Do you know how to pick and choose a hostel on your gap year? How to get that perfect room and avoid the bedbug ridden holes with the bunkmates from hell? With so many options to choose from how do you know what is right for you? These expert travel tips on choosing the best backpacker hostels are here to help you.
Travelling around the world on a gap or a snap year will see you staying in some amazing and unique places, but for many backpackers on a budget the majority of the time this will mean simple, budget accommodation such as hostels. The stereotype of the dingy hovel full of the unwashed masses is just that, a stereotype. Of course there are horrible examples out there that do fit this stereotype and I have seen more than my fair share, but there are also amazing and unique hostels too that blow your mind with how amazing they are, and some of them very easily putting many budget hotels to shame. Strong and robust competition in many backpacker destinations has kept hostel prices low but driven standards through the roof as they all compete to outdo each other.
How To Find The Best Hostels.
You basically have two options here, research online and pre book, or research online and then look around when you get there.
There are many aggregate and review sites now that are dedicated to helping you find, research and book accommodation online, some better than others of course and all to be taken with a pinch of salty skepticism. Although that makes things in some ways a lot easier it really is not necessary to book in advance and it is not always the best option either.
The majority of times it is very easy to simply turn up to a new town, city or island, look at a few places, find one you like and then barter a price for a room (some countries are easier than others for this). It’s a good idea to do a little research beforehand to get an idea of what area you want to stay, the general prices for different levels of accomodation and maybe even the name of a place or two you want to look at.
Alternatively you can do a mixture of both, book a room for a night or two before you arrive, then find a different or better place once you have your bearings.
Really, it is that simple! You just have to know what you are looking for.
There are exceptions to this rule however. If you know you are going to be somewhere during a busy holiday or festival when good places can fill up fast, or if your flight arrives in the middle of the night, or even if it is your first few days of your travels and you want the peace of mind of having somewhere booked just while you find your feet, then these are all perfectly acceptable times to book ahead.
In these instances any of the hostel or booking aggregate sites can come in really handy, or you can email hostels and hotels directly which is personally my preferred option as they don’t have to pay the aggregate fees and you can often get a better rate.
Most of the time though, pre booking isn’t necessary and you will never struggle to find somewhere to stay. Knowing where to go and what to look for is key, and that takes research and a practiced eye. With the proliferation of travel tech and free wifi, many travellers are using sites such as Hostelworld and even Tripadvisor to check what options are available to them before they arrive at any destination, and using that knowledge to search out a really good place to stay.
Despite all of this, finding a good hostel to stay in is a significant worry for many inexperienced backpackers. Landing in a strange new country when you have not had much travel experience can be daunting enough, but looking for somewhere to stay can add to that worry, how do you know if it is a good place to stay? Is it safe? What do you look for?
Well don’t worry, it is a lot easier than you may think to find a good hostel to stay in and determine the good from the bad. It may seem like a bit of pot luck or hit and miss, after all you have just a minute or two to glance over a place and determine whether it will be a good place to stay based on first impressions, but it is possible with a bit of practice and knowledge of what to look for beforehand.
A lot of the time whether you like a hostel or not will be down to your own personal taste and needs, but there are still some things you should keep in mind when you are checking a new place out.
Knowing What To Look For.
Location, Location, Location.
One of the most attractive things about staying in a hostel – apart from the price – is the fact that they are quite often at the heart of where you want or need to be. There is no point in budgeting well for your accommodation if you have to spend a small fortune in transport costs getting to and from there every day. The best thing to do is have a location that you want to stay in before you arrive and then look at the range of accommodation in that area, rather than the other way around. It is also a good idea to see what amenities are close to the hostel you are looking at, ask yourself if it is within walking distance of a train or MRT station, or close to a 7/11 or grocery shop for example. These aren’t essential of course, but they can make life much simpler for you. Another thing to consider is the hostels proximity to local bars, clubs or night markets. Any of these three can sometimes make sleep next to impossible until at least 0300 either from outside noise or drunken travellers stumbling into the dorm, turning the light on and singing at the top of their lungs. Neither of these is good!
Probably one of the most important things to consider is if the hostel has good security or not because at the end of the day you don’t want your stuff stolen. The exact details can vary wildly as hostels can be uniquely different from place to place, but a good one should have at the very least a basic level of security. Check if they have good sized lockers for your pack, a good secure luggage storage room, good locks on individual shower doors or manned front desks for example. All good hostels have a good level of security as standard, and if the hostel you are looking at doesn’t? Then move on. There will be a dozen more hostels within walking distance that do.
You may not think so, but there are many different types of hostels out there. These can range from hardcore party hostels to laid back family ones and a whole range of different options in between, and it is important that you do your research (online reviews are always good, or simply ask and use your intuition) to find out if the hostel you are choosing is right for you. You don’t want a party hostel with all night pub crawls if you just want to sleep and get up for that early flight, and you don’t want a quiet family hostel with a curfew if you want to meet people and party all night either.
I have to admit this has become more of a consideration as I have aged and made more of a transition to occasional flashpacker, and your own tolerance levels of what you find acceptable will be unique to you alone, but I have seen hostels out there that I would not let an animal stay in, never mind myself. It just isn’t worth it if it looks as if you will catch something just by looking at the shower! Thankfully a great many hostels have really upped their game in recent years and there are some now that are better and cheaper options than a lot of budget hotels, and they are usually no more expensive than the dingy, unclean options! When you are looking around, just peek into the showers and communal kitchen if they have one and see if the standards of cleanliness are acceptable.
I don’t care what people say, it is important! Hostels can have dorm rooms ranging from four beds right up to twelve or more, and generally it really doesn’t matter which one you choose if you are just looking for somewhere to rest your head for a night. If you are staying longer however your preference will depend on your own personal needs. If you are a lone traveller for example then you may want to choose a dorm with no more than 6 people as these can often be a little more intimate and give you a chance to talk to and meet new people. Larger dorms are often cheaper, but they are also noisier, which can be a pain if you want a good night’s sleep. Larger dorms are no better or worse than smaller ones, but it should be a consideration for you depending on what you want.
The best hostels always have really good communal areas. One of the best things about staying in hostels is always the people you meet, especially for a solo traveller, and the communal areas give you a chance to interact and socialise. Due to the fierce competition for backpacker custom in a lot of backpacker destinations, many hostels are now offering a variety of great free amenities in their communal areas too ranging from large screen TVs and a good DVD selection (just don’t ask about their authenticity) to the now almost ubiquitous free wifi or at least very cheap internet access through their own desktop computers. Things that used to be considered paid luxuries are increasingly becoming the standard norm even in budget accommodation, so you should certainly check out the communal areas of the hostels you are looking at before you decide to stay there.
By keeping these things in mind when you are checking a few hostels out, you will generally find a really good one. Not every hostel will tick every box of course, but with the mindset that location, security and hygiene are non negotiable essentials, you can’t go far wrong!
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
A Beginners Guide To Hostel Rules And Etiquette On Your Gap Year.
Avoid Backpacker Burnout And Enjoy Your Inner Flashpacker.
Backpacker Accomodation Alternatives: Beyond The Hostel.
How To Find And Choose The Perfect Hostel On Your Gap Year.
Is Airbnb Unethical And Irresponsible?
Great tips! Especially about having a good communal area. Another thing I look for is a hostel that has a bunch of activities that you can join in… eg. pub crawl night, quiz night, karaoke night.. Anything social really that forces people to interact.
Personally I could give the Karaoke a miss! My voice is awful! But I agree the opportunities for social interaction is important too. Another thing that I look for (but again isn’t an essential thing) is if the hostel offers a choice of trips/courses/activities in the local area, as that can be a great way of gathering a few strangers together too. Thanks for the comment.
I agree that really good communal areas are what makes a hostel feel welcoming, although that doesn’t always have to mean access to technology and all the mod-cons. Space (both indoor and out), comfy sofas, board games, book swaps and a good mixture of guests, from those passing through for a couple of nights to others staying a bit longer term. All contribute to somewhere that feels like home, even just for a couple of nights.
Thank you for commenting, I absolutely agree! That homely welcoming feel is so important, I have fond memories of so many hostels that had all those things you mention in a nice big common area! As well as the great people I met over a card game or a conversation stretched out on big comfy sofas with a few drinks! A mix of mod cons and old fashioned entertainment is always the best I think.
wow fab tips. My partner and I love to travel and we try steer away from hotels, often staying in family run intimate B&B’s but I’ve never stayed in a hostel. Is it worth couples staying in one or is it better for lone travellers and friends?
Thank you Im glad you liked the article. It is absolutely worth a couple staying in one, I have met many couples who do just that. Sometimes getting a four bed dorm to yourselves even works out cheaper than a private guesthouse! But there is nothing wrong with getting a private room from time to time too to get a good mixture of a cheap bed and the social side of backpacking and a bit of privacy.
I’ve just found this website! Wow! These tips will be so helpful when I start my gap year!
Thank you! Glad you like it!
Thank you for this. I am a bit “older” as I approach 40, but I have never stayed in a hostel. I followed your link from Twitter. I am definitely interested in trying it once for the experience, but wonder if it is possible to have a private room (even if it does cost a little more). Do I start close to home to get a feel for it? So many questions. I’m excited and nervous. Thank you!
Hi Heather, don’t worry many people get nervous. You’ll be fine. 🙂 Many hostels don’t have age limits and in fact over the years I have met an increasing number of people of all ages and backgrounds in hostels from teenagers to professionals on a career break, middle aged parents with kids away at uni and even pensioners!! Not every hostel has private rooms but some do. The amount of choice you have depends on where you travel to. Wherever you go find a hostel you like and try the private room to settle in then try the dorm? Or vice versa? There are no rules here. Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions or if I can ease your nerves a little. 🙂
Oh yes!! All these points are so very relevant. The most important for me is the last one… Communal areas can really make or break a hostel. All my favourites have had great opportunities for meeting others.
Thank you Surya, I really appreciate the comment. You are so right , I love the communal areas too, have met so many great travellers that way!
Thanks for sharing your tips about how to choose a good backpacker hostel. It was an interesting read to me. To be honest I only slept once in a hostel and I didn´t like it at all. Somebody told me it was the wrong country for it (Ireland). 😀 I´m sure there are some great hostels around the world.
You’re very welcome, I’m really glad you liked it. Yeah, to be perfectly honest Ireland, and Europe as a whole in fact isn’t the best place to see the highlights of hostels. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but on the whole they are bland, average and expensive. If you want to see some truly amazing hostels (seriously, some are better than the budget hotels) and partake in the backpacker hostel culture, then you really need to try them in SE Asia! ;D Thanks for the comment.
Really excellent tips on choosing a hostel on your gap year. Thanks for sharing.
You are more than welcome Sunil. 🙂
I loved this! SO useful, thank you!
You’re more than welcome Joanne, glad you found it useful. 🙂
Such a useful post, thank you. Is it really so easy to just walk up and get a room though? I thought it would be easier to just book through agoda or something?
Thanks Emma, and yes it really is. Pre booking everything through aggregate sites has become easier and more popular now, but years ago it was the norm to just turn up and find a place you like. It is still more than possible now, but people seem to have lost the adventurous spirit to go out and do it. Many places aren’t even on those sites anyway! So head to wherever you want to stay and just check a few places out.