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Almost by definition hostels are cheap…that’s why people stay in them. But cheap can mean many different things. For instance, cheap can have a negative connotation when you are talking about something like consumer goods, while cheap, when discussing a meal, is usually a good thing.
However, the best thing about hostels is that they are generally fairly uniform in what they provide. So you really have to look at other variables to determine their worth. There are also personal variables that one must take into account. One person’s castle might be another person’s prison.
The staff at a hostel can make all of the difference between a good hostelling experience and a very bad one. These people, often poorly paid, often travelers themselves, are responsible for the protection of your safety and keeping your possessions secure.
At many hostels the staff will be a combination of locals who have been hired by management to work steady full-time hours. There are is also a compliment of travelers who work there (usually long-term guests) who earn their rent by working occasional shifts. This relationship works in your favor because the local people will be dedicated to keeping their job, and because they are native speakers they usually have a good idea of the local customs and routines. They can tell you where the cheap places to eat are and where all the best nightlife is. These folks can end up saving you a lot of money if you befriend them
The traveler employees on the other might be more sensitive to your needs as a traveler and they will know where the best places to eat and drink are from a travelers perspective. A local might send you to their favorite spot, but if it is full of mean looking Hungarian Mafia types you might not be as impressed.
The attitude of people working in hostels can vary as well. In some hostels the staff are almost like travelers themselves who live on the grounds when they are working. If the manager allows them some flexibility when dealing with the staff they are likely to me kinder to the travelers. If the staff-are authoritarian hard-asses, then the staff will see the travelers as the enemy do everything they can to make their jobs easier (aka: stopping people from having fun).
Theft is one of the main concerns in hostels and rightly so. Theft is beyond rampant in most hostels all around the world. This includes theft from outsiders, other travelers and even the staff themselves. This is often a function of several different variables. Firstly, people who choose to live in hostels while traveling are almost by definition cheap. In fact they could be certifiably poor. Therefore a stray Walkman, or pack of cigarettes is another easy way for them to save a little cash.
In the case of the staff, they often hail from countries where high-end flashy consumer goods are not readily available to them. The lure of products that they will have little chance of ever obtaining is often too much to ignore and they might take your things.
Be sure to pick a hostel that has an elaborate key system and some storage locaters that have separate keys. This puts you in control of your own stuff and it will prevent some measure of theft. Hostels are busy places and a random person off the street can easily sneak in undetected and steal people’s stuff. Many hostels also have a storage locker behind the desk, this is a good place to keep your valuables and some hostels even make it mandatory to keep theft to a minimum.
Ohhhhh. Bathroom facilities. Truly the bane of many a traveler. Under no circumstances should you stay at a hostel under the impression that you will have a nice quiet private or even sanitary place to shower up. Anyone who has lived in a house with several people knows that it is hard to keep bathrooms clean, now imagine that you are living with hundreds of total strangers with no accountability to each other. This is not the ideal situation.
Also, many countries do not have access to the same infrastructure as we do back home. They may not have soap, may not have toilet paper and worst of all they may not even have hot water. You must come prepared. This means carry all of your toiletries with you at all times. Never leave them unattended because they last thing you want is some smelly traveler washing their groin with your soap. Also, carry wads of toilet paper with you. Trust me.
It is also a good idea to bring flip-flops with you, you have no idea who has been using that shower and what nasty parasites they have accrued while traveling to strange places.
Beds are a lot like showers in so much as they are something that you have intimate control over while at home and absolutely no control over while you are traveling. Never expect the bed to have any kind of bedding what so ever. And seriously even if it does have bedding, you really don’t want to be using it. People do nasty things in beds and hostel beds are like the all-star team of nasty behavior.
At lest bring a sleep sheet that you can clean at your own leisure, and if you can bring a sleeping bag. This will offer you full protection from any dried up fluids that might inhabit the mattress. Also, never expect the bed to be comfortable…they usually aren’t.
The one saving grace of hostel beds are that you are usually too drunk or tired from a day of exploring to really care where you sleep. But beware…there is usually one snorer in every room. This person cannot help it, but try telling that to the other people in the room. While it’s happening, a snorer can inspire a multi-national fury that no coalition of the willing could hope to achieve. It’s pretty funny to see, Jews, Arabs, American, British, Swedes, Japanese and Australians all rally together with one common enemy. It’s also amusing to hear ”Shut the hell up!” in a plethora of languages.
Meals at hostels can actually be one of the most rewarding aspects of traveling. Many hostels will offer at least some form of breakfast. Depending on which country you are in it will differ, but it almost always involves coffee, tea and cheese. This is a great time for a hostel because everybody can gather around, wake-up together and meet people to hang out with for the day. It also saves you the hassle of staggering around town trying to find something to eat while you are tired and disoriented.
Most hostels have some form of kitchen where you can make food and adhere to your budget. This can be really fun as well. The more people you cook for the cheaper it is, and since people who stay in hostel like things cheap, there are often massive buffets laid out every night with people chipping in for the cost. This communal setting is absolutely the best way to meet people and enjoy food from all over the world, under one roof.
Some hostels even have their own restaurants and cafeterias. You can often pick up a quick cheap meal here for a decent price, but most often it is more fun to head out on your own and find food in the city.
Most of the better hostels will have a full-time member of the staff whose unenviable job it is to clean up after thousands of messy tourists. Thankless work that if not done would result in a Khartoum level of filth and despair. You should thank this person when you see them in the halls and even tip them if appropriate.
Generally there is no rule to determine if a hostel is clean or not. Some large hostels have a large cleaning staff and because they rely on big school trips and such, they pride themselves on their reputation for cleanliness.
Other hostels cater to other people entirely and they don’t give a crap if their hostel is really clean or not. After all, it is budget accommodation. So, basically a dirty hostel will be very, very dirty, while a clean hostel will be a little dirty. If cleanliness is a big issue for you it should be a no brainier which one you will choose. But if cleanliness is the biggest issue for you, then you probably shouldn’t be staying in a hostel at all.
It is often very hard just to arrive in a city or a country and know what there is to do right away. Sure your guidebook will offer you some suggestions but seriously, it’s a guidebook. That’s where some hostels step in to fill the void. Many hostels offer day trip activities either with the hostel staff, or with an outside company with a special relationship with the hostel.
These are generally a great way to see stuff that you might not have expected to see. They can either be of a site seeing nature, a partying nature or an outdoor activity like rock climbing, swimming or skiing. Usually the hostel will offer prices that are more than competitive, but usually a little higher than some random company from the local area. The best part is, you know you can trust them.
These activities are also a great way of meeting people. You’ll have several concentrated hours of hanging around with the same people and helping them understand what is going on and vice versa.
Hostel etiquette is tricky business to say the least. Obviously there are no guidebooks that can tell you how to react to many situations that will arrive. One of the main problems with hostel etiquette involves booze. People rarely act coherently or conscientiously when they are all boozed up. Take this into consideration before you get all fussy over someone being impolite.
It is also a big problem that in many hostels the dorm style living can cause tension. Because traveling is often accompanied by partying, people will be staggering in at all times of the night. There is no hard and fast rule as to whether to turn on the lights, wake everybody up before you hit the hey, or just flop in your bed with your clothes on.
Usually it is best to bring a flashlight so you can access your stuff as quietly as possible. But if you have to turn on the light, do so quickly and get on with it. If you’re all boozed up, don’t brush your teeth…just do it in the morning.
Also, see snoring above.
It is also best to talk to everybody you can when you are sitting together. Some people because of language or temperament might be a little shy. Give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s also best not to bring up politics unless you know that people will be able to restrain themselves.
Hostelling is almost synonymous with partying. People are on vacation; they are carefree and most importantly they in a country where the beer is cheap, cheap, cheap. This is an unavoidable aspect of traveling and staying in a hostel. If you cannot put up with drunken obnoxious people then you should not be in a hostel at all.
My suggestion is just to embrace it and dive in. Even if you don’t drink, just try and see where the other travelers are coming from and enjoy their drunkenness.
Most hostels will have a designated place to drink and smoke, some even have their own bar with their own bar staff. If you really can’t stand this kind of stuff, ask for a room as far away from the action as possible citing your concerns to the staff. They will accommodate you if they can.
Otherwise just enjoy the party. This is your chance to meet amazing people, scoundrels, the ignorant and the interesting. Just enjoy it and take heart in the fact that if you don’t like them they’ll be gone in a couple days…or you will. And if you do like them don’t be sad then they leave…someone else will be moving into their bed and chances are they’ll be alright too.