I asked my 22-year-old niece, just back from summer travels in Europe,to give us the inside scoop on hosteling. Learn her list of myth-busting tips and packing must-haves.
AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO HOSTELING
by Madeleine Clute
My first foray into hosteling was at the end of high school when some friends and I took a road trip to Quebec, Canada, and it’s been my preferred method of seeing new places since. Most recently, my friend Elizabeth and I traveled on students’ budgets for 30-days in Europe, spanning 10 cities and 8 countries, primarily staying in hostels. At this point, while I may not be the world’s greatest hosteling expert, I do feel as if I’ve gotten a good sense of how they work, and what generally to expect.
For me, hosteling has been a lot of fun. But when I talk to friends about it, they seem apprehensive. The resistance I’ve encountered has ranged from the normal “but I’d be sleeping in a room with strangers!” to the absurd ,“but what if they’re after my organs?!” (this was after said friend watched the movie 2005 horror movie, Hostel, one too many times).
These concerns always make me sad, since I feel like hosteling is a great experience for a lot of people once they try it, so first, I’ll try to put your mind at ease about hosteling, and then, if you’re still reading, give you some tips on what to pack so you can enjoy your stay.
GETTING PAST THE COMMON “BUTS”
But I’d have to share a room with strangers!
Yes, this is mostly true, and this is what allows hostels to be vastly cheaper than hotels while still maintaining basic standards of cleanliness and safety. I would argue however, that this is much the same as living in a college dormitory, and while some fellow travelers might snore or come back inebriated at undesirable hours of the early morning, they are largely a harmless bunch and are not looking to kill you in your sleep (you survived college after all!). Every hostel I have encountered offers a “female only” dorm option, for women who would prefer to not share a room with men. If this still isn’t your cup of tea, many hostels feature “private rooms” which are basically like hotel rooms within the hostel, and are great for couples or those travelling with children. While more expensive than the dorm rooms, they are still are cheaper than a traditional hotel room. Most hostel websites will have these options/prices listed.
As a plus, a lot of people you’ll find in hostels are sociable, interesting, and quite the characters, so the hostel bar or common area is a great place to make new friends and learn things about different parts of the world! Sometimes the best part is that you are sharing a room with strangers.
But won’t my stuff get stolen?
This is always a possibility, just like it’s a possibility that the maid will steal something from your hotel room. Nearly every hostel I’ve come across has some combination of in-room lockers, pay-per-use lockers, and front-desk storage of valuables. If all else fails, a luggage lock with a cord to attach the luggage to the bedframe will do the trick. Most thefts in hostels are ones of convenience (i.e. an expensive bracelet left in the bathroom might go missing); very few people are going to bother breaking a lock.
But aren’t they dirty?
I’ll be honest, this varies from hostel to hostel, but many sites like hostelworld.com, offer guest reviews that touch upon this. I wouldn’t say any of the bathrooms we saw were pristine, but they were all acceptable—again, think college dorm room standards (so bring shower shoes!). As for the beds, every hostel I’ve found will provide clean sheets and blankets, but if you’re still skeptical, it is always easy to carry a sheet sewn to be like a sleeping bag, or a sleeping bag liner which you can find at most camping stores. I found the common areas and kitchens to be pretty clean in all places.
But aren’t hostels always in really bad parts of town?
It depends on what you mean by “bad.” I’ve never been in one where I felt that the part of town was particularly unsafe, and regardless, most places have doors that lock at night or watchmen, but sometimes they are a little bit removed from the city center. Most are a bus or metro ride away from the main attractions, as they are often in more residential (and cheaper) neighborhoods. But remember, you can always check the location first on google maps and if getting one in the thick of things is a top priority, you can almost certainly make that happen! Additionally, for the amount you’re saving by staying at a hostel, you can definitely afford a cab ride back if you need one. That being said, I kind of like staying in off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, because you get to see how average people in the city live, and sometimes you find some really cool local spots you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
But what if they’re after my organs?!
They’re not… they’re just not. Stop watching bad horror films. But seriously, while they’re almost certainly not after your organs, at the end of the day, you do have to sleep there, so use your judgment and read the reviews of a place before you book. Remember, if someplace gives you the creeps, you can always book a hotel room elsewhere in the city for the night, and arrange alternative accommodations from there.
If you’re still reading, maybe I’ve convinced you to give hosteling a go. If you do, here are the items my friends and I always make sure to have in our bags.
As stated above, when you’re sharing a room with 6-8 other people, there is bound to be a snorer (I could have sworn I shared a room with a grizzly bear in Paris…). Depending on the city and night of the week, there is also a good chance someone will be returning at unfavorable hours of the morning possibly (likely) inebriated. Give yourself a chance at a good sleep with some simple earplugs and a sleepmask (I’ve found a bandana used as a blindfold makes an excellent and cheap one). Additionally, while I’ve never stayed at a place where I doubted the cleanliness of the sheets, sewing up an old topsheet into a makeshift sleeping bag (or buying a sleeping bag liner) is a quick and inexpensive backup plan that doesn’t take up much room.
Since hostels aim to keep their costs down, there will be no cute miniature bottles of shampoo; you’ll need to bring your own. In addition, you’ll want to bring a towel, and a pair of cheap flip-flops you don’t mind getting wet. I recommend a microfiber hiking towel since they are lightweight and dry fast (nothing worse than having to pack up a wet towel). The bathrooms are generally clean, just not well stocked.
Adapters and a power strip
I cannot stress this enough. Most people bring the appropriate adapters for international plugs, but generally they only bring one, and one doesn’t cut it for charging your phone, camera battery, and laptop all in one go (which you’ll want to since you shouldn’t leave those lying out). Also, adapters are expensive, and outlets in hostels are often scarce. My solution is to buy one or two adapters, and then buy a power strip at a local shop. In Prague, 4 of us were sharing an outlet with the powerstrip, including an Australian who just used her adapter to plug in! Simple, inexpensive, and effective. I recommend this for all travel, regardless if you’re staying at hostels.
So while thefts in hostels are less common than most imagine, they do happen. This however, is largely when people leave valuable things out in the open, unattended. Most hostels have large lockers next to or under the beds, which can fit a reasonably sized (think a bit larger than airline carry-on) suitcase or backpack (mine always fit and was a 50L pack for those interested). Simply bring a padlock or luggage lock, put your stuff in, lock it up, and you’re good to go. I always also make sure I have a method of securing my bag in the rare event there isn’t a locker situation I like. This can be done with a simple cable and luggage lock like this one. Lock the bag, then lock the bag to a piece of furniture (bunk beds are great for this) For backpacks, without traditional zippers, I recommend having a collapsible duffle bag (a good idea anyways if you plan on checking it in with the airlines or busses to protect the buckles), which you can then lock your backpack inside. This is what I did There are also meshes that can be locked. If a collapsible duffle or mesh isn’t in your budget or tastes, there are many ways to thread a small chain through the opening of your pack and use that to secure it.
I know this can seem like a lot to keep track of, but to recap, what you need is the following: earplugs, sleepmask, sheet, towel, toiletries, shower shoes, powerstrip, luggage lock, and padlock. You’d want about half of these even if you were staying in a hotel, so hostelling doesn’t add too much weight to your bag.
ONE FINAL THING
Another concern I hear about hostels is that the quality varies from location to location, so it’s difficult to know what exactly to expect. If the uncertainty is bothering you, remember that you can always ask before booking your stay. Most hostels have an email address listed online, and hostel staff are extremely friendly—it’s most of their job to be friendly! My friend and I sent emails in advance to some hostels where it was unclear what the accommodations would be, and always have received informative, cheery responses. These things vary from hostel to hostel, so if it’s important to you, there’s no harm in sending an email and finding out!
What about you? What have been your experiences with hosteling? Feel free to comment below and share what’s worked best for you in the past.
This article is a guest blog post by Madeleine Clute for EllenBarone.com.