Two wooden hostel bunks

Hostel Booking: Cheap Accommodation Masterclass (Complete Guide)

Accommodation

In 2005, Eli Roth directed a film called Hostel. The mystery/thriller was met with (at best) mediocre reviews and box office earnings. But thanks to its relatively low budget, it was made into a trilogy.

Why am I babbling on about three below average movies?

Because all these years later, people still have a bitter taste in their mouths about hostels. And to be frank, it’s a little silly.  But don’t sweat it. You’ve come to the right place.

*Cracks knuckles and stretches fingers*

In the next few minutes, you’re going to learn a few things: why a hostel is a great budget accommodation choice, how to find and book the best hostel for you anywhere in the world, and last but not least, why you won’t be hacked (or bludgeoned) to death in a hostel.

It’s time to get started.

Why Stay in A Hostel?

Guests smiling and socializing at hostel

Travelers typically stay in hostels for three reasons: affordability, sociability, and believe it or not, quality. Also, contrary to popular opinion, they’re not just for backpackers.

Let’s dive a little deeper.

Affordability:

No matter the destination, you’ll pay less to stay at a hostel. Low prices are a major selling point. But why are hostels so much cheaper? It’s simple. You have the option to pay for the bare minimum: a bunk in a dorm room. If you’re strapped for cash, this is a great option, especially for teens and twenty-somethings.

If you’re keen on privacy, book a private room or a dorm room with just a few beds (two-four). It’s still cheaper than a hotel. For ladies, most hostels offer women-only dorms with private bathrooms too.

Think about it. If you’re going to spend most of your time exploring, why spend most of your money where you’ll be sleeping.

Sociability:

Sure, saving money is cool. But have you ever tried stepping out of your comfort zone to turn complete strangers into lifelong friends? Whether you’re on your own, with a partner or in a group, it’s nice to talk with someone new occasionally. Access to common areas and lots of people make hostels the perfect place to flex your social muscles.

Quality:

Trust me when I tell you, hostels are far from the sketchy, under-serviced shacks you’ve see on TV. Why? It’s big business. Expectations are also much higher, especially for Millennials. We expect cleanliness, customer service and access to amenities at an affordable price.

  • Beautiful design
  • Dorm rooms
  • Private rooms
  • Pools
  • Bars
  • Entertainment

The list goes on. Book a hostel on your next trip. You’ll see for yourself.

What’s your Hostel Type?

Private room in hostel

Disclaimer: hostels can vary as much as the travelers who frequent them. There’s no one size fits all (even in hostel chains). Here’s a breakdown of the more common hostel types:

Party Hostels:

The name says it all—party hostels are the go-to choice for party-goers. If you like late nights, loud music, alcohol and younger crowds, this is where you want to be. Expect your hostel to organize activities like beer pong tournaments, pub-crawls and help you get access to the best nearby parties. Happy hour, 24/7 pools, movie theaters, dance floors, you name it. It’s all fair game at a party hostel.

Budget Hostels:

A stay at a budget hostel is like taking your first step into a minimalist lifestyle. It’s far from an all-inclusive five-star resort, but you’ll have everything you need. They’re clean, organized, laid-back and much cheaper than party hostels. Travelers in these hostels usually travel slowly to save money, are easygoing, and more mature.

Flash-Packer | Boutique | Luxury Hostels:

Flash-packer: A financially well-off backpacker.

Total transparency: boutique hostels can be expensive (still cheaper than hotels). But with great cost comes great, well, everything. These luxury hostels give five-star hotels a run for their money. They have Instagram worthy artwork and interior design. Some offer spas and saunas. Not to mention you’ll probably feel like you’re at a celebrity brunch when you sit down for a meal.

These are perfect if you’re feeling social and money’s not a major concern. And if you’re on a budget, it still might be worth a try for a day or two.

Adventure | Activity Hostels:

If you’re more of an outdoorsy type, consider an adventure hostel. They’ll cater to all your needs for an active lifestyle. From hikes and surf spots, to skiing, climbing and white-water rafting, there’s a hostel out there for that.

Historic Hostels:

Each country has its own unique history. Some hostels proudly put theirs on display. Some of the best historic hostels are re-purposed castles, old jailhouses, churches and more. Theses hostels are usually thematic and emphasize their older aesthetic. Stay somewhere unique and learn lots of cool information. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be a contestant on a trivia game show.

Family Hostels:

Family first. That’s the name of the game for some hostels. Who says you have to stop traveling when you settle down? Family hostels have big rooms to keep parents and kids together. They provide entertainment for all ages: toys, board games, entertainment rooms etc. Safety standards are strongly upheld. And some even implement curfews.

Eco-Hostels:

Hotels do lots of environmental damage through poor energy consumption habits, heavy use of plastics, bad waste generation and more. Some hostels play their part by buying from environmentally friendly suppliers, using local and organically sourced ingredients in their food, composting and recycling (among other initiatives.) They even offer free green living resources and classes on site. If you’re environmentally conscious, this is your best bet.

Important Amenities

Wooden bar inside of hostel

You know why you should stay in a hostel. And you know the types of hostels available. Let’s unpack this hostel thing a little further.

Lockers:

Good hostels have lockers/secured storage space for their guests. There’s no way around it. Unless you’re booking a private room, this should be non-negotiable. Sure, you can keep your valuables with you in the day. But things can get taken from right under your nose while you sleep.

You may also want to ask if you’ll have access to a safe for important documents like passports, visas etc.

Note: Take precautions or your travel insurance may reject your claim to replace stolen items. Hiding things in your pillowcase, under your mattress or any other easily accessible place doesn’t count as being careful. Better safe than sorry. Get it? ‘Safe?’ No? Never mind.

Wi-Fi:

Q: What could be worse than having no Wi-Fi?

A: Being teased with bad Wi-Fi.

Unless you’re deliberately looking to disconnect from the world, Wi-Fi is a must. I mean, c’mon, it’s the 21st century. There are self-driving cars, robots that play basketball and everyone has a personal assistant in their pocket.

Details on access to Wi-Fi are normally in the property description. If not, consider it a red flag. Also, check reviews for anyone mentioning bad Wi-Fi connections.

Kitchens:

Some travelers can afford to be more flexible when it comes to kitchens. If you don’t plan on cooking (or don’t know how), this may be of no importance to you.

For most budget/long-term travelers, access to a kitchen means more money to spend on experiences. And that’s kind of the whole point of travel. Right?

Laundry Rooms:

Unless your favorite scent is Eau de Sweat, by Backpacker, you’ll need to wash your clothes if you’re traveling for more than a few weeks. Some hostels offer a free laundry service while others charge a small fee.

Beware of hostels that say they’ll wash your clothes for you. They’ll need staff to do it, which means it’ll probably cost much more. And guess who pays the surplus? You.

Tip: Search for cheap alternatives online or ask around when you get to your hostel. People are usually willing to point you in the right direction.

Bars:

Is there anything better than beer, wine or hard liquor within moments of waking up? Probably. Still, having a bar at your hostel makes it convenient to grab a drink (read: easy to get drunk in a hurry). Drinks at hostel bars are often a bit cheaper than nearby bars too.

If money is tight, you can always BYOB, but some hostels won’t allow you. Be sure to ask in advance. And do your best to drink responsibly.

How to Save Even More on Hostels

Paper bills in hands

Pop Quiz: What’s better than booking a few cheap nights in a cool hostel? That’s easy, booking a few nights in a great hostel for even cheaper. Here are a few easy ways to do exactly that.

Hostel Discount Cards:

Much like hotels, hostels have member rewards cards. With them, you’ll get booking discounts. Many hostels also partner with nearby business. Show them your card in exchange for savings as well. Some cards give you access to deals on package offers too: local tours, airfare, activities and more. Find out if your hostel offers one before booking.

Book in Advance:

Some travelers embrace the unexpected. They like figuring things out as they go. If that sounds nothing like you, book your hostel ahead of time. First of all, you’ll save money. Second, you won’t have to worry about having nowhere to stay in a foreign country. Secure a room for a few nights. You can sort the rest out after.

Hostel Aggregators:

Hostel aggregators collect relevant listings then present them to you all in one place. With that in mind, Hostelz is a fan favorite. But why use an aggregator when you can go directly to a booking site? Well, first, you’ll save time. Next, you can book your stay directly through Hostelz at no extra cost.

Go Direct:

This may seem obvious, but booking directly with the hostel is a great idea. Do your research with any of the above listed methods. When you find something you like, poke around for their contact information. Most hostels have websites. For the ones that don’t, a phone number or email will do.

When bookings come in directly, you skip third party fees. The hostel owners get clients and don’t have to pay commission. Everybody wins.

Travel Guidebooks:

Guidebooks seem ancient, don’t they? Think again. The best travel guidebooks have actually increased in sales in recent years. They provide detailed lists of things to see and do, and at what cost. But did you know they also list accommodation options (including hostels)? If you don’t have Internet access or want to figure out your plans upon arrival, grab a guidebook.

But guidebooks come with drawbacks. There’s built-in author bias. Information constantly needs to be updated. Hard copies take up physical space and can easily be lost or damaged. So guidebooks may not be for everyone.

Explore:

If you’re in full Marco Polo mode, exploring your new location might be best for you. No planning. Just get up and go. This is a great way to get to know the heartbeat of any town or city. Hear the language. Taste the food. Learn the modes of transportation. Find a place to stay too. You’ll get to see where you’re staying firsthand. And if you’re a good negotiator, you can probably bargain down your price.

There are a few things to consider though. This may take a physical toll on your body. It may not be easy to do depending on the weather. Finally, it can be dangerous to walk around certain towns, especially at night. So be smart. Your safety is worth more than a few dollars.

How to Stay Safe in Any Hostel

Red fire extinguisher on green wall

Hostels aren’t in the business of endangering your life. That’s a bad business model. But accidents happen.

Security Questions:

Some of these questions will be answered in the property description or simply by looking at photos of the hostel. Make sure to ask about the rest.

  • Do the bedrooms/dorms lock automatically?
  • Are doors opened with keys, key cards or access codes?
  • Will a hostel guide be available at check-in?
  • If there’s no guide, where are the emergency exits?
  • Are the windows secured & can they be opened in an emergency?
  • Are there smoke detectors and fire extinguishers?
  • Mixed, same-sex dorms or both?
  • Is there a curfew?
Other Important Questions: 
  • What are the additional fees (if any)?
  • Are meals provided? If yes, which ones?
  • Are there any pets that belong to the hostel?
  • May I see my room before booking?
  • Does the hostel cater to dietary restrictions?
  • Is the hostel staff trained in first-aid?

If you don’t ask, how will you ever know?

Top Hostel Booking Websites

Woman on MacBook

Not all hostel-booking sites are created equal. Here are the current big dogs of the hostel-booking game:

HostelBookers

HostelBookers is the real MVP of hostel booking. It’s fast, delivers the cheapest results most of the time, has tons of options around the world, great user interface and their customer service is excellent. This is everything you need from a hostel booking service.

HostelWorld

In terms of sheer volume of bookable hostels, HostelWorld takes the cake. Thanks to its partial match feature, it’s a smart move to check this site if other sites show properties as completely booked. But HostelWorld isn’t all good.

Because of added fees, HostelWorld is relatively expensive compared to similar sites. A good strategy may be to make your initial property search on HostelWorld, then look for the same hostel on HostelBookers.

Agoda

Most people don’t know this, but Agoda is a great platform for booking hostels. Their prices are fair. Sometimes, they may even beat out the competition. Since they list hotels and hostels on their site, it’s a great one-stop shop option.

It’s important to note that excellent customer service is a priority for them. The only major drawback is that they only display properties in Asia. Maybe one day they’ll expand to other regions.

Booking[.]com

Booking is a big player in the hotel industry. Surprisingly, it has several hostel listings too. Think of it as the Agoda of North America—decent prices with lots of choices. That said, navigating the site can be confusing. Many users have noticed that hotels always seem to be listed, even while looking for hostels.

How to Improve Your Hostel Experience

Man and woman socializing

The hostel you pick has a lot to do with your travel style. How many people are you traveling with? What do you like to do when you travel? What activities do you have planned? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Note: A good way to sort out what you want out of your trip is to create a vision board.

Location:

You can save until you’re blue in the face. If you’re spending all your money on local transport or you’re hours away from things you want to do, what’s the point? Also, do you want to spend your trip looking over your shoulder in a dodgy part of town? Location is crucial.

Look at a map of the area around the hostel to get a better idea of where you’ll be staying. Research the area. Write down the address. Use Google maps to figure out the distance from the hostel to wherever you’ll be traveling from (usually an airport or transport terminal).

If you’re staying somewhere more remote, ask the hostel staff how to get there, how long it should take and what it should cost. Drivers in some countries are known to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.

Reviews:

Fact: People are more willing to leave reviews after a negative experience.

Does that make reviews less credible? Not at all. In fact, it’s usually the only way to know what a hostel is truly like (unless you know someone who’s been there).

It’s important to note that a single review shouldn’t make or break your plans to choose any given hostel. Look for a pattern or trends. Are most of the reviews good or bad? Have you checked more than one source? Does the person who left the reviews often leave feedback? These are all questions to consider when weighing the value of a review.

Let’s say someone mentions rodents in a review. There will likely be other mentions of rodents by other guests who left reviews around the same time. But that doesn’t mean the hostel has a permanent rodent infestation.

No property is perfect. Sometimes the hostel staff might not be at their best. There may have been an altercation, or a theft. A traveler may have brought in bedbugs accidentally. But here’s the tea; this happens everywhere, even in expensive hotels (speaking from experience here).

Check-in and Out:

Want to start your trip in the worst way? Show up at your hostel several hours before you’re allowed to check-in. You’ll likely have no choice but to sit around in a lobby waiting for your room to be vacant.

Always know your check-in (and checkout) time. This will let you better organize your plans before you arrive. Grab a bite. Buy something you may need. And if you’re traveling light, start exploring. If you’re arriving outside of standard operating hours, this is even more important.

Checking out is a breeze, unless you have nothing to do for a few hours before you leave for your next destination. Remember the lockers and secure storage rooms I mentioned a few minutes ago? This is where you’ll want to store your luggage. Ask who has access to the secured room and if it’s closed during certain hours. Oh, and keep your valuables on you.

General check-in times: 11 am to 3 pm (depending on the country)

General checkout times: 10 am to 1 pm (depending on the country)

Hostel Must-Haves:

Camera laptop and open suitcase with clothes

Each hostel brings a different experience–different people, time zones, location etc. If you’ll be hosteling for a while, make yourself a hostel kit. Here’s a short list:

Water Bottle:

Bring a water bottle wherever you go, especially in hot countries with weak filtration systems. They’re cheap, portable and very convenient.

Earplugs:

Some of the better hostels give you a free pair at check-in. People snore, play loud music and babies cry. There may be construction work or a party nearby. It’s good to keep a pair handy.

A Towel:

Unlike hotels, towels aren’t always provided at hostels. Some properties actually charge a small fee for a towel rental. Bring your own. You can also use them as pillows, curtains and more if you’re in a jam.

Flip Flops:

This should be common practice no matter where you stay. Hostels are no exception. Protect your feet from bacteria and small dangerous objects (glass, pebbles, splinters etc). And give your toes the fresh air they desperately need and deserve.

A Reusable Tote Bag:

Go green. Use and reuse these for small shopping trips, keeping dirty or wet clothes, or just about anything else that fits inside.

Entertainment:

Unless you’ve taken an oath to be the most boring person on Earth, having some fun won’t hurt you. Bring whatever floats your boat—playing cards, a book or wireless device. It’s your call. Or you can step out of your comfort zone and socialize with other humans.

A Sarong:

You probably don’t realize how versatile sarongs are. It’ll be the single most important item in your hostel kit. Use it to protect against the sun, to dry your skin, as a belt, you name it.

Padlock:

Easily beef up your security with one or two padlocks. Lock things in your luggage, a hostel locker or wherever else your lock fits. Just make sure it’s a combination lock. Key locks can easily be picked or broken.

Want to Learn More?

For a more in depth packing list and a bunch of useful travel tips, read JustFly’s 101 best travel tips, it’s the most complete set of travel advice you’ll find on the Internet.

If you’re still not convinced that hostels are for you, read our 31 free and cheap accommodation travel hacks for the best alternatives to hotels and hostels.

Admittedly, hostels aren’t perfect. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea either. But u may be surprised by how much you like them if you give them a real shot. After all, it’s always best to see it for yourself. What do you have to lose?

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