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What People Do Not Tell You About Hostels

Hostels are a great place to meet other travelers from all around the world. Poc-Na Hostel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico displays the flags of many different countries on the ceiling. Photo credit: Katie Mitchell

It is 3 a.m. You are lying wide awake in a dorm room with 20 other people in a wobbly bunk bed with scratchy sheets and a blanket of questionable cleanliness. The guy in the bunk above you is snoring so loudly, you did not think a human being could produce such an offensive noise. You have given up all hope of sleep and spend the rest of the night reading the graffiti scratched into the bed frame. Welcome to hostel life.

For many students staying in hostels can be a great way to save money when traveling on a low budget. Despite their affordability, however, this kind of accommodation can also come with many challenges. On my recent trip to Europe, I stayed in more than 50 hostels over the course of five months. These experiences inspired me to share a few horror stories, debunk some common questions and offer a few tips about staying in hostels so you know what to expect when you check in.

bunk beds in budget hostels
In many budget hostels such as this one in Northern Spain, there may be up to 25 people sleeping in the same dorm room on bunk beds. Photo credit: Gemma Rourke

Bed bugs. They are a backpacker’s worst nightmare, especially when traveling in the warmer months. One of my friends was the unfortunate victim of these puny pests, leaving her with dozens of itchy bite marks all over her legs and arms. Always perform a thorough check of your assigned bed before settling in. Bed bugs are visible to the naked eye and the adults will look like little black specks about the size of an apple seed. Never set your backpack or luggage on the bed to prevent any bed bugs from hitchhiking on your stuff and transferring them to other hostels. Finally, consider packing a silk sleeping bag liner like this one because the silk material naturally repels bed bugs. You can also treat the sleep sack with Permethrin spray beforehand as an added precaution.

One benefit of staying in hostels is that they usually offer a lot of resources for travelers to local attractions. Ask the front desk for local insight about restaurant recommendations, must-see points of interest or transportation information. Organized pub crawls, walking tours and other activities are great ways to meet other people staying in your hostel and help you make the most of everything your destination has to offer.

Another amenity hostels usually provide is a community kitchen. While sampling the local cuisine is one of the best parts of traveling, eating out for every meal adds up quickly. Save some cash by finding a local grocery store and cooking a few meals on your own. See if others in your hostel want to cook a joint meal to lower costs even further.

Pro Tip: hostel kitchens usually have a “free” bin with things like dry pasta, rice and cooking oil that previous travelers have left behind. Pass on the love by leaving any non-perishable leftovers for the next person.

flags hanging from a hostel ceiling
Hostels are a great place to meet other travelers from all around the world. Poc-Na Hostel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico displays the flags of many different countries on the ceiling. Photo credit: Katie Mitchell

One night while I was staying in a hostel in Madrid, a girl came into the dorm room at 2 a.m. and shook me awake, insisting in drunken Spanish that I was sleeping in her bed. Still half-asleep, I tried to explain to her that it was the bed I was assigned and pointed her toward the free one across the room. She proceeded to make a scene and wake up everyone else in the dorm, so I decided to just move beds and let her have it. Apart from that one incident, arguably the best thing about staying in hostels is the interesting people you meet from all around the world. Spend some time in the common area talking to other travelers. Making friends in hostels is a great way to build international connections so next time instead of staying in a hostel, you have a couch to crash on when traveling in their home country.

Although they do not have many of the luxuries offered by hotels or Airbnb, staying in hostels offers a unique experience that usually ends up making a great story.

Here are a few crucial items to add to your hostel packing list:

  1. Earplugs – Remember the snoring? Now imagine there are 5 people snoring and they are all in a competition to see who can snore the loudest. A good pair of earplugs will help you get a good night’s sleep and ensure that those dark circles under your eyes will not ruin your amazing travel photos.
  2. Shower Shoes – One time in France, I walked into a co-ed bathroom and was abruptly confronted with a fully nude, very hairy man. The only thing he was wearing? Shower shoes. When dozens of people are sharing the same bathroom facilities, the last souvenir you want is foot fungus. A cheap pair of waterproof flip-flops is an absolute must.
  3. A Lock – Many hostels provide lockers where you can store your belongings while you are out exploring. These lockers often do not include locks, or sometimes hostels charge a fee to rent one. With so many people moving in and out, it is important to make sure your valuables are secure.
  4. A Multi-Port Plug Adaptor – Hostels often only have a few outlets with a lot of people trying to charge their devices. Charge your phone, camera and other electronics while still allowing others to piggyback on your adaptor. Pro Tip: make sure to check the type of plug and the voltage of the country to make sure your adapter is compatible.
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