Chances are that if you are an American reading this, unless you have extensive backpacking experience, you are unfamiliar with the concept of a hostel. Although, you can probably find them in some of the bigger west coast cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland, they haven’t yet caught on here in the United States. However, they are extremely popular throughout Europe and can be found in virtually every country on the planet. Although I’m sure there is an official Webster definition, hostels are basically cheap communal houses that are meant to enhance the social experience in traveling. For someone planning to travel for a long period of time, hostels can be a practical economic alternative to staying in hotels. However, life in a hostel can be a culture shock if you are not used to it or you were an only child growing up. In the end, no matter how much money you saved during your trips, you can’t really call yourself a budget traveler if you’ve never stayed in a hostel. So, to prepare you for the rite of passage, this post is to give you an idea of how you can make your stay in a hostel as enjoyable as possible. Before I get into the list, I’ll tell you my story about how I stumbled upon a hostel. Being an American, I had never even heard of the word “hostel” prior to 2016. Whenever I travelled, I would always stay in mid-to-high level hotels. I always enjoyed the concepts of personal space and privacy even if I had to pay extra for them. That changed in December 2016 when I made my first trip to Guatemala.
During my trip to Belize in 2016, I decided to take the short trip across the border into Guatemala to see the Tikal Ruins. At this point in my life, I was nowhere close to as proficient in speaking Spanish as I am now. This was also back when I was still virtually “winging it” when it came to finding accommodation. After taking a shuttle bus from the Melchor border crossing to Flores. I was herded into a microbus with 6 Guatemalan men and a white European guy. The driver was talking extremely fast in Spanish, and I had trouble keeping up with what he was saying. After a 10-minute ride to Santa Elena, I was able to deduce that he was trying to get us to rent a room in his small hotel. Not really sure what to do, I left with the European as soon as the van stopped. He was going to Los Amigos Friends Hostel and told me it was really popular hangout for backpackers, I decided to follow him rather than mindlessly wonder around town at 8 o’clock at night. We arrived at the hostel and I was pleasantly surprised when the receptionist told me that they had a bed for 80 Quetzal ($11 USD). My excitement was tempered when I walked back and saw the girl in the bunk above my bed had dumped half her travel bag full of her dirty clothes on the floor right next to where I was to sleep. Thus, I had officially been introduced to hostel living. While Los Amigos turned out to be a great hostel, I did have to psychologically adjust to living with several other people in a close quartered environment. Now I regularly stay in hostels, and here are a few things I have done that have made my stays much more enjoyable.
Switch it Up- While hostels can be a fun and enjoyable experience, you need to make sure you get your “me time” in. Traveling can be stressful, and if you are always looking over your shoulder because you continue to share rooms with 8-10 people you don’t know, you won't ever have time to decompress. Most hostel offer an option for a private room at a reasonable price. Usually, if I’m staying at a hostel for more than 3 days, I will reserve the last few nights in a private room. This allows me to still save some money, but still keep my sanity.
Buy a Good Lock- Most stress that comes from living in a hostel comes from the fact that you have your only possessions in a foreign country in a room with 8-10 people you have never met. While most hostels provide lockers for small things (passport, money, credit cards), it is on the traveler to have the lock. By buying a good lock for your locker, and knowing that your most important possession are secure, does do a lot to relieve your stress.
Get Up Early……or Sleep Really Late- These are your two best options if you want to take a decent shower. Hostels have communal bathrooms that are shared among everyone in your dormitory. Some hostels have the same bathroom for everyone in the entire complex, even those staying in private quarters. These bathrooms generally have no more than 4 showers (if you’re lucky) for about 20 people. If you are one of those that likes to take a “princess shower” at exactly 8 AM every morning, then you will be in for a rude awakening. Generally, the busiest times for showering at hostels are between 7-9 right before the day excursions start picking people up. If I had a hike or activity planned, I would get up at 6:30 AM to shower. If I was staying in for the day, I made sure to sleep in until about 10 AM. That strategy has worked perfectly as I always seem to get a good shower in.
Download Movies and E-books on Your Computer- This will keep you from either having to go bar hopping every night to entertain yourself or turning in at 7 PM so you could sleep your boredom away. Even in the most remote countries, hostels generally have some sort of Wi-Fi connection. However, it wouldn’t even take me half a hand to count how many of them had a reliable and consistent Wi-Fi connection after 7 PM. If you are banking on being able to Facebook stalk or stream Netflix from your bunk on a Saturday night……think again. Many Wi-Fi signals in hostels tend to get overloaded with 15 people attempting to do that very thing making it practically impossible for anyone to do it. The Netflix App on my Android actually does have the capability to download episodes of various shows to watch offline which not only conserves my data usages but allows me to have an option for entertainment when I face such a predicament.
Be Social- Hostels are meant to enhance the social experience while traveling. However, if you are like me, you often won’t feel like investing the time and effort in getting to know people you will most likely never see again once you are headed to your next destination. However, being social DOES help make your hostel stay more enjoyable. Striking up a conversation with that guy or girl at the breakfast table could be the difference in spending your day going on a cool hike with a new group of people or confined to your bunk watching Netflix on your phone.
Don’t Drink at the Bar- Many people have miserable hostel experiences because while they paid $45 USD for a 3-night stay in the dorms, they lost half their travel budget buying $400 USD worth of alcohol during the all-day happy hour at the hostel bar. Most hostels overprice their drinks and food because they know people love convenience. That same vodka and tonic that is $14 USD at the hostel bar will be $8 USD at the bar two blocks down that is desperate for business. While it’s okay to buy a shot in order to break the ice and meet people in the hostels, once you’ve ESTABLISHED those relationships, get as far away from the hostel bar as possible.
Get out during the Day- The more you hangout in a hostel, the more it will feel like a prison. Hostels are not meant for comfort, they are meant to be a cheap place to lay your head at night. If you planned on being there during the day then you might as well pay a little more to stay at a hotel whose job it is to make your stay as comfortable as possible. While you may not have the budget to do costly excursions everyday of your trip, you should at least spend the day either exploring the town that you are in or going to somewhere close by and walking around there. By staying active during the day, you will also be too tired to worry about the quality of the hostel when you get back at night as you will be ready to go to sleep.