Travel: How to Judge a Hostel

One of the keys to traveling cheaply is finding cheap accommodations, which often translates to finding a hostel. I have come to love staying in hostels, in all their infinite variety. While they are not as prolific in the U.S. as they are abroad, hostels are a fantastic option for anyone who is looking to spend the majority of their day out and about in a new locale, rather than relaxing in a luxurious bed all day. If you’re looking for a cheap place to stay while on your next adventure, check out this guide for getting the most hostel for your buck.

The internet has been an utter blessing to anyone looking for a place to rest their head. Websites such as hostelworld.com and booking.com are fantastic. You can search for all different types of accommodations in virtually any city around the world. These sites include pictures, reviews, directions and maps, along with a way to book your stay. Just as when buying plane tickets, you’ll want to use an anonymous browser to search for a hostel to avoid higher prices resulting from a search history full of hostel inquiries. Like airplane booking sites, hostel booking sites keep track of the cookies on your computer so they can tell what you’ve been previously searching for and will show you higher prices to get the most money out of you. The only exception to this might be if you have a VPN (Virtual Private Network). I’ve noticed that sometimes I could get cheaper prices depending on the country my computer was set on. If you have the software and the time, it can be worth it to play around with your computer’s location to try to get a deal.

Now to actually choosing a hostel. First, know that there are only two truly important points to any accommodation: cleanliness and safety. Nearly everything else can be sacrificed so long as you are safe and will not contract anything mysterious while in the shower. Really browse through reviews of the hostels you’re considering to see if there are any complaints about the cleanliness. Make sure the bedlinens are changed between guests, and if possible opt for an ensuite bathroom. Having a more private bathroom will make you immensely more comfortable; no one enjoys walking down strange hallways with strange people in nothing more than a strange towel. Plus, the less people using the bathroom the cleaner it’ll be. If there is any mention of bugs in the hostel, run away. Bug infestations are nearly impossible to get rid of without fumigating the whole building, a service not every cheap hostel is able or willing to pay for. As for safety, consider both the reviews and the area surrounding your hostel. If previous guests report stolen items or sketchy deals going down in and around the hostel, give that location a pass. The great deal at the sketchy location loses its glow the moment your Kindle winds up missing (the exact situation my friend found herself in when she booked a bed at Chunking Mansions in Kowloon, Hong Kong; that weekend away was not nearly as relaxing as she’d been hoping).

The next most important aspect of your hostel is its location. Being further out from the city center will most definitely net you better savings, but could also cost you both time and money in transportation. It’s a good idea to already have a list of sights or activities you want to go to when you start looking for a hostel, that way you can judge whether or not a hostel’s location makes it worth the savings. Also, be willing to sacrifice some extras inside the hostel to find one with a more convenient location. Better to be in a small bed just a jaunt away from a bus or metro stop than a large one an hour outside the city you want to be exploring.

Also, make sure your expectations of the hostel are in line with where you are going. It’s important to understand how people live in the area you are traveling to so you can get a good idea of what you’re experience will be like. I would often roll my eyes at hostel reviews that gave one star only because the Wi-Fi was shoddy, or the shower didn’t have a curtain. Such inconveniences are the norm in the parts of Asia we traveled to and lived in; it seemed ridiculous to complain about the norms. Depending on where you are traveling, a California king bed with a private Western style bathroom and high speed internet might only be available at a high-end hotel. As my friend put it, “If you want to live like you’re in America, stay in America.” Choosing a place in line with the local culture will inevitably be cheaper than trying to mimic a style of living in another country, so the more willing you are to embrace the norms, the cheaper your stay will cost. Plus, embracing the local quirks will lead to great stories to tell when you return home.

I’ve found it’s a good idea to not only check out the reviews on the hostel booking sites, but also to do a bit of your own Googling to see what people across the internet think of your potential abode. Every once in a while I’ve seen a hostel with glowing reviews on the booking site but significantly nastier remarks found elsewhere; at times it is clear the suspiciously positive reviews were written by the owners of the hostel themselves. That bit of extra Googling can at times help you get a better understanding of where it is you would like to stay.

With hostels, you’ll want to plan a bit ahead with your arrival. Most hostels are cash-only operations. When you book online you’ll only be paying a small down payment to reserve the beds, so you’ll need to arrive with plenty of local currency on hand. Plan to bring enough money so you can cover the total cost of your stay, along with any extras you might need that first day. Many hostels charge rental fees for things like towels and even bedding. Be sure to know how much those charges could be so you don’t have to use one of your shirts as a towel that first night, ‘tis not a pleasant experience. I know for me, personally, I always seem to arrive at my destinations starving, so it’s not a bad idea to have enough cash to also cover your first meal of the trip.

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