By Jimmy Mulvihill
Over a period of 16 months in 2012-2013 I found myself living exclusively in budget hostels while I traveled the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Belgium, staying in over 40 different hostels in 35 different cities. My maximum budget was £12 per night, and I only exceeded it once for one night when I found myself in Barcelona on the night of a Champions League Semi-Final. Seeing as I was leaving a steady job to try my hand at becoming a full time writer it seemed like the best option to save money, and I can honestly say it served the purpose well. However, I made mistakes along the way that made certain nights harder than they needed to be, and only learned some valuable lessons much too late for them to be of much use. In an attempt to save you doing the same, here are some ways that you can make sure that you get the most out of the experience of hosteling, as well as making sure you travel safe.
1 – They are nowhere near as bad as many people would think
Speak to people who are old enough to have used hostels in the 1980s and 1990s and many of them will have horror stories to tell, but hostels have come on in leaps and bounds since then. The market for the people who use them has changed massively. Whereas once the typical customer would have been a bearded man with a huge backpack on his shoulder who intends to travel everywhere by hitch-hiking who eats plants picked by the side of the road, (someone who would be more than happy with “rustic” accommodation), today typical hostel users are people having a cheap weekend away, staying at a nearby festival, having a gap year or simply looking to socialise.
We live in times where people share their whole lives on Facebook, and likewise many people are also happy to share their personal space with strangers like never before. Hostels today are therefore catered to a much higher standard. Free wifi, big screen televisions and even pool tables can be expected. The biggest difference between a hotel and a hostel is sharing your room with other people, and considering a good bunk bed can cost about €300 for a hostel to buy, it is no wonder they are happy to invest in them to make €15 a night each from 6 travellers a night compared to €25 a night for a room from one traveller. If you are at a hostel that looks a lot worse than the average hotel, it is not a natural consequence of travelling on a limited budget, you have just booked a place that is being poorly run.
2 – Have realistic expectations that lower cost will mean a compromise somewhere.
While the standard is higher than you would expect, it is still best to keep your expectations realistic. Unless you are the heaviest of sleepers, it is more than likely that there will be a bit of disruption to your sleep from time to time, especially if there are people returning late from a night out. Remember that these people are using the hostel in many cases specifically so that they can have this night out, and as long as they try to keep the disruption to a minimum, try to accept it as part of the experience.
With many hostels having 8 or more rooms, with 8-10 people in each, don’t be surprised if check in takes longer than expected, especially if large groups arrive at once. In many cases you will be shuffled from one room to another to accommodate ‘bulk customers’ especially if you are travelling alone. If by moving you from one room to another they can squeeze in a new booking they will not hesitate to do it. Just accept that these businesses run on the basis of booking people in volume, and so they will do what they can to get as many people in as possible. If this does happen, try to use the situation to get a better deal, but accept that it may not be possible. Staying in hostels is great, but it is never a perfect situation; instead is an exercise in compromise.
3 – Get onto the good side of the staff there as soon as you can.
The staff at the hostel can be the difference between the problems you encounter being minimised or compounded, so putting a little more effort than usual to get on their best side can reap massive rewards. Simple things such as remembering their name, learning a few words of the local language like “please” thank you” and “hello” can go a long way to connecting with them. If they seem busy when checking in, if it suits your schedule give them the option to check in later as long as they can store your luggage immediately. That way you can dump everything quickly and explore the city, ready to be assigned a bed at a less busy time later. If they ask you to be quiet in the communal area late at night, try your best to accommodate them as they are only trying to appease the other guests. Remember, you wouldn’t like it if you were kept us by someone talking loudly either.
Keeping on the good side of the staff can mean they can be a lot more forgiving for any altered bookings, and can even open up the possibility of getting extra time to check out for free – if you come back at 6:00 after a heavy night drinking, the difference between being able to check out at 11:00 and 16:00 can be the difference between a day being written off from being tired the whole next day, or having the opportunity to get the extra sleep needed to recover from your night out and get the most out of your trip. There were at least 8 different occasions where as a result of me allowing the front desk clerk to check me in a few hours later, they were happy to clean the other rooms first while I slept a bit extra.
4 – The simplest things can really disturb your fellow guests.
While you need to find ways to make sure that others do not ruin your stay, it is also important to plan so that you do not ruin theirs. If you are planning on coming back after going to the pub, maybe leave a note on the door before you leave so that they know what to expect. If you can, grab the bed by the door nearest the door to make your journey to the bed as quick as possible, and make sure you keep things such as toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens case and anything else you will need when you come in in a bag under your pillow – you don’t want to be rooting through your suitcase with a torch when you come back half drunk while someone else is trying to sleep 2 metres away. Take your shoes off before you come into the room, try to not slam the doors or turn on the main light, and try to remember exactly what bed you are in before you leave for you right out, so that you do not disturb anyone looking for your bed when you return.
Above all, under no circumstances should you bring plastic bags with you – you would not believe how loud they are when there are 9 other people trying to sleep in the same room as you! Try to buy a cotton one online that will be silent for as little as €2-€5. if you need to be up the next day at 8am put the alarm on on your phone as quiet as you can (obviously to a level that will wake you) and when that alarm goes off, get up straight away. There is nothing more annoying in a hostel than someone putting their alarm on “snooze” and everyone getting woken up a second or third time. If you have two alarms, put one on vibrate and put it under the pillow as this will probably wake you. If not, then have the second one set 5 minutes later as a back up.
5 – Research the reputation of the hostel.
The biggest reason for the improvement of the standards of hostels is due to the feedback advice from booking websites, and hostels today know if that if they do not keep their current customers happy it could cost them tomorrow’s trade. Out of all of the hostels that I booked, by sticking to a policy of only booking with ones that had at least 30 ratings I never once had to stay in any that I was not happy with. In instances when the only ones available had few reviews, I would make sure that I arrived early and ask if I could see the rooms before making the booking. If the hostel was not up to the standard I needed, I would go elsewhere, having made sure that I had other places lined up in advance.
Especially if you stick to cities or towns with populations over 200,000, chances are that some research will turn up at least one hostel that is good enough, and if not then you would have to wonder why there are no hostels there – unless you have a specific reason to go there, maybe the town is not a place that many other people visit? If you choose a town that is simply too small for a good hostel, accept that you have little choice and adjust your expectations accordingly.
6 – If in doubt, book less time.
If you are staying in a city for 2 weeks instead of booking the whole 2 weeks in advance, consider booking 1 night so that you can get a fair assessment of the hostel on your first night. If it is good, book the rest of your stay there.This can save you money as well as it will mean you can pay them in cash directly instead of using an online retailer who will take their cut. Before taking this approach ask what their availability is like, and make sure that you have alternative hostels lined up in case it is not possible to extend the stay. As a general rule hostels are much happier to extend people’s stays rather than book new people in as it means that they do not need to pay the booking fees and change the bedding of the guests. It can be a risk, of course, so maybe it is best to weigh up how much you need any accommodation compared to how much you need great accommodation.
7 – The considerations of a good hostel may be different to a good hotel.
When booking a hotel, factors such as the dining room, a location near the best roads, parking and the food the hotel offers may be reasons enough to book, but at a hostel different considerations are needed. If you are travelling by bus, a location near an airport will be lost on you. If you have a heavy bag, check the “terrain” setting on Google maps to see if the hostel is up a steep hill, (one of the best hostels I ever stayed in was more than 320 metres higher above sea level than the nearest bus station……) and if you do not have enough money to go to the best bars, booking a stay near those premier bars will be lost on you.
Take it as granted that all of the hostels will not offer good breakfasts. I only ever came across 1 hostel ever that I would regard as having good food, and even that was only passable. Breakfast usually consists of a sugary watered down “orange juice drink,” home brand cornflakes with UHT milk and individually wrapped bagels that have a use-by date in 19 months time, so food can be discounted. Ideally you want a place that is near public transport, is in an area that does not have too much crime, that has no curfew limit (if you need this) that is within your budget, that offers good facilities and looks after it’s customers. Swimming pools, beach front locations, marble flooring, executive dining, historic properties and on site bars may all add to the enjoyment of a stay at a hotel, but would be less necessary at a hostel.
8 – Remember that the shared facilities need to be shared.
The whole point of a hostel is that everything is shared, so make sure you plan accordingly. Bring a 2-3 way compact multi plug adaptor with you so that if all of the electrical points are taken you can unplug someone’s plug (after checking with them, of course), and plug both yours and theirs into the adaptor, allowing someone else to use the third socket if it is available. That way you can use the facilities without stopping anyone else doing so. Remember, few hostels are built from scratch and instead most are converted from old houses, and few houses that are old were built with considerations for our modern electrical needs, nor did they anticipate 100 different guests all needing to charge their phone at once. Hence, plug sockets are much sought after.
If you are hoping to watch many films while away, try to download them before you get to the hostel so that when you download the blu-ray version of the latest film does not disrupt the Skype session that someone is having with their family, or maybe find a better time to download it instead. If you use the cooking utensils, try to wash them up as quickly as possible in case someone else is waiting for them, and if you plan to watch something on the communal TV that is important to you, make sure that everyone has the opportunity to watch what they want before and afterwards – if you spend 3 hours watching TV out of habit, it may be someone else’s turn to watch what they want at a later time at the time that your favourite show is on.
If you are using the kitchen table as a temporary workspace, consider moving outside for a while if people need to eat, and if you have had a shower, vacating it as early as possible so that other people can use it next could make a huge difference to their holiday. At the very least, when people see that you care for them, you increase the chance that they will do what they can to help you.
9 – Be firm if people overstep the mark.
It can be hard living with flat mates that you are friends with, let alone sharing a room with 8 different people that you have never met, and while there are some times that a compromise is needed, there are others where the showing of consideration is non negotiable. For the first 4-5 months I was meek in asking people to be considerate while also hoping that they would comply from their own decency, but when that fails, never be afraid to be firm. If it is 1am and someone is listening to music on their headphones that others can hear it, they may not realise that it can be heard by others. Simply asking, “Are you aware that we can all hear your music?” was enough for me to get them to issue a quick apology. If someone turns the light on in the middle of the night, you will not be the only one that is inconvenienced so feel free to let them know. In all cases, if other guests are not putting in as much effort as others to make sure that other people’s stays are as relaxed as possible, speak to them in a firm but fair manner, and if this does not work contact a member of staff.
10 – The best hostels are not always in the city centre.
One common misconception is that the best hostels are in the best location. In many cases this can actually work in reverse, as the ones in the very city centre know that they will get more demand than they can supply, so they take their foot off the pedal and put less effort into attracting people. All of the best 5 hostels that I have stayed in were all at least 15-20 minutes away from the city centre, and they all put in a lot of effort to make up for their locational disadvantage. In any case, hostels in the city centre are more likely to be based on noisy streets, while hostels that are based in residential areas are usually a few noise complaints away from being investigated by the council, so staff usually take a hard line to make sure that peace and quiet is enforced as much as possible, which can mean having a much better night sleep.
It makes little sense to put up with the downsides of staying in a hostel to save some money, and then prioritise a 15 minute walk from the city centre over getting a great nights sleep in a better hostel. Hostels are all about balancing the benefits of cheaper prices with minimising the downsides of sharing, and in the grand scheme of things, an extra 15 minutes of travelling may not make much difference to you, especially if it means that you get to see something off the beaten track, and could be well worth it to stay in a quieter hostel. You can either have 8 hours of average sleep, or 7 hours 45 minutes of much better sleep.
11 – Ask around to see if you snore or not, for everyone’s sake.
It is a sensitive subject, but a lot of people do not know that they snore! Ask people who would know if you snore, and ask them to be honest as otherwise they may be too embarrassed to tell you. If you do, make sure you buy some “breathe easy strips” online – plasters that open up the nose while you sleep so that the air passage is as wide as possible – or talk to your doctor about ways to minimise it. There may not be a miracle cure, but you should try to do what you can to prevent disturbing others.
In the past I have seen a snorer keep an entire room awake all night, (including me) and the next day when he tried to make friends with everyone, I had to explain to him why everyone was ignoring his conservation-starters. He was visibly upset when he found out how much bother he had caused, so no-one won. Seeing as so much of staying in a hostel is about the social aspects, you do not want to be annoying people through no fault of your own. It may even be the case that a hostel may need you to move room or to move to a private room, a reasonable request if it helps their customers have a better stay, which will incur extra cost, so some time spent in advance can help make your stay, and the stays of others, as easy as possible. Especially if someone else is tired and stressed from travelling, you do not want them to take out their frustrations on you.
12 – Keep the most valuable of possessions with you.
In 16 months of travelling I only had 1 item stolen in the whole time, an iPod that was stolen from a locker that was broken into my a fellow resident who had a drugs problem (a rare occurrence), and despite many times leaving my clothes out of the compact lockers, only using them for my laptop and valuables, I never once had any clothes stolen. However, as a rule I would never consider leaving anything like a wallet, my phone, passport or anything else that I could keep on my person in the room while I was out. I also purchased a £90 second-hand Dell laptop that was already 6 years old to use on the basis that if that was stolen, it would not be too expensive to replace it, whilst backing up my work and important files every night.
Remember, if people are going out of their way to save a few pounds a night, it may not make sense to bring your €1,200 Macbook with you, or expensive jewellery. Unless you need it for work, consider using a larger mobile phone instead of a laptop so that you can keep it with you at all times, and only leave what you can afford to lose unguarded in your room while you go out.
13 – Check to see if there is a curfew.
It may sound like a silly statement, but not all hostels allow people to come in at any time. One particular hostel that I used once had a policy of asking people to come in at 10pm(!!) and 90% of the guests did not realise this. Just because so many hostels say, “no curfew” in their sales pitch, this does not mean that all of them have the same policy. The fact that they use such a feature as a selling point should be evidence enough that it is not a standard, but thankfully I only encountered 5 hostels out of 40 that operated such a policy, so they are definitely in the minority. Still, it is always wise to check.
14 – Do your food shopping in small quantities.
You may be used to stocking up on your favourite food that is on offer at home, but it is another matter at hostels. Early on, before I had learned this rule, I had a LOT of food stolen, many times even catching people in the act, only for them to say, “well, how was I meant to know!?!?”
Especially if people come in after a few drinks, the sight of some “free food” and the lack of inhibitions from the alcohol is enough for there to be a big risk of your food being taken. Food like Eggs, fruit, vegetables, rice, couscous, pasta and cereal can be stored in your locker without spoiling quickly, labelling milk as “staff milk – do not use” can be enough to prevent people using it, and meat should be used as and when it is bought, which can be achieved by buying it in small quantities from smaller butchers, meaning you have smaller portions of better meat to use immediately.
Alternatively, if you are travelling with a group, or you meet one, ask them if they fancy splitting a purchase with you – going halves on a litre of fresh orange juice, milk or a larger pack of meat will mean more people can watch out for it, the food is fresher and will cost less. It will also get used twice as quickly. And anyone who puts beers, snacks or tea bags into a communal area and doesn’t expect them to be stolen is, frankly, living in fantasy land.
15 – Remember that staff may live on site.
The vast majority of staff who work in a hostel will also live there. Remember, these hostels are run on such a budget that working in a hostel is unlikely to pay staff enough to rent their own place, and seeing as they may have 12 or more rooms, it makes sense to put one aside for the staff to reduce the staff costs further. Many staff members are also students who work in a hostel in an attempt to learn a foreign language, while also hoping to meet some people from their own home country every now and again, and so they will stay on site to cut costs further.
This means that if you see them eating their breakfast in the morning, or walking through the communal area, they may be on their day off and maybe getting ready to go out. It can be wise to ask them what time they are working that day, and if it is 10am and they say that they are working 1pm – 9pm, you’ll know to reply, “I will chat to you later on then, when you are working”. It can be hard for them to have a distinction between their work and free time, and sometimes it can mean a lot to them if guests help them achieve the separation that makes their lives easier. If they work a 40 hour week, they may want to spend as much of their free time away from there as possible, so remember to ask if they are ‘on the clock’ or not. As well as being considerate, it will also be a good way for you to get in their good books in case you need to later.
16 – Don’t take too much to heart if the staff are brash with you.
There are times when the staff, through no fault of their own, insist that you check in or check out at a much quicker rate, that you need to clean up after yourself more or that you need to be quiet, and many times they will be quite firm with you, but try to not take it to heart – from their side they are only trying to run the place as efficiently as possible, which is in the interests of all of their guests, including you. In some hostels that I have been in there have been up to 200 guests, and a combination of there being so many people and with many of these people being in “holiday mode” means that staff can easily prioritise conveying information with you quickly and clearly over conveying it in a sympathetic way.
If they take an extra minute to convey the information in a much more sympathetic way, if they did that with 50 people a day it could take up nearly an hour, so try to not take it to heart if staff are a bit more blunt than usual. Even thought I was told by many hostels that I was a great guest, I still had the odd “can you let other people use the kitchen table please, it is for eating, not typing” or “next time when you come in earlier can you not make a cup of tea please? The kitchen shuts at 2am.” Of course, there is a fine line between being direct and being rude, and if this mark is overstepped feel free to be firm with them in pointing this out, but never take anything that they say personally, for they may not only be under pressure from their boss to keep the guests in line, but they are also trying to make the place better for the guests, including you.
17 – Remember that some people will live in hostels too.
Especially with the economic downturn, more and more people are living in hostels full time, with some people that I met having been based at hostels for over 10 years. In many cases it will be because they do not have the money to put down a deposit and months rent in advance as well as meeting agency fees, and many will receive government assistance to meet their costs, making staying in a hostel a viable option for them; the government is happy to drip feed some money for these people, but cannot justify one-off large payments needed for a deposit.
You would be surprised, I have met former doctors, current teachers and policemen living in hostels, especially when they are still at the stage of becoming qualified. Many seasonal workers will also use a hostel for accommodation, especially if they are only going to be in the country for 3 months a year, and in many cases they may be going through a divorce case with their assets tied up, they may be having renovations on the house that means that they have to stay here for 6 weeks at a time, or they may even have psychological problems that means that they prefer to be surrounded by people rather than be isolated in their own flat. I have even met a retired high court judge who’s wife had died the previous year. His children lived in America, and he wanted to stay in a hostel for 3 months “while I work out what I want to do next in life”. His logic was that at this hard time he wanted to be surrounded by young people who are in the same position – contemplating all of the options that life has – and the company that he got from being surrounded by so many people brought him comfort too.
Hostels offer private rooms too, and for some people a place that is cheap, where they can cook their own food, talk to people and not have to worry about utility bills, the running of the house and planning in advance can be just what they need at that moment. With this in mind, try to remember that if someone says that they live there, wait for them to volunteer the reason why instead of asking them, as you may be overstepping the mark without realising it. I have seen circumstances where people have said that they were staying at the hostel for 10 days on holiday, only to find out later that they had been there for more than a year, so try to understand that they lied to you for a reason – that they did not want other people to know they live there – and try to respect their privacy. It is also worth remembering that they may have books or other personal articles in the communal areas, so don’t be surprised if they ask if you have taken anything. Importantly, if you take the opportunity to talk to them about how you do not like the hostel, remember that you are also talking about their home, so tread carefully. They may also be more likely to have a closer relationship with the hostel staff, so it may not be a good idea to talk about the staff to them, or vice versa.
18 – Try an ice breaker to meet new people.
Many people use hostels to meet other people, but some also find it awkward to start up conversation with people. Some great ideas of how to break the ice include offering excess food that you have. Pasta can cost €0.50 a packet, and so by putting on half of the pack instead of a quarter of it you can then offer half of the portion you cooked to anyone else who may have forgotten to get some. Whether they accept it or not, you will have broken the ice with them.
I was once in a supermarket with a few minutes to go and a member of staff asked if I wanted a pack of doughnuts that had been reduced to 5p for 5 of them. I accepted them, and when he asked if I wanted 20 of them for 10p, I replied, “what would I want with 20 doughnuts that will be stale tomorrow?” He then marked the 20 of them down to 5p, just to get rid of them, and when I reached the hostel there were about 30 people in the hostel common area sitting in silence with everyone on their mobile phone, with the local pub having closed 30 minutes earlier. My offer of throwing the bag of doughnuts on the table and telling people, “if anyone wants a doughnut, feel free to take one” got people chatting within minutes, and even got 2 people offering me a beer in return!
Giving away something that is very cheap but useful can be a great ice breaker, and other examples include giving away a cotton-ear-bud, some olive oil or salt or some cereal. If you are heading to the common room to watch some football on your laptop, ask if anyone else is interested in watching the game too, and offering people the opportunity to charge their phone in your laptop are all great ways to break the ice
19 – Don’t get lazy.
One thing that surprised me a lot is that many people will travel half way around the world to spend a lot of time in the communal area of a hostel! I have met many American teenagers on holiday in Spain and France who have spent from 10am – 9pm sitting in the hostel communal area, chatting to friends on social media, before going out to the same bar night after night. Their parents may have encouraged and even paid for them to go travelling, but they may be at the stage where they would rather find out about what is happening back home rather then discover the new city they are in, or where they are homesick.
When you travel a lot, moving every few days with the constant re-adjustment of new cities, it can be easy to get lazy and sit around for hours at a time to regather your energy, but any effort that is put in to make sure you get the most out of your trip will be more than worth it when you look back in years to come. I remember arriving at a hostel at the exact same time as a young American man, and when I woke up at 10am the next day he was on Facebook. I asked if he wanted to explore the city together, and he replied that he was going to “relax a while.” I went to the hills that overlooked the whole city, saw a game of football between Barcelona and Valencia, went to the beach, explored the Gothic region of the city with my camera, saw a live band consisting of local teenagers, visited museums and public parks, watched children splashing around in the fountains and saw as much of the city as I could before walking 18kms back to the hostel, calling in on the bar run by Chinese immigrants that was next door to the hostel for a night cap. By contrast he sat in watching some Netflix, chatting to people on Facebook, and napping.
Come the end of the 4 day stay he had watched Season 4 & 5 of Breaking Bad, while lamenting how frustrated he was that he had not been able to see more of the city, yet I had seen the best of what one of the greatest cities in the world had to offer. In years to come you will have plenty of time to sit around and relax, and when you do you will have some great memories to look back on.
20 – Hostels can be a great place for ‘getting lucky’, but not always, and at a cost.
There is a bit of a reputation that hostels can be a place where there is a lot of sexual activity, and this can be true, but not always. There are some men that will try their luck with every woman in the place, on the basis that as there are so many women there, if they get rejected they can just go onto the next woman. Sadly for these men they get an appropriate reputation very quickly, and tend to be labelled as “sleazy” by the staff and guests alike.
By all means, if you are looking to get as much action as possible you are free to approach people, but there are practical concerns that make it problematic – namely that the rooms are all shared, so it can be hard to find a space to take anything further. A lot of people are also wary about sharing a hostel with someone that they have hooked up with to save awkwardness later. For that reason, while it was never a reason that I ever used hostels, I have met many people (particularly men) who have had unrealistic expectations as to their chances of “carnal success”, and so you should be realistic as to the chances of anything happening.