Hostels are great for all types of travelers. They range from grungy party-centric frat houses to family-friendly homes complete with childcare. Finding the “best” hostel can be a trying task. Does “best” translate to nicest? Cleanest? Most fun? Most centrally located? To most travelers, “best” typically invites some degree of “cheapest”.
Despite the inherently paradoxical nature of the “best cheapest” dilemma, there exist strategies to solving this mystery of travel and guarantee that you will indeed find the “best” hostel.
The fist thing you need to do is head to three of your favorite hostel booking sites.
When beginning my search I use HostelBookers.com, HotelWorld.com, and Hostels.com* (also available are HostelsClub.com and Hostelz.com**). Each site has a unique property lists and sets of reviews (sometimes even prices and availability), and by leveraging more than one you can ensure you are getting the best hostel at the best price.
Get onto your first site (doesn't matter which), and follow these steps:
- Enter your search criteria, and leave all “property types” checked (this ensures you do not exclude any improperly categorized hostels).
- Once you have your search results, arrange by “rating“.
- Check which results have your desired room type available (sometimes only privates or gender-specific dorms available).
- Now take note of the top top four or five hostels; ignore anything with a rating below 70% (even 80%). These are your candidates.
- Repeat this process with two more websites.
Let's say that you're looking for a hostel in Munich for two nights, here are the top results from three hostel booking sites for the same search criteria.
*HostelWorld and Hostels.com utilize the same booking engine for hostels, but they maintain independent reviews, ratings, and sometimes properties.
**Hostelz.com is an aggregator and that searches HostelBookers.com, HostelWorld.com, and HostelsClub.com for top prices (however, I am skeptical of such sites – better to perform your own research).
If your top results yield, two, or even three hostels in common, then you are in luck – the hard work is over. You may move onto the next section.
Should the results prove inconclusive, then it is time to employ more research tactics. The next thing to do is to visit TripAdvisor.
Search for the name of your destination followed by “hostel” in the search box, and then select “Specialty Lodging” from the menu above the search results. You can then sort by ranking and narrow your results to only hostels. Again, compare this list to your previous search results.
Note: make sure to check the “ranking number” and not to just rely on the hostels position in the Trip Advisor results list since all specialty lodging is ranked together.
PICKING ONE OVER ANOTHER
Many times you will end up with multiple highly rated, similarly priced hostels available for your trip. Now you are forced with the difficult task of choosing.
So what do you look for in a hostel? To a degree it depends on personal preference, but much of what makes a hostel great remains constant regardless of traveller. The three most important factors? Location, facilities, and staff.
- Location: location is key. It isn't so important that you can forgive the shortcomings in every other aspect, but it is certainly important. A good location can save you money on transportation costs and play a role in the safety rating of the hostel as well. A daily $3 in spending and an extra 40 minutes on the train (which stops at midnight!) may not be worth staying at that (supposedly) slightly nicer hostel.
- Facilities: How are the rooms? Does the entire hostel share one dirty bathroom? Is the common room also the office? Is laundry available? How's the bar? Is there a kitchen? Fridge? Facilities vary greatly, but their rating is usually a function of cleanliness and atmosphere (given that said facilities exist).
- Staff: guests and atmosphere change on a daily basis, but the staff is what gives a hostel its character. Staff can be invaluable in providing you with information about the city, recommendations of places to eat, or even taking you out after their shifts (I highly recommend this).
So what factors are less important than our top three?
- Atmosphere: 95% of atmosphere is a function of the people who happen to be staying at the hostel while you are there. If the hostel ranks highly in the former three aspects, then it will tend to attract good quality travelers. Therefore increasing the atmosphere.
- Safety: a hostel's location has a lot to do with safety. Generally you will not have to worry about someone coming to murder you in your sleep, and so as long as you have a locker to store your valuables, you should be fine. All big cities can be dangerous, and what one person considers “dangerous” another person my consider to be quite normal.
- Cleanliness: if a hostel has a great staff, a great location, and great facilities, then it is unlikely that cleanliness will be an issue. However, if it is, you must remember that you are staying in a hostel, not the Hilton, and there is a certain level of grunge to be expected (anything cleaner is bonus points).
As far as amenities and facilities go, there are a few key things that I always look for when booking (regardless of its rating):
- Wi-fi: I would be surprised at any hostel not offering wi-fi.
- Lockers: Lockers (or cubbies/drawers/etc. that can be locked) are essential. Even though 99% of travelers are awesome, all it takes is one awful example of a person to ruin your trip. Better safe than sorry. I also suggest investing in some travel locks in case hostel lockers require them.
- Luggage Storage: Not only is luggage storage convenient, but it can save you money too. Showing up early morning or leaving late at night? Instead of paying for an additional night (or the dreaded “dragging around your bags”) simply leaving your bags with your hostel can save money and frustration.
- Common Room: Common rooms facilitate meetings between guests. The ideal common room has plenty of seating, open space, a television, and must be passed through in order to reach the rooms.
- No Curfew: It isn't often that hostels enforce curfews, but be sure to check. Nothing's worse than being a slave to a hostel's sleep schedule.
Things that are not necessary, but are definite bonuses:
- 24 Hour Reception: This isn't a necessity, but it is nice to have someone available 24 hours to help you late at night. Especially when diminished motor skills necessitate assistance in reaching one's room.
- Laundry: Although it will normally be an old shoddy washer-dryer combination, and it will cost more than taking the time to sink wash is worth, there is something magical about pulling a fresh, warm pair of underwear from the dryer.
- ATM: Usually your hostel's ATM will charge a higher fee the ATMs found at banks, but running around town looking for an ATM that works with your card is no fun.
- Bar: Hostel bars are a great place to meet other travelers. The best bars have engaged staff and nightly activities (trivia, bar crawls, event viewing, heads up seven up, etc.), that facilitate the meeting of fellow travelers prior to beginning a night out.
- Bike Rentals: If you don't think much of hostel bike rentals, chances are you have never taken advantage of bike rentals. Bikes are an awesome way to maximize your time spent exploring, and can help save on transportation costs.
- Towels: free towels are best, but usually towels will cost something like $2 to rent. If you don't already carry a lightweight pack towel (a wise investment), then
- Accepts Credit: Not a huge deal for a lot of people, but if you have the right card, then a hostel that accepts plastic is far more convenient than one that does not.
- Internet Access In Public Space: something many people wouldn't think of, not all hostels offer internet access in public spaces (i.e. you can only get internet in your room). If you are using an internet supported calling or messaging app to coordinate with fellow travelers, then this could prove quite inconvenient.
- Included Breakfast: Usually a sorry excuse for a meal, sometimes a stale piece of bread and a random fruit is a nice thing to wake up (or come home) to. Once in a while you will come upon a place with a fantastic free breakfast, but these are quite rare.
FINDING HOSTEL WEBSITES
The hostel booking websites are interested in you book directly through them (this is how they make money), and so they do not provide links to hostel websites. What do you want to do? You want to find the hostels' websites.
Luckily. via a quick Google search, you can (usually) find said websites by plugging in a hostel's name and location (sometimes the word “hostel” helps too). Once you've found it, you should confirm: room rates, amenities, location, and availability (this is not always available).
If everything checks out (especially price), make your reservation via the hostel directly (or via a booking site if that's your only option).
AVAILABILITY AND PAYMENT
In theory a hostels availability should be the same across all sites, yet this is not the case.
In the following example, both Hostels.com and HostelWorld show eight and ten mixed dorms available for $21.68/night, but Hostel Bookers only shows a six bed dorm for $27.53/night.
Sites will also show different prices for the same room on the same day:
These are just two of many such examples demonstrating the discrepancies between booking sites. The more you search, the better price you will get.
Now there are also the booking fees to deal with. HostelBookers prides itself on “no booking fees”, while HostelWorld and HostelsClub charge $2 per booking. Hostels.com charges $2 as well, but if you sign up for a (free) account, the fee is waived.
Always book through the hostel directly if the option is available (and they don't charge a fee). This guarantees you get the best possible price (usually – be sure to still compare), and that your booking will be confirmed directly.
GETTING YOUR FIRST CHOICE
So what happens if your first choice is not available? Do you compromise and stay somewhere else? Of course not!
If you tend to book a week (or even days) in advance, you will often run into trouble securing a top rated hostel for more than a night or two (especially if you have failed to embrace the world of solo travel – 7 Convincing Reasons To Travel Solo). The solution? Flexibility.
- If staying in a city for more than one night, and your first choices don't have space, then consider splitting your time between two (even three) different hostels. The inconvenience of moving from one to another should be outweighed by the utility saved by not staying at a sub par hotel.
- Make sure you call the hostel directly if possible to confirm that they are booked – never trust the internets.
- Many hostels take reservations until as little as 24 hours before a booking. As a last resort, try contacting your desired hostels the day of your intended stay to capitalize on last-minute cancellations.
- If you are unsure about what area of the city you want to stay in, check the “map view” of hostels on HostelBookers or HostelWorld. The best locations are typically indicated by clusters of hostels – beware any that fall far from all the others (you may inadvertently increase the price by the cost of your daily transportation ticket).
- Note that it can be difficult for new hostels to gain traction in the ratings game, and so if you find a place very few or maybe not any ratings, don't be afraid to dig a little deeper and give them a shot (and a review!).
- Keep track of how much you paid upfront (usually 10% of the total booking) and remember that many hostels only accept cash.
- Remember that hostels are not necessarily called “hostels” everywhere you go. Guesthouse, even hotel in some cases can all translate to what would generally be interpreted as a hostel.
- Of my time spent reading reviews I spend around 80% reading the negative reviews or con lists. This is where the real information is, but you should also be wary of taking negative reviews at face value. Perhaps a hostel was badly reviewed by someone traveling in a family who “didn't enjoy the party-centric atmosphere” of the place – maybe that's exactly what you are looking for.
- Planning a long night out before switching hostels the following night? Try checking out of your first hostel a day early, storing your luggage, picking it up after your night out, and transporting it to your next hostel in the morning before you crash in their common room waiting for check-in time.