The important thing to remember is that a hostel is not a hotel. Where a hotel is designed to be a place of security, privacy and comfort, hostels are more about encouraging relationships between backpackers. You can’t expect to have every need taken care of in a hostel. Some may have comfortable beds, large rooms, spacious common areas, free breakfast, events, maybe even a bar, pool table, darts, table tennis or a swimming pool. Others may be cramped with no amenities, terrible water pressure, dirty linens, bed bugs, poor WiFi, bad security and heaps of other inconveniences. No matter how nice the hostel is, you can generally expect to be woken up by dormmates coming home late or waking up early, to wait for the shower or the toilet, to sleep in a bunk bed, and to have little to no control over the temperature of your room.
In the time that I have been traveling, I’ve stayed in dozens of hostels. Most of the time I find them on Hostelworld (www.hostelworld.com). I look at the number of people who have stayed in the hostel, its overall rating and recent reviews. I look for hostels that are located near the city centre, offer free breakfast, and that advertise themselves as being social communities, good for solo travelers.
I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve stayed in some strange places. My hostel in Ghent was a boat. It had push-button showers that gave you water for about seven seconds at a time and, when I visited, was completely empty. In Munich I stayed at a place called The Tent, which was literally a 100-person tent filled with bunk beds. Upon check in the staff offered you two wool blankets and even so it was terrifically cold at night, even in summer. My hostel in Salzburg screened The Sound of Music every evening at 7pm and in Florence the staff came in each morning to wake you up with tiny cups of coffee an hour before they kicked everyone out until late afternoon for cleaning.
Out of everywhere I’ve stayed, the most absurd hostel experience I’ve ever had occurred last week in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. Cabo Polonio is a really unique hippie commune in a national park. As there are no roads, it’s only accessible by large open-air trucks that drive for half an hour across uneven sand dunes. The only place with consistent electricity is the local lighthouse, and running water is infrequent.
During my two nights there, a series of events occurred that distinguished my accommodation definitely as a hostel, not a hotel. The water would sporadically shut off or reduce to a drip, often when one was in the middle of trying to cook a meal. The shower was a hose hanging from the ceiling that generated about ten seconds worth of hot water. There was one outlet for the entire hostel. Only one socket worked and about five USB cables were attached to it. There was WiFi for one hour each night, which was so slow it was next to impossible to send even a basic email home. It rained the day I checked out and the area where the staff told me to put my bags flooded. There were storage areas under some beds but not others, and even some of the ones with space would not close properly and were impossible to lock. Best of all, at 2am my first night there, I was woken up by a woman trying to get into my mosquito-netted bunk. After much broken Spanish, we were able to figure out that one of the staff had accidentally assigned me her bed. She had clothes folded at the base of it, but I didn’t see them since it was dark by the time I arrived and there were no electric lights in the dorm room. Since no staff were there at 2am I went to the couch in the hallway to sleep, which was next to impossible with mosquitos buzzing around my head, people walking in and out and someone shouting outside. (Eventually, I covered myself and the couch in bugspray, cocooned myself in my sleeping bag liner and managed to nap for a couple hours.)
When things go wrong, you have two options: you can get upset or you can laugh it off. If you’re living in dorms, a healthy sense of humour can save you from even the most unfortunate of circumstances. My time in Cabo Polonio was brief and ridiculous, but I still don’t regret going there. And the great news is that every bad experience in a hostel is usually outweighed by at least ten good ones. Other travelers are the key. They are people who are fascinated with the world, who are living their lives to the fullest, who love to grow and learn and experience everything, the good with the bad. Commiserating with these remarkably friendly and positive people can transform even the most bizarre hostel into a hilarious anecdote.
I think there’s a general feeling of mistrust and unease, at least in North America, when it comes to strangers. In our daily lives, we are wary around those with whom we are unfamiliar and doubting of those who claim to be our friends. But when you travel, things are completely different. You don’t even have to introduce yourself before you’re inviting someone to spend the day with you. Within five minutes you trust them to watch your bags. By the end of the day, you’re on a bus together traveling to a new city where you’ll be roommates for the next few days. Before you know it you’re hugging at the bus stop and promising to crash on each other’s couches as soon as you can save up the money for another trip.
Also, for what it’s worth, there are some fantastic hostels out there. Recently in Iguazu I stayed at Mango Chill, which has a bar, swimming pool, common areas, comfy beds and very cool vibes. Milhouse in Buenos Aires has fantastic facilities, the best free breakfast I’ve ever had, events every day, laundry services, cleaning staff and incredibly friendly and helpful people working at the front desk and behind the bar (plus, some epic parties). The Art Hole hostel in Prague is bright and covered in paintings, while the Hostelling International hostel in New York City has a huge modern kitchen in excellent condition.
Ultimately, you have to choose the type of accommodation that’s right for you. If you’re a private person who prefers to keep to yourself and can only relax in particular environments, hotels, Air BnBs or bed and breakfasts may be a better option for you. If you prefer meeting locals or are a very budget-conscious traveler, consider giving couchsurfing a try. If you’re social and easygoing, hostel living could be one of the best experiences of your life. Just remember to have fun, keep smiling and enjoy the people around you. You’re on holiday, after all!