Sooo, you’re headed abroad and you want to travel, right? If you do not want to travel, boooo, that’s the best part! Of course, fun, safe, and stress-free travel is the goal, here, and the best way to achieve that is to make like a cub scout and be prepared. So without further ado, here are my hostel tips from several hostels in three European countries –mixed with some anecdotes and advice from friends who’ve seen many more.
First: The internet is your friend. You know this, but it never hurts to be reminded. There are several hostel services that allow for easy booking and comparing. I always used HostelBookers, but you can bargain hunt around several. Things to look for are good reviews, good security, cleanliness, free maps/wifi/sheets/etc., reviews that mention friendly staff, and no “funny business” –suspiciousness, as I call it. Every major city has multiple good, safe hostels. Booking well in advance of your trip means you have a better chance of staying at a good one, and will get a better rate.
Second: Read EVERYTHING on the booking service AND on the hostel website (if there is one). Look for weird catches and clauses. Some disreputable hostels try to get every last cent out of you that they can, and will add strange hidden surcharges to things. Look to see if wifi, sheets/towels, food, showers, or other things are free, or if you have to pay extra. These little fees are not only annoying, but can really add up and make your stay more expensive. Not all hostels are upfront about this, so check reviews. If a bunch of people complain that they got billed 10 Euro for returning their sheets instead of leaving them on the bed (or something else bizarre) look further.
Third: Never stay at a hostel with a less than 85%-ish positive rating, or one where legitimately weird stuff happens. You may be getting a good deal at 7 Euro a night, but is that really worth putting up with a coke-snorting receptionist, disgusting showers, low security, location 30 minutes outside the city, or the awful grunge band that rents the property next door? I think not. I stayed at a highly-rated hostel in France where it turned out that the property manager was VERY weird. A little too friendly with all the girls, and kind of creeped me out. He would show up at our apartment at odd times “just to say hi.” When I left my review later, I noticed lots of people had commented on that. If I’d known, I would have gone elsewhere. Of course, your comfort zone might be different than mine, but always know what you’re getting into.
Fourth: Understanding a bit about hostel culture helps. Check reviews and the website to see what kind of place you’re going to. Is it a big party hostel with a free shot of absinthe on check-in, or do they bill themselves as having a laid-back coffeehouse atmosphere? The ages of people may vary. Some hostels take travelers of all ages and some accept only young backpackers (like you). I had some friends who stayed in a place just the two of them and a 50-something Frenchman who slept in just his tighty-whities and went to bed at 8:00. Knowing the hostel culture also helps you make sure you’re in a place with people like you. When I travelled alone, I liked to get to know my hostel-mates, and am still friends with some of them. We had some great times together!
Fifth: Most places are mixed-gender bedrooms, and some have mixed-gender bathrooms. It’s normal, and unless you book a single-gender room, expect to be with a group of men and women. Some people, especially women, get squicked out by this, but I never had a problem even when I was the only girl in a room. This goes back to picking a hostel with a good reputation and good security.
Now you have some tips to help you pick your hostel out. Honestly, reviews are your best friend. Know what you want and make sure that your chosen hostel will deliver.