and book a hostel

Once you’ve decided where you’d like to go and the dates, my go-to site for booking a hostel is always Booking.com. It’s well-renowned, easy to use, and often provides an option for free cancellation if your trip doesn’t pan out as planned. I’ve never had to use that feature, but it gives fantastic piece of mind for when you’re planning that incredible round the world trip with your slightly flakey friends. On top of that, the photos of the hostels are always excellent (and accurate!), and I find the reviews really helpful to decide which hostel to book.

When I’m staying in a hostel, I really want to make sure I’m booking a good one. One of my tips and tricks to booking the perfect hostel is to consider the five categories before you stay: location, rooms, price, reviews and amenities. I start by entering my chosen dates and location onto Booking.com, and then filtering from the highest rated hostel to the lowest. Then, I work my way down the list of potential accommodation and answer the following questions from each category. Ultimately, I’m looking for the best quality hostel in the most convenient location, for the lowest price.

Location

  • Is the hostel close to the town / city / attraction that you’re visiting?
  • Is the hostel easy to get to from the train/bus station or the airport?
  • Does the hostel provide shuttles?
  • Is the hostel close to great transport links (i.e. the metro) so you can get around town easily once you arrive?
  • Is it in a safe area of town if you’re arriving after dark?

Rooms

  • Are you looking for a dorm room or a private room?
  • If you’re looking to stay in a dorm, how many people would you be willing to share a room with?
  • Are there female-only or male-only dorms available if you want one?
The ultimate newbie's guide - everything you need to know about staying in a hostel for the first time

Price

  • Does the price per bed per night fit into your travel budget? Don’t forget to account for the number of people in your travel group – sometimes it can work out cheaper to book an AirBnB.
  • Does the price include breakfast?

Reviews

  • Have you read reviews of the hostel on Hostelworld.com and Booking.com? Watch out for any reviews that state they were provided in exchange for something (e.g. free WiFi or breakfast).
  • Have you read any reviews by bloggers?

Amenities

  • Does the hostel offer personal lockers in the dorm rooms? Do you need to bring your own padlock?
  • Are towels and linen provided?
  • Are there kitchen facilities available for your use?
  • Are there laundry facilities so you can wash your clothes?
  • Does the hostel run or recommend great tours and activities to get to know the destination and other guests?

Travel Packing Essentials

Amazon: Packing Cubes
Amazon: Travel Toiletries Bottle
Amazon: Neck Pillow
Amazon: Travel Adaptor
Amazon: Padlock
Amazon: Moleskine Traveller’s Journal
Amazon: Chilly’s Water Bottle
Amazon: Microfibre Towel
Amazon: Anker PowerCore Power Bank
Amazon: Packing Cubes
Amazon: Travel Toiletries Bottle
Amazon: Neck Pillow
Amazon: Travel Adaptor
Amazon: Padlock
Amazon: Moleskine Traveller’s Journal
Amazon: Chilly’s Water Bottle
Amazon: Microfibre Towel
Amazon: Anker PowerCore Power Bank

Hostel packing essentials

In your hostel vs hotel decisioning, you clearly decided to go for budget over luxury (or you wouldn’t have made it this far down the post). This means you’ve sacrificed some of the amenities that hotels provide, and that lengthens your packing list a little. If you’re staying in a hostel, this is everything you need to remember to bring:

  • Travel towel: So small, so absorbent and they dry so quickly. Great to have just in case your hostel doesn’t provide one and, if it does, these become the perfect towel for a trip to the beach. As they’re made of microfibre, rather than the traditional fluffy towel material, they don’t collect loads of itty bitty pieces of sand in the fibres. There’s nothing worse than trudging the whole beach home with you. I use this one that I picked up from Amazon on a whim, and it’s now travelled the world with me!
  • Padlock: Hostels will often include lockers in the dorm rooms for your personal and precious belongings, but you’ll need to provide the padlock. I forgot this when I travelled the east coast of Australia, and – trust me – it’s not comfortable to carry your MacBook with you everywhere. Remember this; your back will thank you.
  • Universal travel adaptor: This should be on every travel list, unless you’re not planning on leaving your country. There is nothing worse than landing in a new country with a nearly-dead phone battery and realising your charger does not fit into the plug socket! You can bring any travel adaptor, but a universal one means it will work in any country in the world – no faffing about trying to remember which adaptor you need to pack!
  • Extension cord: Maybe I have more electronics than an average person (very possible), but most of the dorms I’ve stayed in suffer from an extreme lack of charging ports. Bring an extension cord and share your electrical charging goodness with your dorm, and I promise you’ll make some immediate friends. Bonus points awarded that you can now charge multiple devices with just one travel adaptor.
  • Earplugs: You never know when you’ll be stuck in a dorm with a snorer.. They’re not really required if you have the luxury of staying in a private room but, in a dorm, these are an essential!
  • Flip flops: I’ll keep this one short: hostel bathrooms aren’t often a place you’re willing to explore barefoot.

And there you have it! The ultimate guide to budget travel – the best tips, tricks and hints for choosing and staying in a hostel.

In all honesty, if you’re new to hostels (and possibly a little unsure), I urge you to give it a try. I’ve had some of my best experiences and memories while staying in hostels, and become friends with some really incredible people. There’s no better way to bond than over some cheap booze.

Enjoy the adventure!

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Amazon: Sandisk Extreme Pro 128GB Micro-SD Card
Amazon: Hoya Polarising Filter
Amazon: Joby GorillaPod SLR-Zoom Tripod
Amazon: GoPro Hero 7
Amazon: Sandisk Extreme Pro 128GB SD Card
Amazon: Mavic Air Fly More Combo
Amazon: Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm 1:1.8 lens
Amazon: Olympus OM-D E-M10 ii
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