A couple of weekends ago I spent a day in London catching up with my old college room-mate, co-conspirator and long-term best friend. Of course, we see each other when we can but between her adorable children and my flighty nature, getting a full 24-hours together free of laptops and nappies is near impossible.
So, we booked a date months in advance and had the promise of Afternoon Tea at the Langham Hotel to delight us while we exchanged gossip.
But that wasn’t the only thing I was excited about – I’d managed to convinced my friend to stay at Clink78 Hostel.
Approaching the wrong side of 30 (years old), it was her first stay in a hostel and as accustomed as I’ve become to pitching up at new places and upending bunks in search of bed bugs I can keenly remember my first stay in a hostel and how peculiar and intimidating it all seemed. If, like my friend, you’ve not yet ventured into a hostel but are planning to, here are my tips for a first time hostel stay.
Picking a hostel
Picking the right hostel is the most fundamental ingredient for ensuring you have a great stay and I’d recommend giving some thought to the following:
Similar to hotels, hostels come in many types and most fall into one of the following categories. Think about what kind of stay you’re interested in and find a hostel to suit your mood:
Chains (such as Hostelling International).
What to expect: usually have a consistent high standard and a broadly similar set-up (tour desk, well-informed staff) as well as membership discounts.
Boutiques (aka flashpacker hostels)
What to expect: flashpacker places tend to have a funky design, superior facilities e.g. pool but usually cost a few dollars more a night. They’re also more likely to attract ‘trust-fund’ travellers.
What to expect: usually smaller hostels that offer the best look at local life. Dorms can be a few beds in one room rather than wall to wall bunks but not great for private time as you’re often treated like family: “Where are you going? What time will you be back?”.
Hotels with dorms (I’m seeing this a bit more and stayed in one in Italy)
What to expect: hotel facilities (good breakfast and wi-fi) but limited communal space.
What to expect: a thoroughly memorable stay – from converted temples to prisons to hammock hostels, there is nowhere quite like these places if you’re able to find one in your location.
What to expect: great for meeting people or if you’re in a place to check out the nightlife. Expect limited sleep, possible sex in dorms (drunk people care less) and often pressure to drink large amounts of alcohol (possibly by me).
After hostel type, location is probably the next biggie. I’ve stayed in many places that had a location that wasn’t ideal but have still turned out to be great because of the people who ran the hostel and the activities they offered, but generally, a central location is best. Try to pick somewhere close to what you want to do (museums, train station for day trips etc.) and make sure the area is safe (reviews and Lonely Planet will help you decide).
Food & Drink
It’s something most people do three times a day, some more (me), so it’s worth understanding what facilities are available or nearby. If you’re on a tight budget, free tea, coffee and water and a kitchen are helpful. Equally, hostels that offer food are usually good value – just make sure you are staying on the days that the free pizza and pasta are on offer. Also look for a place that is close to a supermarket that is bigger (and therefore cheaper) than a 7-Eleven and has good priced restaurants or street food nearby.
If you intend to drink alcohol, make sure you know whether you can bring your own (cheapest), there is a bar available (easiest and often subsidised) or bars nearby (most expensive but potentially best experiences).
Graze sites like Hostelbookers and Hostelworld and you will quickly come to see that some hostels are more popular than others. In fact, in most locations there is usually one or two places that get about 80% of the backpacker trade. Personally, I tend to like the popular hostels. Not because I wanna hang with the cool kids, but because they became popular for a reason (location, facilities, cleanliness, friendly staff) and often work harder to keep their spot at the top. They also almost guarantee that you’ll meet people as they’re rarely empty. The hostel booking sites will show how many people have stayed at a place and it’s usually easy to see from the numbers the ones which are the most popular.
Of course, you have to read reviews with a pinch of salt because no two people are the same, but if 98 out of 100 people complain that there are bed bugs, slimy showers and a lecherous owner, it’s likely to be true. Equally, beware of extremes in reviews. Very low scores as well as very high scores can be indicative of an entrepreneurial manager procuring from friends great reviews to boost their overall score. Sad, but true.
Cost and extras
Cost is number one on most budget traveller’s lists and it may be your only factor, in which case there are great ‘sort’ facilities on the hostel booking sites to pick out the cheapest rooms. However, make sure you do the maths properly – don’t forget the extra cost of transport if the location is not central as well as extras for buying breakfast and drinks etc.. Also, some hostels offer free food and drink on certain nights, which can help you save in expensive cities.
Look out for the small print, too. In Italy, some places charged for sheets and a tourist tax was added in addition to the nightly rate. Strangely, the tax differed from one hostel to another even in the same city.
Pack the right essentials
There are certain essentials I pack for every trip. For a hostel stay there are a few extras that you will need that that you wouldn’t necessarily pack for a hotel stay. The most useful items I find are:
In communal sleeping areas, securing your valuables is necessary. Most hostels provide lockers but rarely supply locks. You can pick up a lightweight one from an outdoor store or online. I’d suggest a combination lock over a key. You’ll need to illuminate the lock if you come into your dorm after lights out (please don’t turn on the lights!) but that is easier than the hostel having to take bolt cutters to your lock if (when?) you lose the key – I’ve seen that happen a few times.
I have foot fungus. Gross, I know and it is being treated but I suspect I got it in Asia where the ‘no shoes inside’ rule meant I showered bare foot. Usually I would buy a pair of indoor flip-flops, but was too lazy this trip and I’m suffering the consequences. The point is, clean people (I do consider myself to be clean…most of the time) can fall foul of hideous foot conditions and they do spread. With so many people in and out of communal showers, the only way (short of taking the time to bleach the area before you shower), is to wear flip-flops. Or don’t shower. Not a viable option for long-term travellers…not if you want to make and keep friends.
“Where is the shampoo” a Japanese girl asked me in a hostel in San Francisco. I handed her mine as I explained that there wasn’t any, trying to hide a smile as I read her judgment of the establishment she’d chosen. Unlike hotels, you’re highly unlikely to find a little bar of soap and miniature toiletries in a hostel so you need to pack your own. Some countries are more generous, for example, in Japan where most hostels include free shampoo and soap, but it can’t be guaranteed.
A travel towel
It’s a rare treat when I turn up at a hostel and I’m handed a proper, cotton towel. While some places will provide you with one for free, most will charge you for the privilege. For a short-term stay, that might be preferrable to packing a towel but it doesn’t make financial sense for a longer trip. If you are packing your own, try to take a microfibre travel towel that will dry quickly and won’t end up smelling like wet dog in your bag. I’ve recently swapped to using a sarong, which is even lighter and quicker to dry. No, it’s not fluffy cotton, but I’m not living my life like a permanent resident of the Ritz, either, so it works for me.
One token snorer is allotted to every dorm room in every hostel around the world. Guaranteed. If you’re lucky, there will be two. If you’re really lucky, their snoring will be punctuated by drunk people engaging in stage whispers right next to your bed. Of course, this will all happen at 3 a.m. and will barely drown out the noise of the the couple getting biblical in the bunk above you while a person with a tiny bladder (probably me) gets out of bed to pop to the toilet, letting the noise of the full-on rave outside flood into the dorm. Take earplugs.
In an ideal hostel-world there would be a fresh roll of toilet paper in every toilet cubicle in the hostel, but that is rarely the case. And that often coincides with an absence of staff. So you don’t get caught short, have a pack of tissues available.
You might also want to consider:
As disgusting as it is, most toilet sinks in hostels don’t come complete with soaps so if you want to have the piece of mind of clean hands, sanitiser gel is a good option.
A sleep sheet
Impregnated with bug deterrent, permethrin, a sleep sheet gives me peace of mind against bed bugs. It’s also a luxury if the sheets are particularly grubby (my sheets in India often had tiny man hairs on them – tasty!).
There is one quick way to make friends in a hostel and that is to offer a beer – an ice-breaker, friend-maker and a way to reward yourself after a day of sightseeing in one bottle. For non-drinkers, food and chocolate usually work equally well!
What to expect
Mess and grubbiness
My friend’s verdict on the shower following her first hostel stay sat somewhere between disgust and a grimace. I expected the worst and was pleasantly surprised – they were some of the cleanest I’d seen, but it was a good reminder of how my standards have changed.
The reality is that hostels have many communal spaces and with communal spaces comes communal mess which, if left unchecked, can translate into general grubbiness…often enough to make your toes curl, and it’s best to be prepared for that. A hostel will rarely be as clean as your (or your parent’s) home (assuming you’re house proud). Even in the cleanest hostels, there is no escaping the thought that 30 or so people and their inevitably shedding body hair have already stood naked in the shower that morning (downside for me of being a late riser).
My advice: accept you’re in a hostel, not a five star hotel and don’t look too closely for cleanliness. I like to shower without my glasses on – everything looks soft-focused and, coupled with my overactive imagination, it’s possible to mentally pretend I’m in a spa.
As with dirt, a collection of people can equal noise. Whether it is emanating from the hostel bar or an inconsiderate idiot in your room (yes, if you’re talking at 3am you are an inconsiderate idiot), there is generally very little you can do about the noise that you’ll meet in hostels (though from experience a good ‘shhhhhh!!!!!!’ often works).
If you’re a light sleeper or easily angered by other people’s noise, consider a private room. Same applies if you’re the person making the noise!
I’ve lost count of the number of hostels I’ve stayed in but even now there are still times when I turn up and that familiar paranoia of being the newbie hits. You feel like you’ve just crashed someone’s house party where everyone knows each other from waaaaaaayyyyy-back and they’ll never have time or interest in a new person. And certainly not one who doesn’t know where the toilets are, or have a handle on the etiquette on changing the TV channel/iPod playlist (tip: don’t without asking). If you’re travelling alone, multiply this feeling to the moon and back.
Of course, everyone before you turned up and felt the same way (apart from those people who are naturally confident in every situation, but they are a rare beast).
The best thing to do is grip your paranoia with both hands – introduce yourself and ask if you can join the group. 99.99% of travellers are lovely, welcoming people who will take an extra person into their group happily. If you are unfortunate enough to encounter the 0.01%, wait until their playlist is on and then do what you like with the iPod.
Having the time of your life
Some of my best travel experiences have resulted from the people I have met in hostels. Get your first time out the way and I’m sure you’ll feel the same. Find the right hostel and a good crowd and you’re set to have the time of your life.
Have you ever stayed in a hostel? Any other tips to suggest?
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