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“You stay in hostels?” people often ask when I talk to them about the way I travel. “Aren’t you afraid of getting robbed or murdered?”
Thanks a lot Eli Roth for scaring the bejeezus out of inexperienced travelers and causing them to think they’re going to get murdered if they stay in a hostel. I personally haven’t bothered watching his films Hostel and Hostel II, but I can assure you that there are very few similarities. In fact, if you want to consider your personal safety, aren’t you safer in the small confines of a hostel with other travelers in the same room or nearby than you would be in a hotel? Just saying.
The truth is that hostels actually provide a great option for budget travelers and with their affordable prices, allow many people to see the world they otherwise couldn’t afford.
What is a hostel?
OK, let’s start from the beginning in case you aren’t very familiar with hostels. A hostel is typically much smaller than a hotel and has fewer rooms. The majority of rooms are dorm-style accommodations and have multiple (usually bunk) beds. These rooms can house anywhere from 6 to 12 people usually and may or may not have an attached bathroom.
Doesn’t sound all that glamorous, and it’s not, but they’re cheap. Depending on where the hostel is located, they can cost between $5-$25 on average. Obviously, big European cities are going to be more expensive than smaller towns in South America, but no matter where you are, hostels are going to be considerably cheaper than a hotel room.
Need more privacy?
Nobody wants to share a room with strangers, but some people may flat out refuse to do so. If that’s the case, many hostels also offer private rooms. These typically have a couple of beds and can be a good option if you are traveling with a friend or small group. The prices are higher obviously, but usually still cheaper than a hotel room. It is worth your while to check around though because sometimes you might find a better deal on a hotel room. I’ve seen some overly priced private rooms before and it doesn’t always make sense.
What else does a hostel offer?
Not all hostels are the same but the trend over the past couple of years is for hostels to offer more and more amenities for their guests. Many hostels provide maps and information on the area and some even arrange their own tours. Sometimes these are complimentary or cheap, but often they will help book tours with local tour companies. You should be aware that the hostel usually gets a commission for setting you up with a tour company, but most hostels have already done the work to figure out which companies are trustworthy and a good deal. With the word-of-mouth nature of hostel guests, it’s in their best interest to be honest and helpful as word will get around quickly if they are not.
Most hostels also provide a kitchen where you can store and cook your own food. While I always recommend enjoying the local cuisine and dining out, many travelers choose to cook in order to keep their costs down. Some hostels also include continental style breakfast and a few I’ve seen sell their own food and drinks. In fact, the second-best restaurant I found in Costa Rica was conveniently in the Arenal Backpackers Hostel in La Fortuna.
Another thing that is becoming popular in hostels is free computer use and/or free WiFi. For travelers with their own computer or wireless-enabled phone this can be a godsend for sending emails or planning many aspects of their trip.
A great form of social interaction
Just like a hotel, you probably want to spend most of your time away from the hostel enjoying wherever you may be traveling, but for lazy days or early nights, hostels can be a great way to socialize. Whether you are by yourself or with friends, you’ll quickly meet people in a hostel.
Many hostels provide a common room or area with a TV, music, a pool, or just a place to sit and eat and this is usually where most people congregate. Sooner or later you’ll be enjoying a drink with a handful of people speaking several different languages. This is one of my favorite things about staying at hostels and I have made some good friends like this.
What you should bring
Nearly all hostels now provide bedding but I’m sure there are still a few out there that don’t, or still charge a small fee for it. Some people travel with a sleeping bag or bed sheet but this is very rare these days. You will want to bring your own toiletries as things like soap and shampoo aren’t provided. Also, my favorite thing to bring is a pair of ear plugs. Inevitably you’ll have at least one night with somebody who snores so these can really save your night.
The safety of your belongings should also be a concern and while I have been less than smart about keeping my things secure in the past without any negative results, you shouldn’t try your luck. Many hostels provide lockers but you’ll probably need your own lock. It’s safe enough to leave your clothes and stuff lying out on your bed, but keep your passport, money, and any valuables like a camera with you just to be safe. While theft in hostels isn’t prevalent, it does happen.
Another thing you should bring is a towel. I recommend a thin, quick drying towel made for traveling or camping. These take up very little space in your backpack and dry fast so they don’t start to stink when packed. Many hostels do provide towels but not all of them. Some do, but charge a dollar or two. Having your own certainly makes life easier.
How to find a hostel
The best website out there for booking and researching hostels is HostelWorld which is why I have a convenient form on the right of this web page to search for them. There are plenty of reviews for most hostels along with pictures that can help you visualize the place. It’s easy to reserve a bed or room in a hostel through HostelWorld but I also recommend playing things by ear a little bit. If you know that your destination isn’t incredibly busy, try only booking for a night or two and then seeing how the rest of your time goes. Maybe you won’t like the hostel and want to move to a different one. Perhaps you’ll decide to move on to another city. Not booking too many nights in advance will allow you a bit of freedom. Just make sure you discuss the situation about extending your stay when you arrive because many hostels fill up quickly during peak times. Having at least one night booked to begin with will certainly make things easier when you arrive though so it’s nice to have something arranged ahead of time.
If you are yet to experience a hostel I hope this shed some light on them for you. I highly recommend them not only for the cost savings, but the experience as well. If you have any comments or questions about sleeping at hostels feel free to post them in the comments section.