The following guest post on picking the perfect hostel was submitted by Shawn Roggenkamp.
I love staying in hostels! I love meeting other travelers, and they’re great when you’re traveling on a budget. But they can be intimidating the first few times. Every hostel is so different!
One day there was a post on the HPL Facebook community asking for advice about hostels in Berlin and I perked up. Probably the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in was in Berlin. But as I read on, I realized that her description of what she was looking for in a hostel didn’t match my favorite place at all. That’s when it really hit me just how individual the hostel experience can be.
A good hostel experience can make your trip extra-special. But how do you choose which one, especially if you’re traveling to a major destination, like a European capital, where there may be hundreds of options? I’ve stayed in hostels for years, and have almost always had great experiences. So while my favorite hostel might not be for everyone, the way I choose hostels might be!
I’m going to share with you my 4-step process for choosing a hostel when you have lots of options!
Just a quick caveat: My travel experience is mostly based in Europe, so my advice is going to reflect that. However, this advice should be adaptable for other hostelling destinations. If you have some thoughts that apply to a specific area, why not leave a comment!
Where do you find hostel info?
The best place to look is a website that specializes in booking hostels – Hostelworld and HostelBookers being the two big ones. If you’re traveling to smaller cities without a lot of hostels, a quick online search for “[Destination] hostels” may also be helpful because not all hostels list on the big sites. I find this especially useful in the USA, where hostelling is not as common. (A recent search for hostels in NYC only turned up only 18 results — compare that to 96 in London for the same dates.)
Search for your destination city and your travel dates to get an idea of what your options are. Now let’s narrow them down!
Step 1: Filters
Booking sites will have filters to let you narrow down your search by a bunch of factors. Somewhere near the search bar there should be a button that says “Filter” or maybe looks like a funnel. Click it to see the filter menu.
What should you filter by? Anything you know you NEED in your hostel experience. If you know you want female-only rooms, for example, or if you’re going to need Wifi to do work. But choose wisely as too many filters will cause you to not end up with any results at all!
The two filters that I definitely use are rating and price.
The ratings system is the big advantage to these big hostel booking sites. The people who rate the hostels are other travelers like you and they are usually unsparing in their criticism or praise. (And make sure you leave a review for your hostel after your stay to help the travelers who come after you!)
I like to set my filters for hostels that have at least an 8 out of 10 rating. I find that’s just generous enough to get a range of options.
Price is a factor that varies depending on where and when you’re traveling. Think about your budget, but also do a quick scan down your results list to get a general sense of how much you should be expecting to pay.
Remember also that there are times when hostels get extra expensive — Munich during Oktoberfest, for example, or pretty much any big city over New Years Eve. Set your price filter to whatever you’re comfortable with.
Just with these filters — all female room, free wifi, at least an 8.0 rating, and under 30 USD per night — I narrowed my list of 96 hostels for my hypothetical trip to London, down to 20. That’s a much easier number to work with!
Step 2: Location
Location is a very personal decision. Maybe you’re leaving super early in the morning on your last day, so you want to be close to the train station or airport transport. Maybe you know you want to be close to nightlife — or far away from nightlife! Maybe you want to be in the city center, or an alternative neighborhood, or close to the beach. Hopefully you’ve already done some planning for your trip and know what kind of areas you’re most interested in visiting.
Your hostel booking site has a map feature that will show you where all the hostels in your current results are located. That should narrow down your search a bit more.
This is when I open each hostel that looks good in a new tab to take a closer look.
Step 3: Hostel Descriptions
Most hostels provide a pretty extensive description on these sites or on their own web pages. Sure, a lot of them sound pretty similar, but you can still get some good info there. Quiet hostels and party hostels will usually make this clear in their descriptions because they’re trying to attract people who will appreciate their atmosphere.
One hostel that I stayed in and loved started their description with a warning for the “faint of heart” to stay away — the neighborhood was a little dodgy, but the community was amazing! See if these descriptions will help you narrow your list down further.
A few specific points to consider:
- What size is the hostel?
- Does it allow large groups?
- Does it have age restrictions?
A big hostel without age restrictions may host school groups. A hostel without limits on groups may have bachelor parties staying there. Some places cater to those kinds of travelers, and that’s great for them, but maybe not for you. Or maybe it is! There was a bachelor party group in a hostel where I stayed once, and they were very friendly and polite (and generous with their wine)!
>>Read our first timer’s guide to staying in hostels.
Step 4: Reviews
Now it’s time to dive down into the written reviews for each hostel still under consideration. You can read each review, or skim through them to get a good idea of what people have been saying about the hostel recently. It’s also useful to do a search in the reviews for keywords that will tell you a lot about the living experience. Some good ones to do are “loud” or “party” or “dirty.”
Remember to take these reviews with a grain of salt: all hostels will sometimes be loud and dirty, and everyone’s definition of a party is different. But if there are a ton of comments all saying the same thing, trust it. That’s what these reviews are for!
A search phrase I use a lot is “solo travel” or “traveling alone” if I am too. Some places are particularly good for meeting people and making friends with like-minded travelers. Think of a couple words that describe your travel style and search in the reviews. Sometimes nothing will come up; sometimes you’ll strike gold!
Now you should have a much shorter, customized list of hostels to choose from! Happy hostelling!
About the author: Shawn is an art historian and travel enthusiast. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she watches lots of theater and drinks too much tea. Follow her occasional musings and travel pictures on both Instagram and Twitter.
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