The first time I stayed in a hostel was the night I landed in Bangkok in 2011 at the start of my solo backpacking trip. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had spent the odd night here and there in hotels by myself over the years, but I had never been to a hostel before and especially not as a backpacker.
Over the next six years of on-off travel, I continued to use hostels regularly as I found them to be a cheaper, more sociable option than staying in a hotel.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
What should I know before staying in a hostel?
Not all hostels will be the same.
I have stayed in some wonderful places that were clean and friendly, had great facilities and were in perfect locations. I have met many amazing people staying in hostels who have gone on to become firm friends. The locations and facilities of some hostels have been so excellent that they have been the highlight of my stay.
On the flip side, I have also stayed in some places that can only be described as dumps, with bad smells and bad vibes that I couldn’t wait to leave.
But don’t let that put you off!
With a little bit of pre-planning and common sense you will be able to take the plunge.
Here is a first-time backpacker’s guide to hostels that will hopefully answer some of the questions you have. If there is something I’ve not covered in this article then drop me a comment below or shoot me an email and I’ll try my best to answer!
Why should I stay in a hostel as a solo traveller?
Accommodation will be a huge portion of your backpacker budget. Unless you are camping / caravanning / wild camping or intend to crash on people’s sofas, then it’s likely you will have to spend a little money each day on a place to sleep.
A hostel is a good idea because they will be a lower cost than hotels or Air BnBs. If you’re a budget conscious backpacker you’ll probably choose to stay in hostels a lot.
Sometimes you may want to treat yourself to a private room or a stay in a hotel to recharge your batteries or get some privacy. I found a mixture of accommodation styles worked for me as I travelled depending on where I was, what I was doing and whether I was in full-time travel mode or adopting a slightly more relaxed approach.
Travelling alone can sometimes get lonely. Hostels are a surefire way to ensure you are surrounded by a community of other travellers who are all receptive to meeting new people.
I like my solitude, but I also acknowledge that if I travelled constantly in my own company I would start to feel isolated. For me, staying in hostels has meant that I push myself out of my comfort zone, connect with my fellow travellers and get more involved in excursions, activities and the travel plans of new-found friends.
How much does it cost to stay in a hostel?
The cost of a hostel will vary depending on the country that you are visiting.
I found that in South East Asia, I was often spending as little as £3 GBP / 125 Thai Baht / $5.5 AU on a bed in a shared dorm with a shared bathroom for the night. A private room with a bathroom typically sets you back about £5.40 GBP / 225 Thai Baht / $10 AU.
In Australia, a shared dorm room and shared bathroom could set me back as much as £22 GBP / $40 AU / $28 US a night.
The options that affect the cost will be things such as choosing a shared room or a private one and whether there are en-suites available.
As with most things, go with your gut on prices and try to remember that you get what you pay for (most of the time). If you pick the cheapest option you will find that the quality will more than likely reflect this.
Is there an age limit for staying in a hostel?
The real question should be “do you feel too old to stay in hostels?” and only you can answer that!
In reality, you may come across the odd hostel that stipulates an age range for their guests. You’ll usually find this at a hostel where there is an on-site bar, which would make sense as it wouldn’t be appropriate for under 18s to be there. These hostels try to foster a certain type of atmosphere that a younger traveller is probably more likely to be drawn to anyway; i.e. they encourage partying.
To find out whether your hostel has an age limit, check the property details at the time of booking as they will explain this here.
For more details on age limits and hostels, Trip Savvy’s post is quite useful.
How to book the right hostel
Not sure about what hostel to book? Consider the below factors when booking your hostel for the first time.
1. What kind of traveller are you?
Before you stay in a hostel for the first time, ask yourself what kind of travel experience you are looking for.
If you’re raring to go and can’t wait to hit the clubs with your new found friends, you’ll be seeking a different kind of vibe from your hostel than someone who is focused on sightseeing and an early night.
Look for descriptions that will match your vibe. Take note of things like whether the hostel has its own bar or nightclub (yes, I’ve seen this!) and if it is described as a ‘party’ hostel.
Location is such a biggie!
If you’re backpacking then it’s likely you won’t have your own transport, and even if you are travelling with a car, then you’ll still be keen to stay in accommodation that’s as close to the action as possible.
Consider proximity to important travel centres such as the train station or the airport if you’re travelling without your own wheels. Check out how easy it is to get to your hostel after you arrive and whether they provide a shuttle or pick up service.
Decide how important it is that you stay smack bang in the thick of the action, or whether a few streets back from the main sites would suit you better. Whilst it may be tempting to book a hostel on the main street in town, consider that you will probably end up paying a higher price for its location, they will be noisier environments and busier hostels.
I often check whether the hostel is on local bus, train or tram routes and how easy it will be to get out and sight-see when I’m there.
- Check out this post on how to decide where to go on your first solo trip.
3. Size of hostel
There is a huge variety of size when it comes to hostels.
Are you looking for a smaller, cosier vibe or not too bothered?
You can stay at mega-hostels that are humongous buildings with floors and floors of 10 bed dorm rooms, or a renovated house with just a few smaller rooms.
What difference does the size of a hostel make?
Well, again it boils down to the vibe you are hoping for. A large hostel can quite often feel a little impersonal, so if you’re nervous about travelling alone for the first time, you may want to seek out something smaller and more homely.
If you’re unable to decide which hostel to choose then reviews can definitely help to give you a sense of what the place is like.
Websites such as HostelWorld, HostelBookers and Booking.com have verified reviews.
There are a LOT of hostels out there and you could spend hours researching every last one before you place your booking. Reviews will give you a pretty good flavour of the type of property it is and the satisfaction of past guests is very important.
Top tip: If you’re still looking for more guidance, take a look at my post with 12 essential tips for booking your first time solo trip.
5. Choosing your hostel room
You’ll start to realise that common room sizes are often the following:
- 4 bed dorm
- 6 bed dorm
- 8 bed dorm
- 10+ bed dorm
In general, dorm rooms will be offered in either mixed or single sex occupation. Larger dorms tend to be cheaper, smaller rooms more expensive.
Some hostels offer en-suite bathrooms for their dorm rooms, but the most common is a shared bathroom with other hostel guests.
Choose a room size depending on what you feel comfortable with.
Are private rooms available in hostels?
Most hostels will offer a few private rooms with either single or double beds. If you’re a couple travelling together or a more mature traveller then a private room may be something you’d like to consider.
You will see these options offered at the time of booking and a private room certainly can help if you’re someone who enjoys a quiet space to relax.
Solo female traveller in a hostel
For anyone wondering about staying in hostels as a solo female traveller, my experience of hostels over the six years I’ve used them has been overwhelmingly positive. I have not been concerned for my safety as a female backpacker in a hostel.
My advice for anyone who found themselves in a room allocation where they felt uncomfortable would be to bring this up with the reception immediately to request a room change. Most hostels offer a female only dorm option for any female traveller wishing to use them and on the whole, the ratio of occupants to any dorm room is pretty mixed.
Being safe is a non-negotiable and backpackers should always be mindful of their personal safety when they travel.
Checking out what amenities the hostel provides will give you a solid indication as to whether you want to stay there. The range of amenities will vary hugely of course, so you’ll have to ask yourself what is important to you to make your stay comfortable.
For me, a locker in my room is essential so that I have a place to stash my bag and valuable items when I am out for the day. I look for hostels that have a common area for guests to hang out (great for meeting people as a solo traveller) and I always consider the hours of the reception desk for those times when you arrive at the crack of dawn or late at night.
Check the hostel website for details – you’ll see that most will offer free WiFi, laundry facilities for example. But if your non-negotiable is an en-suite bathroom then you will have to be more selective.
Is it safe to stay in a hostel?
I have personally not had any issues with safety in a hostel but that’s not to say that bad things won’t happen from time to time.
I always check whether there are lockers in the rooms. I know that it’s not possible 100% of the time to stay at a hostel with lockers, but it definitely is a huge bonus knowing you can lock your gear away.
Also check out things like 24 hour reception desks and secure front doors – just a few little extras go a long way for peace of mind.
Protecting yourself in a hostel largely follows a common sense approach. Be mindful of where you leave your belongings as in public areas (even strewn all over your bed) is not a safe place to leave your most precious and valuable items.
If you’re given keys, use them. Most bedrooms and front doors will have some kind of lock or keycard, so reassure yourself by doing your bit to keep things secure.
- Top tip: If you’re worried about travelling alone, you may like this post about how to crush your pre-travel fears.
Do hostels include food?
If you’re like most first time travellers (or any backpacker at all really!) you’ll be keen to know whether your accommodation provides food.
Now, before you start imagining a buffet-style Continental breakfast similar to the ones you’ll find in a hotel, I do need to bring you back down to Earth. Your typical hostel breakfast spread will include a couple of cereal options followed by white or brown sliced bread that you can toast and slather with the accompanying jams and peanut butter. Tea and coffee will be provided and if you’re lucky, there may be fruit juice or perhaps even some fruit itself.
This carb-o-licious and fairly non nutritious breakfast is not something that you’re likely to want to eat over the long term, but, it does help to plug the gaps on occasion when you are perhaps in the middle of a hectic period of travel and you’re not organised or lacking the funds to head to the local shop or market to buy your own food.
To find out whether your hostel provides breakfast, you can check the property amenities before you book and see whether breakfast is included in your room cost.
Lunch and evening meals
I have yet to stay at a hostel that caters for an evening meal included in your room cost, but I have eaten at many cafes and restaurants within a hostel itself that sells lunch and dinner. I do use the term restaurant loosely as I don’t want you to expect a sit down meal with waiter service, but many hostels have a kitchen that produces a small selection of food for hungry backpackers at the end of their day.
If you’re looking for authentic local cuisine or to save money then I wouldn’t suggest that hostels are your best bet, but they will fill a hole if you arrive late, wake up hungover or are lacking the inspiration to scout out a local eatery.
Again, check the description of your hostel before booking as you will be able to see whether they serve meals at an additional cost.
Can I cook my own food in a hostel?
In certain countries, hostels will have a shared kitchen that all of their guests can use. In many hostels, you will find there are lockers in the kitchen, shelves or cubby holes where you can store your food items. Pots, pans, crockery and cutlery will be shared by everyone.
Cooking in a shared hostel kitchen is an experience in itself and the cleanliness of these spaces will vary drastically. Unfortunately, many travellers forget that their mum is not with them and they do not do their washing up, so finding clean pots and plates can often be a challenge.
- Top tip: If you’re planning on spending an extended time in a hostel somewhere like Australia, then I would recommend buying a tea towel to use when you are washing and drying up. The tea towels in most hostel kitchens I’ve used have left a lot to be desired on the hygiene stakes, so if you don’t want to share a damp, manky tea towel with 80 other people, consider bringing your own with you!
- Bonus tip: it then becomes a little memento of your trip if you buy one on your travels!
What to pack to stay in a hostel for the first time
Packing your life up and condensing it to the size of a backpack is definitely daunting.
When you get on the road you’ll realise that you can happily survive with much less stuff, and you’ll thank yourself for keeping the weight of your bag down when you’ve been heaving it from aeroplane to bus to staircase regularly.
For the lowdown on what life is like living out of your backpack, read this interview with first time backpacker, Debbie, who talks about her experience.
If you’re wondering whether there are any specific things you will need for a stay in a hostel, here are my must have items that came with me to every hostel I visited:
- Travel towel – quick drying, lightweight microfibre
- Sarong – an extra layer or hang up for privacy in your bunk
- Padlock – for lockers
- Plastic flip flops for communal showers
- Earplugs – my sleep essential
- Sleep mask
- Wash bag with a hook – to hang up in wet bathrooms with no shelf
- Power bank
- Packing cubes – not plastic bags – for an organised backpack
- Head torch – for searching through your bag hands free in the dark
- Silk sleep sheet – a nice to have as a protection from bed bugs.
For a full and detailed post on the essentials that should be in every first time backpacker’s bag, check out my recommendations on must-have travel gear.
How do I meet people and make friends in a hostel?
I know what it’s like to rock up at a hostel by yourself and feel nervous and overwhelmed. There will be a lot of people there, so how on Earth can you break the ice and make friends, especially if you’re a little shy?
I’ve written loads about how to meet people while travelling, so browse through some of these blogs for inspiration:
- How to find a travel buddy
- Are you ready to travel solo for the first time?
- Surviving your first week blues
- Preparing to travel by yourself when you’ve never spent time alone.
In a nutshell, my top tips are:
- Make use of common areas such as living rooms and kitchens
- Introduce yourself to your roommates – a simple hello and a few questions about where you’re from and where you’re travelling will be enough to break the ice
- Join hostel run activities such as bar crawls or free walking tours
- Ask reception for tips of what’s coming up at the hostel
- Don’t forget to smile!
How to have the best hostel experience
Here are a few last pointers on how to enjoy your stay in a hostel.
1. Be considerate of your roommates
One of the best things about staying in hostels is that you will meet a lot of people and hopefully generate some firm friendships. The downside of a lot of people in close proximity to each other is that some people are guaranteed to piss you off.
Whether that’s switching the room light on in the middle of the night, talking loudly with their friends or having dorm sex (yes, it can happen!!) without a thought for everyone sleeping, some people lack consideration for others.
So, my biggest plea is: don’t be a dick.
A shared space is exactly that… shared. Hostels can quickly become unpleasant if people lack respect for each other, basic hygiene and hostel property.
2. Be organised and pack your bag – don’t be a rustler
We’ll all have those early flights that require us to check out before the crack of dawn. Whilst that’s an inevitable part of hostel living, turning the light on at 5am and rustling through a backpack full of plastic bags is likely to end up with a shoe being thrown at your head.
No one appreciates a bag rustler early in the morning.
If you have an early checkout, make sure your bag is prepped and ready to go the night before. If you have a lot of repacking to do, take your bag out into the corridor so you can have a proper dig around without waking your entire room.
Packing cubes are a total game changer when it comes to keeping your bag organised. They remove the need to fill your backpack with endless plastic bags that rip, rustle and generally get on everyone’s nerves.
I don’t travel without packing cubes any more!
3. Write your name and room number on food in the fridge
Fridges can be a bit of a battle zone in some hostels if a communal kitchen is used by most of the guests. With a constant stream of people checking in and out, fridges quickly fill up with leftover food. Save the hassle of searching for your milk amid a sea of identical milk bottles and write your name and room number on your food items – that way you can find them and people will have more respect for your stuff.
4. Keep your alarm handy in dorm rooms
Setting an alarm to wake you is acceptable in a shared dorm and an unavoidable part of a communal space. Snoozing your alarm many times, however, will not make you any friends whatsoever. Don’t be that person who doesn’t switch off the repeating alarm that has woken the entire room; keep your alarm close to you and snoozing for when you have a private room.
5. Do not unpack – keep that stuff inside the backpack!
This one sounds odd, but you’ll soon understand what I mean. If you are travelling fairly regularly then you’ll be checking in and checking out of hostels all the time. This means you will soon be fed up of unpacking and repacking your bag each time you are on the move.
Another reason to keep your stuff contained to your backpack is because there simply is nowhere for you to put your stuff in a hostel room. Hostels are not like hotels with their chest of drawers and wardrobe for your personal use. You may have a shelf by your bed, but it’s unlikely that you will have a place to unpack your clothes.
If you buy yourself some packing cubes, you can organise your bag into a place of calm and keep your clothes neatly packed away. Packing Cubes are a lifesaver!
- Top tip: For more ideas on how to get the most out of your first time trip, you may like this blog on how to prepare for solo travel.
- And: How to choose where to go when you travel alone for the first time.
What questions do you have about staying in a hostel for the first time? Drop them in the comments below or send me an email and I’ll try my best to help!
Have you stayed in a hostel before? What’s your must-know tip for someone who is thinking about booking a hostel.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
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