How Hostels Work: The Essential Things You Need To Know

What are they, what do they provide, and where can you find the best ones...

The reception at Bodhi Hostel in Panama

I love hostels and have stayed in hundreds of them around the world. Hostels are inexpensive places to stay, but they’re also so much more than that. They can truly be a home away from home, as well as places where you can connect with interesting people from around the world.

Hostels are an essential part of how I travel, and I always want to tell new travellers to give them a try. That said, your impressions will surely depend a lot on what type of hostel you stay in as well as your expectations of what they provide.

Uhh, what is a hostel?

It’s not a silly question!

The answer to this depends, as there are essentially two types of hostels. At least, these are two styles of hostels that I’ve generally come across.

  1. Traditional ‘youth hostels’. These are meant mostly for students or young people and are typically supported by charitable organisations or universities. Hostelling International, or HI, is the largest such organisation. I’m not usually a fan of these hostels as they’re more institutionalised and tend to have a “gee whiz, we’re helping the youths!” attitude. (Full disclosure: I’m in my early 30s.) Some youth hostels have a sterile school cafeteria type of atmosphere. These are not the sort of hostels that most travelers get excited about.
  2. Backpacker hostels. These funky and creative hostels are often independently run, providing a place to sleep for travellers and backpackers. Think of these more as hotels, except they’re much cheaper and offer dormitory beds or basic rooms. They also try to foster a welcoming and communal atmosphere, so these are both budget-friendly and super fun places to stay. I love these hostels to bits!

Occasionally the line between these two types gets a bit blurry, though in this post I will be mostly talking about backpacker hostels.

Hostels have come a long way in the last decade or so and many of them offer great amenities. They’ve really entered the mainstream as an alternative to hotels, particularly among millennials. Some hotel chains are have even begun to set up boutique or luxury hostels to cash in on the trend.

Hostel in Bangkok Thailand

A cozy garden courtyard at The Yard Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand

What do hostels provide?

It depends on the hostel! At minimum, a hostel will provide you with a bed in a dormitory or a basic room, (shared) bathroom facilities, and free WiFi.

Beyond this, hostels will do their best to make you feel at home. They might offer various amenities like a living room-style common room, kitchen facilities, computers, board games, a pool table, and so on. At reception you can often sign up for group activities or tours, get your laundry done, get some help with bookings, or browse some travel guides. Sometimes there’s a bar where you can have drinks and meet other travellers.

Some hostels also provide a basic breakfast, though this is rarely anything more glamorous than toast with jam, fruit, and some coffee.

Do hostels provide bedding?

Definitely! Bedding is always provided nowadays. I have stayed in hundreds of hostels around the world and this has never been a problem. Even in, say, the remotest parts of the desolate Bolivian Andes, they’ll still give you sheets and a blanket. Don’t worry about your sleeping bag—you can leave it at home.

Do hostels provide towels?

Only rarely. Hostels in Western countries sometimes gives you one, if not for free then for a few extra dollars or euros. In non-Western countries, I find that towels are almost never included.

What to pack for staying in a hostel

I recommend bringing a lightweight microfibre travel towel, as they are easily stored and dry quickly. You can bring a normal towel, but a lightweight one is more suited to travel.

Hostels often have lockers for storing your belongings, expecting you to bring your own padlock. It’s best to get a combination padlock so that you never need to worry about losing the key.

Finally, bring earplugs. If there’s a snorer in your room, you’ll be glad to have them.

Other than that, pack whatever you normally need for your travels.

Hostel in Bolivia

A basic dorm room in the Beehive Hostel, Sucre, Bolivia. More modern dorm often have capsule-style beds and individual storage lockers

How to pick the right hostel

If you’re travelling for a while, then word-of-mouth can be a powerful way to find amazing hostels. Apart from this, your best bet is to look around on dedicated hostel booking sites. Hostelworld is by far the biggest one.

User ratings on this site are very reliable. For me, anywhere above a 7.0 will be fine, though I always try to stay in a top-rated one. Due to different standards around the world, a truly top-rated hostel in Europe could achieve a score of 9.5 or even higher, whereas in Southeast Asia or Latin America hostel ratings tend to max out somewhere around 8.5. Pay attention also to the individual ratings for Cleanliness, Location, and above all, Atmosphere.

Another thing to look for is the number of beds. I like hostels that have about 30 or so beds: they’re big enough for you to meet plenty of other travellers, but small enough to maintain a cozy atmosphere. Sadly, sites like Hostelworld don’t directly tell you the size of a hostel. But you can infer this by selecting an arrival date far into the future and looking at the number of room options provided. If there’s a choice from, say, 7 different rooms, it’s probably a nice-size hostel. If you get a list of 25 rooms, it’s a factory.

Aside from just the number of beds, be aware of what you’re booking. All hostels have mixed dorms, but some offer the option of booking gender specific dorms. Be sure to keep an eye on the price because they can sometimes cost a little extra.

Of course, every hostel has different sets of rules, so it’s important to find one that fits what you’re looking for. Do you want a party hostel or do you want a hostel with enforced quiet time? This especially can make or break your stay if you end up at a hostel with a completely different atmosphere than you were wanting.

Have a look for any extras that appeal to you, such as free breakfast, a bar or rooftop patio, bicycle rental, etc. etc.

You can search for hostels on Hostelworld here.

What’s it like in a hostel?

There are many kinds of hostels to suit the tastes of many kinds of travelers.

But there are some general trends in how hostels are set up and designed in different parts of the world. This is generalizing a lot, but here’s how I’ve experienced hostels in different regions:

Europe: Chain hostels are well established and they’re not always so great (avoid Hosteling International). But Europe also has some of the world’s best and most award-winning independent hostels. I think the European backpacker hostels often hit just the spot by offering a cozy atmosphere and plenty of amenities. Prices are often in the €15 to €20 range, though this can rise to €30 a night in places like London or Paris, or dip to around €10 in Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

Quality is typically high and some top European hostels achieve ratings in the 9.5 – 10 range on Hostelworld.

Southeast Asia and Latin America: I love the hostel vibe in tropical countries. In the main cities the hostels are often new and modern, though you’ll find more bohemian style hostels in the countryside. Many beach- and surfer hostels are constructed from wood or bamboo and have many hammocks for you to chill. Prices can be as low as USD $4 a night (hi there, Cambodia) and might top out at around $15 to $20 a night in the bigger cities or the more touristy destinations.

Hostelworld scores in the 9.5+ range are rarer around these parts (largely due to differing standards of development), but anything above 8.5 is going to be pretty amazing.

Central American hostel

The view from Little Morgan’s Hostel in Nicaragua. Central American hostels often have a more rustic character.

United States: there’s no polite way to say this… hostels in America are truly the worst. I am not saying that to be mean, but just to set your expectations. Many are of the lame ‘youth hostelling’ variety, while others try to be backpacker hostels but don’t quite get it, their common rooms somehow resembling chain coffee shops or lifeless airport lounges. These are not proper hostels, America! 🙁

If your first hostel stay is in America, don’t assume European or Asian hostels will be exactly the same, although I’m generalizing wildly and there are some fantastic exceptions in some of the major cities in the US.

American hostel

A hostel in the US. For some reason, they often feel more like hotels.

Before you check-in

To make things easier on yourself and get the most out of your hostel stay, check out the website or listing of where you’re about to stay and have a read over everything. It may sound boring, but sometimes there are important or even fun bits of information that you might miss otherwise. Like when breakfast is (if it’s offered), what extras are available, where to find out about any activities happening, or if check-out is just a little too early for your liking.

Doing this can save time when you’re checking in to keep from having to ask any questions that you would have already had answered – and the staff will love you for not asking the same thing they’ve already answered 5 times that day. Not to mention, getting on the staff’s good side can end up having its perks!

So you’ve arrived at your hostel – now what?

Staying in a hostel will feel much more like home than staying in a hotel, but that lower price also comes with higher responsibility. Having good hostel etiquette and being respectful can make your stay better because everyone is happy!

In the kitchen:

Wash your own dishes right after using them. I know you just CAN’T wait to eat your backpackers meal of rice and chicken, but remember you’re in a shared space and someone may be waiting to use the pot you just cooked with. It’ll save you dirty looks by not making anyone else do your dirty dishes.

Label your food! I can’t emphasize this enough. If it’s a decent hostel, then they will clear out the fridge of old food to prevent unwanted smells. If you leave it unlabeled, don’t blame the hostel staff if it’s missing – they probably just want to prevent any new ecosystems from starting in the fridge. Just write on your name and date of departure so they know you’re still here, or if you’ve left and it’s free game.

In the dorm:

Introduce yourself to your roommates! The longer you wait, the harder it is. Even if it’s someone you don’t particularly want to talk to, it’s just awkward sharing a room with someone you don’t at least know the name of.

Stay tidy, utilize the lockers! Aside from just keeping your belongings safe from potential thieves, lockers help to keep your stuff out of the way.  Nobody likes a mess, and when you cram 6 people into a room that was meant for only 4, you don’t want to be tripping on things in the middle of the night if you have to get up.

Don’t turn on the lights in the middle of the night. This one should be a no brainer, but there’s always that one person. Your phone has a light for a reason – use it!

Cover up. You’ve been traveling for ages now and you feel good in your own skin! But not everyone is comfortable with you walking around in your underwear. If you really want to do that, just spend a few extra bucks on a private room and you can go the whole 9 yards.

In the bathroom:

Don’t be a bathroom hog. Every hostel does this differently but if there is a limited amount of bathroom space then try to space out your usage rather than spending 3 hours at once perfecting your eyebrows.

Clean up after yourself. It may seem like a hassle when you have to tote your shampoo to the shower for every use, but if everyone left their soap in the bathroom, it would be a cluttered mess. Plus, you’re sure to run out sooner because people will definitely take advantage of left behind products!

Other tips:

Bring shower flip flops. Think about it: literally hundreds of travelers have used the shower you’re in! Even if it does get cleaned regularly, you just never know what bacteria is lingering around from someone’s feet that walked around Thailand without shoes just a little too much.

Some hostels have an age limit. If you’re a more seasoned backpacker, I know you may want to chat with youngsters, but some places have a cap on how old their guests can be. Alternatively, if you want to be sure you’re with people only in your age group, this can be a feature to keep your eye out for.

Hostels typically offer private rooms. If you want the social vibe of a hostel but the nighttime privacy of a hotel, look into a private room. These are more costly, but still cheaper than a hotel.

Don’t be afraid to bombard the front desk with questions! The hostel staff will be able to provide a lot of insight to where you’re staying. Of course sometimes you get the odd employee who isn’t very enthusiastic about telling you about your location. If that’s the case, come back after that staff member clocks out!

Final words on hostels

Hostels are not hotels, and that’s the great thing about them. Treat a hostel as your home away from home. They’re meant to be fun and sociable places, and the best of them make you feel part of a big travel family.

You’ll get the most out of hostels by not being a hermit. Don’t be shy, people in hostels fully expect you to say hi to them. (After all, how could you not, if you’re often sharing rooms together?) If you want to chill, maybe grab a book from the book exchange and find yourself a comfy couch or hammock. Or if you’re in a social mood, go chat with other travellers in the common room. If nothing else, you’ll probably get some awesome travel tips, but maybe you’ll make some new friends!

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6 comments

  1. Kathryn Urquhart Reply August 3, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    Hi,
    I’ve just left school and had 2 amazing months in Thailand with one of my friends (who is half Thai), we stayed with her family for a bit and had lots of help with planning where to go etc from her family. I have just got back and have started planning my next trip, hopefully backpacking around South America. This time I will be travelling on my own (I’m 17 years old), do you have any suggestions or recommendations as to which countries are better for backpacking in South America (considering price, things to do, solo female traveller,etc)?
    Thanks for any help,
    Kathryn

    • Marek Reply August 13, 2016 at 11:47 am

      Hey Kathryn. I think Ecuador and Peru can be good places to start. They’re cheap, a little easier, and there’s many travellers there. 🙂

  2. Andréa Reply July 30, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks a bunch! I’m planning my 3-month trip to Asia and your site is very helpful

  3. Rosie Hill Reply May 29, 2016 at 1:33 am

    Hi Marek,

    I’m a 19 year old university student in the UK looking to go backpacking solo for a few weeks in the summer. The only thing is I am slightly concerned that because of my age I might not ‘fit in’. I’m easy going and very happy to mix with people of all ages and backgrounds, but are there certain countries/backpacking areas that would be more suited to me compared to others? I’m really keen on going to Guatemala, but I don’t want to end up with a tame group of honeymooners (for example!). I’m looking to have a good time -with a bit of partying- but mainly just want to get out there and explore whilst meeting new people and staying in some cool hostels.
    Thanks for any advice- love your blog by the way, it’s been very helpful and inspirational!

    Rosie

    • Marek Reply May 30, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Hey Rosie. If you travel as a backpacker and stay mainly in hostels then you’re going to find likeminded people wherever you go. There are admittedly differences between countries/regions… Thailand, Mexico (in the Yucatan) and Australia for example see way more travellers who are in their late teens or early twenties. Some of the younger people there are on basically a ‘party holiday’ though. Guatemala is more about having a cool adventurous trip, but you can have fun in the evenings as well (plenty of bars and social/fun hostels). When I was in Guatamala I met a few people of a similar age as you, as well as many travellers in their mid-twenties and up. You won’t be stuck with tame honeymooners. 🙂

      • Rosie Hill Reply May 31, 2016 at 7:40 pm

        Thanks so much for your help and reassurance! Guatemala seems like a good choice then 🙂

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