This is a guest post by Maneesh Sethi of Hack the System. Like me, Maneesh is a “travel hacker,” and he recently tried to get back into hotels after hosteling for years. I thought his conclusions made for a story worth sharing here.
It seemed like a dream vacation: a free three-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Thailand while staying in five-star hotels. I boarded the plane, landed in Chiang Mai, and sat down in the sleek black Mercedes Benz that waited to take me to one of the most exclusive resorts in the world: the Four Seasons Chiang Mai.
After four years of traveling and finding my accommodation via Couchsurfing and hostels, I was ready to try out a more luxurious experience. It had been years since I had stayed in a hotel, so I decided to take the plunge. The experience, however, surprised me. Sometimes, even a free luxury vacation isn’t worth the price.
The Idealization of Hotels
I grew up in an Indian family. When we traveled, we only stayed in hotels. My experiences in hotels were always during family vacations, so I didn’t have a concept of what it would be like to travel and stay in a hotel without my parents.
I was taught that motels were dirty, and only “hoodlums” (my mother actually used that word) stayed in hostels. So I grew up with an aversion to hostels — shouldn’t I be staying in hotels? I might get robbed — or worse, killed!
Once, I asked my parents to explain the difference between a hotel and a motel. Their response: “A motel is where dirty people go to sleep.” And they wouldn’t even entertain the thought of a hostel. Growing up, I thought of a hostel as a place where the homeless would sleep. I had no concept of what they actually were. I just knew to stay away.
Years later, I left the USA to study abroad in Italy, and I decided to go on a few weekend trips with my friends. We obviously couldn’t afford the 100+-euro-per-night hotels in London and Paris, so we opted to stay in hostels. After 18 years of an intrinsic fear of hostels, my experiences revealed that maybe my parents were wrong. By checking the reviews on Hostelworld and staying with my friends, I was able to overcome my fear of hostels and start to enjoy them. Turns out, hostels aren’t bad at all.
Since then, I’ve traveled all over the world, staying in dozens of hostels on four continents, and I’ve realized something: some of the best experiences I’ve ever had — with some of the best friends I’ve ever made — took place in hostels. The only comparable location that I can think of is a college dorm: a place where people from around the world can meet other people who are in the exact same situation.
Fast forward to 2012. After four years of travel, I had become a huge critic of hotels. I always talked about why I preferred hostels to hotels, and why I would never go back to hotels.
And then the offer of a free five-star vacation arrived. No matter how much I’ve criticized hotels, it’s hard to turn down a free vacation.
One week and three hotels into my journey, I packed my bag, checked out of my already-paid-for luxury hotel, and headed into downtown Phuket to book a hostel. Even though another two weeks of $400+/night hotels were already covered, I selected a $10/night hostel and moved in.
Hotels simply weren’t for me.
I’m not saying hotels are bad. If you prefer luxury travel, or you are traveling as a couple, a hotel is a great option. If you are the kind of person who enjoys room service, hotels are for you.
When I stayed in hotels, I found that they lacked the essential ingredient of travel that I need: the ability to meet new people. Hotels offer comfort, but they don’t offer open rooms, shared meals, and the ease of new experiences.
You can’t meet new people as easily at a five-star resort as you can at a hostel. One of my hotels was 45 minutes away from downtown Chiang Mai, so I couldn’t easily go out to meet people. Even in downtown hotels, I’ve found it difficult to meet new people, because hotels aren’t conducive to making new friends.
The 5 Reasons Hostels Might Be For You
1) Hostels are often closer to nightlife and the party scene than resort hotels.
Do you want to be closer to the action? Resorts are often placed way outside of the city because of the space they require. Hostels, on the other hand, are generally located right downtown. You can find hostels in all locations, of course, but many backpackers prefer to go out, so hostels are open for partiers who want to stay in the party zones.
In Thailand, I hated having to take a shuttle all the way across the city to go out. When I switched over to a hostel, all I had to do was step outside and I was in the middle of the nightlife. Much more my style.
2) Hostels aren’t unsafe or unclean. They almost always have safeguards against theft and are cleaned more than you think.
For some reason, everyone seems to have the impression that hostels are dirty. The thing is, most hostels I’ve stayed in are cleaner than almost anywhere else — they often have a full-time staff that works to keep the place spotless.
In fact, in the majority of hostels where I’ve stayed, my bed was made for me in the morning — sometimes with a mint on the pillow.
As for safety, it’s true that sometimes things get stolen. But that can happen in a hotel too. In four years of traveling, though, I’ve never lost anything. I’m not even very careful — maybe I’m just lucky. But there is always a locker to store your valuables, so just keep your things safe and you’ll be OK.
3) Hostels are an incredible way to meet people. It’s like college for travelers — groups of young, fun people, all living together in a new place — with an attached bar.
This, by far, is the number one reason that I prefer hostels over hotels. Have you ever noticed how hotels often have ornate, beautiful furniture — but the furniture is always empty? Hostels are the exact opposite: they are always full of self-selected groups of outgoing people who want to meet new people.
When I travel to a new city, I don’t want to sit in a room and check my Internet from a desk. I want to explore, meet new people, and see what the city is like. And hostels provide that access: they give me a group of people who want to hang out and go out together. Travelers are always very welcoming and want to find other people to join them on activities, so it’s never difficult to find something fun to do. The only problem is deciding what awesome activity you will enjoy each day.
And of course, the nightlife with hostel folks is amazing. You get to meet dozens of other travelers each night, go out, and enjoy drinks.
4) Hostels organize tours and events, and offer great information for fun (and cheap) things to do in the city.
Hostels always have tours and programs set up, and the owners of a hostel know exactly the best things to do in a city. They’ll set you up with maps, guides, tours, and whatever else you need to know about the place you’re exploring.
5) Don’t like sharing a room? No problem, get a private room.
Hostels don’t only offer big dorms with 8+ people (or 30, like my hostel in Rio de Janeiro); they also have private rooms. If you want space, comfort, and more security, you can opt to pay a bit more and stay in a private room in a hostel. This is a nice compromise between hostels and hotels — you get a more private place to stay, but you’re still near other travelers, the nightlife, and the hostel bar.
At my last hostel in Colombia, I stayed in a private room for a of couple weeks. The dorm cost $10/night, and the private room was $20. Not a bad deal! Especially when I shared the private room with my film editor, it was the same price as just staying in a dorm.
If you’re afraid of hostels, think about it: Why? Do you think you’ll get robbed or attacked? Is that fear rational, or are hostels just something you’ve been told to fear, so you do?
Hostels offer an amazing and unique experience.
I, for one, am sticking with hostels instead of hotels from now on.
Maneesh Sethi is ardent travel hacker who finds and creates systems that allow people to build habits and achieve their goals quickly. He created a set of giveaways for Nomadic Matt readers regarding traveling and hostels. Get his Medellín Hostel Tour video and his guide to free office space at Hack The System.