For inexperienced travelers, booking budget accommodation can be intimidating. With so many choices, how do you know which one to pick? This post will focus on hostels specifically, and hopefully help you choose the one that’s right for you.
A good place to start is Hostelworld.com (I have no affiliation with them). You can quickly and easily browse through almost every hostel in a particular city. In my opinion, there are four criteria that stand above the rest in terms of importance:
This is crucial and often overlooked. If you know the city, check the map and see if the hostel is in your preferred area. If you don’t know the city, Google a few attractions or points of interest and then see if the hostel falls anywhere near them. When all else fails, check their description and their reviews. Reviews will often say something like “Great location in the middle of downtown” or “In a quieter area, a fifteen minute walk to the city center.” Location is critical because you don’t want to spend your precious time walking, taking public transit, and asking for directions. In addition to that, the money you think you might be saving by staying outside the city center could very well be spent on additional transportation costs.
While drapes and color palettes might be important to some people, style here refers to the personality of the hostel. Do you want a quiet place to relax or do you want a party hostel where you can make tons of friends and drink in the lobby? Do you want an authentic local experience or the comforts of home? You can get a pretty good idea by looking at the hostel’s description, but again this is where reviews really come into play. You can quickly get an idea of what kind of people you’ll be staying with (hint: note the ages of each reviewer) and what the hostel is like based on a few good reviews. Style can totally change your perception of a city. I stayed in a quiet hostel outside the city center in Zagreb and found the city to be pretty quiet and unknown to most backpackers. When I switched to a social hostel in the city center, Zagreb turned into a lively European city where you can party and meet people from all over Europe.
This is where personal preference comes in. What are your must haves? Some common must-haves are:
- Free Wifi
- (Big) lockers
- 24 hour access
- Accept Credit Card
- Free Breakfast
- Hot showers
- Laundry Services
If you just did laundry, you might not care about having a washing machine. Likewise, if you are in Thailand, who needs a hot shower? Sometimes you’ll have to read the reviews to find certain features. People will often comment on the number of outlets or may add that they loved how there were guitars available to play in the common area. The desirability of these amenities is completely dependent on your preferences and where you are at a given point in your trip—another reason booking far in advance is often not the best option.
I’ve already mentioned reviews twice, but that’s because they are so important. I wouldn’t stay in a hostel without at least 3-5 informative reviews. This is where you get an unbiased portrayal of the hostel, its staff, and everything in between. When browsing through reviews, I find it helpful to look for key words and phrases. If you’re looking for a party hostel, look for at least 3-5 reviews that have the words fun, wild, social, etc. If you are a solo traveler looking to make friends, look for phrases like “very lively and inviting common area” or “awesome nightly events.” In my opinion, reviews are the most important factor in choosing a hostel.
Notice that I didn’t list Price as one of these criteria. While travelers are often on a budget (myself included), I generally find that prices within a city don’t vary too much and usually that variance is well justified by better facilities or location. The price difference between a 15 dollar per night hostel and a 20 dollar per night hostel probably won’t make or break your trip’s budget, but the difference in your experience might make or break your time in that city.
After considering these four criteria, you should have a pretty good idea which hostel is right for you. If you’re still unsure, check out the hostel’s website. They often have more pictures, information on how to get there, etc. You can always email them too. Alternatively, use Google to search for something like “Best party hostel Budapest” and you may find articles by travel blogs with helpful reviews. Another great option is to ask friends or travel buddies who have been through the area for recommendations.
Now that you know where you want to stay, the rest is simply logistics. Do you need to book in advance? What if the hostel you want is full? What if you change your mind?
For most cities, you don’t need to book in advance. Many travelers like the freedom of not being locked in to a plan, and sometimes walk-in rates are slightly cheaper than the internet rates. However, from my experience, the dollar or two saved is not worth having your hostel of choice be full upon arrival. There will almost always be some hostel with availability, but it may not be anywhere near where you want to be. With Hostelworld, you only put down a small deposit so if you back out, you only lose a few dollars. You can also choose a flexible booking (just a few dollars extra) where you protect your deposit if you elect to change your plans. I find these options to be so good, that it is well worth booking a few days in advance and not having to worry about it.
In the majority of destinations, booking three days in advance is usually sufficient for the top hostels, but that’s not always the case. A few examples:
- Koh Phi Phi, Thailand: If you show up on the island with no reservation, there may not be anywhere with availability.
- Australia and New Zealand: You can always find a bed, but the number of hostels seems to be pretty low for the amount of demand
- In many well-known party cities in Europe (i.e. Budapest), many teenagers from small towns flock in for the weekend to party, meaning that availability from Friday to Monday can be scarce.
Keep in mind that certain festivals and holidays can greatly impact hostel availability. For a hostel in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, you should book 6+ months in advance for a decent price and full selection. If you are going to Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, book at least a week in advance. Even beyond that, sometimes festivals affect surrounding areas. Koh Tao and Koh Phi Phi are notoriously busy in the days before and after Full Moon Parties. New Years just about anywhere is extremely popular—You get the idea.
If your hostel of choice is completely full, you can always email them to ask if anyone has cancelled. More commonly, there may only be partial availability for your desired dates. If that’s the case, I’ve found that emailing the hostel and booking directly through them (versus on Hostelworld) is a great option. Most hostels are very helpful and accommodating and will find a solution, even if that means switching beds during your stay.
While seemingly daunting, booking hostels doesn’t have to be so bad. With proper research or an easygoing attitude, you should have no problem finding a great place to stay for your next trip.