How to Survive Hostelling

by Cheryl Yanek

Lots of travelers spend time investigating ways to cut their travel expenditures, and most people soon find out that hosteling is a great way to do that. Hostels used to be the domain of backpacking kids in their teens and early 20s – they even used to be called “youth hostels.” But these days, although some hostels still retain the “youth” in their name, very few still have age requirements. This makes hostels an excellent option for anyone traveling on a budget – backpackers, gap year travelers, couples, families, even retirees!

But if you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, there are some things you should know before you make your first hostel trip. Hostels are cheap places to sleep. Yes, some hostels can be dirty, loud, and they can lack privacy. But the truth is that hosteling is not that rough. I’ve never slept on a dirt floor, and I’ve always had some sort of mattress and running water. And if you aren’t into the whole dorm thing, most hostels these days have private rooms available.

Hosteling is more than just a great way to save money while traveling, however. Staying in hostels allows you to save money, meet new friends, perhaps even provides you with a kitchen to cook in or a bar or café to eat and drink and socialize. Staff will usually provide directions, advice, and often a map. But even with all of these pluses, hosteling is a really different experience from being in your own space. Back home, my bathroom has so many toiletries it might seem as if more than one person lived with me. My family likes to make jokes about my large wardrobe. I can be a picky eater, and my kitchen pantry is often brimming with food.

So while I am not the ideal backpacker candidate, and my previous understanding of a hostel was vague – I had only stayed in a hostel once, in a private room with my boyfriend – I spent four months backpacking around Europe and stayed in hostels nearly every place I visited. Yes, I was in for a shock. Hosteling is great, but it can be bad (but those times usually make for the best travel stories).

To help you deal with those moments when staying in a hostel seems like the last thing on earth you want to do, I have some advice to share.

Here are my tips for how to survive hosteling:

  • When you get down, if you can afford it, spoil yourself by getting a private room of your own – with your own bathroom. Some private rooms in hostels have amenities like television and air conditioning, which obviously jack up the price, but it might be just worth it – you decide. Solitude and privacy are two things you will value at the end of your trip.
  • Twenty people sharing one toilet can be dirty and annoying. In some cities, two people can easily afford a budget hotel or private hostel room – often for less than the price of staying in a hostel dorm. Opt out of the larger dorms for the smaller rooms of four or six people with an en-suite bathroom – smaller rooms are usually more quiet and cleaner.
  • Hostels can be noisy, even at night. Snoring, disrespectful roommates, and drunken shouting can wake you. Earplugs and headphones are extremely helpful when drowning out noise. Eyeshades are good for those roommates who decide to turn on the lights at 3am. You’ll be sleeping in the same room with many different people from different places on different schedules. Earplugs and eyeshades also provide a sense of privacy.
  • Take advantage of everything your hostel has to offer. Cook in the hostel kitchen, hang around the bar and lounge chatting people up, ask staff for recommendations, watch free movies, go on walking tours, borrow a bike – whatever the hostel offers, go for it.
  • If you get sick of all of the English-speaking people at your hostel and feel as if you aren’t getting a flavor for local life, ditch the hostel. Hang around town – find out where the locals go and befriend them. Remember: friendships can be accomplished, regardless of language barriers that might exist.
  • Act like the hostel is your home (within reason, of course). Do the things you would do back home like paint your nails, pluck your eyebrows, pray, or sleep with your teddy bear. Your routines will make you feel more comfortable.
  • When times get hard, spoil yourself. Eat at a nice restaurant where there are no backpackers, ordering several courses. Skype or Facetime with family and friends back home. Go to a department store and spray yourself with perfume. Go to a yoga class – just do something to cheer yourself up.

Hosteling isn’t always easy, especially if you’re a solo traveler staying in dorms, but I’ve really come to love it. I’ve ended up discarding much of my clothes and toiletries upon my return home, as I find that like being lower maintenance now.

Halfway through my trip, I met an American about to go home. He was depressed. He told me, “Most of all, I’ll miss meeting new people every night. I’m going to go home and it will just be me in my apartment.” Hosteling is a brilliant way to make new friends – friends who live around the world.

Photo credits: L.B. Imaging