It’s interesting how the word “hostel” can conjure entirely different mental images for different people. I recently read an online comment from a person who boasted about always travelling 1st class, and who called hostels “cheap dumps for poor people where you have to bring your own sheets” (oh dear, where to begin!?).
The reality is that hostels offer clean and comfortable accommodation for the budget traveler. They often offer a range of services and amenities as well. (And no, you don’t need to bring your own sheets!) Best of all, they usually have a very positive and social atmosphere.
I spent the last 18 months living mostly out of backpacker hostels and most have been very good, but then there have been hostels that were just one notch above the others. Here are a few things that are likely to make me stay at a hostel longer…
Note: the best site to find great hostels is Hostelworld.com!
1. A pool
When I’m travelling in hot tropical countries nothing will make me appreciate a hostel more than a pool. After a long day of sightseeing in the sweltering heat, all you really want is to cool off in the water.
At the Downtown Seam Riep Hostel in Cambodia the pool was even open at night, so after an evening out I could have a pool after-party with my friends. It was the best.
Pools are a definite plus.
2. Free breakfast
It’s not unusual for hostels to offer some form of free breakfast. Often this includes toast, jam and coffee, and if you’re lucky they will throw in some fruit or cornflakes as well. It’s basic but it will do.
But then some hostels go above and beyond the call of duty. They must have slammed their fist on a table and proclaimed—perhaps somehow in the voice of Will Ferrell—”damnit, let’s just give these people what they WANT!”.
When I stayed in one particular hostel on the Gili islands in Indonesia, they had someone make delicious chocolate-banana pancakes every morning, along with fresh fruit and espresso coffee. I was fully on board with this.
At Mama’s House Hstel in Mexico, the eponymous mama will cook you a different kind of local specialty for breakfast every day. This hostel could easily charge $5 for their tasty omelets alone, but they don’t. Because that just wouldn’t be right.
They say love goes through the stomach, and free breakfast is one thing that will make me truly love a hostel.
3. Comfy couches
Couches might not seem like much to ask for, and sure enough they come standard in most European hostels. But in South-East Asia and Latin America (where I’ve spent most my backpacking time) they are a little harder to find, as it’s mostly just hammocks here.
I’m an appreciator of hammocks. But… nothing quite beats melting into a good couch. And after travelling for so long, I miss couches all the time. Sometimes I just want to put my laptop on the table and do my best sloth impression while watching a movie. Awwwwww yeaaaahhh.
4. Communal dinner
Communal dinners bring the whole hostel together. Because everyone eats at the same time, everyone bonds very quickly. They tend to happen in hostels for two reasons: either the hostel is in a remote location far away from any restaurants, or the hostel is in a place where there’s not many cheap restaurants or street food around.
I’ve had some amazing communal dinners in places like Guatemala and Thailand. But also some amazing ones in Europe, such as in Sevilla or Lisbon. Family-style dinners often naturally transition into people playing games, drinking and sharing travel stories. It’s so good.
I like it when hostels have some resident animals. It really makes it feel like a home.
Dogs or cats are always a definite plus. One dog I remember in particular: his name was Rambo, and he sort of lived at Spicypai Backpackers in Thailand. Every time I went on my scooter to get groceries or drop off my laundry in town, he’d jump on the floorboard and hitch a ride with me. I heard he also killed and ate a chicken once, but I am willing to turn a blind eye for my scooter buddy.
Some other hostel pets I have met on my travels:
- Guinea pigs. Two sat on my lap in Suneta Hostel, Bangkok.
- Parrots. I recently met two very talkative ones at Little Morgan’s in Nicaragua.
- A tortoise. Hopefully still (slooooowly) roaming the bar area of Los Amigos in Guatemala
- A big albino dwarf bunny. Appeared briefly and unexpectedly in alice-in-wonderland-like ways at Los Tres Hermanos, Nicaragua.
This hostel in Thailand came with free bonus puppies
6. Limited WiFi (wait… what?!)
I’ll admit: I’m torn on this issue. I constantly flip back and forth in my mind like I’m Gollum having a schizophrenic fit. “Yes, go away wicked and cruel internet!” … “Nooooo, not my precious WiFi! My PREEECIOUSSS.”
Occasionally I meet older travellers who still remember the ‘good old days’ before WiFi, and I think they’re entirely right to complain about how much has changed. Sometimes I look around a common room only to see are the ghostly blue faces looking at screens everywhere—and then realize in horror that I too am one such ghostly blue face, and in in front of me is a screen with a full bar of browser tabs open.
It’s often the hostels without WiFi that end up being the most memorable for me. These hostels manage to have that warm and welcoming ‘sitting around the campfire together’ feeling, even when there isn’t actually a campfire.
On the other hand, I also just really like having fast and free WiFi. I don’t want to socialize all the time, and sometimes I just want to curl up with my laptop and put my headphones on. Arghh! I want my cake and eat it too.
A few months ago I was in a hostel in Antigua, Guatemala and they had what is possibly the perfect compromise. You could surf the web to your heart’s content all day long, but at 6pm they would shut off the router. At this hour, everyone just jacked out of the Matrix, looked around… and started talking to each other. It was beautiful.
How to find the best hostels for you
Not everyone is looking for the same things in a hostel. Fortunately there are many different kinds of hostels, so there is almost always one out there you will like.
The best sites for finding hostels are Hostelworld and Hostelbookers. Be sure to pay attention to the sub-ratings for each category (location, security, etc.) so you can look for those things that matter most for you. Perks like the ones mentioned above, such as a pool or free breakfast, are usually mentioned in the hostel descriptions. So always keep an eye out for those fun little extras.