I didn’t stay in hostels when I traveled in my student years, except for one night in Cap d’Ail where I didn’t find other options. That was a one-off that I gave no further thought to.
But now, trying to learn how to live on my little Social Security, I’m making new choices. I long felt unsure of hostels. What to do with my hardly-a-backpacker luggage? Are things secure? I travel with an expensive laptop, a couple of phones, fair bit of electronic gear. Does it feel too weird to be sleeping in a dormitory? Would I feel comfortable with my roommates and other guests?
For a first experiment, in January 2020 I asked Kristian to join me at a hostel in Copenhagen, where we could have a private room. I’d see how the establishment was run, see what the atmosphere was like. Then, the last night, he’d be gone and I’d be leaving in the wee hours, so I’d move to a dorm for that one night. It wasn’t much of a test experience, dorm-wise! But that stay gave me the confidence to start trying hostels on my own.
And now I want to encourage others to try them, too, if you haven’t – especially older travelers on a budget who wonder about “youth hostels” being any sort of appropriate lodging.
I think they’re great.
In this past year, I’ve stayed in hostels in London, Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Paris, Auxerre, Brussels and Marrakech – and I’ve got bookings in Berlin (next weekend), Cambridge (next week) and Amsterdam.
Luggage has not been an issue. Sometimes I packed so that I could leave my main suitcase in the luggage storage room, and only take a carry on and backpack to my dorm. Other times, I’ve had it all in the room. It’s always been possible to put the suitcase in a corner out of the way, and there has always been a locker for the backpack and sometimes the carry on. No one messes with anything. There has been a good feeling of community. And people off the street don’t wander in; hostels have security that is more watchful than most hotels (where often, anyone could enter an elevator and go wander). On the other hand, I do have that “what if” mentality: no one takes responsibility for your things, of course, so I lock the suitcases and use the lockers. In some places, you’ll have a combination locker or be given a key, but a padlock should be part of your gear, as one is usually needed. As for my laptop, when I’m spending time around the hostel and have it out, I use a laptop cable lock to secure the unit to the bedframe. That is drop protection as well. Yes, I always travel with a laptop lock.
All the hostels have been good about having quiet hours. People do need to come and go at all hours, but those who arrive or leave in the middle of the night have been very considerate. That relates to what I wrote about feeling a good sense of community.
So far, all good enough in terms of the shared bathrooms, cleaning and housekeeping. Read reviews before you book any hostel, just as you should with a hotel or airbnb. There are properties to avoid, for sure.
Another thing to check before booking is whether there is an age restriction. On booking.com, you find that near the very bottom of the page in the property’s rules panel. Some don’t allow anyone over 45 to check in! Yet there are “youth hostels” – “auberges de jeunesse” – that have no upper age limit at all. Don’t assume.
Facilities vary greatly. Some hostels have a cafe or restaurant on the premises, and no kitchen for guests to use. Usually I’ll prefer a hostel with a common kitchen. You’ll need to have a bag to keep your things together in – even a grocery bag is fine – and to label and date the bag, because stray items will be pitched. There may be little in the way of kitchen equipment to use. Friends have always laughed at me for carrying a favorite spatula, a whisk, a paring knife and larger (but cheap in case of loss) chef’s knife; a zester; tea filters or a strainer; often some light cutting board to be sure of a clean surface; always a corkscrew and bottle cap; sometimes a light omelet pan! That latter, not now as I try so hard to lighten my bags.
As for alcohol, what I’ve seen is that some hostels ban it entirely, others allow you to drink your own in the dining area, and others allow only what they sell you. You have to check their policies. None allow alcohol or food in a dorm.
What makes me enthused about hostels is the enjoyment of meeting the other guests. A great variety of ages, nationalities and interests keeps a hostel fun. I’m keeping in touch with a few of my hostel acquaintances, as I met people I really hit it off with.
For anyone who’s not comfortable traveling alone, hostels are a great choice. Some hostels serve breakfast, and that can be a good opportunity to meet guests from the other dorms and find people you might like to go do something with. In other hostels, the kitchen is a good place to get to know some of the others. There are usually tour offerings, maybe games or activities, but those I haven’t joined in, as so far I’ve always had things to do.
Reviews and location are what I base my choices on – along with a personal preference for a females-only dorm room. Those things being equal, I’ll look at the dorm photos. I like it when there’s a curtain in front of the bed. Reviews or the listing may tell you if there’s an electric socket beside each bunk (so far, always) and if there is an individual light (not always).
I imagine there are far more experienced hostel travelers who have advice they might add. Please do so, in the comments below. It will be appreciated!