I have a love/hate relationship with hostels
The concept of bringing solo travelers together under one roof and throwing them into common areas and shared kitchens is brilliant in a way. This forced cohabitation leads to moments of serendipity and a feeling of community. I’ve bonded with strangers over how to best make a crepe at the self-service breakfast station. Friendly faces have beckoned me into card games during which I heard absurdly entertaining stories. Most importantly, I’ve found adventure pals to see the world with – temporary acquaintances at worst, lifelong connections at best. There’s no telling who you’ll run into in a hostel; I believe everyone should travel by themselves and stay in hostels at least once in their life – and the sooner the better.
The other side of the coin, however, isn’t so pretty. In cramped social settings, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol are consumed, leading to questionable life choices for all. There are primal status confrontations between horny men and women. Forced interaction and a general lack of space can leave you feeling trapped and anxious. Having a good night’s sleep can be a challenge in even a decent hostel if the forces at play conspire against you.
The first place I ever stayed was the Freehand Miami. It had a world-class cocktail bar on-premise, where locals and travelers alike could mingle. On the first night of my stay, I hit it off with a group of three Miamians who showed me their favorite hotspots in the city. I would later connect with great people from France, Holland, Canada, and the UK. We had intimate conversations into the night in the mellow courtyard common area. It was $25 a night and two blocks from South Beach! For these reasons I fell hard for hostels and proselytized to my travel-curious friends of the laid-back social wonders within.
In Barcelona, I met some equally amazing people at Yeah Hostel. My experience was, however, soured by a few things. My evening me-time was perturbed by the frat-house noises coming from adjacent dorms. I attended several three-course meals and a pub crawl, during which boisterous youths chided me for not drinking enough. My wardrobe was mocked, and my yawns were pointed out as a sign of my oldness. I did not enjoy the overzealous partying and the pushy atmosphere. What these young whippersnappers do not know is that I put a curse on them to suffer multi-day hangovers for the rest of their lives once they hit 27.
Having stayed in a good number of hostels by this point, I’ve learned what to look for to prevent a bad match like this. Take heed of some warning signs and you can reap the benefits of hostel life without doing too much damage to your mental health!
Search on a hostel booking site
The first step you’ll want to take is doing an internet search for your hostel. There are a number of services that can aid in your quest.
Hostelworld, Hostels.com, and HostelBookers.com are all reputable booking sites for the hostel experience. They all work in similar ways – you’ll enter a destination and dates and be served with a filtered and sorted list of potential flophouses. Depending on the location, you’ll be overwhelmed with options.
A place like Paris or Sydney is going to be chock full of hostels to choose from. Other locations, like Iceland, will have a narrower field of play. The first thing you’re going to want to do is filter through any noise you do see and make the process of elimination easier.
Let’s take Chiang Mai, Thailand as an example, using Hostelworld:
When you see this list of hostels, look for the following:
- Overall rating: 7.0 and up. Anything below will generally be dirty, poorly located, and perhaps unsafe.
- Amount of reviews: If only one person has reviewed the hostel, it was probably the owner. Don’t trust it.
- Location: if you want to be near the city center, eliminate options that don’t fit the criteria.
- Photos: if your first impression is that of the Saw or Hostel movies, maybe don’t?
I want to stress that you should not necessarily filter to the best-reviewed hostel with the most written reviews. Now, why would I say that?
If you’re an introvert, these places can be nightmares. One persistently burgeoning clientele of the hostel circuit is college-aged party kids, and they leave a lot of great reviews to the hostels that got them the drunkest and have the most memories of sexual conquest associated with them.
Not only that, but these places will be the most crowded, the biggest, the loudest, and generally least introvert-friendly. You may want a more laid-back atmosphere that still has an intimate social setting.
Read lots of hostel reviews – and look for red flags!
Clicking over to the “reviews” tab, we can find a lot of information to excite and/or horrify us. Pay attention not only to the contents of the reviews but also to the tone of the author. You can learn a lot about who stays at a particular hostel by their style of writing.
If someone explicitly mentions “party hostel” in either a negative or positive light, take heed. This is particularly true if you multiple reviews corroborating a story of an all-night bender or an impromptu drum circle in the bedroom.
Similarly, if someone complains about a hostel being too quiet, and you see these remarks in other reviews, consider that falling asleep in a peaceful oasis away from the din of the city might work to your advantage. It’s all a matter of perspective, so make your choices and start honing in on what you want.
Here’s one set of reviews for a hostel in Bangkok that looks particularly atrocious:
Now, my intro-curious extrovert readers are going to be rolling their eyes right now and calling me a stuck-up-shy-boy, and there may be some truth to that. There are some weird and wonderful people and things to see in hostels like this, but I don’t like to make a nightly habit of anthropological curios.
Once in a blue moon, hostel party-hounds may even be treated to a one-night-only special appearance by my alter-ego, the drunkenly extroverted introvert. When I’ve had my fill, however, I crave a return to normalcy. As you become a more experienced traveler, you’ll figure out what works for you.
Identify your preferred hostel amenities
The following features serve to give you adequate alone time in between socializing and exploring:
- Privacy Curtain: This one is a huge boon. Some hostels have curtains on the beds which allow you to close off visual stimulus and feel safe and cozy in your space. Not a dealbreaker, as you can also pack a sheet and hang it – although this is dependent on getting the bottom bunk (you can request, but no guarantees!)
- Noise Curfew : If your hostel common areas are policed for noise around the midnight hour, people will leave for bars to get their social kicks. This leaves you to bliss out with a book or get some early winks if you don’t feel like joining.
- En-Suite Bathroom: Waking up and having to walk down the hall to a massive communal shower/bathroom is not fun, especially when you haven’t yet put on your dealing-with-people-mask. Ideally, your shared or private room will have its own facilities to ease you into or out of your day.
- Free Walking Tours: Walking tours give you an easy in with talking to people. You can easily pair off one-on-one to get to know people without the pressure of invading established social circles. Plus, you can go see parts of the city without having to go it alone.
- Common Areas: Look at the pictures. Some folks like to have a massive bar, full of glitzy lights and a plethora of people. I prefer a quaint courtyard, with a smattering of well-designed table nooks that provoke chance encounters and small group interactions.
Decide between a private bed OR dorm bed
If you’re just starting out with hostels, I would recommend that you stay in a dorm bed first. It serves as a sort of baptism of fire and sets your expectations straight. And hey, if you’ve followed the rest of the tips in this article, it might even be a pleasant experience!
Dorms are more affordable, offer you the chance to talk with others in a low-pressure setting, and can actually be rather quiet in a lot of cases. Since a lot of people nurse hangovers well into the afternoon, most bunkmates are very careful to respect the silence when someone is sleeping.
Alas, you may tire of being around people all the time, and in that instance, I would heartily recommend staying in a private room. While some can be more expensive than Airbnb rooms, you’ll still get the bonus of a ready-made social group should you choose to accept it.
I actually recommend staying in a private once or twice a week. This will give you a series of days of active socializing, with a few days to plug in, shut off, and recharge your social battery in between.
Plus, when someone is filming a home-made porno in the top bunks of the dormitory, you’ll only hear about it through the grapevine and not through a first-hand account of the epidermal vibrations.
No, that’s actually never happened to me, but if it did I’d probably cast another high-level spell on my tormentors.
You’re almost there…
Don’t be intimidated. If you do your research, you can find a hostel that is right for you. There are plenty of other ways you can study up if you’re an uber-planner. Try staying in an Airbnb or hotel for the first night of your travels to a new place. You can use this as a home base while you’re scouting the nearby hostels to find a good fit.
You can also show up at a random hostel and dive in if you’re thirsty for some good stories. It can be a fun experience once in a while. What’s one night of debauchery if you can find a more restful night on tomorrow’s eve?
Thinking outside the box can also be fruitful. Don’t be afraid to stay in places that betray the typical backpacker trail. Check out the unconventional hostel I stayed at in Amsterdam:
Here, I had the opportunity to borrow bikes and explore the Dutch countryside instead of drinking myself into Amsterdam oblivion. Why pay $40 in the city when I can sleep in a private camper for $20, and commute 30 minutes by train? I like to use this extra time for reading or a favorite podcast – I’m probably not going to spend time on healthy habits once I’m walking around a new and exciting place.
Finally, don’t forget to ask your fellow travelers for advice. It’s a common practice to tell new hostel mates where you have come from and where you are going next. This is a perfect time to inquire about their hostel experience. Even if you’re not following the same general geography, you never know when you can use information in the future. It may pay off to keep a document on your phone with a list of cities and hostel recommendations.
I would love to create a strong network of introvert travelers that can share advice on things like this. If you think we’d get along or want to pass useful information betwixt us, get in touch. Find me on social media at the top right of this page or leave me a comment at the bottom!