So, you’ve decided to take a solo trip, and you’ve taken a look at your budget. If you want to be able to do fun activities, you realize you need to keep your lodging costs below $50/day, and $15/day is sounding even better. That means a hostel, rather than a hotel. Today, Airbnb is also a cheap option, but I like the social aspect of hostels, and the chance encounters with strangers that can lead to fun discoveries, so I won’t discuss Airbnb here. If you’ve never traveled alone before, it can be overwhelming to sort through all the options and find a place you’re happy with. I have stayed in over 20 hostels in the last 6 years, in 15 countries (including the US!), and I have developed a system that has served me well. Just follow these steps, and you should have a smooth hostelling experience.
1. Research the city you’re going to. Look at maps.
The location of your hostel is far and away the most important thing about it. Before you start looking at specific hostels, you need to get a sense of what neighborhood to be in. When I travel alone, I am very careful about going out after dark. If it’s a purely residential neighborhood, and you start to feel unsafe, there’s not much you can do about it, because there’s no one around to intervene and no place to go into for help. That’s why, especially if I’m traveling during a time of year where it gets dark really early, I like to stay right downtown, in commercial neighborhoods where there’s a lot of stuff to do, and places to eat, within walking distance. So, start by looking at the Google Maps for the city. Zoom in and out enough that you get a sense of where the train station, bus station, and airport are; if there is a subway system, how close together are the stations and how much of the city does it cover; how clustered are the museums/tourist sites; and how long it would take you to walk across downtown (which tells you how important public transit will be). If you’re zoomed at the right level, the map gives you the names of the neighborhoods, and you can keep that in mind for step 2.
2. Look at several hostel websites in tabs at the same time.
I generally find that between hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com I’m set, because they’re the two biggest ones, but there are lots of other options if you google “find a hostel in [city]”. You enter the city, the dates, and the number of guests, and see what results you get. For Tokyo, checking in August 13 and checking out August 16, for one person, Hostelworld found 48, starting at $19.93 per night, and Hostelbookers found 45, starting at $20.98. So obviously both websites cover the same universe of hostels, but it’s worth it to look at both because they have different ratings and reviews, which helps you make the final choice once you’ve narrowed it down. I used to use both, but when planning this trip I’ve found that Hostelworld has WAY more options once I’ve set the filters, particularly more highly rated options, so I’ve been using it exclusively. Its rating system also seems more precise than Hostelbookers’.
3. Filter out your deal breakers.
As a starting point, I filter out any hostel that doesn’t have free wifi and that has a rating below 65%. It takes a lot for people to leave bad reviews of a hostel, and at this point in my life I don’t feel like dealing with the headaches that go along with that kind of place. (Like not enough hot water, dirty bathrooms, doors that don’t lock, etc.) Realistically, I won’t stay anywhere that’s rated below 80% if I can help it, but it’s best to start broad and narrow in. You can also look for places that have washing machines, common rooms, bars, air conditioning, a gym, and many other types of amenities. At this point, most highly-rated hostels in big cities have been custom built, or renovated, with a global crowd of short-term travelers in mind, and they’re more like fancy hotels with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Sometimes they’re called “flash packing” hostels, which means you’re less likely to be sharing your space with someone who’s living their long term. That’s a good thing. (In Chamonix, two friends and I took three beds in a 10-bed dorm. All the other beds were filled with people who had just come up to ski for the weekend, except for one lady who had been living there for four months. She made the atmosphere so uncomfortable with the way she had laid claim to the space, with her towels and socks drying on lines strung all around, that we spent no time in the room except to sleep. And then the room smelled like feet, which is always a risk with dorms but less common in nicer ones that are regularly cleaned, and filled with short-term guests.)
4. Read the reviews
This is the fastest way to weed out unacceptable hostels, so that you only bother looking at the details and pictures of the serious contenders. If a review mentions bedbugs, construction noise (and it was written within the last 3 months), dirty bathrooms, or a musty smell, I’m done with that hostel, especially if more than one are telling the same story. But once you’ve gotten past that step, dig a little farther back in the reviews to get a feel for the place. Is everyone talking about all the great friends they made while they were hanging out on the roof deck? That tells you that the common space is well designed, and probably comfortable for you to hang out in and socialize when you aren’t in the mood to go around in the neighborhood. One hostel I stayed in in Nelson, New Zealand baked a huge chocolate cake every night at 8 pm, so you could count on a full common room every day. If it wasn’t for the people I met my first night (who I then went on a day-long hiking/kayaking excursion with, and who then wanted to get a beer after a long day outdoors), I would never have discovered the coolest craft-beer bar I’ve ever been in, where the taps are just colors because the beers change so much. (It’s called Free House and it used to be a church, http://www.thefreehouse.co.nz.) Are people singing the praises of the helpful staff, who gave them advice on where to go and how to buy tickets, or are they complaining that they had to stand in the street with their bags for an hour because no one was around to let them in? Especially if you haven’t done a lot of research on the city ahead of time, a knowledgeable person at the front desk is worth their weight in gold. Plus, a lot of big urban hostels have connections to free walking tours, and sometimes the guide will even swing by the hostel to pick you up if the hostel regularly sends big groups on the tours. I have taken free walking tours in Berlin, Sydney, and Melbourne through hostels.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is comments from the season you’re going in talking about the temperature. If you’re going to Southeast Asia in the middle of the summer, and the reviews talk about how they only run the AC for 8 hours at night, so it’s muggy and hard to sleep, that’s a bad sign. Similarly, if you’re going to Switzerland to ski in the middle of the winter, and people are complaining that it was hard to find extra blankets and they shivered all night, that’s not ideal either.
5. Select your room type
This is the category where I have arrived at all of my conclusions through bad experiences, so I am trying to save you from having puke splash on you because the bunk beds are too close together by sharing my wisdom, moving from larger room sizes down to small.
- Don’t stay in a dorm with more than 12 beds, 16 max. I stayed in a 24-bed room in the Hague, and the beds were so close together you had to turn sideways and suck in your stomach to navigate around the room. There was absolutely nowhere to put your stuff, and when the guy on the top bunk next to me was too drunk to make it to the bathroom, puke splashed on me. Don’t do it. The rooms are never big enough for that many beds. And unless the weather is warm enough to leave a window open for fresh air 24/7, they stink.
- If you’re a woman traveling alone, don’t stay in a mixed-gender room smaller than 6 people. In Berlin, the first night in a four-bed room was me and three other solo women travelers, in a nice new hostel where the room had its own bathroom. The second night, I walked out of the shower to find three guys who were all friends with each other, who had been pregaming before getting ready to hit the Berlin nightclubs hard. They were gentlemen, but unfortunately not everyone is, especially when they’re drunk and in a group of friends they’re trying to impress, and in a bigger room there’s a smaller chance that every other person will know each other except you.
- If you’re staying in a mixed-gender room, I’ve found the sweet spot is 8 beds, because that’s usually 4 sets of bunks, and there’s generally enough floor space for everyone’s luggage. It’s usually a mix of pairs, trios, and solo travelers, and you can meet some really interesting people. In Barcelona, I shared my room with a French mother and her two children, who were staying in a hostel because someone had pickpocketed the mother and they couldn’t get back to France until the consulate replaced their documents since you can’t take children across international borders without papers; and two British girls who were traveling around Europe for a few months and who accompanied me to a sangria bar I had heard about but didn’t want to go to alone. In Vienna, I met a ballerina who was just about to go pro after graduating from college, who thought going to the opera and getting sachertorte after (standing room tickets at the Vienna Opera House are only 3 euros) was a great idea, so she changed her train by a day and rounded up another friend. And so on.
- At this point, I always try to get a bed in a women’s only room, and if I can’t at one hostel often I will choose a different hostel where women’s only rooms are available. Safety is the biggest reason, but also girls generally don’t snore as loudly. There was one guy in Melbourne who was so loud that I couldn’t sleep all night, because it sounded like he had swallowed a dinosaur and it was trying to escape. And, while shared dorm rooms don’t necessarily smell like sunshine and flowers, especially if it’s in a place where people are there to do a lot of outdoor sports, the average stank-level is definitely lower in women-only rooms. Often the other girls in the room are traveling together, or at least some of them are, so it can be harder to make friends with your roommates, but as long as the hostel has a nice common room that really doesn’t matter. Since uninterrupted sleep is a higher priority than in-room socializing, I go for the smallest room I can get, usually a 4-bed. However, single-gender dorm rooms can go up to 12, though usually not much larger. Some hostels do have men-only dorms, but it’s less common than women-only ones.
- Private rooms are great if you’re traveling with a few other friends, but if there’s only one of you, you need to read the terms carefully. If it’s a room with a double bed, the price listed is the price per person, so it’s actually twice that if you want to stay in it alone. One of the requirements of a private room generally is that you pay for every bed in it, so if it’s a 4-bed room you pay for four beds even if there are only three of you. It’s not super common, but some hostels do have private rooms for one person, just barely bigger than a twin bed, and those can be really nice if you want privacy. They’re more expensive than half of a double private room, but still way cheaper than a hotel, because you’re still sharing the bathroom with the other dorms. In Rotorua, New Zealand, I stayed in a single private room, and it was great because the sinks, toilets, and showers were just steps away, but I could watch videos without having to wear headphones, Skype without having to go into a common room, and not have to worry about being woken up by someone stumbling in late from a bar.
6. Look at pictures and the map to confirm your choice
At this point, it’s probably down to two or three choices, so look at the pictures they’ve posted of the rooms, bathrooms, and common spaces to get clues about how comfy the common space is, how big the kitchen is (if you’re planning on cooking), and if it looks like there’s room for your suitcase in the room. Double check the map to make sure you’re not in the middle of nowhere, half an hour’s walk away from the nearest public transit.
Congratulations! You’re ready to book your hostel!