A Backpacker’s Guide to Staying in a Hostel

If you’re going travelling for the first time then there’s a good chance you won’t know too much about staying in a hostel. These places may soon become your home from home though and you’ll quickly learn how they work and operate. This backpacker’s guide to youth hostels should help you learn the basics and will hopefully clarify some of the common doubts and questions first time travellers have.

Table of Contents

Backpacker’s Hostel Guide – Useful Lingo

Backpacker Hostel meaning – There are various different types of hostels and pretty much all will cater to travellers and backpackers. However some will more actively describe themselves as “backpacker hostels” which is a clearer sign that the place will be full of other travellers and offer the kinds of services backpackers will be interested in. Some other hostels will also cater to people staying for weeks or even months and may have less of a “backpacker” atmosphere but there’s no reason why you can’t stay in those either.

Dorms – A room with numerous normally bunk-beds that anyone can book into. This can range from anything from 2 to 20+ single beds in one room and you will obviously be sharing with travellers you don’t know unless you happen to be the only person/group that has booked in. Some dormitories are mixed, while some are male/female only. The main advantage is that they are much cheaper than private rooms with the largest dorms usually the cheapest.

Privates – A private room obviously means you will have your own room. Most hostels offer both dorms and private rooms which are more like those you’d expect in a hotel with options for single and double beds. Groups may be able to find a larger room or rent an entire dorm in some hostels.

Shared Bathroom – If you are in a dorm, you will clearly also be sharing a bathroom with other travellers. Private rooms are listed as either “private bathroom” i.e. a bathroom is attached to your room or “shared bathroom” in which case there will be toilets and shower facilities in the corridor somewhere which will be shared with other travellers.

Self-catering Facilities – A hostel with a shared kitchen is a big plus for anyone travelling on a tight budget because it enables you to cook your own food. It can also be used to store alcohol and is often the centre of social life in the hostel if it doesn’t have a bar or common area such as a TV room.

Common Area – A room or section of the hostel that anyone can use. It may close at a certain time but is a good place to hang out and meet other travellers and is generally the best place to head if you’re looking for ways to combat travel boredom. Some hostels arrange parties for their guests while during the day you can do stuff like watch TV/Netflix, read books, play cards or just chill.

backpacker hostel
Hostel in Singapore via William Cho, CC BY-SA 2.0

Party Hostel – Some hostels sell themselves as “party hostels”. This isn’t a place to get much sleep but if you want somewhere lively with an active social scene then they’re worth heading to. Expect bar crawls, nightly events and lots of drunk people pretty much every night. Others will insist that they are not party hostels, which is likely to mean lights out and quiet in dorms from 11:00 pm or thereabouts onwards so they are decent places to get some kip but don’t expect them to be particularly lively. Most hostels fall in between the two categories and it tends to depend on the number and type of people who are staying at that particular time as to what the vibe is.

Curfew – In very rare cases, there may be hostels where you need to be back in the hostel by a certain time e.g. Midnight. After the set curfew, they will lock the doors and not have anyone on reception to let you in. Not many hostels have a curfew but it is worth double checking when you book/arrive especially if you intend on going out to bars/clubs etc. Many hostels will advertise 24-7 reception or access. If there is no mention of a curfew, it’s probably safe to assume there isn’t one.

Internet available –
Most hostels offer wifi you can use (ask for the password on arrival). Some may also have a computer. The quality of internet in hostels does vary though so check reviews if you are going to be heavily reliant on using the internet for video calls or such like while you are there.

Luggage Storage – Most hostels will store your luggage free of charge after you check out. This is very useful if you have a late bus or train to catch and want to spend the day exploring and doing things.

FAQ’s about staying in Hostels

Where can I wash my clothes?

Some hostels offer laundry facilities. You may need to hand your clothes in at reception, where they may be weighed and you will get quoted a price and told when they will be ready. Other hostels will have washers and dryers that you can use yourself. If you’re in a popular backpacking town or a big city, it may be worth finding a launderette elsewhere which may do it cheaper. Alternatively you can always wash your clothes by hand in a sink but some places don’t like you doing this.

Aren’t hostels a bit dirty?

Like hotels, you get good and bad ones but most hostels are cleaned very regularly and if they’re not then their ratings will plummet on hostel review sites. Just because you are paying less, it isn’t an excuse for a lack of basic hygiene. Of course on your travels you are likely to hear a few horror stories and will at some point end up staying somewhere a bit grimy. If you’re not booking in advance, you can always ask to see the room and facilities before committing to a stay.

Do people have sex in dorms?

This is one of the most common questions first-time backpackers have! The traveller scene can be a bit crazy at times and sharing a dorm with annoying or noisy people is one of the main potential disadvantages of staying in a hostel. However it is true that having sex in dorms is generally speaking still frowned upon, even in the more party-orientated hostels. If you want to have sex, there should be a few more discreet spots you can do it or alternatively there are always, you know, private rooms.

Are hostels safe?

Good hostels will have lockers where you can store any valuables. Non residents are normally not allowed in but rules like this are difficult to enforce. As in all walks of life, some people steal from others so normal common sense applies, particularly in dorm rooms. Look after your belongings, invest in a padlock and be wary of anyone acting suspiciously.

Thefts are pretty rare but do unfortunately happen from time to time. It’s usually worth paying slightly more to stay in a better, well-reviewed hostel that takes the safety of their guests and belongings seriously. There are other top tips for solo travellers such as keeping a hidden stash of money in your backpack away from your wallet which could prove a lifesaver should you be the victim of a theft.

Staying in a hostel alone, as a female traveller – Is it safe?

While staying in a hostel for the first time can be daunting, you will quickly find that many girls do travel solo and most have safe trips. Dorms are great places to meet people and make friends but clearly you can never truly know who you will be sharing with. Most hostels have female only dorms which may be a good option initially for first time female solo travellers.

How long can you stay in a hostel?

Living in a hostel long-term is not common and some hostels may have an outright policy limiting stays to a maximum period of time. However if you’re moving to a new city, it’s usually possible to stay in a hostel for a period of weeks while you look for somewhere to live. However it’s probably simpler just to book an airbnb (read our airbnb review) or something similar in this case as you can take advantage of weekly or monthly discounts which aren’t common in hostels, although you can always ask the question!

What sort of facilities are there?

A basic hostel normally has a mixture of dorms/private rooms, bathroom facilities, a reception area and either a kitchen or common area. Bigger and better ones may have other areas such as a bar, TV room, swimming pool, games room, terrace, laundry room etc. Some hostels have surprisingly good facilities yet still charge rock bottom prices. Some also may double up as a tour company or should at least have contacts allowing you to book tours/visits to nearby sights and will at the very least be able to provide you with decent local knowledge. Added bonuses may include games consoles, book exchanges or hammocks in shared areas.

How much should I expect to pay per night?

This varies greatly depending on which part of the world you are in. You can find dorm beds and in some cases even very basic rooms for as little as US$2/night in the very cheapest countries (e.g. Bolivia, Cambodia), however you can end up paying over US$40 just for a bed in a dorm in more expensive parts of the world like Western Europe and North America. Generally speaking, no matter where you are, weekends and public holidays are normally a bit more expensive and there is also often a high season and a low season in many destinations with different prices.

Do I need to book in advance?

Booking in advance is rarely absolutely necessary but does give you one less thing to worry about when you arrive somewhere new. If you are travelling in the high season and hostels seem to be pretty much full everywhere then you certainly might want to consider it.

Many seasoned travellers do not book hostels in advance and prefer the flexibility to change plans but it is a good idea to have a few places in mind before arriving somewhere new. It is recommended to book in advance during peak periods like festivals or holidays.

Do I need bed linen?

No, hostels should always provide this and beds are normally already made when you arrive. You may need to return sheets to reception when you check-out.

Do I need a towel?

Yes, towels are very rarely provided in hostels which is one of the major differences from hotels and hostels.

Are youth hostels just for young people?

No is the simple answer to this question. The idea that youth hostels are just full of teenage gap year students is a myth. Of all the people who you meet in hostels, probably less than 10% are under the age of 20, although it does vary between locations and party hostels tend to attract a younger crowd. In most cases, travellers are likely to be in their 20’s or maybe 30’s, but there are hardly any hostels that actually enforce age restrictions and plenty of much older travellers choose to stay in them too.

Is it easy to meet other travellers?

It depends on the hostel and who is staying there at the time but generally hostels are pretty sociable places and although a bit daunting at first, it’s often quite easy to make friends. Staying in dorms, hanging around in common areas and getting involved with organised events like bar crawls are very good ways to make new travel buddies.

How do you find backpacker hostel jobs?

The simplest way is to ask at reception or even in advance of your visit via e-mail or calls. Not all hostels accept short-term workers and those that do may not even offer a salary, but should provide you a free bed and meals which can still cut down significantly on your travel expenses. You can also find hostel jobs and work exchanges around the world by signing up to Worldpackers.

How has staying in a hostel during Covid changed?

As you can imagine, the pandemic was not a great time for hostels with shared dorms hardly the best place for people hoping to avoid catching Covid. As we head deeper into 2022 and hopefully away from the kind of restrictions we’ve seen across the world, hostels are getting back towards normal. Few are as busy as before yet, but travellers are returning and that trend is likely to continue. Rules vary from country to country and hostel to hostel. However some are continuing to enforce the use of masks in common areas and at reception. You also may need to show some vaccine records on check-in. Check your hostel’s individual policy in advance if in doubt.

Read More – The 8 types of people you meet in Hostels!

Booking Hostels – The Basics

hostels guide
Hostelling in Paris via Christopher Lancaster, CC BY-SA 2.0

As mentioned above, booking a hostel in advance is not an absolute necessity in most cases but many travellers prefer to have the peace of mind of a reservation. In large cities with a lot of online options, it will save you plenty of hassle just to book something before you head somewhere new.

While you can book beds and rooms directly in some cases via the website of the hostel in question, most travellers use a dedicated booking site or app such as Hostelworld or Booking.com.

The latter will usually have a greater range of options and is useful as it includes the best rates on hotels and other types of accommodation, as well as hostels, so it’s a good comparison tool. There are rare occasions when you can find a room in a budget hotel for less than the cost of a bed in a hostel and if you’re on a long trip, it is in any case sometimes nice to take a break from the hosteling scene for a few days.

Hostelworld is a dedicated site for hostels and has an advantage in that most of the reviews will have been written by other backpackers and budget travellers, which isn’t the case on Booking. Overall though, you will usually get a similar set of options in the search results on both sites with very similar prices too.

Be sure to check basics such as whether you’re booking into a dorm or private room. Also look out for the facilities at the hostel and whether or not it’s a good location close to the main transport hubs. Other things to note are the check-in and check-out times. We have a longer article on how to find cheap accommodation as a backpacker which provides more guidance on this topic.

This page was last updated in March 2022. Feel free to add any other questions in the comments section below.

Featured Image of a Paris hostel dorm, CC BY-SA 2.0 

A Backpacker’s Guide to Staying in a Hostel

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