How to Choose a Good Hostel
I love hostels, but I hate how most people tend to associate the word hostel with the movie Hostel because they are definitely not the same thing. I like staying in hostels because they offer cheap accommodation, are often centrally located and owned by a local or expat, and come with a fun atmosphere and tons of other backpackers. Hostels are how I meet other people when I travel. I have stayed in hostels everywhere I have travelled - Florence, Interlaken, Bangkok, Milan, Paris - and have never had a bad experience. So I want to debunk a few hostel myths.
Hostels are only for a young people. FALSE. My dad stayed with me in a Barcelona hostel when we traveled through Europe in 2011. Yes, the typical hostel dweller is a young backpacker, but I have met travelers of many different ages in hostels. Older travelers usually have the best stories to share, anyways.
Hostels are dirty. FALSE. If you don't do your research and you stay in the skivviest place possible, then yes, finding a dirty hostel is a possibility. But for the most part, hostels are well-kept, with dorm rooms cleaned daily (I mean, nobody's fluffing your pillows or changing your sheets every night, but that's why it's cheap!). Except you should still always wear flip flops in the showers...
Hostels are unsafe. FALSE. Again, you're able to read reviews for any hostel and see the average rating for a hostel's sense of safety and security. I've stayed at quite a few hostels where they can take safety very seriously, keeping a guard out front during night hours and not permitting guests after a certain time.
Hostels are hard to find. FALSE. Hostels are just as abundant as hotels and bed and breakfasts. They're a lot more popular abroad than in the US, but there are certainly hostels in touristy areas, like Nashville or Vegas.
Hostels are just a bunch of strangers sleeping in one room. Okay, yes, this one is true. I've stayed in hostel dorm rooms with six, eight, and twelve beds. You can choose a female only dorm or a mixed dorm. I go with whatever is cheapest. The common area is where people mingle and hang out, whereas the actual rooms are quiet so people can nap and do their own thing. Honestly, the dorm rooms are just where you sleep for the night - the rest of the time you should be out exploring and meeting new people.
Anyways, with those myths taken care of, here are my top tips for choosing a good hostel.
2. Spend time reading the reviews. Just like any other choice you may make while traveling (restaurants, tour companies, landmarks), take the time to skim the reviews. If the hostel is in an unsafe area, does not have lockers, or has a poor breakfast (or no breakfast), these factors will become very clear, very fast in the reviews.
3. Ensure the hostel has lockers. It's rare at this point to come across hostels that don't have lockers, but it's still good to check. There should also be a locked luggage room where you can keep your backpack as you are waiting to check in and exploring the city or as you are checking out and are waiting for your next mode of transportation.
4. Find free internet. When I first started traveling a decade ago, wifi wasn't a thing and I had to go to an internet cafe to log on to Myspace. Today, free wifi should be a no brainer.
5. Consider organized group activities. Some hostels offer guided tours, bar crawls, or happy hours. I think these are great options to have because it gets people together. One of my favorite nights in Bangkok was when the hostel got everyone together for a night out on Koh San Road.
6. Remember that cheaper is not always better. Even though hostels are typically cheap, you do get what you pay for. If you choose a very, very cheap hostel, it is likely the beds are not cleaned, the showers are dirty, and the hostel is located in a non-centralized location. Pay a few bucks more for a good night's rest and peace of mind.
7. Look for a common area. While hostels are great places to meet people, it also depends on the hostel's layout. A common area - like a central table for breakfast or a beanbags around a TV - makes it a lot easier to start conversations with people.
8. Know the atmosphere you are looking for. There are quiet hostels, laid-back hostels, party hostels, and then there are party hostels. I tend to go for laid-back hostels that have a common area/bar, so it's easy to meet people but I don't have to deal with a crazy party atmosphere and forego a good night's sleep.
9. Start the day with breakfast. I think breakfast at a hostel should be included, even if it's just cornflakes and toast. Sometimes a hostel doesn't have much to offer, but I've also stayed at places with free coffee, assortments of jams, fresh fruit, and pastries.
The above are tips to keep in mind when looking for a hostel, but for me, it comes down to the reviews, photos, amenities, and overall atmosphere that I pick up as I'm looking online.
Here are some hostels I've stayed at in the past; I pretty much credit these places for making my travel experiences that much richer because of strangers who became fast friends over morning coffee and late night drinks.
Hostel Gallo d'Oro in Florence, Italy ($23/night)
Lazy Falken Backpacker in Interlaken, Switzerland ($20/night)
Equity Point Centric in Barcelona, Spain ($15/night)
Youth Hostel Los Amigos in Tikal, Guatemala ($10/night)
Bed Station Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand ($16/night)
Hostel El Momento in Granada, Nicaragua ($9/night)