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How to Choose a Hostel

Updated on November 14, 2017

Choosing a hostel can be a daunting task, especially for a novice backpacker. As tempting as it is to simply sign onto websites like HostelWorld or HostelBookers, filter by price, and select the cheapest option—and believe me, it's something we've all done—you're setting yourself up for disappointment, if not disaster.

So, how do you choose a hostel?

First things first, you need to know a few things:

1) The purpose of your stay, not only at the hostel but at the destination as well.

2) What you're looking for.

3) Yourself.

That's right, you need to know yourself. But we'll get back to that in a minute.

What's the Purpose of Your Stay and What Do You Want?

Are you just passing through looking for a place to rest your head before an early morning train to your next destination? If so, even if it has a 100% rating on the hostel booking website or app of your choice, you're not going to want a party hostel. On the contrary, if you're looking to party with your fellow travelers, you're going to want a hostel that is known for this/set up for this.

In addition to the purpose of your stay, you need to think about the purpose of your visit. What do you want to do and see while you're in this particular destination? Google Earth is one of my trip planning essentials, I plot all the places I want to go and then try to find the most central accommodation.

I had only one thing in mind when looking for a hostel in Salzburg, Austria and that was being within walking distance to as many items on my "I saw this in The Sound of Music" list.
I had only one thing in mind when looking for a hostel in Salzburg, Austria and that was being within walking distance to as many items on my "I saw this in The Sound of Music" list.

When you're online looking for a hostel, you need to know what it is you want. Obviously, almost every backpacker is going to want free WiFi. But there's more to accommodations then internet. Are you looking for a dorm or a private room? Are you comfortable sharing a dorm with the opposite gender or would you feel better in a gender specific room? How long has it been since you've done laundry? If you're somewhere like Southeast Asia it might be less expensive to take it out for laundering, but if you're somewhere like Europe, a hostel with laundry facilities could easily be more important to you than good food or a good atmosphere. All backpackers know that restaurant bills can quickly add up. Perhaps you're looking for a hostel with a decent kitchen so that you can pick up some groceries and prepare a few meals yourself.

If you're on a budget, take advantage of your hostel's kitchen.
If you're on a budget, take advantage of your hostel's kitchen.
Groceries in Prague.
Groceries in Prague.

Know Yourself

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with knowing what you're looking for in a hostel and it may sound silly, but when choosing a hostel, I feel you need to know yourself. Again, if you're not comfortable in a dorm with the opposite gender, you need a hostel with single gender dorms. Or, maybe the location of a hostel you're eyeing up is in an area you know you won't feel comfortable in or would require you to use public transport and you're not feeling adventurous enough to navigate public transport in a city where you don't speak the language.

It may not look like much, but the pasta we made in Prague was delicious, inexpensive and yielded leftovers for breakfast.
It may not look like much, but the pasta we made in Prague was delicious, inexpensive and yielded leftovers for breakfast.

Read the Reviews

So, you know the purpose of your stay and what you need in a hostel. Now you have to do some work and read the reviews. One thing I've learned from my hours and hours of reading accommodation reviews is that you have to be thorough and really pay attention. Sometimes a hostel will have a poor rating but if you read the reviews, it's for reasons that don't matter to you. For example, I've seen people give a hostel an awful rating because their children couldn't fall asleep at night due to the partying. People, you're staying at a notorious party hostel in Berlin, what did you expect? I've seen people rate a hostel poorly because it was a fifteen minute walk from the train station. This bothers me because if they had looked into the hostel prior to booking, they would have known exactly where it was and how far of a walk they had.

When you're reading reviews, pay attention to the dates. It doesn't matter how great the reviews were last year if the past three months have been nothing but complaints about bed bugs and toilet problems.

Of course, after staying at a hostel, be sure to leave your own review to help out your fellow backpackers!

Review the Amenities

Once you know what you need or want in a hostel, it is important you take note of what amenities the hostels you are considering offer. For example, if you're staying in a dorm or a shared room, you'll want to make sure that lockers are provided. My husband and I learned the hard way that not all hostels provide bedding. Fortunately, this particular hostel had bedding that could be rented but can you imagine showing up at a hostel absolutely exhausted and eager to crash only to discover you don't have bedding? You'll also want to watch for any mention of the amenities in the reviews when you're going through them. For instance, free breakfast sounds great and you're probably willing to pay a few extra dollars to cover that, but how early do they stop serving breakfast? If you plan on partying until 3am and breakfast is only served until 8 or 9, are you going to be awake in time to take advantage of it? Also, has anyone commented on what the breakfast selection is like? Sometimes "free breakfast" means there's a bowl of apples and some bread, help yourself.

In addition to amenities, pay attention to both the check-in and check-out time. I always have my flights booked before booking accommodations and if I know I'm going to be arriving early, I typically reach out to the hostel to see if it's possible to check-in earlier and if they can't accommodate this, I normally drop off my luggage and explore in the area until I am able to check-in. In terms of check-out time, unless you have an early morning departure, you're not going to want a 9am check-out time.

On the topic of check-in, if you are arriving late at night you'll need to make sure your hostel can accommodate this. There are hostels that don't allow check-ins after a certain time at night.

Advance Booking

When talking about how to choose a hostel, the much debated question as to whether or not you should book in advance is almost inevitable. I know a lot of backpackers are against advance booking because suddenly their movements and flexibility are restricted, but personally, I'm a planner and when I travel, my accommodations are typically all secured before I leave home. I'm not here to say that my way is right and that advance booking is part of how to choose a hostel, but I do think that if you're traveling to a destination for a particular event, you have to remember that other backpackers will be too and you should try to book in advance to avoid disappointment. Similarly, during the peak tourist times or holidays, I think booking ahead can help ensure you get the accommodation that you want.

Do you book your accommodations in advance while backpacking?

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Don't Go for the Cheapest Option

As I said earlier, don't just filter by price and go for the cheapest hostel. I know that you have a budget and you want to stretch each dollar as far as possible, but often times, the cheapest option is not worth it. Often times, the cheapest option is going to be the hostel that doesn't provide bedding or that has the most uncomfortable bed you've ever slept on with a paper thin pillow, or a truly disgusting shower that you're almost too scared to use. Additionally, the cheapest option typically isn't going to be in an ideal location for you to do your sightseeing and exploring.

What about you? What are things you keep in mind when choosing a hostel? Any horror stories from choosing the wrong hostel?

© 2017 Marley

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