So, I just finished booking the hostels where I will be staying during my trips to London and Rome in November. I have stayed in 15+ hostels across the UK and Europe (and one in NYC!) in the last couple of years, and I have sort of gotten my selection process down to a science. Since people do sometimes have bad experiences in hostels, I thought I would share how I go about finding the best in cheap and interesting lodging!
General Disclaimer: I am not you. All the times I have stayed in hostels, it has been alone, as a woman in her early twenties, or with one other friend, also a women in her early twenties. If I were traveling with a larger group/significant other/family, no doubt my needs and selection process would be different!
The number one resource I use in picking a hostel is online reviews. I read all reviews for the last three to six months on multiple websites before booking. I look at Hostelbookers, Hostelworld, and Hostelz. I input my dates and city, then start browsing! Generally, I restrict my search to above a 75% rating, because while you will always have some disgruntled reviewer trying to bring down a hostel, in general, you want the majority of reviews to be positive. (Also, use all these websites to compare prices–it can save you money!)
Things that will absolutely stop me from booking a certain hostel are mentions of mice or bedbugs. I just can’t. Things that will raise a red flag are mentions of people not feeling safe and general filth. These factors are more subjective, so if it’s just a couple of reviews, it might not be a big deal.
Things I actively look for are:
- The availability of all-female dorm rooms**
- Location near the train station/metro stop (I would rather have to walk a longer distance from my hostel to the sights, than from the train station with my suitcase trying to find a hostel in an unfamiliar city!)
- Twenty-four hour reception
- Linens being included in the price
- Lockers in the rooms (always bring your own padlocks, just in case they charge to rent one!)
- A luggage room available for after you check out, but before you go to the train station/airport
- Taking credit/debit cards as payment (I don’t travel alone with a lot of cash, for obvious reasons)
**On the all-female dorm thing: I am not saying that because I’m surrounded only by women I consider myself somehow safe–I still lock up my belongings, and I still have had to deal with some crazies. But I have not had to deal with Mr. Drunky-McDrunkerson “accidentally” getting in the wrong bunk. Something to think about, especially if you are a young woman traveling alone!
Traveling on the cheap is all about compromise, so I never say I will absolutely require all the above amenities–they’re just things that I think make your stay nicer and more convenient. I also like breakfast being included in the price, access to a kitchen for cooking and food storage (especially good if you are staying for more than a couple of days), and free (or cheap) wifi.
I feel pretty strongly about needing to have internet access, whether through wifi or on a communal computer. Obviously, I am not the type of person who just walks up to a hostel and asks if they have a free bed, so if I do not feel good about my current situation for whatever reason, I want to be able to get online, look at my alternatives and book a room across town.
So, two more questions I want to address. “Why go through all this, when you can just show up at a hostel and probably get a bed?” and “Why stay in a hostel at all?”
To the first question, besides it being cheaper to book in advance, giving you the certainty of a destination and a place to stay when you get there, I think you can miss out on some fabulous opportunities if you don’t research and see what’s out there! I have stayed in a convent in Rome, a hostel boat on the River Spree in Berlin, an absolute paradise of a hostel in the hills above Nice, and a Victorian mansion in Yorkshire for very little money. I would not have just wandered across these places. The kind of hostels you just wander across are usually the big generic type with a bar downstairs and triple high bunkbeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s just that you can do better–so much better).
So why hostels?
Because they are an experience in and of themselves. You get to meet interesting people from all over the world; make friends to tour with (really!); have locals or other young travelers working as staff to tell you the real places in a city to visit, not just the big tourist places; and feel like you’re in a home, not just a hotel room. Hostels are communities, and, especially if you are traveling alone, being a part of a community makes the travel experience all the richer.
If you are curious, I will be staying at Saint James Backpackers in London (a newly refurbished hostel located in a Victorian row house in Kensington, my favorite area of London) and Hostella in Rome (my first experience with an all-female hostel!). It’s going to be fantastic!