How to find Backpacker Accommodation
There are several strategies you can employ to find the best budget accommodation and there’s something to be said for each of them. In this section we look at the pros and cons of four of the best ways to go about your hunt for a cheap nights sleep.
1) Use a Hostel Booking Site
Booking a bed online is very simple and you often only pay a small deposit with the rest to be paid to the hostel on arrival/departure. There a few hostel booking sites out there and we use booking.com the most these days as they tend to be the cheapest and have a large selection of hostels and budget hotels in almost every country in the world. There are also may properties with a free cancellation policy, which you don’t get on other sites and that is really handy for backpackers whose plans and dates are always likely to change.
Even in medium sized towns and cities there can be hundreds of different options when it comes to finding accommodation. A good idea is to use trivago which compares prices across different booking sites. Hotels sometimes have special offers on allowing you to enjoy a little bit more luxury for a comparable price to that of a bed in a hostel. As with most things shopping around generally results in you getting the best deal to suit your needs and preferences.
If you’re looking for an alternative to hostels and hotels then consider Airbnb, a booking platform where you can rent rooms or beds in local people’s homes. Read our Airbnb review.
Advantages: Peace of mind that you have somewhere to stay when you arrive in a new place. It also gives you the chance to read reviews of other travellers and compare the competition before deciding where you stay. Often prices are actually cheaper booking online than they are arriving in-person at the hostel.
Disadvantages: It can be a pain to be constantly booking hostels if you’re moving to a new place every other day. In poorer countries most of the budget accommodation options don’t have an online booking facility.
Where does it work best? Europe, Oceania and in big cities all over the world. It’s a good idea to book in advance if it’s a large city and you know there isn’t a single area where most of the budget accommodation is located (like Khao San Road in Bangkok) that you can just head to. Also during peak and holiday periods this is your best bet.
2) Use a Budget Travel Guidebook
Most decent shoestring guides come with at least a few budget accommodation options for each town, brief descriptions and likely prices. That said good informative guidebooks targeted specifically at budget travellers aren’t plentiful and don’t extend much past the Lonely Planet Shoestring Guides. They are pretty reliable provided you buy the latest edition. Although fairly expensive, they represent a sound investment for anyone on a backpacking trip of a month or longer and will save you money in the long run.
If you’re not a fan of Lonely Planet then Rough Guides provide a decent alternative.
Advantages: There’s no hassle in terms of booking accommodation all the time and you can just rock up in a new town and select one of the the options in your book. Most guides also include maps so you can often get to your hostel on foot rather than paying for a taxi.
Disadvantages: Unless you have a very upto-date guide then you can hawl yourself and your backpack half-way across a city only to find the ‘best hostel in town’ no longer exists. You can also fall into the trap of blindly following your guidebook which isn’t really what travelling is about. Many travellers follow this strategy and will probably have the same guidebook so the recommended ones will fill up quickly.
Where does it work Best? Advisable in poorer countries (where internet-use isn’t as widespread) and those that don’t have a huge backpacking scene. In places like Southeast Asia, Africa and most of Latin America it’s certainly better to go down this route rather than booking online as most budget accommodation choices aren’t listed on booking sites.
See Should you take a Guidebook? for more Pro’s and Con’s.
3) Just go with the Flow
Those who view travel as an adventure prefer this approach! Where you stay will depend on the people you meet and your own judgments rather than the opinions of a poncy travel-guide writer who visited the town for 48 hours several years ago.
Advantages: You can suss out and get a feel for the town before making any decisions and can pick somewhere that takes your fancy rather than someone else’s.
Disadvantages: Rocking up without anything sorted or any plans can leave you searching the town for a cheap bed if you arrive at a busy time. Generally this is also the most expensive approach unless you’re very good at bargaining and have a good grasp of the local language.
Where does it work best? Areas very popular with travellers where accommodation is plentiful such as the Thai islands (except during Full Moon parties when advanced booking is sensible). You will also benefit from this approach in cities such as Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City that have a well-known backpacker district and during the off-season you can sometimes secure special deals as they’re desperate for custom.
Pic: Khao San Road in Bangkok is an example of a backpacker ghetto. Just turn up here and you’ll have no problem finding a cheap room.
Couchsurfing is an excellent way to save money on travel. Many travellers swear by it, many more are too scared to try it. Give it a go and you might just catch the bug!
Advantages: It’s free and you get to actually meet and spend time with a local person as opposed to sharing a dorm with the repetitive hordes of drunk backpackers. If you strike it lucky and get a nice host whose not only willing to let you stay but show you around their town then couchsurfing can be fantastic experience.
Disadvantages: It’s a bit hit-and-miss. Finding hosts at short-notice is often difficult and arrangements can fall through. You also need to build-up a positive reputation before hosts are likely to let you stay. Homes tend to be in residential areas (obviously!) so you’ll normally have to travel if you want to see the more interesting districts.
Where does it work best? Just about anywhere such is the size of the global couchsurfing community but it’s most effective in wealthier parts of the world. Big cities in Europe or North America have the most active couchsurfing scenes but there are plenty of potential hosts in the most unlikely of places these days. In regions like Scandinavia, Western Europe and North America where you can sometimes pay $30+ a night just for a bed in a sweaty dorm then you’d be a fool not to consider this.
There are times when you will benefit from each of the above strategies. Using them at the right moment will help cut down on the cost of accommodation.
If you’re a first-time backpacker then a combination of making online hostel bookings and carrying a guidebook (1 & 2) is the safest option and will ease you into the travelling lifestyle.
As you become more experienced and more confident on the road then chances are you’ll adopt more of a ‘go with the flow’ approach and once you’ve got sick of the hostel crowd then you might fancy doing a bit of couchsurfing (3 & 4).
This page was last updated in August 2015.