It’s interesting how the word “hostel” can conjure entirely different mental images for different people. I recently read an online comment from a (presumably rich) 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 traveller, often offering 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 fantastic atmosphere and are great places to meet other travellers.
I’ve 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 (non-typical) things that are likely to make me stay at a hostel longer…
Note: one of the best sites to book great hostels is Hostelworld.com.
1. 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 in the voice of Will Ferrell–”damnit, let’s just give these people what they WANT!”.
Gili Backpackers hostel in Indonesia is a favourite of mine. Every morning a lady arrives just to make delicious chocolate-banana pancakes for everyone, along with a plate of fresh fruit. If you were partying the night before, this is exactly what you crave. (If you aren’t hungover, it’s also what you crave.)
Another example is Mama’s House hostel in Mexico, where the titular mama will cook you a different kind of local specialty for breakfast every day. This hostel could easily charge $5 for their tasty omelettes alone, but they don’t. Because that just wouldn’t be right.
They say love goes through the stomach, and awesome free breakfast is one thing that will make me truly love a hostel.
Free scrambled eggs? You’re spoiling me!
2. 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.
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 hammocks here.
I’m definitely 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 are not very common in hostels: usually you encounter them only in more remote locations where there’s few food options nearby, or in mountain towns that attract a lot of hikers.
Understandably you need the right context for a communal dinner or a BBQ to work (in, say, a hostel in central Bangkok everyone would just grab a pad thai around the corner). But given the right environment, it can make a hostel feel very special.
The best communal hostel dinner I had was at El Retiro in Guatemala. Every night was a feast. There was more food—great food—than we could possibly eat. And because everyone eats at the same time, everyone bonds very quickly. Communal dinners often naturally transition into people playing games, drinking and sharing travel stories.
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. The ratings on these sites are typically very recent and accurate. 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. Then take a look at the user reviews and you will be able to quickly gauge what kind of vibe to expect (for instance, is it a young and wild party hostel or a more laidback one attracting a variety of travellers?).
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