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A First Timer’s Guide To Hostels

Accommodation for Backpackers

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Written by: Rachel Ricks

Staying in hostels is one of the best things about backpacking. You’ll meet loads of new people and share experiences that you’d never get to try if you were travelling alone. Hostels often have all sorts of cool facilities, from swimming pools to on-site bowling alleys. Oh, and they’re cheap as chips. However, I understand that your first time in a hostel can be quite a daunting experience, I’ve put together this guide to help allay those fears, so you can get on with having fun.
There is a common misconception that hostels in some way resemble homeless shelters. Whilst this may be true in a small few cases, most are very nice. Many international hostels are closer to hotels than those you might expect to find in the UK. Many provide the option of breakfast or your own (non-communal) room if you are willing to pay a little extra.

Before you go

Before you leave for your destination, check out the discount accommodation cards available for your destination. One of the most common is the International Hostelling (IH) card, valid at all YHA hostels worldwide. It also grants you various discounts at travel shops, like 10% off at Millets.
Most countries where hostels are a mass market, like Australia or New Zealand, have their own specific hostel cards. For example, in New Zealand you can find the Budget Backpacker Hostel (BBH) cards. It’s pretty much identical to the IH card, but can’t be used outside New Zealand, while IH is a global organisation.
It’s often worth exploring the different cards and packages on offer, as there are often plenty of promotions tied in with them. Coach tours, attractions and even plane fares can sometimes be discounted if you’re a hostel cardholder, so it’s definitely worth becoming a member even if you aren’t planning on solely using a single chain of hostels.
Bunk beds in a dorm

Book ahead

If it’s your first time hostelling, it will probably pay off to always book ahead so you know where you’re staying. Although there’s a thrill from stepping off the bus or plane and finding yourself in a new place, with nowhere specific to go, there’s an added layer of security when you know you’ve got somewhere to fall back on. I highly recommend booking ahead at least for your first night in a new country. You’ll be jetlagged and disoriented, and it’s quite likely you’ll need some help getting your bearings.
Plenty of hostels allow bookings to be made over the internet, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere you can’t book by phone.
Get yourself a reliable, up-to-date guidebook or hop on to the internet and start browsing the available hostels. You’ll find countless options available to you, so get choosing!
Try to make sure that your final choice is within your budget and is in a sensible location; central, but not next to a railway station or bypass, and try to avoid the red light districts (unless that’s why you picked the hostel, in which case I’m not talking to you any more). Ask other backpackers for recommendations and warnings – and pay attention to them! They’ll know what they’re talking about.

What to expect

In most hostels, you’ll find yourself with basic, simple (and hopefully clean) accommodation. It’s quite likely the décor will be fairly out-dated, so I hope you see the 70s as an era of great style. If you’re lucky, you might even find yourself with pine-panelled walls and ceilings.
In Britain, some of the YHA (Youth Hostelling Association) hostels are very upmarket, often set in old mansions and country houses. If you’re used to those, foreign hostels may come as something of a surprise. The British YHA is a registered charity and trust, while non-YHA hostels abroad tend to be businesses on smaller premises. While you’ll be spoilt for choice when you’re backpacking, don’t expect the lap of luxury – it’s functionality over looks all the way.
Washing facilities, bathrooms and bedrooms will all be shared if you’re choosing the cheapest option. Although you can hire private rooms (sometimes they even have en suites!), the most cost-effective way to travel is using dormitory beds. You’ll often have the option of choosing single-sex or mixed dorms; this is usually in place to make female travellers feel safer. Don’t be daunted by the size of the dorms – in some hostels they can be as big as 20 or more people, but as a general rule you’ll find 6-8 or fewer beds per room.
Hostel bar
Expect alcohol. It’s unfortunate if you’re a teetotaler, but alcohol plays a large part of the backpacking experience for a lot of people. It can help to break the ice, but be careful, especially if you haven’t travelled before. Alcohol can remove your inhibitions, but it can also remove your common sense.
You can definitely expect a lot of friendly and happy people; hostels are wonderful breeding grounds for friendships, so even you consider yourself quite shy, talk to new people and get to know them – it’s what the hostel experience is all about!
Expect good times and bad times. I won’t lie to you and tell you that every night in a hostel is all rainbows and bluebirds – people snore, drunk roommates come home late from a night out, and things do occasionally get stolen. However, I can promise you that the good times are worth it, and that the positive memories you have from your experiences travelling will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Arrival and checking-in

When your flight lands, you’ll be tired, jetlagged and in a strange country, so it’s completely understandable if you feel at a loss. However, it’s important to look confident – it will help you to feel more confident, and it makes you look less vulnerable. Your first night away, before you settle in, will be the most vulnerable time of your trip.
Don’t be worried about splashing on a taxi to reach your accommodation. It might even pay to stay at a mid-priced hotel rather than the cheapest hostel you can find, as it means you can get a good night’s sleep before leaving your bag at reception and exploring the city the following day.
When you arrive at your hostel, don’t be scared! Settle yourself into your room, find an empty bed and introduce yourself to your new roommates. Break the ice by asking where the kitchen and bathrooms are – everyone secretly likes to be a know-it-all and it makes people feel good to help someone else.
Remember that everyone else in the hostel is in the same boat as you. They’re here on holiday, and they want to relax. You should feel that chilled, holiday-esque frame of mind the instant you walk into the common room.
If you’re really keen on getting to know people, ask where the nearest bar is, and if anyone fancies joining you. This is better suited to the late evening – suggesting a drink at 9am might give you a reputation you weren’t looking for.


Hostel dorms lock so that only backpackers that sleep in that dorm can access it. However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore sensible security precautions – the people you’re sharing a room with are complete strangers, so use your common sense.
Check with the hostel reception where you’re able to stash valuables like your passport, your travellers’ cheques and your travel documents. It’s often even safer to keep them in a money belt, so that your passport never leaves your side. However, these can become a bit of a nuisance, so ask about safes if you intend to stay at a hostel for a reasonable period of time.
Hostel room
Under no circumstances store stuff under the mattress. It doesn’t become untouchable if you put it there, and it can actually be much easier to pinch. If it’s something very important, put it in your day pack and use it as a pillow – that way, if someone tries to nab it, you’ll wake up.
Make sure you understand the security proceedings for your particular hostel – they’re different every time. If you’re out after a certain time, they’ll usually lock the doors and you’ll be required to enter a code to re-enter, so take the code with you!
Familiarise yourself with the fire exits. It sounds daft but it could save your life. Some readers may remember the Childers Hostel fire on the news a few years ago. Fifteen backpackers died that night as the hostel went up in flames following an arson attack. There are still no strict regulations on hostel safety or facilities abroad, so make sure to ask sensible, pertinent questions about your accommodation.
A few good questions to ask include:

  • Is there someone to show you around?
  • Is there a safe for your valuables?
  • Where’s the clean linen? Bathroom? Kitchen?
  • Are the dorms single-sex or mixed?
  • Are any meals provided?
  • Are there any hostel pets? (good for allergy-sufferers)
  • Can you see a room before booking?

Five other key points to check are:

  1. Does the price you’ve been quoted match what you’ve been charged?
  2. Does this include breakfast and are there any hidden costs?
  3. Are the windows secured for safety and can they be opened in an emergency?
  4. Are there emergency exits?
  5. Are there smoke detectors?

This might all seem a little over the top, but a small number of hostels pack beds in to accommodate more guests and block off the emergency exits in order to do so.
A hostel from the outide in Venice

The next step

It won’t take long before you’ve made a whole bunch of new mates, and you’ll be making plans to gallivant off to your next destination together.
However, if this isn’t immediately the case, don’t worry. Just because you’re not getting on in your current hostel doesn’t mean you won’t find a friend for life at the hostel down the street. There’s nothing to stop you sleeping at a different hostel in a different town every night – the World is your oyster now!
Just get up, bright and early and pack your day pack with your valuables and essentials for the day – most hostels will store your full pack relatively securely – and do some legwork in town. Stock up on maps, tourist guides and wander round to familiarise yourself with the area.

Things to take

  • A sarong – These have a multitude of uses, including bedsheets, wall coverings, towels, and are a great coverup if someone walks in while your pants are at half-mast.
  • A sleeping bag/sleeping bag liner – Not all hostels provide linen, so take a very compact sleeping back with you at the bottom of your bag. If you’re travelling to one of the main backpacker destinations you probably won’t need it, but it’s still handy to have one just in case.
  • Earplugs – You just know someone will snore. Fingers crossed it isn’t your girlfriend.
  • Plenty of padlocks – These let you leave your bag in your dorm in comparative safety – make sure you have some way of locking your bag before you buy it.
  • A torch – Simply because nobody wants to be the person on the 5am coach that has to wake up everybody else because they can’t find their toothbrush in the dark.

Rachel RicksAbout the Author: Rachel Ricks

Author Rachel Ricks has travelled around the world, staying in hostels from Bangkok to Brazil. When it comes to hostels, Rachel knows what she’s talking about.
She’s such a fan of the hostel lifestyle that even at home she likes to wear earplugs in bed and write her name on cheese. Oh, and flip-flops. She just loves flip-flops…

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