How to Pick a Good Hostel

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 7th, 2010

good hostel tipsGood hostels are always hard to come by. Places can be very hit or miss and usually, the reason a hostel is good has more to do with the people staying there than the physical place. I’ve stayed in dumps where I had fun in because of the people there and amazing hostels that bored me to death. Hosteling is, after all, about the people you meet. However, staying in a place that knows a traveler’s needs is always better because it enhances the travel experience. When trying to pick a good hostel, here is my advice on what to consider:

Cheaper is Not Better – Budget travelers have a natural inclination to go with the cheapest thing around. However, don’t try to save a buck just to save a buck. Many cheap hostels are unclean, the beds are uncomfortable, the showers dirty, and the pillows thinner than a supermodel. Pay an extra dollar or two for nicer and cleaner digs. Your body will thank you.

What’s for Breakfast? – One thing I hate about hosteling in Europe is that breakfast is toast and coffee. And it begins at 7 in the morning. I’m not sure what travelers they know but I’ve never known any to wake up that early, even for a good breakfast. Look for a place with a decent breakfast (i.e. more than toast) or at least one that begins and ends when people are actually awake (breakfasts that start around 8:30 usually go late). It’s also a great way to load up on snacks for the rest of 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 hostels have 11 A.M. check out times and the really good ones let you checkout at noon. Sleep is valuable on the road because you’ll rarely get enough of it. Hostels with late check out times understand this.

Push Button Showers- Just say no to push button showers. They are annoying and have no water pressure. You don’t want the water to turn off mid-soaping. My rule of thumb is that if it has a push button shower, I don’t stay there.
good hostel tips
Lockers- It’s surprising but I’ve actually been in hostels that don’t have lockers or charge you for them. In this day and age, lockers should be standard. You should never pay for security. This is a deal breaker for me, especially since I travel with electronics.

Internet- While the internet isn’t a must for all travelers, a hostel with free WI-FI and computer terminals makes your life a lot easier. You don’t have to search for internet cafes and the internet at hostels is usually cheaper (and in many parts of Europe, free!).

A Bar – Bars are not a deal breaker and there are a lot of hostels without them but they make for a great place to socialize with other hostel guests. Usually if a hostel has a bar, they put a strong emphasis on making sure the people staying there are having fun, interacting, and being festive.

Common Area – If the hostel doesn’t have a bar, it should have a big common area. The best hostels are the ones that give travelers a place to hang out and socialize with each other. For me, a hostel without a common room is a deal breaker. Common areas facilitate interaction and helps solo travelers have an easier time meeting people. The best hostels I’ve ever stayed at always had an amazing common area.
good hostel tips

A hostel doesn’t need to have every one of these things but they should have the majority. A hostel without the majority of these things doesn’t understand who their guests are or what they want. Outside of the above criteria, I’m flexible on everything else. I’d like a clean kitchen but it’s not a deal breaker. Dorm room doesn’t lock? That’s what a locker is for. Hostel showers are always dirty which is why I wear flip flops in them. I’m not looking for a 5 star resort, just basic security and comfort.

What makes hostels great are the people and even the worst hostels will be great if you meet good people. But removing the people from the equation, I look for hostels that have some of the above qualities in them. Hostels that know what you want as a traveler are there to enhance your travel experience not simply take money from you in exchange for a bed. And I would rather stay at a place that is looking to make sure I have a good time.

comments 45 Comments

Some good points. I think location should be a consideration too but I guess you don’t get to the front door if it is too far away from the city centre.

Super important to read the reviews on various sites, like Hostel World or Hostels.com, even if you aren’t going to book online. I booked at the cheapest place in Venice that I could find, and in the end it cost us a lot more. We got bed bugs, my credit card got cloned, there were cockroaches and rats, and the toilet/shower (yes, it was an all-in-one dealy) was horrendous. After that place I wouldn’t dare stay anywhere with a satisfaction rating below 85% – 80% would be pushing it!

SocialiteTravel

Good points Matt, and I totally agree with you on satisfaction ratings Shawna, it makes all the difference. Reading the actual reviews are also very helpful, it can create a vision and vibe of the place without even being there!

elizabeth reid

sadly, not all reviews are real – watch out for a list of 100% satisfaction reviews all saying how wonderful the place is – you can be sure the owner wrote them. I look for realistic balanced reviews, a history that the place has been there a long time and over time acquired a good rating ( must be over 85%) and after that location and services, because a bed price my not include much. Some places with higher bed prices give you so much they are really cheaper

Sara

Hostelz.com is the easiest way to get hostel reviews since it tells you how every hostel is rated on all the other websites too (hostelworld, hostelbookers, etc.) all on in one place. But yeah, always check the ratings online. It’s amazing some of the terrible hostels out there get any business at all but some people just don’t check the reviews first.

DG

Yes, reading reviews is key. Kaweinga.com offers a quick way to check.

Wifi will be a must for me when I leave in 7 weeks but I hadn’t thought at all about the push button shower. Is that a European thing? I didn’t see it in Asia and hoping I don’t see it in Central and South America.

Wifi is a big thing for me so its high on the list. Along with a clean bed and secure storage for my valuables.

I’m sure as I travel more I will learn to live with some things and will look for others that become important. I’m yet to deal with a push button shower but if the button is on the outside of the shower its definitely going to be passed over.

I’d avoid hostel websites. I found the only people who leave comments are bitter losers, that or people who leave great comments to push it up.

I always get a ride to city center / “guest house area” then pick a mark,(tha sounds horrible). Pick someone who looks cool to you, someone who you look like you’d get along with. Ask them where the good deals are for nice digs and they will hook you up.

Fool proof plan, seriously.

I stayed at a hostel in Cornwall, England for 3 months because of it’s awesome common area and long stay boarders, one of which I became. Not the best hostel in the world but Ive made life long friends from my stay there.

On the other hand, I hate hostels with a bar. I like my sleep and find that hostels with a bar make for very noisy and drunk boarders who disturb my sleep by bundling into the room late at night and switching on lights while shouting at eachother ignoring the sleeping guests! Not my idea of fun!

I dont hostel anymore due to enjoying my peace and quiet too much!

becs

I agree re: bars in hostels. Hate them because of the noise and it encourages drinking and noise. Give me a comfy common room any day.

jim

I think the idea of a bar in a hostel sounds like fun until you’ve been traveling all day and just want some rest. Bars are fun… unless you want to sleep. :)

ps: love the article and your site :)

Luke

I just want to know which hostel has the converted courtroom for the computer room – that looks funky as!

travler

Its one of the clink hostels in london, not sure which (they each have a number after clink & we stayed at both) but its the one further away from kings cross station, sure you can find it online, amazing place, they have ex cells as rooms too!

Kine

Great tips, and good pointers.. When I travelled, the most critical point was the toilet. Hole-in-the-floor, no thanks!
As we were three we always got a room, and I’ve learned that a bathroom in the room is all well and fine, but when the wall between only reaches to your shoulders – you have a problem.. But an experience for sure, and I’ve learned from it.

PS: Great new design!

NomadicMatt

Come on! Rough it!! There’s nothing like a squat toilet!

jim

It takes a little getting used to but it’s really the most hygienic (if kept clean)

Back in June you recommended HelloBCN Hostel in Barcelona on our guide. I imagine that’s the kind of hostel you had in mind when you wrote this article.

Cheska

You have many of the same points that I had on my article a couple of weeks ago, the only disagreement is push button showers – hostels have them to help save the business money but also they help with water wastage. These days everyone who travels needs to find ways to help the environment a little bit and push button showers are great for this. For more tips on how to be environmentally friendly when backpacking or travelling check out Mad Travel Mag’s article ‘How to be a green backpacker’.

Ant

I never realised you were so picky with accommodation though – this post really surprised me. I think the only one I really agree with you on is the common area. I’d never even considered anyone considering the push-button showers! I don’t spend much time in hostels when I’m staying there — to me, it’s just a bed. If anything influences my decision it’s referrals from other travellers or simply how tired I am when I drag my backpack up to the desk.

As your blog has a foothold in the online travel community, and you have a good relationship with hostel bookers etc, I hope hostel owners take your thoughts onboard — if only so the more ignorant, like me, will benefit!

(ps. liking the new header, though my girlfriend saw it and reckons you look like you could be Dora the Explorer’s older brother! I defended you, explaining that you are an explorer in your own right)

These are good tips, but in reality I almost never get to the point of really having to chose between different hostels.
Almost the only case where this happens to me is to find a hostel on the first location of the trip. This is also the only hostel I normally book upfront. Afterwards I think I just follow mainstream. I sleep where the people I meet sleep or, if they’re going the opposite way, where they advise me to sleep.
Theoretical tips can be a good start, but there’s nothing better than the advise of someone who stayed at a certain place the night before.

The term “breakfast” is very loosely used. I agree with you, toast isn’t proper food.

Toast is a snack, not breakfast. I agree that standard items like security and cleanliness is a must. Good list!

I agree with all that you say here actually, but I think the breakfast most often are a problem in many hotels too. As well as the breakfast time… Ughh… Way too early!!!

Our best hostel we’ve stayed in are: http://lifecruiser.com/archive/wombats-city-hostel-vienna/ – I even got them commenting on my post :-)

Lonely Planet’s guidance about hostels is usually spot on.

Location is huge. Lockers and free WIFI is a must.

Breakfast is a bonus, not a necessity.

Hot water in showers is more important than whether you have to push a button every once in a while or not.

That’s my take!

Hostels that have bars really are great. I stayed in one in Brussels and I met so many people- even better, they sold Euro beers.

Barry

For someone who boasts to have been on the road for 40 months your advice and views are quite limited, especially for those travelling on a budget..
As someone else pointed out, what about the location of a hostel?
Surely, the decision to travel (outside of other reasons such as asylum) comes from the desire to learn and experience new countries, cultures and the people, surely not spent sitting in the hostel shower? – A hostel is just a place to put your head down…a bonus if there are some points highlighted in your ‘marking criteria’.
It is quite a generalisation to say that many cheap hostels are unclean, the beds are uncomfortable, the showers dirty, and the pillows thinner than a supermodel. Maybe if you had a more open view rather than inspecting; and then ticking or crossing each hostel off, you would have a more wholesome and rewarding experience.
As for the comment ‘A hostel without the majority of these things is a bad hostel that doesn’t understand who their guests really are.’ Hmmm, interesting comment from a ‘seasoned’ traveller!
Maybe you need to get a job and stop dicking about?…

Yes, I agree. There are more important aspects to consider when in a hostel and the one significant factor for me is if the room is located in an area where I can actually get any sleep, in terms of noise from the street or if it’s in a social area in the hostel. As for push button showers, just be happy you have water to wash with in the first place!

I will not say that mines are the best hostels in town, but i have to admit that the level of hostels throughout spain is tremendous, you wont be disapointed if you are backpacking around spain

I actually prefer hostels without bars. If there is a bar you cannot bring in your own alcohol. If there isn’t one a lot of people will drink in the common room before going out, which is much nicer on my $30/day budget.

AKinIndo

Good list.

For me, probably the biggest thing is figuring out what kind of crowd a hostel is catering to. People who mostly want to socialize and party, or people who want to focus energy on exploring cultural areas? That’s a simplistic, but generally useful dividing line that I’ve found. I like talking to people, and I’ve had some great conversations and flash-friendships from hostels, but that’s not why I go to a country, I go to experience the country. For me that means up early after a good nights sleep. =)

I personally never pick as hostel with a bar. If I want a crazy/noisy night-out I’d much rather go to it, and be able to sleep at night!

Having gender specific dorms is important to me as a solo-woman traveler (though I’ve chased the cheaper deal by staying in mixed, which ended up to be all men.Sketchy.)

I really look for a cool building when I scope out hostels, any sort of converted home/boat/church/shop is usually a fun place to stay, simply for this historic and architectural components.

And location is Very important. I usually try not stay right in the middle of ‘hostel-ville’ when I go to a city because I don’t think the locale is usually as ‘legit’ to the local culture. And I always make sure it’s somewhere I can easily find, ie. close to a bus stop, or major landmark. A subway stop is best of all! And I try to find somewhere with a view, in a more residential area or near a cool park/somethinglikethat.

Obviously not every place has every desired trait, but this is what guides me. =)

Carmel

Akinindo
As a 60 year old, contemplating the trip of my budget driven life time, your comments have gone some way to calming my failing enthusiasm.

Dave B

Common room is a good point- when I think back best hostels I stayed in had great commor areas. Now that I only stay in hotels it’s one thing I miss that meeting random people in common rooms.

Jasmine

Quick question; I have never traveled like this or stayed in hostels, but I’m off for a year soon. How do you find where to stay? Do you just stumble across them and then check the reviews or do you plan where you are going to stay before hand? Also how do you check that the hostel has these things before you agree to stay there?

NomadicMatt

Check out hostelworld.com, they are a hostel booking site.

Hey Nomadic Matt,

All your points are very valid! As avid travelers we know what’s important and that’s why we started on our hostel in Colombia. The Secret Garden Manizales – Hostel & Bistro. Hopefully you can make it when you’re in Colombia.

Cheers,

Daniel

Sound advice Matt and a post that has true longevity! Over 3 years old this post and everything still rings true…even if Wifi is almost becoming an essential now. Safe travels. Jonny

nowhereman136

Best way i’ve found hostels is to ask other travelers. Especially in Europe, you’ll meet a lot of guys moving from city to city in and out of hostels. They’ve pointed me to some of the best hostels i’ve ever stayed in.

a few other points i’ve found

-Never pick a hostel with a curfew, especially in a city like Amsterdam where its best seen at night
-If you find others traveling in the same direction as you, find a hostel together. you can share a private room with people you already get along with and sometimes it’s even cheaper than the dorm
-bring your own lock
-Location can be key, if you plan to see the city sights (Paris, Vienna, Rome), someplace on the edge of town is fine. But if you plan on going for the nightlife (Budapest, Berlin, Prague) those noisy places your heard to avoid are actually very convenient

And i’m surprised you didn’t mention kitchens much in your post, a good communal kitchen at a hostel is a great way to save money and meet new people. Me and a group who had just met, spent about 3euro each and cooked our own pasta dinner in the hostel, complete with sauce and wine

If you hear many people raving about a particular hostel, book as early as you can. You never know when the place your visiting is having a local holiday and are all booked up.

NomadicMatt

Also great tips! Thanks!

steve

Hi Matt,

great website. I wish I had it when I was younger!. I am approaching 40. While the comfort of your own shower/bathroom in a hotel is nice, I still prefer youth hostels. Mainly, because I travel by myself alot. However, I am starting to feel a bit out of place (or old) for a youth hostel, but in a hotel you just don’t meet fellow travellers like you can in a hostel. Any suggestions?

NomadicMatt

Try YHA hostels. They are a slightly older crowd.

SharonWright

Hi Steve
I am a 68 year old artist and writer and frankly I am hooked on hostels! For the past three years , since retirement, my son and I have seen a large part of Europe and South America while staying in hostels and they no longer the exclusive domain of the young. I am currently writing a book on the subject illustrated with pics of other baby boomers who are discovering what the young have always known. Travel is meant to be shared and hostels provide a much more congenial atmosphere than hotels in which to meet fellow travelers.

SharonWright

I recently walked the Camino Santiago with my 25 year old son and celebrated by heading to Portugal where we did the hostel circuit for several weeks. We found The Poets Hostel in Porto to be our favorite experience in Europe! But more recently we toured Colombia together and in Santa Marta discovered what could easily be rated a five star hotel…..The Masaya are owned by a French group and they have raised the bar on the entire hostelling industry! Returning to Bogotá I was thrilled to discover that they were also there and extended my stay by a week. Thanks for the best vacation ever Masaya!

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