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Hostels 101 - What You Need to Know About Hostels


Man waking up in hostel
Michael Betts/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

What Hostels Are:

Hostels, also called simply backpackers, are a cheap way to lodge safely with like-minded travelers around the world. Hostels usually feature security, social life, showers and rooms with multiple bunks. Some hostels are bare bones beds and baths at $8 per night; some are almost luxurious. Read on to learn all about staying in hostels, what to expect, and finding and reserving the best bed for you. We'll largely be talking about European hostels, though Latin and US places have basic similarities. See a FAQ, too.

Who's Staying in Hostels:

These places are populated by young and young-at-heart backpackers and a few (usually older) budget businessmen. Flashpackers sometimes choose single rooms. You'll also find couples on weekend breaks in European joints. Most of your fellow guests will be international, with less Americans than you might expect.

What Hostels Have:

Hostels always have dorm rooms with multiple beds, shared bathrooms, a check in area, a cooking/food area and a sometimes secure spot for your pack. They've usually got common areas for socializing, even if just picnic tables in a courtyard. Laundry facilities are often offered -- sometimes bars, tourist desks, and internet access, too. Most hostels have linen and pillows. European digs may have breakfast. Some places have (sometimes seriously sweet) suites and private rooms.

What Hostels Don't Have:

Backpackers' don't have concierges, daily in-room maid service or bedspreads. They're seldom spotless, and they have waaaay less bed bugs than your mother thinks. They seldom have in-room phones and tv's, but often have tv, pay phones, games, vending machines and computers in a common area; some have no towels (lame!), or require towel deposits. Management doesn't supply, but may rent, locks for in-house lockers.

What Staying in Hostels Is Like:

Backpackers' lodgings are usually very social. Some are party palaces where sleeping is not paramount, like Amsterdam's Flying Pig Backpackers, and some keep sleep tops, like New York's Chelsea Hostel. In any backpackers', someone will come in late and flip on bedroom lights (guaranteed). Expect so-so showers (bring flip flops). Some lamer places lock you out in midday to (ostensibly) clean. Backpackers' with curfews are usually quietest and pretty safe (more on safety at bottom).

Finding Good Beds (Sleep or No Sleep?):

Read reviews (lists below) before reserving. BUG Europe posts user and staff reviews. Hostelworld.com posts sometimes suspect user reviews. HI is like AAA -- the places meet certain standards. And we comb all of the sites and personally visit tons o' spots to compile top ten lists by country and city:

Write your own hostel review!

Reserving and Paying:

Most backpackers' take reservations through one main hostel booking engine -- choose the reservations site you like best (I *love* TFTHostels booking search engine). If you've used Hostelworld.com, you'll lose a deposit if you cancel the first night (more on problems below). You can reserve HI (Hostelling International) places through HI country sites, but the sites are often a pain. If reserving through individual hostels' sites, ensure credit card transactions are secure. See where to book:

Speaking of credit cards, bear in mind that some joints won't take plastic at the desk.

Hostel Check In:

Clerks may ask for a key deposit; get it back when you return the key. You may also be asked to leave your passport at the desk as a deposit, or a bigger cash deposit if you won't. Front doors are often locked at night, and you need to check in by whatever hour required or chance being on the street despite your prepaid reservation. Pick up towels and locker locks at check-in if you have to rent them. Get the full curfew scoop at check in.

Hostels Safety and Curfews:

Hostels usually take security as seriously as do hotels; in fact, it can be harder to sneak into a hostel than a five star hotel. Lock your backpack and lock it in a locker, but don't overly worry about your personal safety. Follow some travel safety tips and you'll be fine.

Hostel curfews are becoming more rare, though they're by no means a thing of the past. If one exists at your hostel, it may just mean the door is locked after a certain hour... or it may mean you're locked out. Find out! And find out more: read Hostel Curfews Explained."

Last Hostels Tips:

      The "best" hostels don't vary that much, though we named one best in 2005, and then heard that the owners fired the manager and changed things; most powerhouses stick to their proven MO, though. Big size does not mean best. Read reviews.

      What About Hostel Discounts?

      Backpackers' lodgings aren't big on the discount thing. However, HI, YHA and Nomads use hostel discount cards and some hostel booking services offer slight discounts which may save you a buck on one night, and you can often negotiate a deal if you're staying for a few weeks or months.

      Hostels Reservations and Money Problems

      Some (sometimes sketchy) backpackers' lodgings won't refund money if you don't cancel each night 24 hours in advance. Some will refuse to refund anything if you cancel any nights past the first night if you've already checked in and paid -- politely and firmly insist, especially if you're checking out 'cuz the stay was bad.

      Bottom line: find out policy before you pay if you can; hostels' staffs generally don't answer email, so pre-visit contact can be a pain. We've let you know what our personal experiences have been in our individual reviews.

      Frequently Asked Questions

      The most frequently asked hostels questions are answered in this hostels FAQ -- check it out to understand lock outs, curfews, sleeping arrangements and more hostels FAQs. And understand bed bugs and travel, too (don't worry!).

    Get some backpacking Europe tips, learn all about Eurail passes and more vital student travel info in the links below, and enjoy the trip!

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