I backpacked through Europe for six months last year and picked up on all the mistakes travelers typically make on such journeys.
When you are backpacking and looking for a place to stay the night, balancing your budget and your comfort is not an easy task. But by looking out for these five small things, you can tell if you will have the best night of your life or if you should pack your things and run.
1. Free Breakfast
This is a key detail that most people tend to overlook when they are looking for a place to stay. Most cheap hostels don't offer breakfast, and if they do, it is usually just toast, coffee and some suspicious-looking fruits. Even with such a poor-quality buffet, you can still profit from this by “stealing” (you are paying for it, after all) some snacks for the rest of your day, and getting your actual breakfast somewhere else.
But here is the catch. Hostels know that their guests are likely to try to sneak out some food, so they will schedule breakfast really early. Hostels with breakfasts before 8 AM simply know that you will not make it downstairs on time.
If a hostel offers an open canteen through the day (I have only seen this once, in a very pricey hostel in Amsterdam) or breakfast after 9 AM, you have found a keeper. If not, make sure you are ready to set a very loud alarm for the early hours of the morning.
2. Good Distance-to-Price Ratio
If you have found and hostel that looks incredibly cheap, chances are you are going to pay the price when it comes to transportation. Generally, this means one of two things.
The hostel is far away from the main station or airport.
Even if there is a metro/subway/tramway or bus station near the hostel, chances are it will be far away from the main stations or the airport (the ones that you will use when you first arrive or leave the city). This is not necessarily a bad thing, since those transportation centers are usually a long way apart from the main attractions of the city.
You may not mind riding the metro or bus for a whole hour or more (or you might even be able to afford paying for a cab!) if you only have to do it twice—once when you arrive and once when you are ready to leave. But keep in mind that you will have to plan accordingly on the back end so that you don't miss your flight or ride out of town.
The hostel is far away from the center of the city.
Beware if a hostel claims to be close to the airport, because chances are it will be really far away from the fun. If you are in a small city, like Brugges, Belgium, it might not be a problem. But in cities like Lyon, France, where the airport is an hour away from the city, you might be stuck paying a large tariff every time you travel downtown.
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3. Decent Lockers
In the modern world, traveling with electronics is a necessity, not a luxury. If you don't want to be forced to sleep with one eye open or with your valuables piled under your pillow, make sure you read through the locker policy of the place where you will be staying. If you have any doubts, contact the hostel directly.
Most modern hostels offer some kind of electronic locker. I have been in really nice places where the key is actually a bracelet of some sorts to make sure you don't lose it. There are some other places where lockers are located outside the rooms. This might seem strange, at first, but it is a clever idea when you are sleeping next to eight other people and you don't want to wake everyone up when you are looking for an item.
If the hostel only offers old-school, manually locked compartments, it is a big red flag. There are other cheap places that demand you bring your own lock, which for me is a ridiculous requirement.
4. Generous Check-In and Checkout Policies
This is another key detail that is often overlooked when browsing for a place to stay. In hostels that have a very strict check-in and checkout policy, overstaying will cost you big time.
Arrivals are simpler, as most hostels start the check-in at midday. If you arrive earlier, make sure to find a place with free baggage safekeeping. The process is very similar when you leave, meaning you can keep your bags safe and explore before it's time to leave. Most nice hostels will offer this service because, well, it is just convenient for everyone.
Departures are a bit trickier. Coordinating your transportation schedule with checkout will be a challenge since most of them are fixated on setting those at early hours— think 10 AM or so.
Look out for places with a late checkout policy. For an extra fee (which is sometimes quite reasonable), you can hang out there until midday and avoid having to rush. These places are also more flexible with their schedules in general, so I would recommend them over stricter hostels.
5. Free Extra Services
If a hostel is very cheap, chances are they have stripped down costs to the bare minimum. Now, if you are just looking for a place to crash for one night, you might not have a problem with this. On the contrary, a week-long stay in a place with no additional services can be hard.
Search for hostels that throw a couple extra services in with the cost of a normal room. WiFi is a must, but some places go the extra mile and also lend chargers, power adapters or even tablets. Other places have nice bonding activities, such as walking tours or pub crawls, and if you find a place with a kitchen, you can cut your eating budget in half.
In addition to being more comfortable, places with extra services are usually friendlier and have more of a community-building spirit. Simpler hostels might be gentler on your wallet, but they often result in a disappointing experience for a long stay.
Remember to read every review and weigh your options. Happy (and safe) traveling!