Hostels are a great way to meet new people when you are backpacking and they are a money saver too, as they are more often than not, cheaper than most hotels.
Some can offer extremely good value for money, comfortable beds, tourism services, free food and affordable laundry services, all under one roof.
Most hostels also offer the option of a private room, which are usually less expensive than hotels or bed and breakfasts.
While hotels will always be a booming industry, hostels are rapidly rising in popularity among the savvy and budget conscious travellers.
They are not only popular among backpackers, but also families, single travellers and professionals.
However, finding a good hostel can be tricky, especially when you are travelling abroad.
My tips below focus mainly on hostels although the same advice applies to hotels as well.
After all, there is nothing worse than arriving in a strange new city and finding out that the accommodation you booked is a hellhole.
If you’ve ever been in this situation, then I feel your pain; believe me, I’ve been there.
I’ve been unfortunate enough to come across hostels infested with cockroaches, bed bugs, rats, or ones that were just plain filthy, with minimal customer service in the past, but now I have become pretty adept at weeding them out before I make the mistake of booking them.
So how do you avoid the disasters and get your trip off to a good start with a great hostel?
Do your homework
As a kid, I always hated homework at school. After all, there were so many more exciting things I could be doing.
But skipping a homework assignment would often be followed by big trouble.
The same rule applies when choosing a hostel. If you fail to do your detective work on a hostel, or you neglect to conduct a simple Google search on all of the options you are considering, then you are potentially setting yourself up for disappointment later on down the line.
No marks to you!
Read the reviews
I love reading. But instead of reading the entire works of Shakespeare, you might want to take a peek at the hostel reviews instead.
Although they may not be 100% accurate, it’ll give you a good, general idea of what a hostel is like.
Many sites will also give a hostel a rating (usually out of ten) based upon the reviews it has or the experience of the website owner.
The majority of reputable hotel and hostel booking sites will include reviews, written by those who have stayed at them. Forums such as Tripadvisor and Trustpilot are other places where you can read the reviews.
If you see a general consensus among the comments made or you find many of the negative reviewers have complained about the same thing, pay special attention to that.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve regretted dismissing such feedback, only to find out that yes, that hostel really was a dive. If the same complaints are cropping up at different times of the year, then that is another red flag: it indicates a lack of progress or concern.
You should also take note of how many reviews have been written. A hostel with thousands of comments will give you a much better idea than one with only 100.
In fact, it is better to go for a hostel with a 9/10 rating but with 3,284 reviews than one with a 10/10 rating and only 3 reviews for example.
Similarly, alarm bells should ring if a hostel has no recent feedback. It could be a sign that the hostel is either very new, or that the previous comments are out of date.
I have another rule: no reviews, no booking. Always go for a hostel with reviews or ratings.
It is also a good idea to read ones from a number of different sites as well to get a better idea.
Use reputable booking sites
The best places to find a hostel are Hostelworld.com, Agoda, Booking.com and Tripadvisor. These are really the giants of the hostel booking world and for good reason.
Hostelworld is my favourite, as it usually doesn’t charge you a booking fee (hey, every penny counts!), whereas some of the others do. This is why the price on some sites may vary for the same hostel room.
Nearly all hostel booking sites will charge a deposit.
The Lonely Planet and other guidebooks will also have some good suggestions.
You can book directly via a hostel’s website, but in my experience, many hostels fail to get back in touch or send you a confirmation when you book this way, particularly if there is a language barrier.
You also have some degree of protection when you book and pay through a reputable hostel site.
Ask other travellers’ for suggestions
Some of the best hostels I have stayed in were recommended by other backpackers.
Word-of-mouth is still a very powerful phenomenon in the hostel booking world, and you can discover many funky hostels this way, particularly if they are not yet well established.
Try to get dates, contact details of the hostel and exact locations. I’ve often turned up at the wrong hostel with a similar or even the same name as one recommended by a friend as it turned out to be part of a chain!
If you get a chance, try to speak to people who are either staying or have stayed at the hostel you are about to go to. If they give you the thumbs down, then run like a racehorse.
Check the hostel offers relevant services
A hostel can be great, but it may not necessarily be ideal for you. Therefore, whenever you book, check that it includes all the services you need.
For example, if free breakfast, or an airport pickup is important to you, then be sure to confirm that this is something they offer before you make the booking.
Location, location, location!
A hostel’s location can make or break a trip. Indeed, if a hostel is located 10,000 miles away from all the major attractions or points of interest, then that could add significantly to the cost of your travel.
So be sure to double check how far it is from the local amenities and find out how good the transport links are.
Pay attention to the target audience
A hostel may very well have a good rating but it may not be the best hostel for you at all. For example, if you are looking for a good night’s sleep, then you want to make sure you don’t end up in a party hostel.
Perhaps you are after a quiet, family-friendly hostel, so you checked into one rated 9/10 on Hostelworld, but all the reviewers are 18 and 19 year olds who love to party or vice-versa.
This is why you should read the reviews carefully and pay attention to the age of the reviewers if it is displayed, if it is important for you to be around your own age group.
Similarly, if language barriers are a concern, be sure to check the nationality of the reviewers as well. Often, if large numbers of local people frequent a hostel, it will usually be easier for them to speak in their native language. If you are not bilingual, then this may or may not be a problem.
However, if you are keen to meet the locals in the country you visit and are not so keen on just speaking to other tourists, then the same advice applies.
Ask to see the room first
If a hostel does not allow you to look at the room first before you check in, then alarm bells should ring.
I can’t tell you how many times I have paid upfront for 3 or 4 days and then instantly regretted it once I saw the state of the rooms and bathrooms.
If you are going to arrive late, or you need to make special arrangements, be sure to inquire about this preferably by phone and email before you book the room.
In fact, it is a good idea to do this anyway, because the response you get from the hostel can give you a good indication as to how good their customer service/language/response time is.
Look at the pretty pictures
So I was just about to click ‘book now’ for a hostel in China when something caught my eye.
The toilet was a squat toilet and the shower was located directly above it. Ewwww! I cancelled my booking.
The hostel in the example above looked good on paper. It had great reviews, high speed wifi services, most of the facilities I considered to be important and was based in a convenient and brilliant location. And clearly, most of the other travellers were cool with showering while standing in a squatty potty. But my hygiene radar went off the charts and I abandoned ship.
The moral of the story? Be sure to look closely at any pictures displayed, either by the hostel itself, or the ones posted by other travellers.
The tips above are far from conclusive, but by following them, it can help to ensure that you choose the best hostel for you.
There is no foolproof way to guarantee that you will love every place you happen to book, but by taking simple steps to research your trip, you can reduce the chances of ending up in a hostel that doesn’t meet your expectations.