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how to survive your first time in a hostel

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Me in dormitory room hostel in Hanoi
Me in a hostel in Hanoi in 2011

Like it or not, staying in hostels is part and parcel of solo traveling, especially if you’re on a tight budget. For solo travelers, hotels can be a terribly expensive option because most of them don’t accommodate single guests, so you end up having to pay for two.

I find this to be a ridiculous way to spend my money. Plus, when I’m out exploring a new place, I spend most of my time outside. It doesn’t make sense to fork out so much for a room when I’m only going to spend a few hours in it. That money can better be spent on trying new food and experiences.

But apart from being a cheaper alternative to hotels, hostels offer something that hotels don’t: the opportunity to make friends with other guests. Although solo traveling does come with its perks (i.e. peace and solitude), sometimes it does get lonely out there, and you might crave for some meaningful conversations.

How to Choose a Hostel

In the old days (or at least, before I discovered online booking apps), I used to arrive at my destinations without any booking and simply hope for the best. Now, most accommodation providers are listed on online apps, so not only can you make reservations online, you can also compare their ratings, read reviews, and even see the rooms months before your trip.

The best websites for booking hostels are:

Read the hostel descriptions carefully. Better yet, read the reviews left by previous guests. They will give you a clearer insight on a particular place. But do bear in mind that what is right for others may not be right for you. So, the most important thing is to trust your gut and go with what suits you best.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a hostel:

Location

Hostels are usually centrally-located because their target market is the backpacker crowd who most likely won’t want to spend much on transportation. But this is not always the case. So, be sure to check. What’s the point of saving a few bucks on accommodation if you have to spend on taxis to get to and from the hostel? Most booking sites allow you to filter your search result based on location or distance from the city center. Other questions you might want to ask are: Is it located in a safe area of town? Is it safe if you arrive after dark?

Price

Obviously, this will be one of the determining factors in choosing a place to stay. Be wary of offers that may seem too good to be true. If a particular hostel is much cheaper than its competitors in the same area, find out why. How many people will you be sharing the room with? Does the price include breakfast? Do you have to pay extra for towels and bed sheets? Do they offer refunds if you cancel the booking? Generally, cheaper hostels require you to pay in advance and don’t allow free cancellation. If you’re okay with the prepayment policy and can do without all the extras, you can save  yourself a lot of money.
 

Type of Hostel

 

Not all hostels are created equal. This is not to say that some are better than the others. It all boils down to what you like. Some hostels are geared for young and party-loving people, while some offer a more peaceful ambiance. Some are family-run hostels while some are owned by professional chains. Professional chains tend to adhere to a higher standard of service/facilities, but they may feel impersonal. On the other hand, family-run hostels may feel cozier, but you probably have to share the communal space with their children and/or pets.

hostel dormitory room in brunei
 A government-owned hostel in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. 2011.

Type of Rooms

In general, hostels refer to dormitories with bunk beds, but some may have single beds instead. The number of people in each room varies, from 4 to 20, or maybe more. Some hostels do have private rooms with either en-suite or shared bathrooms. Some offer female-only or male-only rooms. Some are capsules/pods (not for the claustrophobic!). Pick the one that suits your needs and budget.
 

Cleanliness

As independent traveling becomes more popular, sanitary standards in most hostels are steadily increasing, but some parts of the world may not have caught up just yet. We sometimes hear stories of dirty toilets or bedbug infestation. This is where the reviews come in handy. Personally, in my 10 years of traveling, I’ve never experienced bedbugs in hostels. But as a rule of thumb, if you’d like to check whether the place has them, look at the mattress, especially at the corners. Bedbugs leave egg shells, shed skin, and fecal stains, which look something like this:
 
bedbug stain on mattress
 Bedbug stain on mattress. Credit: Elan Law Firm

Facilities & Services
 
Now that we’ve got the basics covered, check to see if they also offer any additional services and facilities (whichever applies to your needs): 
  • 24-hour reception, in case your flight arrives late.
  • Late check-out option
  • Personal lockers in dorm rooms
  • Luggage storage
  • Fan, A/C, or heater
  • Laundry facilities (self-service or otherwise)
  • Shared kitchen (useful for cutting down on food expenses if you’re traveling for a long period)
communal kitchen in hostel
Communal kitchen. Credit: Reids England
  • In-house restaurant, cafe, or pub 
  • Free breakfast or welcome drinks (I know a hostel that offers free beer every night!)
  • Linens and towels
  • Lounges/communal areas
  • Swimming pool
  • Car/motorbike/bicycle rental
  • Free parking
  • Free WiFi
  • Airport transfer
  • Tours and activities

What to Pack

Packing for hostels is going to be slightly different from packing for hotels. For instance, hostels won’t provide you with fancy little toiletries or toothbrush kits if you forgot to bring yours. So, to avoid having to buy them when you get there, make sure you bring your own supply. These are the extra things you need to pack if you plan to stay in hostels:

  • Toiletries – Some hostel bathrooms might have shampoo and shower-foam dispensers, but don’t count on this. Always bring your own.
  • Toiletry bag – Preferably a waterproof one with a hook or strap that you can hang on the bathroom door.
  • Towel – Very rarely do hostels provide towels for free, so always remember to bring your own. I recommend micro-fiber travel towels. They dry quickly and don’t take much space.
  • Sarong – Some hostels don’t provide blankets or bed sheets. If you feel uncomfortable sleeping on a bare mattress, use a sarong instead. A sarong is a multi-purpose travel accessory. It can double as a towel, scarf, skirt, picnic mat, and tote bag. Note: If you’re traveling in cold weather and staying in very basic hostels with no heating system, you might also want to bring a sleeping bag.
  • Padlock – Although most good hostels provide locker facilities, not all of them also provide padlocks. In any case, you might feel more confident using your own. The padlocks can also be used on your luggage or on your bedroom door if you’re staying in a private room.
  • Money belt – A money belt is a good option if you don’t want to leave your valuables in the locker when you sleep or go to the bathroom. It can be worn discreetly under your shirt.
  • Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones – Sharing a room with 10 other people can be noisy. Even if they’re not talking or deliberately making noise, some of them might snore. Some might have to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, or leave very early in the morning. Some might toss and turn all night long. If you’re a light sleeper, be sure to pack earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to help you sleep better.
  • Eye mask – Hostels usually practice a lights-off policy at night. But if you need to go to bed early or wake up late, pack an eye mask for your own comfort. It can also be used on flights or bus/train rides.
  • Flip-flops – This is a personal preference, but I don’t quite like the idea of going barefoot in communal bathrooms. So, I always bring a pair. It’s the best footwear for tropical weather anyway.

Is It Safe?

Without a doubt, safety is a major concern for anyone traveling solo, especially as a female. We are often told not to trust strangers, and not to talk to them, let alone spend the night with them in the same room! So, it’s perfectly understandable how fear for your safety can stop you from staying in hostels.

Personally though, I feel safer sharing a room with 10 other people than staying alone in a hotel room or an apartment. Because think about it — what is the likelihood of everyone in the dormitory being thieves or sexual predators? Even if one of them has bad intentions, the fact that there are other people in the room will surely deter them from trying anything funny on you. And with that many people around, it’s also easier for you to seek help if you somehow find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.

That said, one can never be too careful. The following are safety precautions you can take when staying in a hostel:

  • Research the location – As mentioned previously, when choosing a hostel, always research the location. Google which areas to avoid in the city you’re visiting. Read the reviews to see if anyone has ever complained of feeling unsafe when walking around the hostel at night. Hostels are usually not as prominently situated as big hotels. Some may be hidden in back alleys or in dodgy areas.
  • Pair up with another guest – Try to find someone you trust and look out for each other. Talk to him/her if there’s a safety issue you feel concerned about.
  • Learn to say no – It’s typical for hostel guests to go out for dinner, drinks, or sightseeing together. But don’t feel obliged to go out with a roommate if he/she makes you feel uncomfortable. Learn to say no politely but firmly.
Image result for sexual harassment in hostels
Credit: Hcareers
  • Opt for female-only rooms – If sharing a room with men makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable in any way, try to look for hostels that have female-only rooms. However, these are usually more expensive and are not always available.
  • Leave your valuables at home – This applies to all travelers, regardless of where you choose to stay. Logically speaking, the more valuables you bring with you on your travels, the higher the risk of you losing them or getting them stolen. You don’t want to spend the most part of your trip worrying about your stuff. Of course, you can use the lockers provided in hostels, but if you don’t trust these either, better spare yourself the stress and leave the unnecessary valuables at home.
  • Trust your gut – If you feel threatened or harassed by another guest, do not hesitate to let the hostel management know. Switch rooms if you have to, or move to another hostel. Don’t worry about cancellation fees. Ultimately, your safety should come first. 

What if You're an Introvert?

Many people stay in hostels to meet other travelers. But it can be intimidating to walk into a room full of strangers and be expected to make friends with everyone. Being a social-phobic introvert myself, I can totally relate to this. So, how do you make your hostel stay a little less awkward? This is my tried and tested trick:

The moment you see someone new, smile and say hi immediately. You don’t have to ask or say anything else. Just say hi, but do it as soon as you can. The longer you wait, the more awkward it will be. Once you get that out of the way, you can continue doing whatever you were doing. If they want to know more about you, let them ask the questions and take it from there. Chances are, some of them might feel as nervous as you are, and are glad that you made the first move to talk to them.

shy introvert social phobic traveler
Credit: Psychology Today

But what if you just don’t feel like talking? I get it. We need our downtime to recharge after a long day of socializing. The good thing is that many hostel beds have curtains to give you a semblance of privacy. Have a book with you in public places and read. Most of the time, people will get the hint and leave you alone.

What if You're a Mature Traveler?

At the mention of hostels, one might picture a place full of 20-somethings wanting to get drunk and have fun. While this is often true, it doesn’t mean that there are no older travelers staying in hostels. It also doesn’t mean that all young travelers are loud and boisterous.

Of course, there are youth hostels that don’t welcome people over 35. There are also ‘party hostels’ with a bar and loud music that goes on till the wee hours. But you don’t have to stay in those if you don’t want to. Avoid hostels with keywords like “fun”, “social”, or “party” in their descriptions, unless you’re into partying. There’s no age limit to that!

Image result for older woman partying
Credit: Shutterstock

If you’re self-conscious about how you look in comparison to the youngsters, rest assured that the only person who cares about how your body looks is you. I have shared a room with people over 50 and I never spent my time staring at or thinking about their imperfections. I have my own insecurities and body-image problems to deal with.

If anything, I actually enjoyed talking to them. And as you make friends with younger travelers, you might also be pleasantly surprised by how mature and well-traveled some young people are. We can all learn from each other. Click here to read an article by Leyla from Women on the Road who wrote about staying in hostels as a 60-something traveler.

Coping with Your Roommates

For those of you who have never had to share a room with anyone, staying in a hostel can be a bit of a culture shock. You might discover that not everyone shares your ideals when it comes to cleanliness, privacy, or personal space.

Therefore, treat it as a lesson in patience and tolerance. Hostels attract all sorts of people from all walks of life. They probably don’t mean to annoy you. Sometimes, it could just be differences in culture and upbringing. Try to keep an open mind and be more forgiving.

However, if they make you feel really uncomfortable, you should say something about it, but do so diplomatically. When all else fails, talk to the hostel staff and see if they could resolve the matter with the offending party or move you to another room.

Don't Be That Person

In return, you should also do your part and observe the dos and don’ts in a hostel. They’re pretty much common sense, but we all could do with a little reminder. Sometimes, we are simply unaware that what is normal to us might be irritating to others. Don’t be that person that other people dread sharing a room with.

  • Do not take anything that’s not yours. This should go without saying, but if it’s your first time staying in a hostel, I imagine it can be confusing to figure out which one is shared property, and which one is not. A tube of toothpaste left on the sink? A jar of marmalade in the fridge? Some hostels do provide food for guests, so how can you tell? Well, if you’re not sure, just ask.
  • Hostel amenities are meant to be shared, and oftentimes, there are not enough for everyone. If there’s a limited number of power sockets, for example, or a limited supply of hot water in the bathroom, do not hog. Give others the chance to use it too.
  • Keep quiet at night. Wear earphones to listen to music or watch a video, and leave the room if you need to talk on the phone or have a messenger conversation with sounds.
  • Pack the day before if you have an early-morning departure. You have no idea of irritating it can be to hear someone packing in the middle of the night, especially if they use a lot of plastic bags. 
  • Do not turn on the lights if you come in late at night or wake up very early in the morning. Use the torchlight on your phone instead.
  • Keep your belongings on your bed, or within a respectable radius. Make sure they don’t block the way or become a trip hazard to other people. If you get the bottom bunk, don’t put anything on the ladder.
hostel roommates
Credit: The Tab
  • Clean up after yourself, in the room, in the common areas, and in the bathroom. Everywhere, basically. For as long as you’re alive.
  • Follow hostel rules. Usually, these rules are relayed to you upon check-in. Some hostels might have curfews or a set time when you have to turn the lights off. Some might ask you to leave the room during certain hours of the day while they do housekeeping. A common hostel rule is to not bring visitors. Do not wear shoes if you’re not allowed to. Do not bring smelly food. Most hostels with dining areas don’t allow food to be consumed in the dormitories.

In a Nutshell

Hostels are intimidating — I, of all people, should know that. I’m an only child; I’m not used to sharing my space and my stuff with anyone. And many times, my social phobia gets the better of me. 

Despite all that, when I’m traveling, I always favor hostels, not only because they are cheap (although that’s the main reason), but also because they get me out of my comfort zone and force me to meet people. I have to admit that my trips are much more meaningful when I get to connect with others, be it the locals or other travelers.

So, I will overlook the minor discomforts of staying in hostels because I think the pros far outweigh the cons.

renting a scooter in bagan myanmar
With people I met at the hostel in Bagan, Myanmar. 2014.

Have you stayed in a hostel before? If yes, did you enjoy it? If no, what’s stopping you? I would love to hear what you think! Comment below.

Posted in Travel Tips

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