Youth hostels aren’t just for the youth, not just for the shoe-stringer. They’re for the adventurous, for the true traveler. But what is a hostel, exactly? Hostels are an affordable alternative to hotels, and a common type of accommodation in Europe and many other parts of the world. What separates them from pensions or hotels is that you can-and generally do-pay for a bed, not a room, and you share this room with other people. For many American travelers, this takes some getting used to, but it provides amazing opportunities to meet people from all over the world. Hostelling also stretches you budget, so you can stay longer in a place and absorb the culture better. So if you’ve never stayed in a hostel, how do you get started?
1) Know what to expect
Whether you’re thinking about backpacking for six months across Europe staying only in hostels, or just dipping your feet in a nice Colorado hostel, keep these facts in mind. You will be sharing a bedroom with strangers. You will be sharing a bathroom with strangers. These strangers may well be of both sexes. You will not receive all the freebies you expect from a hotel, like towels and soap. You may not even be provided with sheets, though such hostels will rent them to you if you don’t have your own. These conditions might seem strange at first. However, hostels often offer amenities hotels don’t: guest kitchens, board games, book exchanges, common rooms, bike rental, free internet access, and other goodies that pop up so randomly you never know what to expect, like free fajitas on Mondays at the Green Tortoise in Seattle, or excursions with the friendly staff at the Poet’s Corner in Olomouc. Prepare for the unexpected, and you’ll be happy with the experience.
2) Find a hostel
Hostels are easy to locate. If you have a good budget guide book, like Lonely Planet or Let’s Go, they will include a good selection of hostels, often with websites, e-mail addresses, or phone numbers. Their locations will be marked on the maps in your book. Another easy way is to look at a hostelling website like gomio.com, hostelbookers.com, hostelworld.com, or hihostels.com. Put in the city you want to visit and see what pops up. All these sites have information provided by the hostel and reviews written by travelers. You can also simply do an internet search for “hostel [destination city],” or pick up brochures in other hostels. Perhaps the best way to choose a place, however, is word of mouth. Once you start staying in hostels, you’ll meet people who have been where you’re going, and they’ll be happy to recommend – or not recommend – the places they stayed. Overwhelmed by the choices? Hostels have a variety of services and features, so find what’s important to you, and narrow it down by those criteria. Do you want central location? Breakfast included? Free internet? Lockers in the rooms? Private rooms? Guest kitchen? If you’re headed to a major capital, you’ll mostly likely find the combination you want. If you’re going somewhere smaller, that’s where the adventure comes in.
3) Book it.
The websites mentioned above are booking websites, though sometimes you still have to contact the hostel directly. Some sites, like hostelworld.com and hihostels.com charge booking fees. Most charge non-refundable deposits and require a credit card. You can usually circumvent this by finding their contact information and e-mailing or calling directly. Sometimes, however, internet prices are better, so do a little comparing. Rates vary widely depending on the country, the amenities, etc. If you’re traveling alone in Europe, a hostel bed will nearly always be cheaper than the scroungiest hotel you can find. Even if there are two of you, hostels are usually the better deal. In less expensive countries or larger groups, low-end hotels and pensions may be cheaper, but you rarely get as rich an experience.
4) Decide whether or not to join Hostelling International
Hostelling International is an organization of hostels that all must maintain certain standards. They’re often cleaner and more reliable, but sometimes lack personality. A few of these hostels will not allow non-members, but most simply charge you a non-member supplement (usually 1-5 dollars a night extra). Some don’t even do that. If you’re going to be staying in Hostelling International hostels in Europe for more than about 6 nights in any given year, consider buying a membership card, available for Americans at hiusa.org (see Hostelling International’s website for other countries’ sites). A year’s membership costs $28 as of 2010, and gives other minor benefits, such as very basic travel insurance. Hostelling International hostels often include “HI” in their name and have a blue triangular symbol you will quickly begin to recognize.
5) Pack appropriately.
Because hostels don’t provide the same amenities as hotels, be sure to pack a towel and take all your own toiletries. There will be no toothpaste, soap, shampoo, lotion, etc. Also recommended: a small lock for those hostels that have lockers but expect you to bring your own lock. Combination locks are far superior, as sleeping with the key in your sock is uncomfortable. Bring a travel alarm clock and a small flashlight. Dorm etiquette frowns on turning up the lights when your roommates are sleeping. If you’re a light sleeper, consider earplugs. Shower shoes (plastic sandals of some sort) are good not just for the common showers, but for late-night trips down the hall to the bathroom. And finally, be sure to take your sense of adventure, because every hostel is different, and none are perfect. But you won’t regret the experience.
6) Go and have fun
When you arrive, make an effort to talk to people. Introduce yourself to your roommates. Share travel experiences. Get a game of cards going in the common room. Gather a group together for a walk to the center or for a night on the town. Hang out in the kitchen with other guests, cooking and talking. Jump right in and you’ll experience the best aspect of hostelling: interaction with interesting travelers from different cultures and backgrounds.