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What is a Hostel? A Comprehensive Guide

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Hostels have gotten a bad reputation over the years, especially among US travelers, but they are amazing for solo travelers. While hostels aren’t for everyone, and definitely cater towards a younger crowd, they are a great way to meet other solo travelers. I have traveled the world solo, spending nights in probably 100 different hostels over the years. Of course, not all hostels are the same. This guide will outline everything you need to know about staying in a hostel and answer the question: what is a hostel? 

Haus Hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Haus Hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand

What is a hostel? 

So to kick things off let’s answer the question: what is a hostel? A hostel is a low-cost, basic form of accommodation. Often catering towards a younger crowd, hostels offer both private rooms and shared rooms, where you will share a room with other travelers, often in bunk beds.

Hostel vs Hotel: What is the difference? 

What is the difference between a hotel and a hostel you might be wondering? Many aspects are the same! Hostels, however, cater towards younger budget conscious travelers. With shared rooms filled with bunk beds, they are a great way to travel for cheap and meet like-minded travelers. They are also often a much more affordable option if you are traveling solo, and therefore not splitting the cost of a room with a fellow traveler.

Unlike hotels, most hostels don’t come with a towel, and some even require you to rent your own sheets. They tend to be no frills, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t still be super nice, clean, and enjoyable!

Who stays in a hostel?

The typical hostel-goer tends to skew on the younger side. The average age is probably somewhere between 18 and 25, although you’ll definitely find travelers much older than that as well! I have even witnessed full families with young children staying in hostels.

The age of hostel go-ers will vary depending on the country and the type of hostel you’re staying at. Party hostels or hostels with 24-bed dorms, for example, definitely cater towards a younger crowd.

What is it like staying in a hostel? 

I absolutely love hostels. That said, I have had amazing experiences and… not so amazing experiences. We’ll get into this a bit more below, but the type of hostel that you choose and the amenities offered that have a major impact on your stay.

Here are a few things you can expect:

  • Lots of social activities and ways to meet fellow travelers
  • Breakfast options (sometimes included, sometimes for a fee)
  • Shared bathrooms
  • Shared rooms (although private rooms are often available as well)
  • Other budget travelers
The Farm Hostel, Canggu, Bali overhead of girl in pool
Many hostels have pools!

How much money does it cost to stay in a hostel?

The price of a hostel is definitely an important factor, especially when traveling on a budget. However, an extra dollar or two can go a long way. Don’t always opt for the cheapest option. Sometimes an extra few dollars can lead to a much better experience. Plus, if the backpackers hostel offers great amenities (free meals, happy hours, etc), it may end up being cheaper than the “cheapest” option.

For reference, I have stayed in a hostel bed in Vietnam for as little as $4 a night (which included breakfast and dinner!!), and paid as much as $50 for a bed in a shared room in Sweden with no frills.

Tips for staying in a hostel 

  • Always book at least one night, and inquire about their availability for the upcoming nights
  • Take advantage of the kitchens for cheap, healthy meals
  • Make sure to pack flip flops, an eye mask, ear plugs, and a small lock
  • Don’t be afraid to make conversation with strangers
  • Trust your gut if you feel uncomfortable

Pros of staying at a hostel

There are so many pros to staying at hostels, especially when you’re younger. In my early twenties I stayed at more than 100 different hostels around the world.

The biggest pros for me are cost and friendship. As a solo traveler, booking private rooms can be super expensive. Hostel beds are a great way to get cheap accommodation. Similarly, they are also a great way to meet tons of new people. I’ve made tons of close friends at hostels (and even met my fiance at a hostel).

Hostels can also be really nice! All of the photos in this article were taken at hostels that I’ve stayed at. You’ll often find pools, hostel bars, fitness or yoga classes, and even co-working spaces.

The Farm Hostel, Canggu, Bali view of the pool
The Farm Hostel, Canggu, Bali
Kos One, Canggu, Bali - girl in hot tub
Kos One, Canggu, Bali

Cons of staying at a hostel

With any accomodation option, there will always be some cons. The biggest one for me when staying at hostels in interrupted sleep. If you’re a heavy sleeper, this might not impact you as much. However, when staying at a hostel you may need to deal with loud snorers, other guests arriving back late, early risers. Let’s just say that some guests are more respectful than others.

Similarly, things may not always be up to your level of cleanliness if you’re sharing a room with strangers. This is definitely something you learn to deal with when staying at hostels frequently.

Lastly, you may not be able to always be on your planned schedule. For example, someone else may be in the bathroom when you want to use it.

Frequently asked hostel questions 

Are hostels safe?

If you’re traveling as a solo female, your safety should always be top of mind in every decision that you make. I always look for properties that have overnight staff at the front desk, or ones that lock the doors overnight. 

Another way to keep your valuables safe is to make sure that the hostel room has a locker. A small locker is great, but I always look out for rooms that have a full sized locker, where you can bring your own lock. This allows you to lock up your entire backpack, keeping all of your stuff safe while you’re out exploring. 

For more tips on travel safety, I’ve created a guide on smart solo female traveler safety tips

Do hostels provide bedding? 

Most hostels provide bedding! In fact, in the 100+ hostels that I’ve stayed in over the years, there have only been a small handful of places that didn’t include bedding. And even those had it available to rent for a small fee. So if you were planning to travel with a sleeping bag, that is probably unnecessary unless you have actual camping in mind. That said, if you’re looking for something lightweight and travel friendly, I highly recommend the Sea-to-Summit Sleeping Bag Liner. This is perfect for hostels with less-than-ideal cleaning standards.

Can I lock up my things at a hostel? 

Most hostels offer some sort of locker situation. This is either small lockers in the rooms or common area – often just big enough for a small backpack or some valuables. Other hostels have large locked spaces under the bunks, large enough for a full backpacking backpack. These are always my favorite! Either way, you’ll want to bring your own combination lock when traveling, as locks often aren’t included.

Do hostels provide towels?

Most hostels do not provide complimentary towels, unless you are staying in a private room. And even then it is still not guaranteed. For this reason I always travel with my own travel towel. This should be something that is fast drying, compact and easy to pack. Here is a link to my go-to travel towel.

Where to book a hostel

Just like hotels, there are a number of sites available for booking hostel rooms. Of course, booking direct is always an option. However, I mostly use: Hostelworld.com

free breakfast at hostel
Free breakfast is a great perk of many hostels
kos one and alternative beach pool canggu bali
Some hostels are really nice (even for $10 USD a night)

How to pick the right hostel 

It is important to pick the type of hostel that fits your needs. If you’re looking to meet lots of people and stay out all night partying, then a party hostel is probably the right choice for you. If, on the other hand, you’re traveling as a digital nomad, then you might want something with enforced quiet hours.

Ultimately, it is super important to read the reviews of past travelers when choosing a hostel!

Types of rooms in hostels 

Co-ed shared bunk room

Co-ed shared bunk rooms are exactly what they sound like – rooms with multiple beds that can be book by either gender. These are super common, and are sometimes the only option at hostels.

Female-only shared bunk room

When possible, I always prefer to stay in a female-only dorm. Sorry guys, but I find that females tend to be much more respectful. Also, to be frank, there is a much higher chance of encountering a late night couple enjoying themselves when staying in co-ed dorms. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a whole lot less likely when you chose to stay in a female-only dorm. 

Private room

Private hostel rooms are private rooms. This means that you (and you’re travel companion if you have one) won’t be sharing the room with any other guests. Sometimes you have a private bathroom, other times it is also shared. These are often much pricier than dorm rooms, and even than local guesthouses. However, you get all of the social benefits of staying at a hostel without compromising on your sleeping situation.

poolside cabana at the farm hostel canggu bali
Enjoying the cheap hostel life in Bali

Types of hostels 

There are so many different types of hostels to choose from, and you can usually get a good sense by reading reviews or checking out their description online. Here are just a few popular types of hostels:

  • Party hostel 
  • Eco-tourism hostel
  • Working community hostel 
  • Yoga hostel 
  • Surf hostel 

Best Hostels Around the World

There are tons of great hostels all over the world, but here are a few of my favorites:

Traveling solo? Here are some other articles that you should check out:

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