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What Is a Hostel? The Complete Guide

Queen Hostel in Milan (photo: David Lee)

Mural at Queen Hostel in Milan, Italy

Hostels are the backbone of backpacking as a means for young people to see the world.

However, as youth hostels have historically been more popular in Europe, many American, Asian, and African travelers are not familiar with this form of accommodation.

Hollywood horror films and less-than-appealing stories passed on from our parents haven’t helped, either.

So, what is a hostel, exactly? Let’s answer that question so you can take them into account when planning your next trip.

What is a Hostel?

A hostel is a form of accommodation that offers dormitory-style rooms that sleep two or more people, often in bunk beds to maximize space. The lack of privacy allows for lower prices than hotels and tends to draw younger travelers.

Why do Backpackers Stay at Hostels?

Hostels have always been popular among the backpacking community. This is not a new trend.

However, what is new is the atmosphere and amenities which a hostel can provide.

As a whole, hostels around the world have rebranded themselves into staying at them as an appealing bonus of traveling the globe.

With affordable nightly rates, amenities which compete with hotels, excellent central locations, and friendly atmospheres which are great for meeting up with other travelers, it’s no wonder the backpacking community has remained loyal to hostels.

What is a hostel? Hostels differ from hotels in that they use shared dorm-style rooms.

Bunk beds at Fernweh Inn & Hostel in Ft Collins, Colorado

What Can I Expect at Hostels?

A significant benefit to staying at hostels is the variety and options they provide budget travelers.

There’s no standard way to define hostels because they differ greatly by region/country and time of year you’re traveling.

For example, in western Europe during the summer season, a hostel dorm reservation may cost as much as $30 per night.

Compare that to eastern Europe where a similar reservation may only cost $5-7 per night.

Pro’s and Con’s of Staying at Hostels

The Good

  • Instant social opportunities, even for the shyest of travelers
  • Central locations near many of the place’s most popular attractions
  • Hostels are everywhere – even exotic destinations associated with luxury travel

The Bad

  • Lack of privacy – I’ve had to listen to couples (or drunken one-night-stands) have sex on a few occasions, and it is not pleasant. Come on, people!
  • Lack of personal and physical space in dorms – this sometimes includes space for storage
  • Not the best sleeping conditions – can be noisy, bright, etc. People may be coming in and out of a dorm room at all hours based on when they arrive or depart a city.
Antique bathtub at Fernweh Inn & Hostel

Antique bathtub at Fernweh Inn & Hostel

Types of Rooms

Shared Dorms

Dorm-style rooms consist of multiple beds in a shared sleeping space.

There could be anywhere between four to 20-or-more beds in a single room.

Some dorm rooms are spacious, and some are very cramped.

Dorms may be mixed gender or gender-specific:

  • Mixed gender
  • Male only
  • Female only

If you're new to staying in hostels, you may find it more comfortable to stay in a gender-specific dorm room. 

You can still mix and mingle in common areas like the kitchen, TV room, bar, or pool. 

Privates

Sometimes, hostels will charge a rate for every bed in a private room even if you are the only one on the booking request.

Double check before finalizing your reservation so you don’t overpay.

What’s an Ensuite?

An ensuite room includes a bathroom, so you don’t have to share with other travelers from different rooms.

Being able to use bathroom facilities (sink, toilet, shower) with fewer people and without having to leave the bedroom with your belongings allows for more privacy.

Ensuites are typically smaller than regular hostel dorms, usually ranging anywhere from four to six beds.

Private hostel room w/balcony - Casa Angel in Oaxaca, Mexico

Private hostel room w/balcony – Casa Angel in Oaxaca, Mexico

Staying Safe in a Hostel (How to Protect Your Valuables)

Despite what you may hear, hostels are perfectly safe!

Though, it is still smart to proceed with the same precautions you would take in any other instances while traveling.

Here are some excellent tips to remember in hostels to keep your things safe:

  • Don’t be flashy – try to keep your valuables/money out of view of others
  • Keep your belongings organized – some backpackers lack in this department, don’t be them
  • Choose hostels that offer guests lockers – preferably ones large enough to hold your entire backpack or piece of luggage
  • Use a luggage lock – if there are no lockers, lock the zippers on your luggage together or lock your bag to a secure fixture so no one can easily stick their hands in it
  • Pay for a private room

Thieves are often acting quickly, so small steps can deter them as they search for easy things to steal.

In 2009, while staying at a hostel in Medellin, Colombia, Dave failed to lock up his belongings aside from his travel laptop.

A Colombian woman checked into the hostel pretending to be a traveler, then ransacked travelers’ belongings in several rooms, stealing whatever she could get her hands on before being kicked out.

Dave lost several items, including a sentimental souvenir and the hard-to-replace AC cord for his laptop.

Booking Tours and Activities

Take advantage of all the benefits of staying in hostels like discounted offers from local businesses and tour companies.

Almost all hostels provide information on nearby attractions just as any hotel would.

Not only that, but they may also host their tours and provide a rental service for things such as bicycles, scooters, and much more.

I once rented ice skates from a hostel in Stockholm, Sweden!

Check out the front lobby for this information as it could help you plan a full itinerary with discounts prices.

Casa Angel hostel, Oaxaca Mexico

Casa Angel hostel, Oaxaca Mexico

More Ways Hostels Can Save You Money

Free breakfast

Yes, some hostels provide free breakfast just like hotels.

Hostelworld will let you filter for only those accommodations which offer breakfast. However, not all free breakfasts are created equal. The quality and quantity can vary greatly.

At the basic end of the spectrum is bread and butter with some instant coffee, or boxed juice, perhaps.

Fancier breakfasts can include freshly-made eggs, pancakes, assorted meats, and cheeses, or whatever the locals tend to eat.

If this is important to you, and the hostel doesn’t indicate what’s included, check the user reviews on Hostelworld to see what travelers have to say.

Free water

When you are in Europe and water is $3.50 per single-use plastic bottle, the free water dispenser at your hostel will become a friend.

In developing countries, where it’s often not safe to drink tap water, you’ll be doing the environmentally-friendly thing by using any filtered water that’s provided.

Cook your meals

Make sure your hostel provides a full kitchen (especially in countries which are expensive to travel), so you can prepare your meals.

No one says you have to eat at local restaurants every meal of your trip. Go to the market, save some money!

Discounts

As mentioned above, check the lobby of your hostel for discounts on attractions (in some instances, FREE walking tours) and rentals.

Traveler’s Tips

Undoubtedly, you will converse with backpackers at your hostel who are taking on the same itinerary as you.

You will hear tips about how to save money and even split costs with them in some instances.

Adam says: One time, in a hostel in Poland, I was told about a hostel in the next city on my circuit (Zakopane) which offers ski lessons included in the hostel fee.

Hearing about this saved me over $80, which would have been spent on beginner’s lessons had I stayed anywhere else.

Share a Private Room

If you're traveling with a friend, family member or partner and routinely staying in dorm rooms, consider sharing a private from time to time.

You can split the cost and give yourself some space for a few nights.

Fire pit at Fernweh Inn & Hostel

Fire pit at Fernweh Inn & Hostel

What to Look for in a Good Hostel

There are many things which makes a hostel a pleasant experience.

Fortunately, Hostelworld makes it easy for you to find which hostels do the best job at accommodating.

Use their many filtering options to narrow down a selection of hostels which suits you. Here is what I filter for most often:

“Atmosphere” Rating

This is a score which other customers have given the hostel in terms of the social atmosphere in the accommodation.

I love ensuring there will be a welcoming socializing area before making my booking.

Distance and Price

These are clear and standard filters for other travelers. You don’t want to stay too far away from the city, though, often the distance to the city and price are in direct correlation with each other.

Cleanliness and Security

Hostelworld also provides ratings in regards to the cleanliness and security of each hostel. Read what other travelers have to say before you book.

There are other things you can look for in the description and photos of each listing on Hostelworld which will make your hostel stay more pleasant:

  • Outlet by the bed
  • Reading lamp
  • Storage locker
  • Shower towel provided (if you’re not traveling with one)
  • 24-hour reception
  • Laundry facilities
  • Book exchange/library

Read the directions provided on Hostelworld to make sure the hostel is easy to find. Check their cancellation policy, too, in case you need to change your plans

Let’s Review

By now, you should have a better understanding of what is a hostel. Let’s go over a few of the critical things to remember:

  • The old stereotypes are no longer valid; hostel quality has improved worldwide
  • Hostels offer various styles and amenities to accommodate your needs
  • Exercise reasonable travel precautions to keep your belongings safe inside hostels
  • There are numerous ways hostels save you money besides the cheap nightly rates
  • Using Hostelworld and its features is the best way to improve your odds of having a good hostel experience

Hostels have changed the dynamic of many backpacking trips worldwide.

Some of my favorite stories while traveling have come either inside hostels or with the people I have met inside hostels.

Now that you know what a hostel is don’t be timid to make your first reservation!

As always, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or concerns about staying in hostels.

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