This article is for the hostelling novice. It will orient you to the kinds of things you can expect and ask for as you shop around for hostels.
First, understand an important distinction: hostels are not hotels. They require a level of self sufficiency. You should prepare accordingly. Knowing this ahead of time, why would you want to stay in a hostel in the first place? For most people who travel through hostels, the reason is primarily to save money. It is considerably cheaper than staying in a hotel.
The more you save on accommodations, the more you have to spend on your “experience,” whether that is white water rafting, taking a yoga course, eating exotic foods, buying souvenirs, paying for museums, whatever.
Plus, you have an opportunity for a more intimate experience with the country since hostels are typically run by locals who can give you better advice than any concierge. If your focus is on getting out and doing things and getting a real flavor for the place instead of being pampered in a luxury hotel, hostels are for you.
Picking a hostel: what to ask
Your first concern will be the hostel’s proximity either to transportation or your ultimate destination. You may find, however, that outlying locations offer more of what you need, whether that’s a lower price or more amenities that you’re willing to pay for.
Make sure you do your homework and are aware of the environment surrounding your hostel. Anyone who has ever been through Johannesburg, for example, knows to stay away from crime-ridden city central. If you’re going to Buenos Aires, however, you may prefer to stay in the more low rent, yet charming districts where people tango in the streets.
Does the hostel offer transportation to and from the airport? What about transportation to local attractions? How much do those services cost?
Ideally, the hostel will offer airport pick up and drop off at a reasonable price. Even if it is more expensive than public transportation, the benefits add plenty of value. You’ll be picked up by someone who is happy to see you, who will be nice to you and answer your questions, make recommendations, maybe even tell you a few useful phrases in the local language. He/she won’t take the long way around (unless you ask). You’ll be in the safety of fellow travelers and have the opportunity to make quick travel mates.
Some hostels are also tour operators, offering one-stop service. This is particularly beneficial for those who don’t have a lot of time or don’t want to do all the work of organizing an excursion on their own and deal with a dozen different vendors.
If you are only in town for a week and want to go on a safari, for example, they would take care of food, transportation, accommodations, park fees, and make sure you have shopping opportunities. You would just sit back, relax, and focus on enjoying yourself.
Of course, you do pay a price for the service. Seasoned budget travelers can find a way to go on the same tour and pay less, but will do all the legwork on their own: making all the necessary reservations, organizing their own transportation, planning meals, etc.
Dorm rooms are the norm. If you expect any kind of privacy, ask about private rooms. They can cost you two to three times more than a bunk bed in a dorm room, but if you really want the privacy, most hostels have at least a couple private rooms. Just make sure you call ahead and make reservations.
Here are a few more things that most hostels offer. But don’t take it for granted, ask them.
Do they offer internet access? If so, how much does it cost? Do they charge by the half hour or every 15 minutes?
Do they have a safe in which you can lock your valuables?
Does the staff speak English?
Do they prepare meals or offer snacks?
Do they have a kitchen and food storage for you to cook your own meals?
Packing for hostels: what to bring
Bring a sleep sheet. You never know what they’ll provide you with. In some places, all I’ve been given is a mattress and a fitted sheet. If you’re going somewhere with even a remote chance of cold weather, a sleeping bag is highly recommended. If you’re going somewhere where it will be steamy and hot, bring a thin sleep sheet in case their sheets are below your standards.
A couple of things to remember when sleeping in a dorm room: noise and immodesty. Though there is generally a lights out/quiet time, you may need eye covers and ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper. Also, bring bedtime clothes that you won’t mind wearing to bed and that you can also walk around in (to and from the bathroom).
If you really want to save money, be prepared to buy food so you can cook for yourself. It’s a great way to meet the other guests. Share a meal and some wine or beer and you could be having a great conversation with someone who has just spent the last week checking out the places you intend to visit.
If you plan to travel internationally, I wouldn’t suggest packing your food from home. Stop by the local grocery store on you way to the hostel (or walk there if it’s close), and pick up some supplies. If the hostel has a kitchen, they should also have ample pantry space.
Bring toiletries. You don’t know what they won’t have or will run out of, so bring soap, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc. You might also think about bringing some flip flops if you have a thing about bathing barefoot in a communal shower.
If the hostel doesn’t have a safe for storing your valuables, ask if they have lockers. If they do, you’ll need your own lock. Also, a lock for your backpack may come in handy if you want to lock up your pack to your bedpost (if it doesn’t fit into their lockers).