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What Is a Hostel – Pros & Cons of Hostels When Traveling Abroad

By Casey Slide

hostel windowsSome years ago I had the opportunity to travel around Europe with some students for three weeks. I visited Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, and France. During my trip, I stayed in a number of dorm-like facilities, known as hostels.

Hostels are one of the most popular types of lodgings in Europe. But before you stay in a hostel for the first time, learn more about some pros and cons of hostels, and tips for staying in them.

What Is a Hostel?

A hostel is a low-budget accommodation shared among travelers. When a guest books a stay in a hostel, he or she typically books a bed for the night, not a room. The guest’s bed may be in a room with four other travelers, or in a room with up to twenty travelers.

Bathrooms are dorm-style; large, with several shower stalls and a row of sinks. Hostels usually have only one or two bathrooms on each floor. Hostels tend to lend to more interaction, cost much less than a hotel, but do not provide the privacy or personal service found at a hotel.

Advantages to Staying at a Hostel

1. Inexpensive
Hostels are cheap travel accommodations, especially when compared to staying in a hotel. Although prices vary from country to country, and hostel to hostel, I’ve compiled some average price ranges for hostels in frequently traveled European countries. Most of these rates apply to the majority of hostels throughout the world, though cheaper hostels exist in places like South America, and more expensive ones in cities like Washington, D.C. These rates are approximate, and the rates are per person, per night: England & Wales $10-$40, France $15-$30, Germany $25, Greece $15, Ireland $15-$35, Italy $10-$30, Spain $15-$25.

2. Travel in Groups
Staying in hostels allows everyone to share large rooms. In fact, some hostels allow up to twenty people to stay in one room. This can be a lot of fun, especially when you plan a group vacation, and eliminates the arguments over who shares rooms.

3. Located in Most Major Cities Around the World
Hostels are not as prevalent in the U.S., but they are everywhere in Europe. You can find hostels in most major European cities, and in most major cities across the globe, on every continent other than Antarctica.

4. Most Have Fully Equipped Kitchens
If you want to save money during your travels by cooking your own food, many hostels have fully equipped kitchens you can use.

5. Breakfast Is Served
Most hostels include a free breakfast. However, when I traveled through Europe, every hostel I stayed at served just bread as the breakfast meal, so don’t expect anything extravagant.

6. Offer Fun Activities
There is always something fun happening at hostels, from excursions to parties. For example, one hostel that I visited was attached to a nightclub. You likely will not be bored in the evening if you stay at a hostel.

7. Meet Interesting People from Around the World
People from all over the world visit hostels, and many take the time to talk to you about where they are from, and the best places they have visited. They will also want to hear from you, so be ready to share.

8. Security Offered
If you are a little nervous about the safety of staying in a hostel, put your fears to rest. Hostels generally have a strict policy of not allowing anyone who is not staying at the hostel to go inside. If you worry that someone will take your belongings, many hostels do offer safes to lock up your valuables.

9. Each One Is Unique
Each hostel is one of a kind. They are not like hotels where if you have seen one, you have seen them all.

hostel room view

Disadvantages to Staying at a Hostel

1. Lack of Privacy
You probably won’t have your own room if you stay at a hostel. You’ll share your room with up to 20 people, many of whom may not care that they have roommates who desire privacy. Some hostels do offer private single and double rooms, but these are usually in high demand, so may not be available during your stay. In addition, even if you aren’t particularly chatty, someone will still try to engage you in conversation pretty much any time you set foot inside the hostel.

2. Bathrooms for Each Floor
Hostel bathrooms are dorm-style, meaning that there is one bathroom on each floor, just like in a college dorm. Very few hostels offer private bathrooms and showers.

3. Staff Is Limited
Unlike hotels, which are staffed 24 hours a day, hostels are not always staffed around the clock. So if you forget your room key while having a night out on the town, there is a chance you will not be able to get into your room when it’s time to call it a night.

4. Some Have a Curfew
I once stayed in a hostel in France that had a curfew. If you were not through the security gate by a certain time, you were stuck out on the streets for the night. If you like to stay out late or have a habit of losing track of time, this could be a problem.

5. Risk of Theft
Due to the fact that you will be in a shared room, your belongings are at risk of being stolen by other guests or hostel staff. This is especially true when there isn’t a locker or safe in which to put your things.

6. Might Not Know Roommates
Since most hostel rooms are occupied by four to twenty travelers, you may be sharing a room with strangers. This can be a little scary for some travelers, especially because you never know who you will be sharing with until you are there.

7. Sketchy Neighborhoods
Some hostels, especially in metro areas, are located on streets near vacant buildings downtown. The locations are convenient, but can make travelers feel a little nervous at night.

8. Old Buildings
Many hostels are located in old buildings. This means the elevators may malfunction, the air conditioning may be nonexistent, and in the cold months of winter, you’ll want to pack many sweaters to use for layers.

9. Simple Furnishings
The furnishings in a hostel tend to range from bunk beds in the bedrooms, to old couches in the lobby. The lack of redecorating is in part why hostels can remain so inexpensive.

Tips for Staying in a Hostel

1. Read Room Reviews
Before you book your stay, try to do as much research as possible by reading some reviews online. Keep in mind that consumer reviews are often written by people who are very satisfied or very unsatisfied, but they still give you some insight into what to expect from a particular hostel. Professional reviews provide more balanced views of hostels, and often provide specific details about amenities included, or not included, with your stay.

2. Book Only One Night
Just in case you have a disastrous first night at your hostel, or you decide that you would rather stay elsewhere, book only one night. If you don’t like the hostel, you can leave the next day, and you can always extend your stay if you have an enjoyable first night.

3. Book the Appropriate Hostel and Room
Some hostels offer single-sex rooms, and some offer coed rooms. Some hostels offer 4-person rooms, and some offer 20-person rooms. Make sure that you book the right room at the right hostel for your comfort level. This is especially important if you are planning on traveling alone.

4. Bring Your Own Toiletries
Hostels are not hotels, and do not provide many of the things we take for granted when we stay at hotels. For example, most hostels do not provide towels, shampoo, or even soap. Most do offer sheets, but some do not, so make sure to check into the amenities offered by the hostel before your stay.

5. Bring Flip-Flops
When using a public shower that has been used by people from around the world, take precautions against bacteria and fungi. You don’t want to take home athlete’s foot as a travel souvenir.

6. Buy Ear Plugs and a Blindfold
You need rest after a long day of traveling, but your roommates might have an entirely different plan, including a loud party in or near your room. Bring some earplugs or an iPod, and a blindfold, to help your body tune out any noise and light while you sleep.

7. Be Considerate of Your Roommates
You hope that your roommates will be considerate of you, and you need to be considerate of them. Make sure to come in quietly in the evenings, and to leave quietly in the mornings. Also, lay out your clothes the night before if you plan to leave early, so you don’t have to rummage through your bag in the early hours of morning.

8. Protect Your Valuables
Keep your money and your passport with you, or in a safe. If the hostel does not have lockers, ask the front desk if they can hold your valuables for you. If you take advantage of a hostel during a backpacking trip, keep all your belongings on your back to ensure the safety of your valuables. Your roommates may seem nice, but if you don’t know them, you can never be 100% sure.

9. Talk to Management If You Are Unhappy
If you don’t like your roommates, or if you have a bad experience staying next to the people on your floor, talk to management to see if you can get a room change, a room upgrade, or a refund. They may say no, but they may try to do what they can to make your experience more enjoyable, and memorable.

10. Swap Stories and Travel Tips
To get the most out of your trip, put away any shyness you may have and start talking to people in your room, or in the bathroom, kitchen, or breakfast area. Listen to the amazing stories people have to share, and then share some of your own. Ask them about their favorite cheap travel destinations, restaurants, and shopping areas to enhance your traveling experience.

Final Word

If staying in a hostel sounds like it is just not for you, try to have an open mind. Even with the lack of privacy, you can learn a lot by staying in a hostel. In fact, you will have a richer traveling experience by meeting people from around the globe, and you will save money at the same time. Consider staying at a hostel the next time you travel internationally.

Have you ever stayed at a hostel? Where did you stay, and how was your experience?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Casey Slide
Casey Slide lives with her husband and baby in Atlanta, GA. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for a prominent hospital in Atlanta. With the birth of Casey’s son in February 2010, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Casey’s interests include reading, running, living green, and saving money.

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