Matt’s Note: This post was updated in 2016 to reflect recent changes in the travel industry, new experience, advice, and insight!
Good hostels are always hard to come by. Hostels have more to do with the people staying there than the physical place. I’ve stayed in dumps where I had fun, because of the people there, and been to amazing, beautiful hostels that bored me to death.
While hosteling is about the people, staying in a place that knows a traveler’s needs is always better, because it enhances the travel experience. When trying to pick a good hostel, here is my advice on what to consider:
Cheaper is not better
Budget travelers have a natural inclination to go with the cheapest thing around. However, don’t try to save a buck just to save a buck. Super cheap hostels are often unclean, the beds uncomfortable, the showers dirty, and the pillows thinner than a supermodel. Pay an extra dollar or two for nicer and cleaner digs. Your body will thank you.
One thing I hate about hosteling in Europe is that breakfast is often toast, eggs, and coffee. And it begins at 7 am (and ends early too)! I’m not sure who the travelers are that they know, but I’ve never known any to wake up that early, even for a good breakfast. Look for a place with a decent breakfast (i.e., more than toast) or at least one that begins and ends when people are actually awake (breakfasts that start around 8:00 usually go late). Breakfast is also a great way to load up on snacks for the rest of the day, thereby cutting down your food budget.
Check out late
Never stay at a hostel with a checkout time before 10am. The best hostels have 11am checkout times, and the really good ones let you checkout at noon. Sleep is valuable on the road, because you’ll rarely get enough of it. Hostels with late checkout times understand this and are often more relaxed and chiller environments. There’s just something wrong about a hostel asking you to be packed and out so early in the morning.
On the flip side of this, I like hostels that have flexible check-ins. Many don’t let you check-in before 2pm, but I like the ones that say “OK, the bed is ready. Come in now!”
Just say no to push-button showers! They are annoying and often have no water pressure. You don’t want the water to turn off mid-soaping. My rule of thumb is that if a hostel has a push-button shower, I don’t stay there.
It’s surprising, but I’ve actually been in hostels that don’t have lockers or that charge you for them. In this day and age, lockers should be standard. You should never pay for security. This is a deal-breaker for me, especially since I travel with electronics.
While the Internet isn’t a must for all travelers, a hostel with free Wi-Fi and computer terminals makes life a lot easier.
Bars are not a deal-breaker, and there are a lot of wonderful hostels without them, but they make for a great place to socialize with other hostel guests. Usually if a hostel has a bar, they put a strong emphasis on making sure the people staying there are having fun, interacting, and being festive.
If the hostel doesn’t have a bar, it should have a big common area. The best hostels are the ones that give travelers a place to hang out and socialize with each other. Common areas facilitate interaction and help solo travelers have an easier time meeting people. The best hostels I’ve ever stayed at always had an amazing common area.
Really good hostels also organize activities such as walking tours, bar crawls, BBQs, or anything else that gets people together.
Employees make any business, and when I find the staff of hostels helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly, I like that place a lot better. A hostel is like a home, and you want the people there to welcome you like a long-lost family member. I never understood why hostels don’t recognize that being a hostel is not about being a cheap place to stay, it’s about creating a warm environment.
A hostel doesn’t need to have every one of these things I listed, but it should have the majority. A hostel without the majority of these things doesn’t understand who its guests are or what they want. I get that a lot of different people come through hostels with a wide variety of needs. A hostel doesn’t need to be perfect. I’d like a clean kitchen, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Dorm room doesn’t lock? That’s what a locker is for. Hostel showers are always dirty, which is why I wear flip-flops in them. I’m not looking for a 5-star resort, just basic security and comfort.
What makes hostels great are the people, and even the worst hostels will be great if you meet good people. But removing the people from the equation, I look for hostels that have some of the above qualities in them. Hostels that know what you want as a traveler are there to enhance your travel experience, not simply take money from you in exchange for a bed. I would rather stay at a place that is looking to make sure I have a good time.
And to find these places? I read up! When I’m picking hostels, I look at user reviews, pictures, amenities, and star ratings on sites like Hostelworld, Hostelz, and HostelBookers. See what your fellow travelers say. The consensus is going to be pretty spot on.
P.S. – I actually opened a hostel! Located in Austin, Texas, HK Austin has all the things that make a hostel extraordinary: brand new comfy mattresses that I’d sleep on in my own home, amazing showers, a large indoor common space, free Wi-Fi, free laundry facilities, a modern kitchen, free on-site secured parking, and events for guests. The next time you visit Austin, come stay at HK Austin! It will be one of the best hostels you’ve ever stayed in!