The best way to meet people all over the world is hands down by staying in hostels. For some of you, sleeping in a room with several strangers might not seem like the most appealing thing in the world. I don’t even feel like it sometimes. However there are a lot of benefits and there are a lot of good hostels! Hostels that give you privacy, have clean and lovely bathrooms, plenty of space to put your gear and with a new group of friends within reach. How to find an amazing hostel while traveling is not too difficult, you just have to use your common sense, read reviews and use below pointers. During my South East Asian travels, I spent most of my time in hostels. In Australia I have interchanged hostels with Couchsurfing and staying with friends. This however allowed me to figure out what is really important and what gives hostels that something extra. For those who haven’t travelled as much, or those who don’t really know what to look for, this article is for you!
But first, a few items to make any hostel visit as comfortable as possible? Even if you pick a certain hostel that has almost everything you can want for, it is not a luxury hotel. Bringing your own little survival kit will make hostel life so much easier.
Your own towel: Most hostels I’ve stayed do not provide you with a towel. Why? I ask myself! I highly recommend taking aboard a travel towel, they are so much more compact.
A lock: To keep your valuables safe in a hostel you will want to keep them in a locker. Some hostels will come with their own locks on said lockers but most of them won’t. Therefore you will want your own locks. Even when the hostel doesn’t provide a locker (shame on you, hostel), you can lock up your valuables in your bag itself. Spending a little extra money on a good quality lock is not a bad idea, I’ve see plenty of cheap made locks that pop open once you pull on them roughly. The best lock you can choose is strong but small. You don’t want to be carrying around a big lock that weighs a ton! I have been using the locks from Eagle Creek, submitted them to a fair bit of torture and have been very happy with them.
Eye mask: No matter how good a hostel is, you are sharing a room with several people who will all have different schedules. They might turn the lights on at 4am because they are climbing a mountain or come back after a night of partying. An eye mask will protect you from these late night wake-up calls.
Earplugs: For the same reasons as above, earplugs are a given. People who stumble in drunk forget where the volume button is and the same goes for people who get up early in a group. Save yourself the trouble and prevent yourself from waking up at the tiniest sound. I only use the wax earplugs from Quies as I find they keep the noise out the best and mold to your ear. You can usually find them in your local supermarket or here.
Now that you have the four things that will make life in a hostel so much easier, you can go about choosing the perfect hostel for your stay. Here are my personal requirement to find an amazing hostel while traveling:
When it comes to budget travel, location is everything. The closer to the sights or activities you want to do, or even the area you want to hang out in at night, the better. Ideally you should do a little research in advance, looking up the best areas, whether there is public transport nearby. If the hostel offers free transport (like the free bikes at sunshine hotel in Hoi An) you can go a bit more out of the center which will bring down the overall cost. If not, walking is for free. Can you walk the distance or do have to take transport? Take this extra cost in consideration because it will drive up your overall price.
To be fair, a clean hostel is a good hostel. If all these points are ticked but the hostel is dirty, it’s still not worth your time. Cleanliness goes from the rooms to the bathrooms, kitchens and the common rooms. It might be difficult to keep a hostel kitchen clean but if it starts out clean, the guests are more likely to keep it up. The rooms might be the most important part of it all. I’ve seen hostels that don’t change the sheets on a bed but just remake them for a new guest. Who knows how long they have been on that bed? If a hostel has the slightest reputation of bed bugs, I am not staying there. If it looks slightly dodgy, I’ll check the seams of mattresses in hostels, especially if the bottom of the bed is made out of wood, they love living there. Once infected you’re guaranteed washing every single thing you own, even your backpack, not fun!
Protection from the elements. Haha this looks like such a basic thing to ask for. Houses and hostels in Asia are just not built like they are in most western countries. A lot of the houses don’t have windows because it is not necessary. This is not necessarily a bad thing but you should check whether they provide mosquito nets or extra blankets when it is colder.
Airconditioning or fans: A good hostel will allow you to go to sleep without freezing or sweating like a pig. Check the reviews to see what people said and see whether airconditioning is provided. If it’s not, that’s not horrible provided they do have plenty of fans.
Good WiFi connection: a traveler is made happy with a decent wifi connection. Oké, this might be subjective coming from a blogger with a small internet addiction but being able to touch base with home is always a plus. I can still remember staying in Pakse, Laos and the internet being down because the reservations guy was downloading music and wasn’t ashamed of saying so.
Power plugs in the rooms, preferably at least one next to each bed. It is becoming more and more popular to give every bed it’s own little charging space with a box on the wall, plugs on the bed or shelving inside the cubicle. There is nothing more annoying than having to charge your camera or phone in a common room and being stuck watching it. Some hostels still get away with having only one (occasionally) working plug.
The overall quality of a hostel is also easily assessed by looking at the infrastructure. In the dorms you want good mattresses and a descent blanket (no a big towel does not count as a blanket when you’re paying 13 euros a night for a room in an Asian hostel). Bathrooms are another good indication on whether a hostel cares about its customers. At least one bathroom per dorm is a necessity. The more showers and toilets there are, the likelier they are to be clean and free.
A big and cosy common room or at least a big table where everyone sits together is a must. A hostel and its atmosphere are completely dependent on the common areas that a hostel provides. If there are no common areas, people will not socialize and the cosiness will be non-existent. Sure, you will meet a good portion of people in your room but it is way more fun if you can all go downstairs for a drink.
A safe or a good locker, here the rule is, the bigger, the better. If I can stuff my whole bag in a safe (those ones that slide from under the bed), I’m very happy. However it should be big enough to just stuff your smaller backpack with all your valuables in there without having to take everything out.
Is it a party hostel? Party hostels are awesome if you are looking for party 24/7. As you are reading my blog I’m going to go ahead and assume here that you don’t want to wake up to someone else’s dinner from last night. Therefore I personally wouldn’t recommend many party hostels (but if you’re for it, have fun!). A surefire way to find out is to read the reviews. If you get grossed out, that’s your answer. Some party hostels however can be a bit of the exception. I loved staying at Mad Monkey in Phnom Penh, there are a lot of fun people, it has a good restaurant and bathrooms are always clean. Beside that it is also a socially responsible hostel, a big bonus in my book! As long as you get a room in which you cannot hear the bar, you’re good to go.
Read the reviews, most websites based on a certain rating and on reviews. People will comment on whether it is a clean hostel, whether they met a lot of people and on so much more. As with all review based sites though, read everything with a grain of salt and believe the majority. There is always one that likes to stir the pot.
Free towel for shower. This might seem like a small thing but hostels that offer this service are much higher up on my list. If you are in a beach area, two towels is even better. You can use one for the beach And the other one for the shower. In beach areas where they only give one, use the hostel towel for the beach and keep your OWN travel towel clean by using only for the shower.
Free or cheap drinkable water you can refill your bottles on. As you cannot drink from the tap water in Asia, you are obligated to buy water everywhere. Being able to refill a bottle is such a small thing for a hostel but one that makes a big difference for your budget and the environment.
Privacy: a separation between bunks, whether it be a curtain, separation blocks or individual pods such as in Kochi Ké in Siem Reap (see the awesome little bunker below). Privacy is much appreciated when traveling with strangers all the time.
Fridge: not nearly enough hostels in Asia have fridges available for their guests. Sure this is a service on which they make no money but it adds a lot of value to the hostel.
Free breakfast: if the hostel doesn’t offer free breakfast, calculate how much eating out in the morning would be and see whether the hostel is worth the extra money you have to spend on breakfast. Maybe you can get a nicer place with breakfast included for the same total cost.
Free Activities: This is sonething you will find less of in Asia but several Australian hostel provide free activities for their guests. Going from something simple like walking tours around the city to daytrips to a local waterfall. Northern Greenhouse in Cairns is a good example of a hostel that does charge a little extra for their rooms but gives a lot back in free trips and food.
Depending on which country I travel in I will book my hostels in the day of or the day before my arrival. Usually I will either show up or book in via Hostelworld. I find their app quite handy and it’s easy to go through the reviews. You will find some affiliate links in this post. It won’t cost you any extra to book via them, it just helps me run the blog.
All photos are mine
The pineapple illustrations are by Caitlin Cawley