Truths&myths about hostels

Hostels seem to have a bit of a bad rep around people who have never stayed in them. Over the last three and half years I’ve stayed in tens of hostels in, umm, maybe ten countries and when I travel, looking up a hostel is the first thing in my mind. Sometimes I do book into a cheap hotel – especially when I’m travelling with my boyfriend – or look into couchsurfing, but with the way I travel, hostels are my number one option. I live in this little backpacker bubble that I barely notice myself until someone bursts it with a genuine question: What is a hostel? Just a few days ago I explained to a friend what Hostelworld was.

The cool facade of St. Pauli’s Backpackers in Hamburg, Germany

It is quite easy to forget, though, that I used to be like that, not knowing what hostels are like, not really even knowing that they existed at all. It is easy, too, for a seasoned traveller to scoff at the more inexperienced one for their misconceptions of hostels. But how would someone know what a backpacker hostel is like if they’ve never stayed in one? Chances are that their only travel experiences so far have been from family trips or weekends out with friends when they’ve stayed in a hotel room. To them, cheap, shared accommodation might sound intimidating or dodgy – maybe they’re even thinking about those seedy roadside motels that you see in American TV. Hell, in some places the word hostel itself can bring up negative connotations: in India hostels mean shifty university dormitories and backpacker hostels are only now starting to sprout around the country.

So according to things I’ve heard people say about hostels, I’ve put together a little list of truths and myths surrounding them.

All rooms are named after countries in Red Emperor’s in Tallinn, Estonia

Hostels are dirty and run down.

Cheap always equals worse, right? You pay a fortune for a hotel room with crispy clean sheets and impeccably polished mirrors, while in a hostel dorm you’re exposing yourself to bedbugs, flu and the smell of feet. But just because hostels are cheaper than hotels doesn’t make them dingy.

In a good hostel, the staff will clean the rooms and the toilets every day and have fresh sheets for the new customers. Many hostels don’t allow guests to sleep in their own sleeping bags just so that they can prevent the spread of bedbugs; many will also have rules against eating and drinking inside the dorms as to avoid big stains of tomato soup and the irrevocably spilled wine. Unless you’ve got too much free time in your hands and you are reaaaally into cleaning stuff, the chances are your hostel is cleaner than your own home.

Unfortunately, though, this misconception does not arise from thin air. Claiming that all hostels are not dirty would be just as misleading as saying that they all are. This is the reason you have to do your research or otherwise be prepared that you could end up in any kind of a place. I’ve stayed in hostels with toilet doors that had huge holes where the lock should’ve been; that had mice under the kitchen floor; that had a problem with people defecating into sinks; the list goes on. In all these cases I have read the reviews beforehand and been aware that I might end up in a total crack cave but decided to let it slide in order to save money. And sometimes all the research in the world won’t save you because if you’re staying in dorms, your experience will be as different as all the other people who are staying there. Maybe you’ll get lucky and only have me and my uncontrollable pile of backpack and unknown material next to your bed. Maybe you’re not and that drunk German guy will wake up at a.m. and vomit all over you and three other beds.

Cooking for the guests in Urban House in Copenhagen, Denmark

The truth is, though, that most hostels are not seedy dirty caves but comfortable, clean places to lay your head to rest after a day of hardcore sightseeing. Just read reviews and ask recommendations from friends.

Happy feet in Lotte – The Backpackers in Heidelberg, Germany

Hostels are unsafe.

Sharing a room with ten strangers might seem a bit suspicious. You have no way of knowing who you’re sleeping with, and with the huge turnover of hostel guests it might prove impossible to track down that dirty hippie that accidentally on purpose took your guitar with them as they checked out hours before you managed to wake up.

You can’t know what kind of people you’re staying with – however, you can make the experience enjoyable for yourself by taking necessary precautions. I always try to stay in hostels that have lockers, preferably as big as to fit my whole backpack in – if not, at least I know my camera and laptop will be safe behind a padlock. It’s also a good idea to get a backpack that has two zippers for each pocket so that you can lock up your actual backpack with a small combination lock (definitely get one – you will hate yourself when you realise you’ve lost the small key to your regular padlock). I also tend to sleep with my valuables by my pillow and on the wall side of the bed so that they are hard to reach without me noticing.

You might also want to pick a hostel that has key-card access through the front door or at least someone at the front desk at all times. Some hostels don’t allow outside friends to visit for a party night at all which can be a party killer, but if you prefer the extra safety you can check from the hostel description and reviews how their security is.

What about personal security then? I understand why some people might feel uncomfortable being surrounded by so many strangers. When I first started backpacking I exclusively stayed in female-only dorms for the first few months until I made a (probably price-conscious) decision to book into a mixed dorm, and it was a blast. But to each their own; a female dorm is a good option to those who prefer it. Concerning general safety, just make sure that your hostel is not located in a dodgy area of the city. Those Hostel films are not real, guys.

The party room in Tinbilly’s in Brisbane, Australia

All in all, the only thing I think is different to hotels is sharing a room with other people whose actions you can’t predict. You can always solve this problem by booking up a private room in your hostel – yes, those do exist! – or making sure nothing’s lying around that you would mind losing. Personally, I’ve never had anything stolen from me by a dorm mate (at least not that I’ve noticed… then again I did carry about half the world on my back when I first started out and I could barely keep count of what I owned). Instead I suspect that an employee in a cheap but cozy Indian hotel I stayed in took my power bank from a private room. Joke’s on them, the one I have now is more sleek and light-weight.

Chilling on the rooftop of the Bob (Marley) hostel in Jodhpur, India

Hostels are for young party people looking to hook up.

Well, they are and they aren’t. I would say that most backpackers you meet do not travel solely for the purpose of drinking themselves blind and trying to hook up with as many nationalities as they can – usually it is just something that very naturally happens on the road. Most backpackers are young, probably because most young people don’t have super adult things like a baby or crippling mortgage, and also because our society seems to think that you need/can live that kind of a life before settling down and becoming a serious grown-up. What’s up with that, anyway? And sure, if you put a bunch of young, virile, energetic people into the same confined space for an unspecified amount of time, things will stir up. Many young people like to party, and even more so when they’re off somewhere new, beer might be half the price it is at home and drinking and clubbing is a good way of bonding with people you don’t know very well. Hooking up is easy, too, when the chances of running into each other again in the future are slim so things won’t get awkward. And all that excitement of being in a new place culminates in areas other than travel, too.

But hostels are not solely for people looking for a party. Again, your own research can probably save you from the worst kind of backpacker behaviour. Some hostels market themselves particularly as party hostels, while others boast a more accommodating, cozy atmosphere even suitable for children. You can pick a hostel without a bar or book into a private room or a poshtel, a hostel that is trying to be more fancy than a hostel while still maintaining the prices lower than hotels.

Hostel life summed up in one picture? Melbourne, Australia

Making friends in a hostel is easy.

Well, as not to make it all too bad, I decided to bring up one positive idea about hostels as well – that making friends is easy. The possibility of meeting people is possibly the biggest reason for a backpacker to choose a hostel over private accommodation. Especially if you’re a solo traveller, hostels can be that hotspot of other lone wayfarers that might just become your best buddies for life.

But I don’t want to romanticise the concepts of travel. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I write about it all; with the good comes the bad and the mediocre in between. And in this case the truth to this myth is that it’s a hit-and-miss.

Making friends is easier said than done and sometimes the stars need to be aligned just right. Maybe the season isn’t just right and the hostels are empty; maybe you end up in a dorm where every other bed belongs to a tight-knit bachelorette party; maybe the hostel itself doesn’t provide a good common room, a bar or a kitchen and in that manner virtually takes away all your chances of meeting other travellers. You could end up coming home at six a.m. from a night out with all the wonderful people you’ve met, trying not to cry a bit when you see them off at a train station. Or you could sit with them at the bar with nothing to say, a pint in your hand but their backs accidentally turned towards you. You could sing Wonderwall in the common room in the early hours of night with people whose names you’ve already forgotten and who you’re never going to meet again.

Hostel friendships are sometimes frivolous and fleeting, and sometimes they are impossible to make. But it all pays off when you click with the guy who knows what Moomins are or the girl that buys you apple strudels when you visit her home town.

Home sweet home for a month in The Corkman in Melbourne, Australia

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel: Why? Would you like to?

If you’ve stayed in hostels: What misconceptions or expectations did you have before staying in a hostel?

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