THE TRUTH ABOUT HOSTELS
Let’s start off by getting one thing straight – if you stay in a private room in a hostel, you are basically staying in a low budget hotel room, where maybe you have to share bathrooms but even then, you may not have to. Genuine hostel stays are dorm rooms which can include anywhere from 4 to 18 plus beds in one room.
What is it like to sleep, keep your stuff, and relax in a room full of strangers? Well, it can be a little uncomfortable sometimes when you need to change and both your room and bathrooms are full, your bunk mates Skype ring keeps going off throughout the night (until you ask them to turn it off at 3am…), and you’re jet legged and just need to sleep for a while and it’s 5pm and everyone keeps turning the lights on.
There are moments where you really just want some privacy. But there are also the opposite moments: when you get to meet people from all over the world, hear stories about someone’s experience at a Turkish bath that makes you laugh until you cry, and learn from others where they stayed and how they got there. Hostels can be, and most often are, an amazing resource that you just cannot get at hotels, luxury resorts or airbnb. Some higher profiting and more organized hostels also have group tours, social events, and other luxuries such as games, TVs, laundry and blow dryers(!).
In addition to being a great resource, the costs saved staying in a hostel, especially in a dorm room can really impact the cost of your trip.
For example, our first trip to Europe in 2012, we did Western Europe for one month, stayed in only one hostel, and the total trip cost was $7,000 - $7500.
Our second trip to Europe in 2014, we did Eastern Europe for two months, stayed in 11 hostels (or low budget apartments) and it cost around $7,000 - $7,500.
Same cost, double the trip. Eastern Europe may also be known to be cheaper than Western Europe, but we went from staying for on average $120 a night, to $40 a night… huge difference. For Eastern Europe, we were able to tap into the extra resources with the hostels, which included being told about the Polski bus to get from Krakow to Prague (saved us over $200 EACH instead of the train), what another backpacker’s experience was taking the bus around Turkey (apparently it’s jammed packed, with people getting on and off all throughout the night), and we were told about this amazing buffet in Budapest that included all you can eat… AND drink, including alcohol, for $28.
TripAdvisor is an amazing travel source that we will be writing about soon in a later blog, but the resources at specific hostels, surpass what TripAdvisor can do. Sitting down and having a conversation with someone about their experience in a country or city where you plan to go can provide a lot of needed information and also comfort about any anxieties as far as where to stay, how to get around, and what to see.
The one thing that I will not let hostels get off the hook for, however, is having low-quality beds. Yes, paying $10 a night for a dorm room bed might mean you have to share a bathroom, maybe you don’t have the best curtains, or maybe the person in the room snores so much that somehow their exhale is a snore (true story). But in one specific hostel in Warsaw, Poland, they broke the “must have proper beds rule”. The Hostel Kanonia in Old Town had bed frames made out of 1 x 2’s (thin pieces of wood basically) and literally, ribbon, to support the mattress. This was a huge problem. My bottom bunk kept falling OUT where the mattress would end up on the ground. The top bunk where Trevor was sleeping, would slide when he got in, causing the pieces to also fall out. I was terrified that Trevor was going to fall through the bed, and one of the 1 x 2’s was going to lodge into me and I would die. I’m not kidding about this fear. It actually kept me up at night, and every time Trevor moved I would hold the bed in place. This hostel on TripAdvisor has decent reviews and scores. It is sitting at a 3.5-star rating and some people mostly seems to be people who have stayed in apparently an apartment complex, owned by the hostel, but outside of the actual hostel complex, have had better stays. I can say for sure, those pictures on Trip Advisor were not our rooms, and were not our bathrooms.
Lesson of this experience: sometimes a budget price will lead to a cheap experience. We didn’t complain about the beds because we were already having a rough experience in Warsaw at the time, and just wanted to kind of… get it over with.
Then we stayed at Greg and Tom’s hostel in Krakow, which was an amazing experience, amazing staff, GREAT BEDS, lockers (Warsaw did NOT have lockers, only a safe by the front desk… inappropriate as well), and… complimentary breakfast, dinner and drinks after dinner. What? We kept calculating… how is this hostel making money?
We also had some weird experiences and some out right – are you KIDDING ME – moments while staying in hostels. Like the time the young man and his girlfriend walked around the hostel in their tighty-whities – alright. Or the most memorable time, when two young women apparently packed all of their belongings and individual pieces of clothing in plastic bags – and yes, it was both of them who did this. So imagine hearing that awful plastic bag crinkling sound at 6 am when they are looking for a hair brush. Now imagine, you move on to the next city, the next hostel, and they show up the following day. Nightmare. Including the gentleman with the loud Skype ringtone, and the other gentleman who had both an inhale and exhale snore, these incidences that woke us up and made our blood boil were few and far between. I got into the habit of falling asleep and sleeping with head phones in. This was a massive help.
Overall, yes, there can be some bad experiences in a hostel that you may never experience in a hotel. But some of these moments have also been some of the best stories we’ve gotten to share with others and laugh about after the fact. Maybe not so funny at the time, but we can laugh about it now.
In our opinion, hostels are worth the effort, so what to look for when booking a hostel:
1. A decent rating: although sometimes that rating might not be your experience, you still want to stay somewhere and take the chance where most people have had a decent experience. Actually read the reviews and what people are complaining about. “Had flat pillows” “Not enough hot water” “No fridge in room” – these aren’t adequate complaints for a hostel. It’s cheap for a reason, somethings you have to settle with. Real complaints are “Rude staff” “Bed bugs” “Awful location” “Scary location” “Far from Transit” – those are real complaints that you want to pay attention to.
2. Location, Location, Location: the one thing hostels have going for them that makes them desirable, is usually location. You are on a budget, you can’t afford to be paying high taxi costs, to get around. You need to either have walking access, or direct access to transit to get around to make the budget cost worth it. CHECK on a map where it is beforehand, and figure out – can I get there by taking 1 train, or 3? Can we walk to the main attractions? Is there FOOD in the area???
3. Free WIFI and free Computer access: it is pretty rare these days to come across a place without free WIFI, but another helpful thing is a hostel with free computer access. When we were in Eastern Europe, we were booking things the day before we left some days. In order to do this, you need great WIFI and sometimes access to a computer that your smartphone or iPad just cannot do properly.
4. Lockers: I like to believe that all hostelers are trustworthy and wouldn’t dream of stealing someone’s stuff, passports or money… but this isn’t the case. We’ve been lucky to never have our stuff stolen – except for the time our power converter went missing and then somehow ended up on top of our bag a day later… But you want to stay in a place that has lockers, and thus, you also want to make sure you bring your own lock. All hostel dorm rooms, besides Warsaw, had lockers that were big enough to put ALL of your stuff in, including your giant backpack. To be honest, this is just a piece of mind thing. You don’t want to constantly be walking around with your electronics, passports, and all your cash. You want to be safe. To be safe, on a budget, in a dorm room, it must have a locker.
5. Breakfast: This isn’t a must for everyone, but it is a must for us, well, for me. Trevor can get away with just having coffee in the morning, but we’ve learned through 5 years of travelling together, Kristen needs her breakfast, and Trevor needs his coffee. It is a huge convenience to wake up, grab some breakfast (in most places, bagels or fruit, in some places eggs and sausage – Miss you Greg and Tom!), and go for the day. One of the biggest reasons I think this matters is because in North America, we are big breakfast people. Cereal, toast, eggs, fruit, yogurt, etc. We love our breakfast – in Europe, Central America and South East Asia (from what we’ve heard) … this just isn’t the case. Breakfast in Europe is an espresso coffee and maybe a croissant – that costs $7. And these places are extremely hard to find. Breakfast just isn’t the same in other countries, so finding a hostel with free breakfast is a major bonus and will save you and your travel partner(s) from bickering throughout the day. Kristen needs food. Trevor needs coffee. And then we start our day.
Other things to look for:
You’ve been backpacking for 20 days, you’ve run out of underwear – maybe it’s time to look for a hostel with laundry services, or at least near one. Some have laundry services where it’s a coin machine or a variation of, and you pay yourself. Some, you give them your laundry and they do it and charge you a cost. Check the reviews, or when booking to see if this is an option, or if it is near an outside laundromat.
Private curtains! Some hostels have private curtains for each individual bed in a bunk. We love curtains! I’ve read that not all hostel owners agree on having curtains as it can create an isolating experience. I do not agree at all. Imagine three days in a row, you have bunkmates who are taking the first bus or train out of the city and need to get ready at 5am and were not courteous enough to pack their bag the night before, so they turn the lights on… yeah, you want that curtain. I don’t think curtains limit the social experience at all, that’s what a common room is for, that’s what the kitchen is for, and there’s nothing like a “closed” sign to tell your bunkmates “I know it’s 9pm, but I’m exhausted so please be quiet.” Love curtains.
We will be writing a whole blog about apartments in the future, but in the meantime, consider it. But, consider booking through an actual online source. We do not recommend getting off the bus and going with one of the people holding APARTMENT signs and yelling at you as you get off. We’ve heard a lot of sketchy stories about someone going with these people and then being taken to an isolated location and asked for money. Book online, it’s much safer, and then there is an online record / paper trail should something go wrong. Which, we have not had happen.
As far as actually booking a hostel, we will write a separate blog on booking, as it’s worth dedicating a whole blog post to it. For now, most large hostel booking websites actually charge a booking fee, so if available, try to find the hostel’s actual site (if they have one), it may be cheaper.
Private hostel rooms: I started off by distinguishing this difference. Private rooms are really great. Not only do you get access to the hostel resources and get a budget stay, but you have some privacy and don't have to worry about others disturbing your stay. However, sometimes private rooms are not any cheaper than a hotel room, and in some cases, can actually be more. We are not sure why this is the case, but in the rare case you get a private room, cheaper than a hotel room, and in your budget, then we always stay in them. Some hostels actually do not have private rooms and in that case, it comes down to great location with a dorm room or poor location with a private room. That is a judgment call. In that case, we always choose location.
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