Why I Left a Four Seasons and Moved Into a Hostel

Maneesh Sethi having fun in a hostelThis 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 5-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: 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. 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!

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.

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/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.

Maneesh Sethi having fun in a hotel

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 against 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 5-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 5-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

Maneesh Sethi having fun in a hostel
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 4 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 okay.

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 seeks to find and create systems that allow you to create systems that help you build habits and achieve your goals, unconventionally and rapidly. He created a set of giveaways for Nomadic Matt readers regarding traveling and hostels. Get his Medellin Hostel Tour video and his guide to free office space at Hack The System.

  1. Would hostel culture be as welcoming to travellers in their 30s? I’ve always had the impression that hostels were for backpackers in their early-mid 20s but maybe that’s another myth out there. As a frequent solo female traveller in my early 30s I’m not sure that I’d fit in.

    • As long as you’re friendly, you will fit right in. I was 28 last I was in a hostel and met a retired professor (~65). We spent almost a whole night chatting and had a great time. There are all types of people at hostels and it’s really easy to find a kindred spirit, no matter what age.

    • Chrissy Nelson

      I have never commented before but felt I had to respond! Please try hostels even at “your age” lol! I took my daughter to Costa Rica last year just the two of us and we did the entire 10 days in Hostels! Best vacation we ever had! The local culture is so fun and prevalent when staying in hostels I honestly don’t think I will ever go back to hotels if I can help it and I am 40ish! It made me feel and stay young!!! Just get a private if you are nervous.

    • It really depends on the Hostel. You’ll want to choose the hostel that has the atmosphere you are looking for. A lot of the party hostels cater to a younger crowd. but there are many laid-back hostels that have older guests that are still very conducive (and sometimes even more) than the party hostels.

      Also, as I get older (I’m 30 now), I’m finding that guesthouses are also a great way to meet people, and also cater to an older than 20’s crowd.

      • It really depends on the Hostel. You’ll want to choose the hostel that has the atmosphere you are looking for. A lot of the party hostels cater to a younger crowd. but there are many laid-back hostels that have older guests that are still very conducive (and sometimes even more) to meeting people than the party hostels.

        Also, as I get older (I’m 30 now), I’m finding that guesthouses are also a great way to meet people, and also cater to an older than 20?s crowd.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Maneesh, I have had a similar experience:

    After one month travelling around South East Asia staying only in hostels, I decided to reward myself and stay in a 5-star hotel in Bangkok for my 5 remaining days. After 2 days there I felt so isolated and depressed that I packed my bags and went to stay in a hostel for the last 3 days – problem solved.

  3. Josh

    Hostels aren’t just for the young, I’ve met people in their 70’s staying in hostels. While 20 somethings are the most common age rage you’ll find in hostels they aren’t the only group you’ll see.

    I find that age isn’t at all important to most people you meet on the road. Whats more important is that you’re an outgoing person who is open to meeting to new people and sharing experiences.

  4. I couldn’t disagree more. I stayed in hostels for much of my current year-long trip to save money but now that I am in countries that don’t have hostels, leaving hotels as the only option, I will have a hard time going back to hostels.

    Many of the points you mention depend on the hotel. Yes, resort hotels may be out of the way, but many hotels are just as centrally located as hostels – and many have their own bars, restaurants and even night clubs (in my hometown of Chicago, some of the top nightclubs are connected to hotels). Many hotels also have concierges who will help you plan just about anything and many also offer their own tours and excursions on which you could meet other guests. Or just spend some time hanging out in the hotel bar or chat people up over breakfast (almost always included and almost always better than anything you’ll find at a hostel).

    I also just really like having my own bathroom, being able to watch what I want on TV before I go to bed at night, having my own small fridge so I don’t have to deal with people stealing my food, and sleeping in a double bed with good pillows. :)

    • steve

      i agree as you get older you tend like your comforts a little bit more. But as someone who has done alot of travelling in both hostels and hotels, I thoroughly disagree with you if you think that meeting fellow travellers in hotel is as just as a hostel. NO WAY!!!

      Maybe you are very good looking and have people falling at your feet, but I have been to many hotel bars, and sure you can meet people. its in a Billy Joel “Piano Man” type bar/setting. Whereas, fellow travellers in hostels is a completely different vibe, and I am still friends with many people i have met in hostels around the world.

  5. Talk about rubbing it in, getting free luxury accommodation and then turning it down!! Haha, each to his/her own I guess; see, I would swap hostels for luxury in a heart beat if I could – not that hostels are that bad to begin with.

  6. sun E

    im not sure why “pensiones” arent ever mentioned by budget travelers, its the best of both worlds, not a huge impersonal hotel, and not the hassle of hostels. great for the “older” travelers and the younger ones, and for about the same price.

  7. sun E

    if given a free trip staying at a 4 seasons, however, i think id choose the 4 seasons over a hostel. be real!

  8. This is what I was trying to get at in my recent Tripbase post on accommodations! I personally alternated between all sorts of places (hostels, guesthouses, hotels, homestays) while traveling in Asia and often found that my better experiences were at the less expensive places. The luxury places sometimes weren’t even the most comfortable, because they would do things like go overboard with mosquito repellant instead of offering mosquito nets since those would be seen as lower class.

  9. Scott R

    I have to agree with Katie. I have to have my own room, and hostels just don’t cut it.

    At 22 years old, I left an HI Hostel in Geneva when someone threatened to stab me based on the fact that he hated Americans (I’m Canadian, he didn’t see a difference). That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. In the weeks leading up to that moment, I’d been robbed, forced out of my bed by 6 drunken baffoons at 3:30am, and lost two nights of sleep because of someone who snored so loud that the roof shook. I find them to be loud, largely obnoxious, often shady, and I couldn’t turn around without something going missing. I don’t like having to sleep with my shoes on and clasping my passport with all that I have. Management tends to have the ‘but it’s a hostel, what do you expect?’ point of view.

    I’m not a whiny person, I simply said that this life wasn’t for me and found preferable accommodations. Hostels may be your thing, and that’s great, but there are just as inexpensive options that will give you far better peace of mind, in my opinion.

    On that particular trip, I checked in to a moderately priced Accor Hotel, right in downtown, and still managed to meet lots of people on walking tours, on trains, in pubs, and just wandering around places that I was interested in.

  10. Hostels all the way. Of course if there was presidential suite for free at the 4Seasons, who are we to say no :) . For the most part, during our 5month trip to Central+South America, hostels were the way to go. Made sense financially and socially. You have to realize that most hostels have better accommodations than a lot of hotels in Central and South America. A private room or a group room with all your friends = fun.

  11. CIegeJay

    Im 33 and was hesitant to try hostelsncos of the 20somethings making too much noise and having to sleep in a room with 20 others while I wanted privacy. I currently live in Korea and have found several hostels that have been awesome. I meet good people, it’s nice, relaxing, safe, chill, and usually only 2 or 4 to a room. Some even have Ground rules! And people my age! Also in Vietnam when I was on holiday I found some nice ones as well. It changed my perception of them. Though I still love the couch surfing option as well. I just mix it up. Hostels, hotels, a couch…as long as I’m traveling, it’s all goooood. :)

  12. I choose between hostels and hotels depending on where I am going. In the U.S. there are not very many hostels so hotels are the way to go. In Europe I mix it up between hostels and small hotels.

  13. I’ve been to some hostels in past travels some years ago for budget reasons, and I learned all of the good (and the not so good) about them. If you are a solo traveler, the sense of isolation hotels produce can suck big time. Hostels on the other hand gather people who are more or less in the same thing as you, and in a place where everyone is seeking someone to share their experiences, you can make friends and have a nice chat really quick. That alone, for me, is the greatest thing about hostels. And while the majority of hostel visitors seem to be twentysomethings looking to drink hard and party harder, truth is you can see people from all walks of life in these places.

    On the flip side, being 38 and a “road warrior” now, I look for something a bit more comfortable, secure, connected and less noisy than a hostel, but without the cold impersonality of a hotel. That probably means I’d choose only hostels with private room options now. Airbnb tries to fill this kind of “middle ground”, but it’s not quite up there in the social aspect. There’s a niche there waiting to be exploited, I think.

  14. From a purely budgeting standpoint, hostels make so much more sense. The two biggest expenses for traveling is airfare and lodging. Assuming you have a fixed travel budget, you could probably travel 5X longer while staying in hostels than in a hotel. Let’s see, would I rather spend a week in Paris, or 5 weeks. No brainer! The airfare costs aren’t going to fluctuate that drastically from a 1-week turnaround vs a 5-week. Yeah you’ll need to spend more on food to survive those extra 4 weeks, but you have to do that regardless of where you’re living.

    Hostels also offer the added benefit of “Groupon effect” for things like tours whereby if you get a bigger group of people together for that whitewater rafting excursion, you pay a lower per-person rate.

  15. Kelly

    My first overseas trip on my own was to New York City when I was 20. I stayed in a fancy hotel to the tune of about $350 per night because I assumed it was safer. I look back fondly at being able to afford the luxury, but the truth is hostels have come a long way. With hostelworld and hostelbookers, shared accommodation has to be up to a high standard these days.

  16. Not too surprised to hear this. But it is cool that you actually did ditch the expensive hotel. It’s really hard to meet people in big, fancy hotels, and it can get lonely.

  17. Agreeing with Stephen here, this isn’t something new. BUT! The fact that you did come back to a hotel and then ditching it, really is a great exclamation mark. It’s good to hear somebody from both side of the story.
    And yes, hotels and hostels are preferences. Whatever makes you happy, right?

  18. Worth mentioning that even though it is geared towards young people there is no age limit on staying in hostels. While in rome I shared a 4-bed dorm with three French senior citizens. Though, they didn’t act senior!

  19. There’s nothing wrong with hostels. I’m even seeing older people staying in them more and more. I normally get my own room just because I’m a light sleeper and a mouse farting could wake me up, but they are just so much more fun and you get to be around like-minded people.

  20. Hostels are great for your budget, and I really love most of them- the only difficulty I have is the bathroom/changing/moving around situation. I travel mainly for business (with the majority of the travel costs being on my own dime), and have to get up in the morning and do my hair, make-up, and pull on a full business suit in the morning. Hostels with shared bathrooms can make this a bit difficult. Also, sometimes I need to get up VERY early to get myself ready for work, and I feel bad moving around when people are sleeping. The solution to this would be to get a private room, but I tend to book at the last minute, so many times they’re sold out. Also, in the US, the private rooms can be a little pricey.
    I’ve never had a problem with hostel safety or cleanliness though..mainly just space and movement.

  21. I managed the front office of a luxury hotel for several years, and unfortunately that made any other types of accommodation worthless to me. I’m a hotel snob, sort of part of who I am, and I’d imagine the same goes for people who prefer hostels. But yeah leaving the FS for a hostel…crazy I say!

  22. Monica

    You definitely opened my eyes to a new perspective. I guess whether you stay in a traditional hotel or a hostel depends on what the your is looking for, but a hostel sounds a bit overwhelming if you are trying to get away and relax. Don’t give up on traditional hotels just yet.

  23. I’m now 38 years old and I still love staying in hostels. Most youth hostels are full of people of all ages. I learn the best travel tips from other travelers. I’m currently in Cairo staying in a private room at a hostel

  24. Your writing is simply great, and brings it to the point!

    My favorite sentence of the whole article is “some of the best experiences I’ve ever had — with some of the best friends I’ve ever made — took place in hostels.”

    It’s 100% true, and it’s the same for me! I had especially in Europe crazy and fun hostel experiences I don’t want to miss! Nevertheless, Hostels improved a lot over the years – I am sure you are the first who noticed that!
    It’s great to see that bloggers like you also appreciate the positive part of being a hostel traveler!


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