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The shoestring world traveler’s guide to hostelling

If you’re new to the world of hostels, welcome! You will soon find that there is no better way to explore the globe on a budget than by embracing the hostel lifestyle. Any backpacker will tell you that there is nothing that can eat into your budget faster than accommodations. And if you’re only planning on being in your room to sleep, there’s little sense in plunking down $100 or more for a hotel room.

What is a hostel?

Hostels are simple, affordable accommodations designed for budget travelers and can be found in destinations across the globe. Hostels are common all over Europe and Australia, but you can also find hostels in most major U.S. cities, areas popular with adventure travelers (like Moab, UT, for example), and exotic locales like Thailand.

Most offer beds in dorm style bunkrooms with communal bathrooms. Some also have simple single or double rooms for those seeking more privacy. There’s usually a common room where you can watch movies or television and self-catering kitchen facilities where you can whip up a meal. Access to a kitchen—something you won’t find in most hotels—is a great perk because you can save money by cooking your meals and meet other travelers. The girl boiling pasta next to you may have just come from the city you’re heading to next and can tell you where the hot spots are.

Hostels are great deals for students and backpackers because dorm beds typically cost $10 to $30 per person per night. Prices vary depending upon the location and quality of the hostel. And, keep in mind that the more people you share a room with, the cheaper the cost to you. If you opt for a double or single, expect to pay more.

Do I need to join a hostelling organization to stay at a hostel?

Some hostels are independent and require no special membership to stay. However, those that belong to a hostelling confederation like Hostelling International (HI) do require that you be a member. HI membership costs $28 per year and allows you access to over 4,000 hostels worldwide, as well as discounts on attractions, shopping, and more. Hostels that are associated with HI (you may also hear it referred to as YHA in other countries) tend to be nicer than other hostels, because they are required to conform to certain standards set by the organization. If you don’t have a membership, you won’t necessarily get turned away from an HI hostel, but you will have to pay a couple bucks extra a night.

How do I find a good hostel?

To this day, I still remember my first hostel experience vividly. My friends and I naively showed up in Amsterdam thinking it would be a cakewalk to find a nice, cheap place to stay, even though we had no idea what areas were good or bad. A couple hours later, we ended up in a dorm room packed with 25 beds, and a bunch of sketchy old men who fiddled with the ring tones on their cell phones for hours at a time.

Before deciding on a hostel, it’s a good idea do some research. You should find out what amenities and room types a hostel offers, where it’s located (make sure it’s in a good neighborhood and close to attractions or public transportation), and what rules it has (some hostels have curfews at night and lockout hours during the day). You can get the lowdown on hostels around the globe and make bookings on the travel site The site allows you to find detailed information about individual hostels, including user reviews and rankings.

How do I keep my things safe in hostel?

Some hostels have lockers within the rooms where you can lock up your belongings. Others may have a separate luggage room where you can store things during the day. Nearly every hostel has a safe where you can leave valuable personal items like passports, money, and plane tickets. Never leave anything of value unattended in your room, because no matter how nice some backpackers may seem, they may be more interested in your new iPod than becoming your friend.

What things do I need to bring for a hostel stay?

Before heading off on your adventure, make sure you’ve saved room in your bag for these essential items:

  • Flip-flops: No travel involving hostels would be complete without the backpacker’s best friend, a cheap pair of flip-flops. Remember how everyone advised you to bring shower shoes to college for communal bathrooms? The same theory applies here.
  • Sleep sheet: Some hostels will provide linens for you, others will not. A sleep sheet is easy to make and takes up little space in your pack. Fold a flat sheet in half, sew it up and voila—you have a makeshift sleeping pouch. Use them when the hostels don’t give you sheets or when you find the provided bedding questionable. Leave sleeping bags at home unless you plan on camping because many places won’t allow them due to the fact that they can pick up unwanted hitchhikers (bedbugs and ticks).
  • Towel: You’re not going to find fluffy towels stocked in hostel bathrooms. I’ve found that when traveling in warm climates, the best thing to do is buy a sarong locally—it can serve as a multi-purpose beach/shower towel and a fashion statement all in one. Plus, sarongs dry much faster than regular cotton towels, so you won’t end up with a moldy lump in your pack.
  • Earplugs: Unless you’re able to fall asleep anywhere, earplugs are a great investment. When you’re bunking in a room with nine other people, odds are one of them will be snoring. And while there usually are quiet hours, I’ve found myself staying on the ‘party floor’ more than once, with travelers laughing and shrieking into the wee hours of the morning.
  • Combination lock: Most hostels do not provide combination locks for onsite lockers, so you’ll need to bring your own if you want to keep your stuff safe.

While it’s likely you’ll stumble upon some skeevy, ghetto-fabulous hostels, you will also find some gems that make it all worthwhile. In Australia, many of the hostels I stayed in were nicer than most motels I’ve encountered in the U.S.—there was even cable television, private bathrooms, and a pool in one Queensland hostel. And as an added bonus, you can also meet like-minded travelers during your hostel stays. I’ve made some incredible friends while staying in hostels who are worth so much more than a night at the Ritz.

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