Hosteling 101 has previously covered not being a slob, wearing clean clothes, making breakfast, surviving sickness, deceptive marketing, checking your ego, stealing food, hoarding plastic bags, lounging in the nude and creating strange tent-like structures out of your dorm bed and a blanket.
So you’ve booked a trip. You’ve bought a plane ticket or a train ticket, or taken your car in for a tune-up before you hit the road. And since you’re on a budget you’re thinking that you’d like to stay in a hostel. But how?
I’m kind of joking, as booking a hostel isn’t exactly rocket science. However, there are some things to keep in mind before heading off into the wide world of shared dorm rooms and communal bathrooms.
First, figure out what’s important to you. My non-negotiables are cleanliness and (relative) quiet at night. Nearly every hostel gives all of its rooms a superficial sweep each day, but I prefer places that are even more clean: no dust on the window ledges or cobwebs in the ceiling corners. My heart skipped a beat when I was staying at the Let’s Rock hostel in Krakow and I observed them bringing in carpet cleaners to shampoo all of the fabric sofas and chairs in the common area. That’s my kind of clean. I’m also not a spring chicken anymore, and as I approach my thirtieth birthday I appreciate getting a good night’s sleep. I find that smaller, owner-operated hostels tend to be more quiet, but I don’t mind a busy on-site bar or restaurant if it’s on a much lower level than my room.
My own decision isn’t influenced too heavily by location as I’m happy to spend time on public transit with the locals and I also like wandering around residential areas (though I noticed a lot of hostels in the Balkans seemed to be up huge hills, which became rather unpleasant when the temperatures hit 42 degrees celcius!). I also don’t care if it’s a “party hostel” (as long as I can sleep) or a more relaxed environment, and I’m not particularly concerned about how many beds are in a dorm or if there’s an en-suite bathroom.
Once you know what matters, start doing some research. If you’re still at home I would recommend grabbing a copy of the Lonely Planet for your destination (grab the most recent Lonely Planet Europe, Southeast Asia or South America from Amazon or your local public library) and checking the major hostel booking sites like Booking.com, Hostelworld and Hostels.com. Read the descriptions, look at the pictures and, most importantly, read the reviews left by people who have recently stayed there.
Once you’re on the road you can ask the staff at your current hostel for recommendations about where to stay at your next stop. If you like the place you’re staying then you can probably trust their recommendation, and they might even be able to call the next hostel and book by phone for you. Some places will give you a 10% discount if you book by email or phone, rather than through a booking website. You should also look around your current hostel for bulletin boards or an information station holding flyers for nearby hotels. Being able to see photos and having a custom map with directions can change your mind in an instant!
When it comes time to book your hostel room, I recommend using Hostels.com. Many of the big booking sites charge a fee each time you make a reservation, but Hostels.com allows registered users to book for free. In return you have to register your email address with them, but in the five or more years I’ve been using the site they have never send me spam. I am pretty sure they share a database with Hostelworld, so you have access to the most comprehensive inventory available.
Look out for these key phrases when you’re booking a hostel room:
Female Only – Pretty self-explanatory. These rooms are only for female guests. There is a perception that female-only rooms can be safer or cleaner. This is sometimes the case, but certainly not always.
Mixed– Males and females will share this dorm room.
Ensuite – In theory, there is an attached, private bathroom just for occupants of the room. In very rare cases the bathroom might not be attached, or the hostel might encourage other guests to use the bathroom. Ensuite rooms are great… when properly ventilated! If you don’t see the word ensuite, you can assume you’ll have to walk down the hall to use a shared bathroom. Some shared bathrooms are similar to the ones in your home and accommodate one person at a time, while others are similar to those at a gym or public swimming pool and have a number of shower stalls and toilet stalls.
Private – No sharing with strangers here. You’ll get the whole room to yourself. Be careful, though. Most hostel booking sites quote the price per person, based on full occupancy. This is great if you’re with a group of friends, but if you’re only your own you’ll still have to pay two (or three, or four, or five!) times the per-person price.
Finally, after you’ve booked your room I suggest making a quick plan to help you reach the hostel upon arrival. I always carry a trusty Moleskin notebook with me, and the pages at the back are full of quick little maps I’ve sketched out of the route from the train or bus station to the hostel. If you’re cutting the pages out of your guidebooks you can also use a highlighter to mark the route you’ll take to reach your accommodation. I’m all for getting wonderfully lost in a new city, but I’d rather put my backpack down, have a quick shower and grab a cold drink before I do so!