If you’re going backpacking, especially on your own, then at some point you’re likely to stay in a hostel.
I love staying in hostels. I really do. But I can also see how for some people they’re places of potential hell. Sharing a dorm at close quarters with half a dozen other smelly, noisy, snoring people? Queuing for the shower? Being woken up at 4am by noisy bastards coming home drunk? Where’s the fun in that?
And yet, hostels are really such wonderful institutions. If you get it right you can find yourself in some utterly delightful places, meeting wonderful people just like you and often paying just a few quid a night for the privilege. Why pay hundreds a night for a room when you could pay a fiver, and have some fun into the bargain?
Fortunately, there are a few very simple steps you can take to make sure you end up somewhere that is worth staying, and because I’m a very bloody nice person, I’ve written them down right here for you to use!
1. Set your priorities
There’s no point deciding on a hostel until you’ve decided what it is you want. After all, hostels come in all shapes and sizes, and different hostels cater for different crowds. Do you want a big tubthumping hostel with 200 guests and a rooftop club open until 5am Monday to Monday? Do you want a cosy retreat with a book swap and green tea on tap?
Its pointless expecting a quiet weekend break if you’re going to book into a crazy party hostel in the middle of the clubbing district run by Australians. Similarly, its self defeating if you want to have a bit of a blow out to go and book a quiet, bookish hostel in the middle of nowhere that includes ‘Lights out at 9pm’ in its rulebook. So decide what you want before you start, and find something that matches you.
2. Book ahead
The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? The days where you had to rock up in a random town without a reservation and with little more than an address in a guidebook and a map are long gone. The interwebs puts everything you need to book before you arrive right at your finger tips, saving you a lot of time and hassle.
So, top tip number two is to get on the internet and book before you arrive. The two key websites you need are www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelworld.com. There’s practically nothing to choose between the two, both are invaluable tools that make travelling a hell of a lot easier. At bottom, if a hostel isn’t listed on one or both of these websites then it probably isn’t worth going too.
3. Don’t rely on your guidebook
I don’t want to do Lonely Planet down. I really don’t. I rarely travel into a country without the relevant LP guide in my backpack. They contain a wealth of information, well written by thorough researchers. I’d go as far as saying that a Lonely Planet guide is indispensable to getting the most out your journey, and the sight of a well thumbed, battered and torn guide book that I’ve used to death fills me with utter joy.
But… Don’t rely on them for hostel recommendations. Trust me. I’m afraid to say that in the past, on the few occasions that I’ve relied solely on Lonely Planet for a hostel I’ve had a complete nightmare. Once I found myself sleeping in a noisy bed bug infested hostel in Shanghai. Another time I lost a night of sleep in a horrendous place in Aurangabad, India.
Instead, get on the internet and find a hostel with a good rating using the websites above, which is where the next Top Tip comes in…
4. Research, research, research!
The advantage of using Hostel Bookers and Hostel World is that every hostel’s page includes reviews of said hostel, left by travellers just like you. Some have hundreds of reviews, often left just days or weeks ago. This means you get warts-and-all, up-to-the-minute advice on where to go. Bedbugs in the beds? No hot water in the showers? Arsey staff on reception? Massive construction works outside keeping you awake all night? These are all things that’d put me off a hostel, and the best place to find out what’s what is in the reviews on these websites. Five minutes of research really does pay huge dividends.
5. Review, review, review!
…And of course, the quid pro quo of using the reviews left by other people is that you should do your bit by leaving reviews yourself. It’s a chance to get stuff off your chest if things in the hostel got on your nerves (and force them to clean up their act). But its also a chance to say what went right. The hostels themselves read the reviews you leave intensively, so it’s a chance to make the staff there feel valued if they went the extra mile to make your stay that bit better.
And, at bottom, you’re helping your fellow travelling brethren as part of the process. So do your bit and leave an honest review, just as they did for you.