Misconceptions about Hostels -- & the Real Truth
When it comes up that I often stay at hostels when I travel, I feel I have to explain myself. Americans in particular seem to have a suspicion of these budget accommodations, perhpas associating them with backpacking college students, not working adults. This is unfortunate, because hostels are not only a way to save money but to meet new people. If you're a female solo traveler on a budget, hostels help you save and meet people. In fact, if your goal is to travel more and work less, hostels are an affordable way to see the world without shelling out big bucks.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great options. From Europe to Central America to South Africa to Hawaii, I've had almost uniformly good experiences, after getting past these common misconceptions:
Hostels are run down.
For Old Millennials like myself who may have last stayed at a hostel during a college Europe trip in the early 2000s, your memories may be of cheap bunk frames and worn mattresses. The truth: these days, there are many well-appointed, boutique hostels. Two of my favorite hostels in this category are Les Piaules in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood and Vertigo-St. Charles in Marseille, in the south of France.
You have to share a room.
If the idea of sleeping in the same room as complete strangers is not your cup of tea--especially with 21-year-olds stumbling into their bunks at 6AM after a night out at Berlin clubs -- do not fear. many hostels offer private rooms, many of which come with private bathrooms. The price for private rooms tends to be reasonable, especially compared to hotels (I haven’t stayed in a private room that was over $100 per night). One of my favorite setups was Cat’s Pajama’s Hostel at the intersection of Berlin’s East Kreuzberg and Neuköln neighborhoods, whose small but comfortable private room and bathroom came with toiletries, little bags of Hairbo Gummi Bears, and one of my favorite add-ons, a wall-mounted hairdryer.
Hostels are only for partiers.
Many people hear "hostel" and think of college-aged kids on their gap year coming home from Berlin clubs drunk at 6AM. (I love this example, can't you tell? But seriously, no disrespect to young partiers. I just like sleeping). Of course, "party hostels" exist, but hostels have many different vibes, and most are pretty upfront about what type of atmosphere they have.
Berlin's highly rated EastSeven between the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods warns potential guests that it is “NOT a party hostel,” with “no school groups, hen parties or the like.” (I also found that Berlin accommodations loved lists of rules, but that's another post!). This didn't mean the hostel is a dead zone. When I was there, the lounge and garden were a social spots, great for meeting people from all over the world over cheap, german beers. The hostel hosted its own social events, like a bring your own meat barbecue in their garden. They even had a computer hooked up to a sound system that people could use (and no TV!). But to prevent things from getting to noisy for those staying in the rooms above, they close the garden before it gets too late. Similarly, Los Amigos in Flores, Guatemala, closed their lively open air café and bar as the night progressed and asked that people move to the "Night Lounge" to prevent noise into the surrounding rooms. The hostel social life is great for solo travelers, and you'll almost never find it at hotels. Just a warning for Americans: there is bound to be more smoke than you're used to, though more and more, hostels in Europe are having people smoke outside.
Hostels offer less than hotels.
People often think that with a hostel, you are paying for the most pared-down of options, but many hostels have amenities matching three-start hotels. The Cassis Hostel in Cassis, France, has an infinity pool next to a beautifully-tended garden. The Backpack in Cape Town also has a pool (although it was out of commission when we were there during the drought).
Plus, almost every hostel I have stayed in arranges or runs their own tours, great for convenience and for guests who may not have planned in advance. At Los Amigos in Guatemala, my friends and I arranged all of our activities through their terrific staff, from a trip to the Tikal ruins to a day spent on the water at a place called Jorge’s Rope Swing on Lake Petén Itzá. Cape Town's the Backpack connects guests with wine tours, big game rides, and township visits, among other offerings.
Everyone is college-aged (and I'll feel so old!)
What kept me away from staying at hostels for many years was my fear that I’d be surrounded by people much younger than me. But in my experience, hostels attract a variety of ages. I have even stayed at hostels where people brought their family. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of hostels is people tend to be eager to meet, chat, and even travel together. At Backpackers Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu, I drank beers on our patio with travelers from Australia, Chile, and the Pacific Northwest. I met two other solo female travelers poolside at Cassis Hostel around my age. At EastSeven, everyone I met was a bunch of cool people from across Europe and Australia. One of my favorite thing about hostels is also my favorite thing about traveling: stepping outside of my comfort zone. That phrase is a cliché for a reason!
If you are looking for a hostel, always check reviews on HostelWorld, Booking.com, and Trip Advisor before you book. In my experience, these reviews average out accurately. All of the hostels I referenced in my article I recommend (and receive payment from none of them!):
The Backpack Cape Town, South Africa
Backpackers Hawaii North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
EastSeven Berlin, Germany
Cat’s Pajamas Berlin, Germany
Cassis Hostel Cassis, France
Les Piaules Paris, France
Los Amigos Hostel Flores, Guatemala
Vertigo Hostel-St. Charles Marseille, France
Do you have great hostel memory? A terrible one? Share your stories in the comments section.