Do you want to save on accommodation when traveling but the idea of staying in a hostel for the first time feels daunting?
If you’re traveling backpacker style, want a budget-friendly accommodation or are looking for meeting new people abroad, staying in a hostel is a great option. But if you have never done it before, lots of questions could be popping in your mind.
Are hostels safe? Where do I keep my luggage? Will I feel comfortable sleeping in a room with strangers? Can I still get some privacy? Am I too old to stay in a hostel? These and many other questions are often shared by members of our community when considering booking a hostel for the first time.
While hostels may not be for everyone, there are many advantages to staying at one and in this article we will make sure you get all the best tips for your first hostel stay so you can make the most of your experience and, at least, decide if it’s for you or not.
Let’s dive right into our list of essential tips to stay safe at a hostel and enjoy your stay.
What is a hostel
Let’s start with the basics. A hostel is a low-budget accommodation where travelers rent a bed in a shared room with other guests. The rooms are usually bunk bed style and they can be mixed or single-sex dorms. Bathrooms are generally shared.
The number of guests that can sleep in the same form depends on the hostel but it generally goes from 4 people all the way up to 20.
Many hostels also provide private rooms and sometimes, these can be ensuite and come with their own private bathroom so they are a good compromise for those who want to enjoy the great parts of hostel life but prefer privacy.
Benefits of staying at a hostel
Travelers, and solo travelers in particular, like to stay at hostels because:
- They are a budget-friendly accommodation option where you can pay for a bed rather than a room
- They function as social hubs where you can meet other solo travelers
- They have facilities like communal kitchens, where you can cook your own food and save even more, and washing areas to wash your clothes
Some solo travelers only stay at hostels because their social aspect cannot be found anywhere else, while others will never stay at one because they prefer higher end accommodation and privacy.
Even if you will never stay at one again, it is worth staying at a hostel at least once to see if it’s for you or not.
Hostel tips for a first timer
In this section, we are listing all the hostel tips for a first timer, from safety tips to suggestions on what to do to make the most of your stay.
Book a hostel with 24 hour reception: We strongly recommend booking a hostel that can provide assistance whenever is needed and a qualified desk manager to help you in case of an emergency situation. Perhaps there is a drunk guest causing a ruckus or the lights suddenly go off, a 24h reception can be pretty handy.
Protect your valuables: We have mentioned it before, but we will round it up here again, make sure your hostel has lockers, and bring a couple of padlocks to keep your belongings secure. Check reviews as well to verify that there are bedside outlets to charge your electronics.
Get travel insurance: This is a must! Purchase travel and medical insurance before traveling, we speak from experience when we say travel insurance can save your life in many situations. If you are traveling solo, this is extra important because there is nobody else to take care of you so you need to make sure you are protected. Travel insurance can cover from baggage lost to stolen items.
Have a plan-B accommodation: While hostels are great, there is a degree of uncertainty in booking affordable and / or shared accommodation. As one of our members, Laraib, suggests “I always have an alternative hostel in mind in case I don’t like the one I originally booked”.
Be considerate of others: Hostels are communal experiences. You will spend time in lots of shared spaces, so it’s important to keep your space clean and not leave a mess, whether that’s in your own room or in common areas like kitchens. If you arrive late in the middle of the night, be mindful of your roommates’ sleep, don’t turn on the room light and try to make your way to bed with your phone light. If you’re leaving early the next day, pack the night before, prepare the clothes you’re going to wear and set a silent alarm you can hear through your headset.
Don’t move other guests items: Avoid touching other guest’s belongings as this can cause conflict or misunderstandings.
Shower respectfully: Try to have a quick shower, so it can be available for other guests. Another tip we have is to avoid peak hours where showers are busy (morning from 8 am to 10 am and evening from 6 pm to 8 pm), especially if you want to have a longer shower.
Use the kitchen orderly and clean after yourself: This tip needs no further explanation. Make sure that you tidy up as soon as you are done cooking so others can use the kitchen and the utensils you’ve used.
Label your food: To prevent theft from your refrigerator, label your food with your name, room number and departure date, so other guests know it belongs to someone. If you have leftovers, label it with “communal” or “up for grabs”, so that others know they should eat it and food doesn’t go to waste.
Use facilities off-peak: if you can, use showers and kitchen facilities during off peak hours so that you are more relaxed and can take your time. For example, cook in the early morning or shower in the late morning.
Meeting people and making new friends: Many hostel guests swear by this kind of accommodation as the best for solo travelers because the atmosphere makes it easy to meet people. Most people you’ll meet are also on their own and open to meeting others so any conversation starter will do. Smile, say hi and introduce yourself. “Common areas are a nice place to talk to people and hang out after a day of going around the city, people have lots of stories and inside info about the city and everything”, said Ujin, one of our community members. Many hostels also organize activities like free walking tours and pub crawls, which are amazing opportunities to make new friends.
Get a late check out: When booking your hostel, ask for the check out time. Hostel check out times are usually early in the morning so we suggest asking if a late check out is available. This way you can have some more sleep, or shower when the bathrooms are quieters, and don’t have the rush to get out early.
Work for stay: Did you know you can work in a hostel in exchange for free accommodation?
If you plan to stay longer, ask about work exchange or volunteer opportunities. Some hostels offer assistance jobs and give some nights of free stay in return (even a small allowance if you get lucky!), but always confirm that it is worth it. If you need to work for 5h a day to save $10 a night, it may not be worth it, but in more expensive destinations, this may be a good way to stretch your budget further. Besides contacting hostels, you can check out sites like Workaway and HelpX, as well as our free live session on work exchange opportunities, which we shared with our community.
Tips for booking the right hostel
There are many aspects you need to take into account when choosing a hostel for the first time and in this section we will walk you through the key decisions based on the recommendations from the pros, from considerations around the location to the facilities and the type of accommodation.
After your first hostel stay, you will most likely have a better understanding of what matters to you and realise what is essential and what you can live without, depending on the type of trip and your travel style.
Our group member Kristina put it best: “I loved staying in hostels, it’s a great way to meet like minded people. I always stayed in places that had lockers for any of my personal items, and kitchens so I could cook meals instead of eating out all the time”.
When searching for the right hostel online, make an advanced search with filters. With the filters you can get more personalized results and narrow down the options by setting your price range, type of room (single private room, double room, female-only rooms, etc), facilities, location and rating.
There are many types of hostels available, choose the one that suits your style best.
Budget hostels: these are no frills accommodation options with very low rates and minimal comforts, typically most attractive to backpackers and budget-conscious travelers and widely abundant in Southeast Asia. They tend to lack some facilities like social areas and bars and usually only have large shared dorms.
Luxury/boutique hostels: a fancier alternative, luxury hostels are more stylish and comfortable. They have modern-designed common areas and are more expensive. You will find several of these in European cities.
Party hostels: if you’re a nightlife person, stay in a party hostel! These hostels have a lively atmosphere and usually host social events. They have bars which serve as a gathering place for travelers from that hostel as well as from other hostels in the city. They do have disadvantages like noise and some drunk guests arriving in the middle of the night, so if you’re not in a party mode, it’s best to avoid them.
Capsule hostels: Commonly found across more expensive cities, especially in Asia, these include just a capsule room that is big enough for you to sleep in, the rest of your belongings go in lockers. You get the privacy of a private capsule stacked right above and below another one.
Adventure hostels: ideal for outdoor lovers, these hostels offer organized activities like guided hiking, scuba diving, snowboarding or skiing, etc. Usually located in ecotourism and wilderness areas, they are a good choice for travelers who want to experience the nature and wildlife of a destination.
All-female hostel: they only accept women guests and are excellent if it’s your first time staying in a hostel, or you just feel more comfortable around fellow female travelers. Female-only hostels are usually easy going places, great for making new friends or travel buddies.
Co-living hostels: A recent addition across the world, co-living hostels such as Selina, often come with not just the room but also a desk to work on during the day. They are designed for longer term stays and with digital nomads in mind.
A great tip by one of our members is to contact the hostels you’re interested in, feel free to reach out directly to ask any questions.
Location is perhaps the most important decision factor when picking any accommodation, especially if you are on a budget. We suggest choosing a safe neighborhood which is located in the city center or nearby, where you could get to the city center easily using transport.
Hostels are designed for budget travelers and as such, tend to be located within easy access of public transportation but it’s best to confirm that and make sure the area around the hostel is safe by asking in Facebook travel groups and reading reviews.
As most hostels don’t have restaurants on site, it’s also important to note if there are supermarkets (in case you want to cook) or affordable eateries nearby, especially for dinner, so you don’t have to walk around at night alone.
“I like to research neighborhoods first, and then after I decide which part of town I want to be in, I look for hostels in that area. An amazing place that’s too far out or not in a great neighborhood is a no for me, no matter how nice the place is. Look for location first and then anywhere you sleep will be fine” shared Ashley.
Budget is the key factor when choosing a hostel. When comparing prices, look at the price of the bed and also at the add-on costs such as locker rental, additional towel or bedding rental, etc. Read reviews if it is not obviously mentioned on the hostel or search engine site to avoid surprises.
Many hostels offer mixed dorms, private rooms and even female-only dorms.
Choose the one that matches your budget, your preferences and makes you feel the most comfortable.
If you want the typical hostel experience, you can stay in a mixed dorm with many beds. If you are not sure and it’s your first time staying at a hostel, it may be better to start off with a private room so that you see how you feel, you can always change to a female-only or mixed dorm later on.
Between the female-only or mixed dorms, that comes down to personal preference, though at first, a female-only dorm may feel safer to solo female travelers.
Some travelers prefer to stay in mixed dorms like our group member Yasmin: “I personally liked the mixed rooms better, because the atmosphere was more open and I felt like male travelers were more easily approachable, and more considerate, and had less stuff laying around everywhere”.
While others strongly prefer a female-only room like Megan: “I always try to stay in female-only dorms. I have stayed in mixed ones when they’re all that’s left. Usually no issues, but it is all about what you feel comfortable with”.
Facilities and services
One cool aspect of hostels is that they are naturally social spaces and typically have many common areas and facilities. If you have never stayed at one, it’s worth noting some of the default features hotels have that work differently with hostels.
Below are some things to consider and research about the hostel you are considering to book:
Bedside outlets: Verify if the hostel has electrical plugs nearby every bunk bed (including the ones on top). This way, you can charge your devices when you sleep and keep them under your pillow or near you.
Lockers: Most hostels offer lockers to keep your things safe. While we suggest keeping your documents and cash under your pillow or in a bag attached to your bed while sleeping, lockers are ideal to leave other important things safe while you’re out during the day.
Kitchen: Many hostels have a communal kitchen where you can cook your meals and reduce your expenses.
24 hr reception: look for a hostel that has a 24 hr lobby service, so you can get assistance anytime, if needed.
Some other features that may be of your interest:
Breakfast included: If you want to make the most of your day and have a quick breakfast in your hostel, choose a rate with breakfast included. Be sure to read reviews about the breakfast menu, and see if it’s what you’re looking for and if it’s worth it.
Bar or pub: if you’re keen to meet fellow travelers, a great place to do it is in the hostel bar or pub. Guests and even outsider visitors gather at hostel bars to make new friends and go out at night. Many hostels additionally organize pub crawls or themed nights, which are a fun option to join. Since hostels are mostly conceived for solo travelers, these are great spaces to meet people or find travel buddies.
Free Wi-fi: If you’re a digital nomad and will work during your travels, free quality wi-fi is a must. Check beforehand if the hostel provides it and read reviews related to wi-fi quality and any associated costs.
Other facilities: Some hostels have a computer room, which might come in handy if you need a calm space to work some hours during the day, and the co-living hostels have entire co-working spaces within their premises. Hostels in beach and tropical destinations often have pools, may have in-house dive or surf centers and more, and city hostels commonly offer free walking tours (via third party companies) and other tour booking services.
Reviews and photos
As we mentioned above, we highly advise checking out many reviews and photos of the hostel you’re looking into more than anything because the quality of the accommodation options can range significantly in the hostel world and the difference between a good and a bad hostel could be cleanliness of common areas, safety or whether you get bitten by bed bugs.
If it’s your first time staying at a hostel, reviews will be even more important to learn more about the aspects you may not have thought of, like whether the staff at the reception are friendly, whether the area is safe or if the hostel has a good vibe, which can make the difference between a great stay or a terrible trip..
Our member Cassie adds: “Always, always read the reviews first. Do not stay anywhere with less than 3.5 stars”.
Eeva agrees: “I stay in hostels all the time. The main thing I look for in reviews and ratings is cleanliness, security, & location”.
Also, look for photos taken by guests, which provide a more realistic view of the place, and get passed influencer shots which will always show you the most positive side rather than reality.
Hostel booking sites
The easiest way to find the right hostel for your first stay is to use on of the accommodation search sites, here are our favorite ones:
HostelWorld: the best place to discover hostels. The site is a comprehensive hostel research portal with a variety of options in most countries. It covers almost every hostel out there and it’s great for comparing prices and reading reviews.
Booking.com: one of the well-known accommodation sites with a large inventory to choose from. Booking provides lots of hostel options, many of which provide refundable rates, in case of last minute change of plans. The site offers a free loyalty program where members can get sweet deals and special offers.
What to pack your first time staying at a hostel
We love packing smart but the facilities and travel style of hostel guests requires a few items that you may not usually pack when staying at a hotel.
Here are some travel packing tips for a hostel stay and items you don’t want to forget on your first hostel stay:
Practical baggage: it’s better if you travel light because you won’t have a private space to keep your luggage in (unless you book a private room). You could opt for a travel backpack if it’s a short trip, or bring a carry-on size baggage with wheels, so it’s easy to move around but bring only the essentials because you won’t have much space in the dorm to place your luggage.
Padlock: a must for keeping your belongings safe! Bring a padlock to lock your luggage at night, you can even bring a bike lock to secure your bag to the bed. For the lockers, we recommend bringing a second padlock like this one in case the hostel does not provide them.
“I always lock my things, even while in the shower! If I know the specific hostel doesn’t have lockers, I’ll bring a carry-on bag with a built-in TSA lock and cable lock it to the bed” our community member Angela shares.
Flip flops: a very handy item specially for personal hygiene. Bring flip flops to use when going to the bathroom and taking a shower, even if it’s a clean hostel, you don’t know how clean other guests are, and you might share a bathroom with several.
Bed sheet and pillowcase: o make sure you sleep in clean sheets, bring your own. Many hostels are neat and provide clean sheets, but if you don’t want to risk it, bring yours. An alternative is bringing a lightweight sleeping bag liner, which makes it simple to carry and place on the bed.
Toiletries set: unlike hotels, finding toiletries in a hostel is rare. Make sure you bring your toiletries kit which can include: shower gel, shampoo/conditioner, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen, etc. Better yet, pack dry shampoo, dry conditioner and a soap bar for an eco-friendly and lighter alternative.
Towel: the majority of hostels won’t offer towels so carrying your own is the best option. A microfiber towel is a perfect choice because it’s lightweight, dries fast and most come with a bag to keep it. Don’t forget to dry your towel next to you while you get ready and then put it back in your secured bag. This one is a good option. Another alternative is to call the hostel you booked and ask if they offer towels, in this case you might not need to bring one if you prefer to use the hostel’s.
Hair drier: if you use one daily, bring a mini version so it doesn’t take up much space. Some all-female hostels provide hair dryers in shared bathrooms but many don’t. This one is light and small.
Ear plugs or headphones: some hostels tend to be noisy and guests may snore at night, avoid waking up every 5 minutes by packing some ear plugs or one of those headphones that allow you to sleep with them (sleep mask included!) like Yasmin does: “Snoring can happen with both genders and the bigger the amount of people in the room, the more likely it is. So noise cancelling headphones have been a lifesaver for me before.”
Sleeping mask: when staying in a room with other guests, people may come in in the middle of the night and use their cellphone light, some even turn on the room lights. Sleep tight wearing an eye sleeping mask like this one.
Sanitizer gel, disinfectant wipes and face mask: bring gel and towels to keep your space disinfected, and don’t forget your face mask and some replacements to change after a few days (thanks COVID!).