Hosteling 101: What is a hostel?

I love hostels. They’re clean, fun, and cheap, and facilitate an engaged, social lifestyle while traveling. I’ve been staying in hostels for years, and as a rule, I’ll choose a hostel over a hotel any day.

Since starting this new job, though, I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t know much about hostels and how to live in them. This is especially true of people from the US, as hostels are less common and independent travel isn’t much a part of our culture.

I thought, then, that I’d start a series on hosteling 101, sharing information, experiences, and tricks of finding and living in hostels.

With that, I give you…

Part 1: What is a Hostel?

“Hostel” is a general term for budget housing that is usually oriented towards younger travelers. Beyond that, hostels vary widely. Most usually have some form of shared room, either male, female, or mixed, and with a variety in number of beds. I’ve seen dorms with anywhere from 4 to 36 bed dorms. Most also include some sort of amenities for cooking.

Shared vs. Private rooms:
Shared rooms are usually equipped with bunk beds, and can be either ensuite (one bathroom attached to the room) or with a communal bathroom (usually male and female specific showers and toilets in a common space, shared by all the rooms on a floor). Spaces are rented by bed. Note: there are pros and cons to ensuite vs. common bath. Ensuite could seem like a better option, but it does mean that there could be only one toilet / shower shared between 10 people. If you get into a pinch, though, most hostels have at least one public toilet and sink combo.

Many hostels also offer private rooms that can be booked by smaller groups; pricing is still per person, but you are required to rent the whole room. Most private rooms range from 2-4 beds, and often include a private bathroom.

Hostel prices are determined by a variety of factors, which I’ll outline below. You probably want to shoot for at least a mid-range hostel to make space for the best possible experience – bottom of the barrel is probably not worth the meager savings.

The Market
The most significant factor in determining a price point is the market. In the past few months, for example, I’ve stayed at a wonderful hostel in Barcelona for €9 a night, while I couldn’t find a decent place in Paris for less than €25. Some places are expensive (Edinburgh, Paris), others are less so (Barcelona, Dublin). Hostels in remote locations are really variable – some are inexpensive, in an attempt to lure people in, others are quite pricey, because there’s limited competition.

The Season
Like all other prices tied to the tourism market, hostel prices rise and fall with the season. The less competition in a market, the more expensive a hostel will be during high season.

The Location
Hostels that are closer to city centre, or to major tourist attractions, are likely more expensive. Other important factors are proximity to public transit, or the airport / train.

The Amenities
The nicer the amenities, the higher the cost. Relatively ‘normal’ amenities include linens, wifi, and a kitchen for guest use. You should also be able to rent a towel (towels are almost never included). You should also have either an in-room locker or access to a safe behind the front desk. Nice amenities would be free wifi, parking, or a free continental breakfast. More places that I’m staying lately have also been offering free coffee and tea all day.

Things to keep in mind:

-Hostels are booked by bed, not room.
-Rooms can be either male, female, or mixed. Mixed rooms are typically less expensive than single-sex ones.
-Prices are determined by a combination of factors, and you probably don’t want to be at the bottom of the barrel, price wise, in any given market.

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