Having found myself hosteling across 3 different continents during different periods of my 20’s, I’ve spent the night in a wide range of hostels over the years. Some are awesome. Some suck. Some will feed you. Others barely have a kitchen. Many are a great jumping off point for exploring the city. Even a handful are more fun than the town they’re in (cough…Pisa…cough). Really the only commonality I’ve found is that they all have beds, and even that can be a variable.
Whether you’re new to hosteling or an experienced veteran of all things backpacking, there are some key things that make for a great hostel, and an even better hosteling experience. This list is by no means all-inclusive, but it will certainly help you avoid the more questionable and less exciting lodging choices:
Since the first paragraph contained a cheeky comment about hostel beds, this seems like the most appropriate one for the top of the list. After all, the main reason you’re staying at a hostel is so that you have a place to sleep. Homeless nights when abroad are no fun!
Modern, well-run hostels typically do a good job making sure you have a comfortable place to catch some Z’s. You can always count on fresh sheets and a pillow, but a good, firm mattress makes all the difference. Usually, you’ll have a few options for the type of room, whether you’re looking to bunk up with 7 random roommates / new friends in a dorm (co-ed or single sex options available), or in a private room for some peace and quiet. Almost always, the more people you bunk with, the cheaper the nightly rate.
Common Spaces and a Kitchen
Beyond the bed, the real reason many travelers stay in hostels is for the social aspect. You will meet people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world at hostels, and travelers are almost always interested in meeting other wanderers.
Great hostels cater to this aspect of the experience with large common spaces, whether for a functional purpose – like a dining room or bar – or simply for lounging, reading, and catching up on email. Depending on the hostel, this could range from beanbag chairs to hammocks, or furniture nestled around a fireplace. At the very least, there will be a kitchen with a dining area. Grocery shopping and cooking at the hostel is a great way to save cash while traveling, and an even better excuse to crack open a cheap bottle of wine to share with your fellow hostellers.
Location, Location, Location
You definitely don’t want to find yourself staying way off the beaten path (or maybe you do?), which is why finding a hostel with a prime location is essential for having a good jumping off point to explore the city. That doesn’t mean you need to pick the spot amidst the bars and nightlife. However, finding a spot that is either central to the main areas or close to public transportation will make getting around less time-consuming and returning between activities much easier.
Good Online Reviews
Picking a hostel is not a decision that needs to be made in a vacuum. Much like mainstream travel sites for booking hotels, there are a number of third-party booking sites dedicated specifically to hosteling. These come with come with a measurable rating scale, descriptions, and FAQs of the hostels for the area you’re traveling to. Does this hostel have Wi-Fi? Do they have lockers? What night of the week are they holding the Chilean barbecue on the rooftop patio? All of these are great questions, and a good review site should have the answers. My personal preference for booking hostels is Hostelworld.com, but there are plenty of other legitimate online options for reviewing and booking hostels.
While sifting through the online reviews, you may have also asked yourself a question like “What’s so special about this Paris hostel vs. the other hundred hostels in Paris?” Enter the boutique hostel. Similar to boutique hotels, these “luxury hostels” (how ‘bout that for an oxymoron?) are more intimate, artsy, and feature more amenities than just “The Basics.” Some may even have a theme.
Although it’s not a deal-breaker for me, I am more prone to stay at a hostel that has an extra douse of character over one that is bare-bones. Murals depicting the local landmarks plastered across the stairwell, a courtyard with a green space…all of these make the place feel like something special.
Whether it’s tucked away in one of the common spaces or an all-out commercial establishment that’s open to the public, it’s not uncommon for a hostel to have its own bar. Some are more fully-stocked than others, but with a little liquid courage the hostel bar may be the best place within your hostel to meet fellow travelers. If you’re traveling alone and want something a bit more lively, selecting a hostel with a bar is a must.
What’s better than a bar on the first floor? How about a deck on the roof with a panoramic view of the city? When the weather’s great, there are few things that can top being on top of the world and taking in an urban sunset. Now when you put the bar on the rooftop patio…woah!
Local Connections and the Low Down on the Town
While there won’t be a concierge, a knowledgeable hostel staff will have infinitely cooler local suggestions for visiting the town you’re in. From finding the nearest ATM to the best little hole-in-the-wall café where all the locals hang out, they will point you in the right direction. Most hostel front desks come equipped with free city maps, but the best will also have extensive event calendars for both in-hostel and third party activities. While some tours and events may be affiliated with the hostel, a good hostel staffer never sacrifices authenticity for shamelessly plugging the ‘preferred’ restaurant, bus tour, or pub crawl! Whether you choose to partake or not is up to you, but it’s safe to say that a great hostel will never leave you bored.