Misconceptions About Hostels

I was recently having a conversation about hostels with a friend who just started travelling. I was trying to convince him to choose a hostel in London; he was quite adamant about staying at a hotel. When I asked him why he was so against the idea of hostels, he responded, “because I don’t want to sleep on the floor.” I just stared at him dumbfounded.

Where would someone get that idea?

As a hostel veteran I know what’s out there, but it occurred to me that first timers may not know what to expect.

I have stayed in the best and the worst, the ones with glorious views of cream coloured walls and red rooftops, and the ones located in the crumbling  red light district. The ones that boast a delicious breakfast consisting of croissants, jams, cheese, deli meats, local fruits, and smoothies, and the ones where you wouldn’t dare sip water. The ones with crisp bedsheets and the plushest duvets, and the ones where the mattress is stained and the pillows are plastic. There have been those with cute pets, and the ones infested with mice…

Breakfast room in Lisb'on Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal

No two hostels are alike. There are the good ones, and the ones you will never revisit. That being said, let’s clear up a few misconceptions.

I will have to sleep on the floor.

That is highly, highly unlikely. Hostels have beds in all shapes and sizes – twin beds, bunk beds, double beds. In some parts of Asia you may be rolling a padded mat on the floor and using a duvet to cover yourself, but that’s because it’s part of the culture and many people sleep that way in their own homes. I have never come across a place where I had to sleep on the cold floor – though I’m sure someone out there must have a horror story…

You will be packed like sardines in a 20 people dorm.

Yes, there are giant dorm rooms with one shared bathroom for far too many people, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Those are the cheapest rooms available; if you are willing to pay a few extra dollars (nothing to break the bank account), you can often upgrade to a smaller dorm or – gasp – even a private room! The choice depends on the traveller. Do you value your privacy and a good night’s sleep, or can you hack it with a loud snorer and sometimes a room full of strange characters?

The place will be a crumbling hole in the wall.

There are some pretty run down places where the tub does not drain properly and where critters crawl in through the windows, but these can easily be avoided by carefully reading the hostel reviews. What better way to get an idea of the place than by reading what previous guests had to say? If the hostel has a rating lower than 75-80% I tend to avoid it.

Chandelier in the common room in Lisb'on Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal

Also, many hostels are upping their game and embracing the chic boutique feel for a fraction of the price. There are modern and luxurious hostels out there that have honestly rivaled my stays at Caribbean resorts. I’m talking 15 foot ceilings, glittering chandeliers, ornate wainscoting and panels. Yes, those were my digs for the night and I only shelled out $17!

People will steal your belongings.

Perhaps if you are sharing a dorm with some shady people and you leave your iPod or fancy camera lying around up for grabs. The best way to avoid this is: a) Don’t leave your valuables dispersed all over your bed, and b) Make use of the lockers. A lot of hostels have lockers under the beds where you can store your valuables while you are out. And when in doubt just bring your things in a daypack; it may seem like a nuisance but you are better safe than sorry.

Hostels are for party animals.

Yes, there are hostels that cater to those seeking a drunkenfest. I once accidentally stayed at such a hostel after I failed to book accommodations till the night before and by then everything in the city had filled up. The minute I got there I knew this was the wrong place for me. The guys running the front desk invited a bunch of girls over, there was a Bob Marley mural in the common area combined with a thick (and I mean thick!) cloud of smoke that hung in the air…ahem. My friend and I retreated for the night and were not able to sleep till 4 AM. I could have avoided this by not doing things so last minute.

Again, reading the reviews will help you decipher the vibe of the place. Not all hostels will be frat parties. There are the cozy ones where you feel like you are part of a family, and those that are more like a studio apartment. There are hostels in castles, former prisons, and ones located on the outskirts of town where the sound of birds and crickets will soothe you to sleep. Do your research before you make the reservation.

Have you stayed in hostels? Any misconceptions that proved to be true or false?

60 Comments

  • Sheryll says:

    I’ve only stayed in a hostel a few times, and I totally agree. I’m a review snob, so if I see more than like 5 or 6 reviews bashing the place, it’s a no go. But since I’ve been traveling with my boyfriend, we tend to stay in hotels or rent apartments, as we both really like our privacy. I know that hostels do have private rooms, but I’ve actually found them to be more expensive, since a lot charge per person per night, and not one rate per night. In London, it was especially cheaper for us to rent an apartment than stay in a hostel with a private room.

    What I like most about hostels is the possibility to interact with people from all over the world. You just don’t get that experience staying anywhere else.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      That’s true. Sometimes when there’s two of you it’s almost better to find an affordable hotel or a nice little apartment. The thing I like about apartments is having a little kitchen and being able to cook some of my meals. That, and it also makes me feel like a local – even if I’m just passing through. 😀

      • Benevolence says:

        I have been trying to convince my friend to rent out an appartment instead of heading over to a hostel (because the price per night for the hostel she wants is ridiciously high!) As well the added bonus of cooking your own food (saving bucket loads of money in the process)

  • Dom says:

    Good reasons, but I still probably wouldn’t stay in a hostel unless I necessarily have to. Reason? Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been able to find hotels that were just as cheap or just a little more than a hostel. And it’s always worth it because I get my own room, bathroom, privacy, etc.

    And maybe being an introverted traveler has something to do with it. I’m not interested in meeting tons of new people (if it happens great, but I’m not searching for it) or I’m traveling with friends or my girlfriend who are introverted just like I am. I never hate on anyone who does the hostel thing…but it really annoys me when hostelers feel the need to constantly criticize my accommodation choices when I choose to pay a little more for a hotel (not talking about 4 or 5 star places either)

    • thatbackpacker says:

      That’s a good point. One of the things that draws me to hostels is the cheap prices (since I’m usually on a tight budget), but if I’m able to find a hotel with a decent enough price I’d be jumping on that opportunity as well. For me, the most affordable option wins in the end whether it happens to be a guesthouse, hostel or motel. 😀

  • Melissa says:

    I considered hostels on my upcoming trip to Croatia, South Korea and Japan but I really don’t want to have to share a room with strangers and for a person travelling alone, the cost of a private room is usually almost the same as just getting a hotel room (with my own bathroom). *sigh*
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      Fortunately, South Korea does have a lot of affordable hotels – or perhaps I should say love motels…lol. But everyone stays in them! The ones I’ve stayed in so far have always resembled modest hotel rooms, but I hear there are some very tacky ones to be found.

  • Totally agree that unless you’re really miserly, there’s rarely any reason to stay in a huge 20+ person dorm unless you really want to. Here in Hong Kong, my husband and I opted to splurge and spend an extra $3 per person per night so that we could be in a 9-bed dorm rather than a 21-person dorm! Best $6 per day we’ve spent so far, and it definitely hasn’t broken the bank (nor is it anywhere near as expensive as if we wanted a hotel room!).

    I have stayed in plenty of hostels before, so while doing it again at the age of 29 rather than 22 is a bit different, it hasn’t been bad at all. My husband was worried about theft quite a bit at first, but I kept telling him that really, everyone has their bags out and no one is going to rifle through ours to get at what? Our shampoo? Our dirty laundry? We keep our valuable electronics locked up in the lockers, but in a communal room, there’s got to be a certain trust level. If others are leaving their bags out and untethered, I think it’s unlikely they’re going to be stealing other people’s things!
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      Agreed! Sometimes it’s better to dish out a few extra bucks in order to get a more comfortable space. I have never stayed in a dorm room that had 20+ people (hopefully, it stays that way!) but I imagine it would be very difficult to get some sleep – especially if people keep wandering in throughout the night.

  • memographer says:

    Nice read. Good points. I’ve never stayed in the hostel yet 🙁
    My #1 concern is safety of my photo equipment. In SE Asia an acceptable hostel with lockers costs about the same money as a hotel… why risk it for $10?
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      True. It’s not worth skimping on $10 if you’re carrying around some pricey photo equipment. I’m not used to travelling with a lot of equipment or electronics (which is something that’s about to change!) so I’ve never really had to worry about that before.

  • Tom @ Waegook Tom says:

    I agree with everything you’ve written here, Audrey. My brother has yet to stay in a hostel as I think he thinks of them as run-down pig-sties. When he went to London recently, I hunted down some nice (and I mean NICE!) hostels for him, but instead he ended up forking out over seven hundred pounds on a hotel! Oh well – when he comes to visit me here at the end of the month, he’ll have his first hostel experience, unless he wants to pay for me to stay in the Hyatt in Seoul with him!

    The 75-80% rule is a good one to employ, although even then the reviews can be tricky. One I stayed in in Malaysia sounded perfect, it has a 91% rating, but it wreaked of chlorine and the hostel owners were the most miserable bastards I’ve ever met. Only the location was good. My favourite was a hostel in Turkey, the Kiwi Pension in Selcuk, which was super comfortable, they upgraded me to a private room when all the dorms were full, and they had a private swimming pool located in a mandarin orchard with a view of the mountains! Ahhhh <3
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      Whoaaaa! That is one very pricey stay in London! I could not fork over that much money for a hotel. That’s travel money! Hence, why I’m drawn to hostels. 😉 I hope you’re able to convert him during his visit, hehe.

      And that last hostel you mentioned sounds close to paradise. A private swimming pool with a mandarin orchard AND a view?! Whoever designed the place knew what they were doing. 😀

    • Janice Roberts says:

      Heey Tom,

      I stayed on a similar hostel no long ago. I gotta admit at first I was kind of scared of hostels because some certain horror movies giving that fame, but once I had the experience that image just ran away.

      And by the way Audrey is right. I don’t know where people get such ideas. Once I slept in a room with two dogs but never on the floor.
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  • ChinaMatt says:

    There are definitely some hostels I would never stay in, but sometimes it is fun to stay in them. It’s a great way to meet people. I would’ve liked to stay in the cool hostel in Panama City, but it was completely booked–I found cool people and a great place to stay anyway.
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  • Zhu says:

    Amen to that! There are a lot of misconceptions about hostels. In fact, like hotels, there is something for every budget and every kind of traveler. Some hostels can be more expensive than hostels too! That was true for Australia and some part of Latin America. And you can tell the atmosphere right away, some places are part-all-night-long but some are family-friendly or couple-friendly.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      Yes, hostels come with all sorts of price tags and all sorts of vibes. I find that I kind of enjoy the quieter ones with more of a family/guesthouse feel. I like feeling at home in a place. That to me is a sign of great hospitality. 🙂

  • Jackie D says:

    I think that overall the pro’s of hostels far outweigh the con’s. I love having people wandering around at all hours (even if I don’t feel like socializing. The background noise is kind of nice.) Also I’m always afraid of breaking everything in hotels.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I can relate to that. Even if I’m not in the mood to socialize, I like being in an environment where others are interacting and sharing their travel tips.

  • Sky says:

    Thanks for writing this, Audrey. I have yet to stay in a hostel but I’ve always been a little nervous about the idea. This certainly helped clear some things up!
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I’m glad it was helpful Sky. 🙂 I didn’t know what to expect before my first hostel stay, but it turns out people in the dorms were nice and friendly, and I got to meet even more travellers over breakfast.

  • Raymond @ Man On The Lam says:

    I think a lot of people confuse hostels with dorms. While I have stayed in a few private rooms in hostels, if there’s a choice of a hotel at a similar price, I’ll always go with the hotel. 🙂

  • Amanda says:

    I’m not exactly a lover of hostels, but I have stayed in plenty and haven’t had any truly horrible experiences (yet… knock on wood!). I tend to go for private rooms when possible – this way I get the best of both world! I get my own space and don’t have a share a room with strange people who probably (with my luck) snore, but I still get that hostel atmosphere and price.
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  • kami says:

    I’ve stayed in many hostels and they weren’t that bad, very often they had much better standards than hotels and the price was much more affordable. And since most of the hostels offer private rooms too you can be around people yet have your privacy so it’s like a perfect combination!
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  • I know there are plenty of people who can’t imagine staying in a hostel for whatever reason, but I can’t imagine NOT staying in hostels…where would I stay? Safety is one thing, but if you’re traveling around a lot, your room doesn’t really matter that much anyway as you should be out doing things!
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  • Andrea says:

    I’ve had some good and a lot of not to good experiences in hostels. At the end of the day, my sleep is more important than spending 20 dollars less. The thing I DO miss about the hostels is meeting people. It’s so easy to do in a hostel situation, but a hotel? Not so much! Great post!
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  • Gaby says:

    Hey great post! Definitely a topic that comes up all the time when i tell family and friends that i’m a traveller. It’s great to let them know that Hostels really can be a great alternative to hotels. Also, your hostel pics in this post are gorgeous! I’ve stayed at quite a few hostels, some great and some not so great, but definitely none that were so beautiful! Thanks for sharing 🙂
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  • Jessica Wray says:

    I’m just glad there are so many review websites out there now. Including hostelbookers and such. They make it so much easier knowing what to expect. The worst thing taking Lonely Planet’s advice from an outdated guidebook and ending up in a run-down piece of crap!

    Also, I seem to forget a lot of people don’t see hostels as “normal” accommodation like I do. I don’t know how I’d travel without them!
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  • OutsideTheGuidebook says:

    Bingo! I always stay in hostels Audrey. But I’ve got friends who hate ’em. Took one such doubter with me to Portugal and even he changed his mind there! Good read.
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  • Shalu Sharma says:

    I think you have described the hotels quite nicely. There are good, bad and of course the ugly types. If you don’t know about the place then its all about luck unless you read some reviews about it. There are very good hotels and its about getting to know them. If you go with a lot of friends then you’re in luck otherwise you just have to share and prepare for the worst.
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  • Charu says:

    Great post! I am one of those “people” who used to think hostels were everything you mentioned above, but honestly I am getting over that fear since I do like my affordable luxuries. And nothing wrong with a bare bed –at all–it’s just that I am a neat freak. Nowadays, hostels are really changing, just as sure as glamping is replacing camping. In fact, the New York Times Magazine had an entire article about glamorous hostels. You’ve written a very timely and beautiful post, and your pictures are LOVELY.
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  • Arun says:

    Came here through your interview at flipnomand. Enjoyed reading here and the site design as well. Would come back to read more about your Asian adventures..
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  • Jarmo says:

    I was staying in a hostel in Bangkok and as I am not very good at planning ahead, I always told them at some point, that yes I’d still be staying another night. On the last day I was told that unfortunately they were full for the night…. And well I was too lazy to find another hostel, so I asked if I could sleep behind the pool table, and by this point I knew the staff quite well, so they didn’t mind…. So when the night came I gathered a few mattresses they had laying around and went to sleep in the lobby behind the pool table. It wasn’t a party hostel, so I actually had a pretty good sleep. ..

    So yes sometimes you might have to sleep on the floor… well I suppose that was more my mistake than anything else…
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  • Kyle says:

    I love that you’re addressing these misconceptions because as I recently wrote in a post, my own perceptions of hostels were not good. In fact, they were almost entirely based on a movie where backpackers are lured in to later be dismembered or killed (yea don’t watch this movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d5_lrn9v-g) Hostels have become one of my absolute favorite aspects of travel. The people you meet alone are worth it and I still can go on and on why everyone has to stay at one.
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  • Arianwen says:

    Oh dear! It’s a shame a few bad hostels give the others a bad reputation. I love hostels, especially travelling alone.. It would be very difficult to meet people otherwise. And even if you have a bad experience it makes a funny story when you look back on it!
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  • it’s so true what you say, but it’s more an ignorance than anything. I was the same till a friend showed me the way. After the first hostel, I was hooked. i’d bet most of the people who are against it haven’t actually stayed in a hostel.
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  • Ceri says:

    This is really informative and so important, I think, for people to realise that hostels aren’t the worst things in the world. I do look at reviews so carefully before choosing a hostel if I haven’t been recommended anything by a friend. You can usually tell who the high maintenance idiot is when they review a place – “You have to make your bed yourself!!!!!” – so I think I’m a pretty good judge in weeding out the silliness.
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  • “A true traveler sleeps everywhere”

  • Ruth (Tanama Tales) says:

    Since I discovered private rooms in hostels and hostel booking sites, my travels have changed a lot (for the good). I am not sur ehow much money I have saved but it is a lot. There is no going back I have found affordable private rooms in expensive places such as San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro. If you are worried about certain things (like noise, cleanliness, etc.) make sure to read the reviews until you find a place you believe fits your style (believe me, there are a lot of options).
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  • julian says:

    Hostels can be life savers to the traveler especially when funds are low. I second your advice to just do some research on the place before you book and read the reviews so that you are not hit with any unpleasant surprises.

  • My almost 83-year-old mom calls them “youth hostels” because back in 1948 when she traveled with a “rucksack” around Europe, that’s what they were. She took us kids on vacations to beautiful hostels on Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vinyard on the coast of Massachusetts in the early 1970’s, and by the time I was college-age I was hooked. I spent 3 months “youth hosteling” (not “backpacking”) around Europe and ten years later did the same in Australia.

    My mom continued youth hosteling until she was 78, at which point she decided she was ready to upgrade to a higher standard of living. Now she rents an apartment in Paris for 3 months every year instead.

    Your post sums it up wonderfully — some hostels are awesome, some are dismal. A very tiny few still sustain the tradition that every hostel had in 1948 of asking everyone to perform a chore to keep the hostel sparkling- from sweeping to cleaning the bathrooms to washing the dishes to cooking for the crowd staying there… but those old fashioned hostels are very hard to find these days…

    Hosteling a great way to travel… although I like the full-time traveling I’ve been doing with my hubby for the past six years via RV and sailboat… it’s nice to have your home with you!!
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  • Jane Frigeri says:

    Great post and comments.
    Hostels are often in some of the best locations! I’ve stayed at some great hostels, surrounded by luxury hotels, on beachfronts, lakesides, CBD’s etc for a fraction of the price. You’ll also often find a hostel in those out of the way places where accommodation options are few. They can be a lifesaver sometimes.

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  • I sense that hostels are generally used by the younger generation and not for those over 50 [like me]. As we get older, night time “nature calls” become more a part of life as does snoring. Looking for some feedback here – do you see many older people backpacking around and staying in hostels.
    I have been using a snoring mouthpiece for years so it is not a problem for me but I am mindful of this being an issue as mentioned in the article…http://helptostopsnoring.com/zquiet-reviews-stop-snoring-mouthpiece/ Wish everyone would use them.

  • Tayler says:

    @tom could you tell me what super nice hostels you found for your brother in London? I plan on going back in December and need something affordable decent and preferably a private room.
    Thanks!

  • Morgan says:

    Curious – on average, how far in advance do you typically book your hostels?
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    • Audrey says:

      It all depends on when and where you’re travelling. If you’re going to be visiting popular cities during the summer holidays, you’ll have to book way in advance because places fill up fast. However, if you’re travelling during low season sometimes you can just show up and get a room on the spot.

  • Brianne says:

    Hi, I’ve just found your website but I’m really enjoying the posts so far! The pictures of the hostel in this post are quite nice! Where is this hostel?

  • Franca says:

    It’s so true , a lot of people only believe in misconceptions about hostels. Looking back I had my pretty bad experiences and I’m sure I’ll have more, but this doesn’t mean that each hostel is going to be the same. Some have turned to be great value for money and quite comfortable too. There are so many fancy and design hostels around especially in Europe that I’d love to check out at some point.

  • Kayla Thomas says:

    Thanks for posting this, I was confused about what these were when I first saw them. I went on Expedia and clicked on the cheapest thing, then saw a line about this hotel being a ‘dormatory’ and about there being 20 other beds, and I’m like, “Wait, what? I have to share a room with a bunch of strangers?!” and then I started freaking out thinking, ‘Is this how all London hotels are?!’ (you can probably tell I’ve never been out of the States by now) I’m not sure if they have these in America, but I’ve never seen one. But this definitely helped clean up some of the untruths that popped into my mind when I read that line.

  • Great article! This is so true, a lot of people frown on the thought of a hostel, yet in some cases a hostel can actually be as good, if not better than some cheap hotels in the same area!
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  • Awesome points Audrey. I agree, people think hostels are all horrible and must be crumbling to the ground. Like you, I have had my fair share that would fit that description, but I have also stayed at some pretty badass hostels that I love! Oh yea, and they are cheap as heck! Why not? It’s just a bed 🙂
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  • Kenneth says:

    I have stayed at so many hostels (dorms mostly) I can’t even keep count. The thing is, I think I’m slowly outgrowing it. I am introverted so I don’t really like forcing myself to socialize and meet new people every few days (which you do if you move on to new cities). I’m looking to book more single privates during my current trip. No need to face filthy dormmates or heavy snorers.

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  • Phebe says:

    My husband and I (both well over age 50) have been travelling for the past several years, and have stayed in various places, including hostels. We always opt for private rooms, but have enjoyed most of the hostels we’ve been in. (Some had private bathrooms, some were shared. Not a problem.)

  • Sam @ Mobbo says:

    Solid ideas, Audrey. There are definitely some hostels I would never stay in, but sometimes it is fun to stay in them. It’s a great way to meet people.

  • Matt says:

    Hey Audrey,

    This is a fabulous summary of misconceptions regarding hostels. We heard that a lot, but once a traveler stayed at a proper hostel, there is usually no way back. It’s especially true that hostels woke up and started to deliver better facilities. They learned a lot over the last years, and it is interesting to see how it all changed.

    I recognized the post is from 2012, and yet, it is all true 🙂

    Matt

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