The Hostel Experience

One of my best friends, who had never stayed in a hostel before, once asked me to describe what it was like to sleep in a room full of strangers in a foreign country.

Do you feel safe?

Where do you keep your belongings?

How many people sleep in a room? Do they offer private rooms?

Is it clean?

What should I expect?


Every hostel is different and they cater to a variety of different crowds such as backpackers, students, workers or even families. They have their own styles, resources, and amenities but they all seem to have a general experience, whether you are sleeping in a hammock on the beach or a bunk bed in the city.

Personally, the hostel experience is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I have met so many amazing people in hostels from all over the world that I stay in touch with even years later. It’s also my favorite way to add things to my itinerary for the place I am visiting. The locals and other travelers always have really unique places to visit that you can’t necessarily find online.

A group of friends pose together - some of them have whiskers drawn on their face because it's Halloween.
Halloween 2018 in Berlin, Germany with new friends from my hostel.

My first hostel stay was on a backpacking trip in the countryside of France in 2016 with my family. Since then, I have stayed in countless hostels throughout Europe, South America, South East Asia, and Australia. Over the years, the rooms I’ve stayed in range from private rooms to 20 person bunk bed dorms.


Check In

When you first get to your hostel, you go to the front desk just like you would if you checked into a hotel, except instead of a room, you just reserve a bed. They will collect all your information and your passport. Some hostels will just make a copy of your passport and give it back, but some will keep it for the duration of your stay.

The front lobby of a hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia

It’s a good idea to have an online reservation, but walk-ins are accepted if there are open beds. Availability will depend on the time of year and the popularity of that destination at the time – sometimes it’s necessary to make a reservation beforehand. For example, if you are traveling during a holiday or to a big event in the area, then I would highly recommend you make a reservation ahead of time. Payment for everything happens at the end when you check out so it is very easy to extend your stay, depending on availability.

After you check in, the staff will typically take you on a little tour of the place. They show you any amenities that you can use (e.g. TV room, computers, bar, pool…), tell you a little about the place, where the bathrooms are and walk you to your room/bed. The bed usually comes with a locker of some kind that you can keep your stuff in and lock it up throughout your stay.

A rooftop pool with a view of the tall buildings in the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
A rooftop pool at a hostel overlooking the city.

Rooms/Beds

Most hostels have a range of room options from private rooms to 4-8 person rooms, all the way up to 20+ person rooms and everything in between. There are also a lot of hostels with female-only room options if a co-ed dorm is a concern for you.

Depending on the room you choose, there might be other people that you have never met sleeping in the other beds in your room. Don’t be alarmed! It’s not as weird as it sounds. For the most part, there is an understanding that everyone has their own space in the shared room and people are usually respectful of that. Obviously there will be exceptions to this. You might come across the person whose clothes end up scattered all over the floor as if their bag exploded. Or you might share a room with the person who video chats very loudly for hours with everyone back home. And you will definitely encounter someone who snores louder than you thought possible. That is all luck and circumstance and frankly, part of the experience.

The view from outside my room in a hostel in Salento, Colombia

Even if you aren’t looking to stay in a room full of strangers, there are still options for you! Many hostels have private rooms where you can have more privacy and choose when to be social. If you start feeling adventurous, you can test out a hostel dorm by starting with the 4-6 person rooms.


Bathrooms/Cleanliness

The bathrooms and showers at hostels can differ from hostel to hostel. They could be anything from stalls down the hall shared by multiple dorms to a private room attached to your dorm. If you are particular about the bathrooms and showers, I would recommend doing some research and picking the best option for you.

Cleanliness is another factor that varies widely and I have had hostel experiences across the spectrum. I would recommend reading other people’s reviews online – cleanliness is usually the first thing someone will point out if it’s not done correctly. Typically though, the more beds in a room or the more stalls in a bathroom, the higher chance of it being a messier area.

**Don’t forget to pack shower/bathroom shoes!! You wouldn’t walk into a public restroom without shoes on so don’t do it at a hostel. There is so much traffic going in and out of the bathrooms in hostels, so protect the health of your feet! I would recommend anything waterproof or fast-drying (e.g. Crocs, cheap foam flip flops, Chacos…) – And yes! I mean wear those shoes while you are showering!**


Kitchen/Food

Hostels will often have a shared kitchen area where you can store your food and cook your own meals. This is something that I look for when I pick my hostels. Of course I eat out when I travel but to do it for every meal can be very expensive. Being able to go to a local grocery store and buy food is not only way cheaper but also a great way to get to know the food culture of the area you are visiting. It’s always an adventure to go grocery shopping in a foreign grocery store and try some delicious new food!

Some hostels even have community meals where you all eat together!

They also could have eateries ranging from bars and restaurants to cafes and private chefs. Having the option to have food prepared for you at the place you are staying is always a bonus. Plus the resulting social area of tables becomes another opportunity to meet other travelers especially when you are solo traveling.

Scrambled eggs, an arepa with cheese melted on it, a cup of fruit, a coffee with a side of cream and a lemonade on a plate on a wooden cafe table with a coffee menu and a potted plant next to it.
A delicious breakfast in a little boutique hostel in Colombia.

Social Activities/Amenities

The range of amenities varies based on the audience the hostel is trying to appeal to. The target audience could be anyone such as workers, students, vacationers, long-term travelers, and families. For example, if it was a hostel catering towards working people or students, there might be elements like computer rooms, high-speed internet or cafes with lots of workspace and outlets. Contrastingly, if it was a hostel for party vacationers, there might be elements like swimming pools, bars/social lounges, or games like pool tables and dart boards.

A hostel in Huacachina, Peru catered towards party vacationers.

Some hostels also offer social activities that include anything from pub crawls, local tours, and drinking game tournaments to recreational sports, yoga, and organized hikes. The list goes on and on depending on where you are in the world and which hostel you have chosen. Some of my favorites have been local dance lessons, community meals eaten together and some very memorable pub crawls.

3 women in bathing suits jumping off the back of a boat into the ocean with their arms in the air.
A snorkel boat tour booked through our hostel in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Security

Security is another important consideration when choosing a hostel. If you research nothing else, at least look up the security rating of the hostel that you choose. This category can vary widely depending on where you are in the world. Some hostels have stricter security like guards at the entrances, buzzer systems to buzz people in and out, security cameras, and/or curfews. While at more remote or smaller locations, the staff might double as “security” and the hostels might be more open and relaxed.

Hammocks on the beach in Tayrona National Park, Colombia.

Security of your belongings is something you have to be a little extra aware of. Most hostels offer a locker of some kind where you can lock up your personal belongings. My best advice would be to stay vigilant of your stuff – know where everything is at all times or keep it locked up. Don’t leave anything valuable unattended (e.g. passport, money, computer…) Even when you are sleeping, make sure you are aware of where your phone and other valuables are. If I feel the need, I will “cuddle” with my valuables or sleep with them under my pillow.


Check Out

Also just like hotels, there will be a check out time. They need enough time to clean the bed before the next person checks in. If you oversleep through check out, they might just automatically charge you a fee but I have also had staff members come by in the morning and make sure everyone who needs to check out is awake.

The entrance to a hostel in Salento, Colombia.

An awesome aspect of hostels is that they usually have a storage room where you can store your backpack or suitcase while you are exploring the surrounding city or town. Even when you are checked out or before you check in or if you aren’t even staying at that hostel, you can usually store your bag there. This is great for people who have flights or other transportation that don’t match up with check in/check out times. Carrying suitcases or big backpacks around while you are trying to explore somewhere new can be really frustrating so this hostel feature comes in handy!

6 backpacking backpacks on a bench at a train station in France. Each backpack has a shell on the front signifying the Camino de Santiago.
All of our backpacks lined up on the Camino de Santiago in France.

There are going to be pros and cons to any accommodation that you choose while traveling. I hope this encourages you to try staying in a hostel on your next adventure abroad. Don’t be afraid to stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone! You never know who you are going to meet or what you are going to experience!

My 25th birthday with new friends from a hostel in Medellín, Colombia!

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