This post will look at what a hostel is, and my own pros and cons of staying in them while traveling.
What is a Hostel?
Many people choose to stay in hostels when they travel, especially those traveling ‘backpacker style’. Before we jump into the pros and cons of staying in hostels, let’s look at what a hostel actually is. You can Google this and see tons of different answers, but to put it simply, a hostel is a budget accommodation with a minimum of one dormitory and one common area. It’s really that simple!
What is Included in a Hostel?
Today, hostels come in all shapes and sizes, and come with all kinds of amenities. Typically, they are still cheaper than most hotels, though there are pricey hostels with luxury accommodations now too. When my mum stayed in hostels back in the early and late 80’s, all of the dorm rooms were separated by gender, had shared bathrooms and showers, and only a few hostels she stayed at had opportunities for group activities. She stayed at around 20 different hostels throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand at the time, so that’s a pretty fair assessment of hostels at the time.
Compare that to my own hostel experience from 2015-2020 and things have changed quite a bit. You can still of course find dorms separated by gender, but there are almost always options for mixed dorms, making them even cheaper because there will be more people. For reference, the largest dorm I stayed in was a mixed gender dorm in Cambodia that had 16 of us stacked 3 high on bunk beds in a room with no air conditioning. Shared bathrooms and showers are still the norm, but more hostels also have options for both private bedrooms and bathrooms with a shower, as well as the option to stay in a dorm. Most hostels nowadays are also pretty focused on getting people to do group activities both inside the hostel and as part of tour groups organized by the hostel themselves or third parties.
Pros of Staying in a Hostel
Hostel World vs Booking.com Price Overview
When thinking about where to stay, many people (including myself) choose hostels to save money. I almost always choose the largest dorm rooms available to save the most money. Generally speaking, the more people in a room, the less money it costs. Also, mixed gender dorms tend to be on the cheaper side, and while I have no issue with this, I know some of my female friends choose female dorms over mixed for safety reasons which is totally valid.
Hostel World Pricing
Just to give an example of price differences, I looked up average hostel prices in Amsterdam vs average hotel prices. I used Hostelworld to find the hostel, and Booking to find a hotel. For hostels I don’t like using one with a lower rating than an 8.5, and I always stay places that have reviews. Because Amsterdam is a touristy city it’s going to be a bit on the pricier side, so even many hostels were showing prices of $60-$80 CAD per night, in a dorm. But I was able to find a hostel with a 9.1 rating for only $46 CAD per night. It’s cheaper because while it is listed as Amsterdam, it’s actually outside the city. They do run a free shuttle in and out of the city though. Their overview says you can get city lights by day and beach party by night, as the hostel is right on the beach. They also do home cooked dinners on the barbecue, allowing you to meet people, and chill on the beach drinking cheap beers. They also provide free breakfast in the mornings. All in all not bad for the price.
Booking.com also has hostels listed on their website, but for the purposes of this post I only looked at hotels in Amsterdam for one night. The cheapest hotel I could find for a rating higher than 8.5 is going to cost $108 CAD per night. Now the location might be better for some than the hostel as it’s much closer to touristy things like the van Gogh museum, Anne Frank’s house, and more. But you don’t get the community feel of a hostel dinner, or activities with other people. It does however include a breakfast.
Hostels, nowadays, are made to have a sense of community and help travelers meet each other, especially for those traveling solo or maybe doing their first trip abroad. This can make traveling much less lonely if you are by yourself. Or if you’re traveling with a friend or partner and you’ve been on the road for a while, you may just want some other company once in a while. Like I mentioned above in pricing, many hostels have options for having meals together, and not only breakfast, with the idea of meeting more people and making new friends.
Good hostels provide activities and excursions. If it’s a hostel at the beach there will probably be beach sports, surfing, snorkeling, etc. If you’re in a city center, there will most likely be tours to popular nearby destinations. If you’re close to other cities or towns your hostel might also provide day trips to other places. These usually cost money but are made to be affordable, especially for groups. So make friends over breakfast or dinner and get a group together for activities and trips.
Generally speaking, hostels are going to be very friendly and helpful, perhaps more so than at a hotel. Because hostels are more social than hotels, their staff are probably going to be a bit more out-going, and will most likely be involved in some of the activities, as well as meal times. Many hostels even do short term hiring of fellow travelers, so the staff helping you out might also be on a bit of a longer trip or vacation.
Cons of Staying in a Hostel
Hostels are made to be cheaper, and one big way they’re able to do this is by providing dormitory style rooms. This can be good for your wallet, but possibly bad for getting your beauty sleep. Some hostels are advertised as being quiet and good for resting, but others are party hostels with their own bars and drinking games, and others don’t have curfews or lights out times.
I’ve stayed in hostels that have had really cozy bunks that are more like your own little capsule, perfect for getting your shut eye as long as you aren’t claustrophobic, and I’ve also stayed at hostels that are just regular bunk beds that don’t even have sheets around them. The best hostel I stayed at was a pod capsule hostel in Shanghai, China.
They were sound proof, had their own temperature control, and were roomy enough to not make me feel claustrophobic. One of the worst hostels I stayed at was in Thailand, with no curfew, and no curtains. There was a group of guys that kept coming and going at all hours of the night, very drunk, and very loud. Safe to say I didn’t get much sleep there and I was pretty grumpy in the morning.
Because you’re probably staying in a dorm if you’re in a hostel, you also probably have a shared bathroom, a bathroom that can be shared with anywhere from 2 people to 16 or more. Bathrooms are set up differently at different hostels. Some are separated by gender, some are single bathrooms that you use one at a time, some are large with shower and toilet stalls, and I have even been to one that was just all out in the open. If you’re someone who takes forever to get ready in the morning, a hostel might not be for you.
Definitely no 20-minute showers! I try to finish my hostel bathroom routine in around 15 minutes total, including shaving, brushing teeth, shower, etc. If you’re shy about seeing others in towels or possibly in the nude, or being seen yourself, the hostels may not also be for you. Generally speaking nudity in hostels is still pretty minimal, but you’ll definitely see people in their sleepwear (pyjamas or underwear) and probably at least in towels.
Risk of Theft
If you’re staying in a room with a bunch of strangers, of course there is the unfortunate possibility of someone stealing from you. This is much less likely to happen in a hotel because you’re staying either alone or with friends or family that you know and trust. I’ve stayed in hostels in 7 countries, and I’ve only had something stolen once, and I’m not actually totally sure where it happened. I was in Cambodia and had my credit card stolen. I didn’t realize until I got back home and went to update my iTunes payment when I noticed it wasn’t there, so I checked my online banking and sure enough someone in Cambodia had bought a motorcycle and two cellphones. I think it was stolen from the hostel because my bag was hanging from my bunk, and whenever I was out, my bag was zipped and on my front, so it would have been almost impossible outside the hostel. But these things can and do happen while traveling, and thankfully my bank took care of it and I didn’t end up losing any money.
Hostels aren’t for everyone. But for those who are looking for a cheaper option, and want to get out and meet new people, maybe in situations they wouldn’t normally find themselves in, then they might be for you. If you can put up with the possibility of interrupted sleep, possible parties, and a lack of privacy for a few nights, then I think they’re totally worth it. I’ve met some really cool people at hostels around the world. Of course, I’ve had some negative experiences at hostels as well, but I’ve also had negative experiences at hotels.
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Hostel Pro vs Con Comparison table
Price: The bigger the dorm room the more money you will save. Generally hostels include breakfast, and have discounts for other food and activities.
Sleeping Arrangements: While you are saving money by sleeping in a dorm, you’re also sharing with potentially lots of people, sometimes close to 20. People snore, people move around in their sleep, people go to bed and wake up at different times. So you may not be getting the same kind of rest you would in a hotel.
Sociable: Hostels are made to help you meet people while you travel. It’s far easier to make friends while staying at a hostel, and you’ll be able to find people to go on excursions with, ultimately also saving you money again.
Bathrooms: Just like sleeping arrangements, you’re also sharing a bathroom with either small groups in a room, or an entire hall or floor. Some bathrooms are single use so you have to be quick, and others are stalls of showers and toilets. You’ll also definitely be seen in a towel, and be seeing others in towels, or less. No being shy allowed!
Friendly Staff: Some staff at hostels are fellow travellers who decided to stay in one place for a bit longer, so they might want to go explore with you. Staff also generally eat with guests, and also party with guest. It’s a different vibe than hotels, really focused on community, including the staff for the most part.
Risk of Theft: Unfortunately this is a risk, again just because of the close quarters shared with lots of people. For the most part hostels are treated like a community and people watch out for each other and respect each others property, but all it takes is one guy to ruin that. So you have to be more careful with your possessions.