Hostels are perhaps the best thing about backpacking. They can be fun, safe, sociable places, which can take your trip from being just ‘good’ to being absolutely brilliant. But getting it wrong can be a disaster. Not just scalding-hot-then-icy-cold showers, bedbugs and other infestations, and broken air-con; a bad hostel can mean feeling isolated and unhappy in a place far removed from home, and ultimately can lead to your stuff and yourself feeling very unsafe. So here’s my quick-fire guide to picking a hostel that will help and not hinder!
1. Use the Internet
Anyone who just shows up to a city and wanders round til they find somewhere might be ‘spontaneous’ and whatever, but they’re probably missing out on staying in the best place.
- Hostelworld – very easy to use, and has probably the largest database of places to stay. Pay attention to their comprehensive rating system, and you can tailor it to your priorities – whether you want safety over partying or vice versa. However, they usually have a booking fee of a couple of pounds. They do sometimes have a period where they get rid of the booking fee for a limited time though, so look out for that.
- Hostelbookers – very similar to Hostelworld in many ways, with a very similar ratings/review system. Hostelbookers has no booking fee which is an advantage but some hostels may not be listed on there, whereas hostelworld has a much larger database. Where possible you can look a place up on hostelworld where there are likely to be more reviews, and then book it through hostelbookers (sneaky top tip!). Alternatively, you can often simply email the hostel to reserve a space (particularly if you’re on your own or in a pair), which saves you even paying a deposit.
- Trip Advisor – another classic website which can be incredibly useful, especially where there are few reviews on one of the booking websites. Cross checking the impression you’ve got from a booking website can be helpful if you’re unsure about somewhere.
- Trivago – Though Trivago tends to yield results for hotels only, it can be useful if, for example, there is a big event going on in a city meaning all the accommodation seems to be booked up. Trivago compares prices across multiple websites to find you the cheapest.
2. Don’t book too far in advance (except in large numbers!)
To be honest, unless you are on a very exacting schedule, it is a bit daft to prebook all of your hostels down to the day, as you might want to change your route last minute, and stay in one place for longer because you love it, or leave as soon as you get there because it’s awful. Even though a booking deposit may be very little, there’s no point in wasting your money! The best way to do it is to book each hostel from the previous one, and especially if it looks like there is lots of space you can always just book the one night and move on if it’s not to your liking. However, if you are in a larger group of people, be a bit more organised with it: hostels are less likely to have 8 spare beds than one or two, especially in popular times like the summer holidays.
3. Get advice from people
Often when you are backpacking, there are certain established routes which people take, so inevitably someone will have just come from where you are about to go. A really easy way of finding out a good place to stay, particularly if the internet isn’t within such easy reach, is just to ask where they stayed and whether they would recommend it.
4. Don’t get overexcited about unusual details at the expense of practicalities
I mean, it might have a rooftop terrace, but does it have storage lockers for your valuables? Also, it’s worth noting that ‘breakfast included’ can mean anything from a cup of coffee and a slice of toast to a full on buffet or all you can eat pancakes – but bear in mind that you might be paying over the odds just so you can be served rubbery egg and machine instant coffee, ostensibly for ‘free’.
5. Location, location, location
How far out of city centre are you? And does this matter? Sometimes there is a certain area of the city which is very desirable to stay in or around; however there are often benefits to being a bit further out or in another area, as you may end up finding somewhere great that’s a bit off the beaten track, and sometimes the tourist trap areas aren’t really worth the time. Price is often partially dictated by location as well, so it’s often worth looking into staying a bit further out in order to save money, but make sure you balance this with the potential cost of having to travel in to the centre if you do want to.
6. Transport links
How big is the city you’re staying in, and do you need access to a metro or bus station in order to get around, or is it OK just to walk everywhere? As mentioned above, factor the potential cost of travelling around into your budget for the hostel, especially if it’s a bit further out. Also think about how close it is to the train station/bus stop that you will be travelling from/to – with a 20 kilo bag in tow, you’ll appreciate a short walk if you don’t want to be getting taxis!
7. Be wary of the party!
Everyone knows about the party hostels: their reputation always precedes them. But, ask yourself whether it’s important to actually stay there, or whether you’d rather just go to their bar and meet people there, while being able to retreat back to your perhaps slightly quieter, and probably slightly safer hostel when you feel like it. Obviously this is a personal choice, and it would no doubt lead to some good stories if you do end up staying in, for example, one of the Wild Rover hostels in South America, but just give it a bit of thought before doing so!
8. Tailor to your needs
Don’t always be sucked in to going to the top rated hostels on hostelworld. Each person will have different requirements, and these may vary depending on what stage you are at in the trip. If you want to save money because you have overspent in the first few weeks, it might be worth looking for a place with a kitchen; if you feel like you’ve been spending too much time travelling alone, it might be worth choosing a place that has a bar attached. Ratings aren’t everything, and everyone is different!
Finding the right hostel is ultimately a personal choice. Things that are a must for me, like free wifi (to write my blog!), and some kind of common room, might be completely surplus to requirements for the next person. However, in my experience it’s always worth putting a bit of time into the research beforehand, because it will be paid back tenfold.