Hostels: A Survival Guide for First Time Backpackers

Hostels always seem to get a pretty bad rap. When most people picture them, they imagine dank, dark rooms with quadruple decker bunk beds and mattresses as thin as your arm. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, I can definitely see why thanks to their bad reputation. But they’re nowhere near as bad as people make them out to be. In fact, some of the best accommodation I’ve stayed in has been in hostels! Don’t get me wrong though, there are plenty of gross hostels out there too. And even the best hostels in the world have their downsides. 

If you want to travel on the cheap but you’re scared to stay in a hostel for the first time, then this article is for you. Read on to discover how to make your first hostel experience one to remember (in a good way!) and find out what to look out for when it comes to picking a great hostel. 

1. Always do your research

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

This is my absolute number one tip. Staying at a hostel will give you some of the best experiences of your life — but this doesn’t mean that every hostel is created equally. Whilst I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at some fantastic hostels, there are plenty of grim ones on the market too. So before you commit to your chosen hostel, make sure to do plenty of research into it! Check out the ratings that they’ve received on Booking.com and Hostelworld to get a general idea of the standard of the place. 

You should also make a list of all the things that you consider a priority and see if your chosen hostel is at least close to checking every box. Everyone’s list is different — for example, some people are willing to sacrifice a little comfort for a great location or bargain price. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here’s a list for my ideal hostel: 

  • Location: I try to avoid anywhere less than a half an hour walk from the centre. You usually end up doing loads of walking whilst you’re away, so you don’t want to tire your feet out before you even start your day. 
  • Breakfast: If you’re on a budget, you should definitely opt for somewhere that offers a free breakfast. You may have to get up pretty early to get the good stuff, but it’ll really set you up for the day. 
  • Bathrooms: When looking at hostel reviews, my number one priority is checking how clean the bathrooms are. After long and busy days, having a good shower to come back to is an absolute must for me. 
  • Privacy curtains: This isn’t a must-have, but I always feel much more comfortable when I can hide away behind a bed curtain. This is also great for taking naps during the day, or when you’re ill and you need a day’s rest. 

2. Get to know your roommates

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

One of the best things about staying in hostels is getting to meet new people who love travelling just as much as you. Make sure to start conversations with your roommates and try to get to know them. There are so many great reasons to do this. Firstly, it’s so easy to make a close connection with the people you’re sharing a dorm with. There’s nothing like listening to other people’s snoring and sleep talk to form a great bond with them! You’ll find it so easy to make great friends if you open yourself up to it.

Secondly, talking to other backpackers is a great way to get information that you can’t get anywhere else. If you come across someone who’s been on the road for a lot longer than you, they’ll have plenty of advice and recommendations for the rest of your trip. And once you’ve been travelling for a while, you can pay it forward by passing the information on to travel newbies.  

And lastly, getting to know others is a great way to protect yourself and your possessions too. You can let them know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone for, so they can make sure to let someone know if you don’t make it back. And if you tell them where your bunk is, they’ll be able to keep an eye on your stuff if you’re staying somewhere without lockers (although I definitely wouldn’t recommend this in the first place). 

3. Be prepared for the hostel bathroom 

Ask any backpacker what the worst thing about hostel life is, and almost all of them will say shared bathrooms. No one likes sharing their bathroom, but especially when it’s with a dozen other people that you’ve known for five minutes. And even the nicest hostel bathrooms look like bombsites after everyone’s finished with their morning routine. So be prepared and wake up early to get in there whilst it’s still looking pristine (well… as pristine as a hostel bathroom can be). 

Night showers could also be a good option if you don’t mind them. Hostel bathrooms are often cleaned once in the late morning and once in the evening, so you could make it if you time it just right. But fair warning that hot water tends to be in short supply in many hostels — especially budget ones. This isn’t so bad when you’re in a hot country. But if you’re a wimp like me and you’re completely averse to even lukewarm water, then you’ll have to either learn how to be a morning person or shiver your way through the shower in the evening. 

It’s also crucial that you take the time to learn shared bathroom etiquette. You shouldn’t find it too difficult, but it may make your morning routine feel less comfortable than it does at home. I tend to follow these four rules to make sure that the experience is as easy for everyone as it is for myself: 

  • Speed: When it comes to shared bathrooms, you don’t have the luxury of taking as long as you want. Other people are usually waiting, so try to speed your routine up a bit. 
  • Heat: Yes, you want to enjoy a nice, hot shower. But hogging every single drop of the hot water won’t help you when it comes to making friends!
  • Clean: No one wants to be tripping over empty shampoo bottles or see facial wipes stuck to the floor. Be respectful and clean up after yourself. 
  • Think and observe: Different countries have different rules when it comes to water. If you’re in a country that experiences frequent droughts, make sure to be super mindful about how much you use. 

4. Make the easiest meals 

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

I absolutely hate cooking in anyone else’s kitchen — but especially if it’s being used by 20+ other people a day. Plus, hostel kitchens seem impossible to navigate. Why can I find 13 different cheese graters but not a single spoon? It’s safe to say that cooking in a hostel isn’t usually easy, but it’s definitely manageable if you simplify it. Try to find a handful of quick and easy recipes that you don’t mind using and rotation and that require little washing up. Some of my favourite go to dishes to cook in hostel include: 

  • Pasta: The simplest food to make, and one of my favourites too. 
  • Noodles: As simple as pasta, and a great way to get your 5 a day in too. 
  • Couscous: It cooks so quickly, you’ll be out of the kitchen in no time. 
  • Burger and salad: Super easy, and it requires barely any prep, especially if you get your salad readymade. Just make sure to wash it first — in bottled water if you’re in a country with unsafe drinking water, but otherwise tap is fine. 

If you really hate the thought of cooking in a hostel, get somewhere with breakfast included. Make sure to fill up on the free food in the morning, get your main meal out during the day, and just make yourself a sandwich for tea. And don’t forget to check out the instant meals available at the local supermarket for a quick and fuss-free meal. 

5. It’s okay to splash out 

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

There tends to be a lot of snobbery amongst backpackers when it comes to having an ‘authentic’ experience whilst travelling. Because of this, some people claim that the backpackers who don’t stay in hostels aren’t really backpacking. To put it simply, this is dumb. There’s no right or wrong way to travel! 

I love staying in hostels, but I get why some people don’t. It can be pretty uncomfortable, and it’s definitely hard for those who value their personal space. And even though I enjoy hostel life, I need a break from it when I’m travelling too. When Robin and I go backpacking, we usually have a couple of stays in nice hotels over the course of the trip, just to experience a bit of comfort and have an opportunity to feel refreshed. 

If you’ve tried hostels and they aren’t your thing, don’t force yourself to fall in love with them. There will still be plenty of budget options available for you that don’t involve hearing 10 different people snoring. And even if you do enjoy hostel life, consider having a room to yourself once or twice to refresh and recharge. Believe me, you’ll be glad that you did it! 

Have you ever stayed in a hostel before? What are your tips for people staying in one for the first time? Let me know in the comments below!

Published by siobhank96

Hi! I'm Siobhan, thanks for stopping by! My blog, Live To Be Lost, is all about travel and exploration. I believe that you don't have to be on the other side of the world to have an adventure - there's an amazing world waiting for you at your own front door.

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