6 Ways to Avoid Staying in a Bad Hostel

tips for staying in a good hostelWhat makes a good hostel? How do you avoid the bad ones? After staying in hundreds of hostels since I first started traveling the world, I’ve become quite adept at figuring out very quickly if the hostel owners know what they are doing or just randomly woke up one day and said “Let’s open a hostel. It sounds like fun.”

While hostels are all about the people, management can do a few things to make their hostel a lot less crappy and a lot more awesome. Certain features make a hostel memorable (common rooms, group activities, and kitchens) while others can make them suck (push button showers, general filth, and unknowledgeable staff).

All of my favorite hostels share common traits that make them some of the best in the world, which leads me into this week’s video.

In it, I talk about the six main things that I look for when I’m picking a hostel to stay in, features that every good hostel should have.

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Additionally, here are some smaller things to look out for:

  • Breakfast – Look for a place with a decent breakfast (i.e., more than bread and cheese) or at least one that begins and ends when people are actually awake (breakfasts that start around 8:30 usually go late). Breakfast is also a great way to load up on snacks for the day, cutting down your food budget.
  • Check-out time – Never stay at a hostel with a check-out time before 10 A.M.; the best ones have won’t make you check out until 11 A.M. or later. Sleep is valuable on the road because you’ll rarely get enough of it. Hostels with late check-out times understand this.
  • Lockers – It’s surprising, but I’ve actually been in hostels that don’t provide lockers or will charge you for them. In this day and age, lockers should be standard, and you should never pay for security. This is a deal breaker for me (especially since I travel with electronics).
  • Kitchen – Try to look for hostels with kitchens since you can then prepare your own food, lower your food budget, and share a meal with your new friends. Nothing binds people closer together than a shared meal (and a few glasses of wine).

What makes hostels great are the people. A top-rated hostel can be home to an unpleasant experience if the people are bad, while you can fondly remember the dirtiest, grossest, and most disgusting hostel in the world if you enjoy good company while you’re staying there.

But removing people from the equation, I look for hostels that have many of these qualities I’ve mentioned. Great, memorable hostels know what you want as a traveler and will enhance your travel experience.

What do you look for in a good hostel?

  1. You have some good advice, and I completely agree on things like common rooms, group activities, cleanliness, and lockers. However, wi-fi, for me, is a “nice-to-have” and not a “need-to-have” since I’d probably rather be using wi-fi at a cafe and people-watching simultaneously and breakfast isn’t a deal-breaker since I can buy something for $2 (or less) just about anywhere I travel. On the flipside, I value highly the option for a little privacy should I need that me time…a simple curtain around the bunk can make me 1000x happier if only so I can take 10 minutes to decompress when I need it. Wish more hostels offered something like that.

    • Amen to the curtain around the bunk! I’ve only stayed in two hostels that have had that feature, and I truly can’t understand why more don’t have them. It’s amazing how much more pleasant they can make a dorm stay. Though I am one of those people that “needs” wi-fi. And when it’s in the room, too? Even better. Makes getting work done so much easier.

      • You can always make your own curtain! We always travel with one towel and one small airline blanket each- I know, blanket sounds like it takes up tons of space- but it’s actually been a life saver on numerous occasions- so we just throw our towel and airline blanket up on our bunks – provided we are on the bottom – and baaaam- cozy little nook!

        Wifi is also a deal-breaker !

        • NomadicMatt

          I third that amen. That curtain is always a welcomed friend but like was sad above, when in need, a towel makes a good curtain too.

          • A lot of valid points in the post above. We’re unique, so bound to have a slightly different top 10 musts.
            A survey of 5 girls I did, our top 10 out of 60 points were:
            1-3 Equal -Hot water, quality of internet, Communal area to meet people
            4-6 Equal – Secure bag storage, Customer service/maps/travel details
            7-10 – Quality mattress, sturdy bunk, wifi in room, price

  2. When we choose to stay in hostels, we generally look for ones that have wifi. And private rooms that are actually private, as in quiet and with a our bathroom. If it’s trendy with some cute decor, that’s always a plus. =)

  3. Having managed guesthouses in the past and being an experienced traveler, I always spent a long time with the new guests giving them good advice on what to do. And also if we got any bad people staying there, simple solution, I asked them to leave. Kept a friendly place.
    If i was looking for something in a hostel when I visit, it is the staff and people that make it the best. And I would love them to have a separate dorm just for snorers!!!

  4. Great advice! My big thing is hostels close to the city center and main transport! I’ve made that mistake before, going for the cheaper hostel just out of town. What a pain! Nothing worse then arriving in a city and all you want to do is sleep or get rid of your luggage to find you have to wait 45 for a bus then have to walk 25 mins to the hostel, only to have to do it all over again to get back into the city!!
    Not to mention what ever little money you saved your now spending on transport!!

  5. Good post! Totally agree with your points. As a married couple, we love staying in hostels because it gives us an opportunity to meet other people while we’re on the road.
    And def agree with the point about the kitchen – we’ve saved loads of money cooking in hostels and also met some people while we’ve done it.
    Surely all hostels have wi-fi these days? That’s not great for business if they don’t!

  6. It’s all about the social area especially when travelling alone and a big thing that makes a hostel good or bad is the service. If I’m up against rude, indifferent, unhelpful staff it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. One of the reasons I don’t want to leave a hostel is if the staff are second to none. Cleanliness is also a biggy, I don’t know how they can operate otherwise.

  7. Some things that I look for are same-sex or smaller rooms. (When traveling with a friend, I will *splurge* and go for double-rooms, and when traveling alone I try to find something that is around a 4-person share). I’ve stayed in large rooms of 12, etc, and shared with mixed-gender and those tend to be less comfortable (albeit cheaper).

    Agree with the lockers, wifi, and also think having a knowledgeable front desk staff, a good location (sites within walking distance, access to public transport), and attached-to-the-room or large communal bathrooms are important to check for. You can often read reviews on Tripadvisor to see what has a high ranking and lots of reviews by performing city-wide searches to see which hostels travelers like best.

    I don’t necessarily think breakfast is important (just b/c a breakfast is provided doesn’t mean it’s good), but sometimes having an attached cafe/restaurant, vending machines, etc. will score points!

  8. A big one for me is free wifi. Most hostels do offer this but I was at one recently in Stirling Scotland and it wanted a pound per 20mins. Unreal.

    In addition to lockers, more hostels are adding beds with curtains, individual reading light and lots of power outlets. Hostels are evolving.

    I’d also like to see segragation for snorers. Self identify or you’ll be found out after one night and put them all in a room together to conduct their symphony!

    Best hostels I’ve stayed in:
    Plus Florence
    SafeStay (London)

  9. I’ve stayed in some nice hostels lately. The one in Reykjavik (or at least outside downtown) was really quiet and comfortable–I also got a nice deal on a private room. I was worried about the huge hostel in Boston, but it was also rather quiet at night and lively during the day.

  10. Matt, I love the criteria you have used, and they all are a YES in my books. What I am wondering though is if in fact they are appropriate for the 50+ crowd. Are single or private rooms often available? Are we oldsters accepted and wanted in the mix with the younger backpacking crowd? I love the idea of meeting other travelers on the road, having local recommendations, and sharing our travel stories. I’m not into the drunk, frat house scene though. What do you think – should I give it a try or not?

    • K. Patrice

      I just turned sixty – am a single traveller and I often stay in hostels including the dorm rooms. I can honestly say I have never had a bad or rude experience with a fellow traveller and although some of the other guests may come in later than I do I have found that most people try to be considerate. I would recommend that you give it a shot.

  11. I’m staying in a great hostel at the moment in Siem Reap. Nice and central, breakfast is $2 and free wifi. Rooms are cleaned daily and they even make our bunks for us :)

    You know it’s a good hostel when you have to book way in advance-some people have to leave for a night and then they’ll come back the next day which shows that it’s an awesome place to be.
    A couple of welcome extras are a bar and a pool which is great in Southeast Asia!

  12. Jeremy

    If it has a Pub or a Bar in the hostel, run away! Nothing like drunk dorm mates urinating in the trash can all night to break in your travel partner to the hostel life. Joanne, if you are young at heart you will have a marvelous time, but I bring ear plugs just in case. I have friends from hostels that I haven’t seen in 20 years that I still chat with on the internets. Looking forward to when my kids are old enough to put a back pack on and see the world. Oh, the places you’ll go!

  13. One thing that I learned was not to stay in a hostel that’s too big. My friend and I once stayed in a very nice hostel in Berlin: it was modern, clean, right next to the train station, and each room had its own very clean bathroom. However, the hostel was huge! It was practically a hotel, which meant that we weren’t able to get to know the staff, and there were so many people staying there that trying to make new friends was quite difficult and overwhelming.

    To contrast, one of my two favorite hostel experiences was in Barcelona. The hostel was a bit smaller, and on top of serving breakfast in the mornings, one of the staff members would cook a huge dinner for everyone in the entire hostel every single night!! It was super easy to become friends with both fellow travelers and the staff. Furthermore, the staff would provide walking tours as well as take people out to clubs and bars every night.

  14. Chris

    The people really are the #1 factor in determining what makes a great hostel, but of course, you never know until you’re already there, so reading reviews on hostelbookers.com and other sites are a great start.

    I’ve always had to pay for a locked storage locker. Didn’t realize they’re free in some places. Cool.

    Centrally located, near nightlife but not above a bar, with a kitchen, and just the right size. All those things are great, but the people working at the hostel and the people staying in it always make the difference.

  15. Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren

    Truthfully, I haven’t stayed in many hostels but this is super helpful. I had a great experience at the Oops! Hostel in Paris which I’d highly recommend. Thanks for sharing!

    Happy travels :)

  16. Number 1, the rooms. You have to sleep there, you want a good room. The main thing is that the rooms are clean and spacious and have lockers. Curtains, reading lights and plugs are welcome extras.

    Number 2, the common areas/people. I want nice big common areas where you can meet people and there’s a buzz. Bonus points for a decent bar.

    I have been to dozens of hostels in a number of countries. Two really stand out for me;

    Palmers Lodge, Swiss Cottage, London: Really great atmosphere, a grand mansion complete with an English knight in the corridor. Big clean rooms, and really great downstairs common areas that are more like hotel-quality; bar, dining hall and smaller dining areas.

    Caledonian Backpackers, Edinburgh: Again, good decent rooms and huge common areas, including bar, movie room and chill-out rooms. Really traveller friendly, you can stay as long as want and even don’t have to check-out until midday!

  17. Hello, Matt! Great topic! I`ve worked for a hostel which is excellent, but heard complains from many travelers who found the problems you mentioned in previous destinies. Awesome blog! Regards

  18. A hostel that provides good directions to its location from the airports, train stations, etc is key to me. Even though I like walking, I want to be sure I can get to the hostel easily.

    WiFi throughout the building is key these days. If the whole hostel population is crammed into the common areas staring at their devices, it kind of takes away from the purpose of the common areas as a meeting places.

    That leads me to good common areas. I’ve been to hostels where the common area was the reception and too small for meeting people.

    Big clean kitchens is another big one for me. If there are a lot of people cooking and not enough space to accommodate, or careless people leaving all of the uncleaned dishes and messes everywhere, I avoid it like the plague. But perhaps this is an issue with both the hostel and the people at the same time.

  19. I just spent a month on Koh Tao in a great hostel called Spicy for 200THB $6 a night and it included breakfast as well.. There was a great sense of community and everyone from the hostel did things together like snorkel trips and to the beach…

  20. Thomas Walsh

    I rate location highly when selecting hostels, nothing worst then having to travel 30 minutes to a hour to reach somewhere interesting. Location is even more important when public transport stops shortly after midnight.

    Like others have already said, free wifi in the rooms is nice to have. Plus power points for every bunk, that way I can charge expensive electronics and keep them in bed beside me. .

    I also prefer hostels which have shared bathrooms, en suites are fine until the entire room wants to use them at the same time, or someone decides to camp in there for half a hour. At least with shared bathrooms one cubicle is usually free even during peak time.

    Also a large central common area is great to have, Bars are also nice assuming they do not play music to loud. Having a swimming pool is also epic in hot climates.

    Overall I prefer medium to small hostels rather then large. It just seems easier to meet other travelers in the smaller hostels and there is less chance of sharing them with large groups. I do not mind large dorm rooms, assuming no one snores or coughs through the night.

  21. I love when there’s an evening meal in the hostel-such a great way to get to know other travelers and usually leads to heading out on the town with the group after. The Lisbon Lounge Hostel in Lisbon, Portugal is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in and it had a 3 course meal with wine cooked by a local chef for 10 euro. Incredible food and a great way to make friends!

  22. Its obviously not ALL about the money, but you can save big with free wifi, breakfast included, free water refills and free coffees. I tend to look out for these and if I go large on these items, I can get away with having to pay for just one additional meal on any given day and not much else – it all adds up. In fact, I think I might even be MAKING money on some days with the number of free pancakes and coffees I wallop down throughout a day. The cost of a $6 dorm bed is quickly eroded with such freebies!

  23. Gregory Jones

    You are so right about the kitchen. The most frequent compla?nt that ? hear when ? stay ?n a hostel is that there is no kitchen. Saving money ?s much harder when you have to eat out during your stay.

  24. I can definitely agree about the common room. That is both crucial and essential. I have stayed in a lot of hostels that are poorly designed and you rarely interact with other travelers or it is in an unnatural way. A common room is a great way to allow people to interact and get to know one another.

  25. The first time I ever stayed at a hostel was in San Francisco. After being asleep for a few hours after a night of bar hopping, I woke up to the soothing sounds of two dogs fighting in the hallway; apparently, traveler’s pets don’t always get along as well as people do. I honestly didn’t do the hostel thing too much after that, but it’s inspiring to hear stories from people who have actually found the nice ones out there!

  26. Kitchens are great and I’d say lockers are a must-have. I’ve known too many people who didn’t lock their things and found huge wads of cash missing later! Also, the check-out time thing is definitely something important to remember, especially if you’re keen on sleeping in (like I am some days) or you have an afternoon/nighttime departure.

  27. One of the top reasons while I used to like hostels (beside the low prices) was the common room where you could meet other travellers. But now (and I started noticing this about 4 years ago) the travellers are all glued to their iPad/phone/computer and don’t seem very interested in making new friends.

    I’m now using mostly guesthouses (in cheap countries), and AirBnB (in more expensive countries). My most recent experiment is house-sitting (I wrote about it here: http://bigtravelnut.com/first-job-house-sitter/).

    I agree with criteria #2: a central location, but sometimes this means a lot of traffic noise. I once stayed in a hostel in Cordoba (Argentina) with so much street noise under my window that I could barely sleep even with ear plugs and a pillow over my head!

  28. Alek

    A little different point than the original topic, but the way I pick my hostels is, first, to read the worst reviews, and then consider how well they state their opinion, consider what they ‘re whining about, and then decide whether or not the negative things are an issue for me. The best one I saw was at Casa de Amigos in Granada. I was looking for an inexpensive place with a friend. The bad review read:

    “All the owner wants to do is sit in the kitchen of one of the houses, listen to music, smoke hash and chat with coeds. Terrible”

    Needless to say, I booked it that minute. I wasn’t disappointed. The bad review was spot on.

  29. Kelly

    Anyone with good recommendations for good,friendly hostels with private rooms for families with older children in China? Especially Beijing & Xiamen.

    My girls are experienced travelers, mature and love meeting new people. We’ve shied away from hostels in China before because we had the feeling that families weren’t welcome. . . . any thoughts on this?

  30. Rose

    As a cautionary sidenote to checking out online reviews – make sure the hostel has at least 20 or 30 reviews listed. To play it safe, I don’t even look at hostels with under 50 reviews, 5 star rating or not. I’ve seen hostels with reviews raving on how excellent everything was, but there were only five or six reviews. Makes me wonder if the hostel owner bribed his entire family and employees to write glowing reviews.

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