There are a number of different ways that hostels drum up business. Sometimes they place flyers at hostels in nearby cities, attracting the attention of backpackers who might be heading their way. Sometimes they buy billboards near bus and train stations, catching the eye of travelers arriving in a city without a reservation. And sometimes they lie.
There are lots of ways that hostels stretch the truth. Here are four hostel marketing tricks that I encountered on a recent holiday, as well as the reality of what I discovered upon check-in. Join me in comparing the hostel marketing fantasy to the hostel living reality!
At first glance, the image on the left (taken from the hostel’s website) seems to be a pretty accurate representation of the actual hostel room. There’s just one problem: I booked a room at what sounded like my fantasy hostel, and upon check-in I was placed in an entirely different hostel! Check out the reviews for Corfu Backpackers in Corfu, Greece, and one thing will become clear: this hostel does not exist! The Pink Palace is one of Europe’s most famous party hostels. I wanted to avoid Europe’s most famous party hostels, so I booked at what was supposed to be a “sister” hostel. Instead, I found myself in the Pink Palace building (it was pink and palatial… and it said “PINK PALACE” on it!), sharing a dorm room with party-mad nineteen-year-olds who had booked at The Pink Palace. “Corfu Backpackers” didn’t even make an effort to separate the guests who had booked at their fake, quieter hostel… they just jammed everyone together in the same pink ouzo-fueled rooms and hoped for the best.
Lesson: Make sure the hostel actually exists before you hit “reserve”!
Here are two shots a dorm room I stayed at in Skopje. In the promotional photo, the room looks warm, clean and spacious. Hell, there’s a glow coming from that lower bunk that looks like the fireplace in my cabin on Christmas Eve! In reality, this dorm room didn’t have enough space even for four people. You can see personal items strewn all over beds and floors because there was simply no space. Under-bed lockers can seem like a space-saver, but as you can see they often aren’t big enough for a standard backpack. And the curtains? They seem like a good idea… but how often do you think they get washed?
Lesson: Take promotional photos with a grain of salt. One of the most common hostel marketing tricks is to use photos that over-exaggerate the comfort, spaciousness and cleanliness of the rooms. (For example, I stayed at an awesome hostel in Riga, but even though it was awesome I didn’t even contemplate letting my backpack touch the orange shag ottomans in the room!)
Ooooh, look at that shower. Wait, what? In Kotor, Montenegro I had a confirmed booking in a six-bed dorm room. Upon arrival, reception happily took me all the way down the street to another building and placed me in a less expensive eight-bed dorm, with a shower under a sloped ceiling that was so low I couldn’t even kneel in the bath! I went back to reception and asked to be placed in the six-bed dorm I had paid for. They checked their records again and stated I had definitely booked an eight-bed dorm. It wasn’t until I showed them a copy of my confirmed reservation that they conceded they had made a mistake. And sadly, their online reviews indicate that downgrading guests to a less-expensive room, while keeping the money they paid for a better room, is their modus operandi.
Lesson: Get what you paid for. If possible, print a confirmation of your reservation to eliminate questions at check-in. Don’t accept an unwanted downgrade (more beds, lack of ensuite, second building, etc.) unless the hostel makes it up to you. If you are downgraded, ask for reimbursement in the form of a deeply-discounted rate or a free night if you’re staying multiple nights.
When you’ve been on the road for eight weeks, I don’t care what anyone says- you want to sit down to pee. Squatting for eight weeks is unreasonable, and frankly, I think any girl who honestly claims to have squatted for her entire trip is a big, fat liar. Or a man. This is why I was disappointed to check into my hostel in Lithuania, only to discover that construction of the bathroom was not complete. Yup, the toilet seat was on the floor, and the mirror was precariously balanced on the edge of the sink (I could only do my hair if I actually did squat- against the wall- with my knees at a ninety-degree angle). Although the hostel’s listings on Hostelworld and other major sites says it is a “small but lively hostel, [aiming] for a more personal and unforgettable experience. [They] have 3 Dorm rooms, filled with traveling stories, photos and artifacts, a balcony [and] a plush common room with old town views”, in reality they had opened an entirely new section of the hostel before construction was finished. The advertised three dorm rooms, balcony and common room were all in a different building, accessible only by going outside and across a residential courtyard. The building housing my dorm had more than three rooms, no balcony and no common area at all. As an avid photographer I was excited that the hostel had “personal electrical outlets in each locker”… but of course, these turned out not to be available in the new section, either.
Lesson: ??? I don’t even know what the lesson is here. There’s not much you can do if a hostel advertises services and then doesn’t offer them. If you’re in a big city, consider taking your business elsewhere. If there isn’t another hostel, make sure the management knows you are displeased. What I do hope is that if you’re the victim of false hostel marketing, you make your experience public. If your booking website allows you to write a review, make sure other travelers know that the hostel isn’t telling the truth. Spread the word to other travelers you meet on the road as well. Word of mouth is huge and hostels need to know there are consequences for false advertising.
Have you ever stayed at a dishonest hostel? Share your story in the comments!