I’ve been meaning to write about hostels for a few months, but it seems today is the day for it. It’s a bit rainy outside, and after three or four days of heavy walking or travel, I’m sticking around the hostel and nearby neighborhoods for today and dedicating some time to writing.
What struck me, though, is that while there are articles here and there on the web about which hostels are good and which hostels are bad, there are surely some elements to be considered in determining the quality of a hostel that are entirely user-dependent, and I’ve not seen any articles acknowledging this determining fact. That is, what I think is a terrible hostel might suit you better than the rest. Of course, when it comes to dirt, grime, and general grossness, we’ll probably all agree. But after we meet a certain minimum level of cleanliness, the rest is up to the individual backpacker.
Because of how my brain works, I tend to think in terms of decision-making heuristics. An heuristic is a procedure we apply to simplify what would otherwise be an overwhelming process to make the procedure less overwhelming. And I’ve got a heuristic for choosing hostels, just as I have a heuristic for choosing holiday destinations and travel modes and methods – and for selecting a correct college for a given student, for that matter. (Leave it to a philosopher to take the fun out of anything – but to get it right every time – or decide that no correct answer exists.)
I’m writing this with the newer backpacker/traveler in mind, but perhaps it will be food for thought for the experienced person as well. (Keep in mind that I claim no particular expertise but rather am writing from my experience and research alone – though it’s nothing to scoff at, I believe. I’ve stayed in approximately 25 hostels across Europe and a few in the USA, but I’ve been exactly nowhere else on backpacking tours.)
So, here goes (there’s a good algorithm out there for this – it just hasn’t been developed yet – be sure to credit me when you derive one after reading this post). I’ll do this in the form of a Q&A rather than an essay, so as to separate the bits of info. This post runs long, so if you’re only interested in one of the questions, go ahead and skip to that question. I’ll take them in this order: Party hostel or Backpacker hostel? Should I stay in the city or on the outskirts of town? What should I look for in *any* hostel? How much should I expect to pay for a hostel?
First, and most basically: do you want a party hostel or a backpacker’s hostel? There’s something of a difference here in terminology largely because of how different hostels seem to see themselves and how backpackers use the hostels for different purposes. Both variants are *for* backpackers. It’s just that some places will self-identify (usually in their self-description) as a backpackers’ hostel, and these are usually independently owned and operated, quaint or quirky, and not aiming to be the life of the party. They cater to 20- and 30-something solo travelers or small groups who are using the hostels as home bases for excursions and day trips rather than catering to people who want to do their socializing at the hostel bar (if there is one – and there usually is not at these sorts of places). If you’re in your late teens or early twenties and are looking for a good time, so to speak, these places are not for you. If you want a full-service restaurant, an impressive breakfast buffet, and live music, this sort of place is not for you. These backpackers’ hostels are usually quieter places where the best socializing happens over morning coffee or afternoon tea (or beer, for that matter), and where loud entrances are severely frowned upon. (Can you tell I have a preference here? Honestly, I’m trying to be non-biased.)
Oddball backpackers’ hostels often have reviews on Hostelworld and the like decrying their lack of “night life” or “social scene”. Party hostels are criticized by solo travelers as being “soulless” or “sterile”. They are, in fact, and just as chain restaurants are in the USA, either entirely clean or entirely debased. They take on the character of their management and recruited workforce (which can change year to year).
Yet, the smaller hostels are riskier. They generally get fewer reviews, sometimes have more fickle, quickly-changing (or permanent, never-changing) attitudes and styles of management, and are more likely to be less well-kept because they’re usually run by a smaller group of people. They’re more akin to franchises or independent restaurants in the USA. (How did I get onto this food industry analogy?)
Well, there you have it. Which is more your style? The small or the large – the life-of-the-party or the quaint-and-artsy? (The indie restaurant or the chain restaurant?)above and below: ClinkNOORD in Amsterdam
Second: Do you want to be in the middle of the city or on the outskirts of town? This one is a bit trickier than the other, because there are clear benefits and drawbacks to each, given the type of traveler you are, and sometimes, the category of traveler isn’t the dichotomy I’ve set up in the first Q&A. We’re not talking about party-traveler vs. backpacker here. This can be about access, about a desire to get a feel for the less-pristine sectors of a city (which plenty of solo backpackers are looking for), or about avoiding highly-trafficked tourist parts of town – or it can be about all of the above. The trick here is to consider what sort of traveler you are. You can do this by asking some of the following questions: (1) Are you hoping to avoid popular spots or hit all of the most popular sights and sites? (The outskirts option gives you access to both but makes hitting the main sites more of a pain.) (2) Are you trying to save money? (A spot at the edge of town is usually cheaper than a spot in town, with the exception of some red light districts.) (3) Are you nervous about using public transit or bicycles to get into the heart of town – or are you not a fan of very-long walks? (If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then you had better book in the center of town.). (4) Are you the life of the party? (If so, book in town rather than out of it – you can find your way to and from the night life and a more party-friendly hostel in town than you can at the edge of it.) For some of us, booking at the edge of town helps us to save money, to experience the town in the way of using its transit system or walk through its neighborhoods, and to have a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle of the night-life districts of town.
Third, and most widely applicable, are a few items you should look for in any hostel, whatever your particular preferences. In a word: cleanliness. How can you learn if a hostel is clean *before you get there?* Easy. Hostelworld and other review sites are your friend! (Hostelworld isn’t paying me to say any of this, unfortunately.) Learn to use and search for *bad* reviews on the review sites, use your control- or command-F button to search for words like “bedbugs” and “dirty”, and read the worst that people have to say about a place. If you find mentions of bedbugs, don’t book there. When it comes to less drop-dead issues than that, pay heed to the sort of reviewer with which you’re dealing. If you find that one traveler who’s reviewed two hostels and is a 21-year-old girl (assuming you’re not that and may not see things the same way she does) describes the place as “dirty,” but no one else says the same in 400 reviews, you can safely dismiss the person’s opinion. We also have to allow for the occasional one-off. If a person had to ask to get attention to their bathroom, but this isn’t a pattern, or if there is a report of loud noises in the hallway on one weekend in July’s reviews but not in any other month… well, you get the idea – these issues probably can be ignored without too much risk. Again, just read reviews. Do your homework. A site like Hostelworld will allow you to search based on room-size, review-rating minimum, and facilities to narrow down your hostels. Then it’s up to you to sort between them based on reviews and ratings. Or you can ask me about it, if you care to. After we get past basic levels of cleanliness and kindness of staff, we start to get back into issues of divergent preferences.
For the hostel newbie, the question “How much will I pay for a hostel?” may be important. It’s also a question I can’t answer, of course. Region and country, in-town or out-of-town, service-level, and hostel chain (or owner, as the case may be) as well as present exchange rates, etc. can all affect the cost of a hostel. As a rule, hostels that have variable rates can be cheaper when booked long in advance. (I have come across reservations that cost me a particular rate when I booked them four months in advance but, when I visit the hostel’s website a week in advance and check on the rate, I find that it is twice the rate quoted several months back… I can’t be certain about this, but I’m wondering if some hostels sell beds like airlines sell seats – in baskets.) But in comparative terms, what can usually be assumed is that they should cost about half of what a “cheap” hotel costs and provide better service, which is why I’ll always choose hostels over hotels except in outlier situations (overbooking of hostels, staying in cities *ahem* Oslo *ahem* where hostels are no cheaper than hotels, etc.).
Keep in mind that in some smaller towns, pension houses are all that are available – think of these as bed and breakfasts that usually (but do not always) offer a meal as a part of the package – and that usually cater to older travelers than do hostels.
Okay – that’s it! For an average reader, this article should take less than ten minutes to get through, so I’ll shut up now to preserve that figure. Let me know if you’ve got suggestions or questions, and I’ll see what I can do to respond to them, address a problematic issue, or answer the questions.