how to choose a hostel
My first backpacking trip through Europe was completely planned with every night’s stay meticulously accounted for with inexpensive to moderate hotel rooms and bnbs. Upon arriving to our planned “hotel” in Barcelona, my traveling buddy, Mattie, and I were shocked when we pulled up to a big yellow door with no sign or instructions of how to access the room. We sat on the street for awhile reading over the instructions we were given multiple times with no avail until we gave up. Eventually we landed on the idea of going to a cafe with wifi and finding a cheap hostel near Barcelona to cut down on cost. We had never stayed in a hostel before and were a bit apprehensive to stay in close proximity with other strangers. However, after our stay at the hostel in Barcelona, we were converted to the hostel life. Not because this hostel was immaculate (it wasn’t) and held the most comfortable beds (it didn’t), but because of the experience and people. Our hostel in Barcelona was pretty average with nothing special, however it was cheap and created opportunities for us to meet other people that were fellow travelers. We went on to stay in a number of mind-blowing hostels that could have been considered 5 star hotels and some dumps across many different countries. Needless to say, I have had my fair share of experiences with the good and the bad, the clean and the dirty, the scary and the safe and have created my own little formula for finding the best.
First, what is a hostel?
Think back to summer camp where there were rooms dedicated to bunk beds and a shared space for bathrooms and showers. Hostels are basically a glorified cabin from summer camp with some being better than others.
Step 1: Head over to Hostelworld.com
Hostel World is a one stop shop for finding a hostel. Except for a few remote locations, I have booked all of my hostel stays through Hostel World. They are by far the most used platform when booking, which helps when looking for reviews and accurate content.
Step 2: Search for your city and sort the list based on distance
When backpacking I have always used public transportation, so something extremely important when deciding is how close we are to the city center in order increase transportation options and diminish walking to the major attractions. If you are renting a car, then looking for on-site parking might be more important.
Step 3: reviews and ratings
Hostel World has many great features, but their ratings and reviews section is the best of the best. The overall rating is of course very helpful, but I like to look at how their ratings break down and then read reviews based on what concerns me. Most hostels have at least a couple hundred reviews, which is what makes me feel secure when booking knowing that hundreds of other people have stayed there and felt safe. Granted, I would recommend taking precautions no matter what hostel you stay in like locking up your belongings and only changing in locked rooms, but for the most part you can feel safe. Below is the type of rating I look for when choosing a hostel.
Step 4: Choose based on pictures and price
I am somewhat of a snob when it comes to where I lay my head so I look at pictures pretty intently for the condition of the beds and how well the hostel is maintained. You can tell a lot by what pictures a hostel posts. If your not as high maintenance as me, then head over to prices and what type of room you feel comfortable with.
When choosing, you typically have the choice of how many people sleep in a room: 16, 12, 8, 4, or private. You also get the choice of staying in a mixed bed room (men and women) or a gender specific room. Choose based on your comfort level, but the mixed bed larger rooms are always the cheapest option. I will say that I have stayed in every option and they all feel about the same as long as you are making your decision based on good reviews first.
Step 5: How far out to book
I have booked hostels the day of and 3 months out. There are benefits to each, so choose accordingly. Booking close to your stay allows for flexible travel, but sometimes high rates and completely booked rooms. Booking far out typically gets you the best rates with available rooms, but gets you locked in with no choice of changing up plans.
At the end of the day, follow your intuition and be smart. Always take precautions when staying with strangers, but know that hostels are a viable option for cheap traveling. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments section!