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Cheap Hostel Beds Aren't What They Used To Be
How to find the perfect hostel during your travels

Are you the hotel type of traveler or the hostel type?

If you usually stay in hotels, you might be surprised. Hostels today aren't what they used to be - they've come a long way and sometimes are even better than a low-end hotel.

Staying in a cheap hostel used to mean sharing a bathroom with a crowd, sleeping on one of six or eight bunkbeds, and feeling the walls vibrate to the blaring music while everyone got drunk. It can still be like that - but only if that's what you want.

So what are hostels like now?

It depends. They can be modern, impersonal and cookie-cutter. They can be cosy, family-run and highly social. They can be party places. They can be serene and relaxing.

If you want to rise early and see the sights, you won't be happy if a boisterous group of students keeps you up half the night but if you want to party, you don't want to be surrounded by a boring gang of culture vultures.

Hostels are for all ages. I've shared a dorm room with a man over 80 who was up and out by sunrise while the 20-year-olds were barely falling asleep.

Cheap hostel bedsFormosa Backpackers Hostel dorm room in Taiwan - this is not untypical of dorm rooms (photo

What to look for in a hostel

  • What kind of accommodation do you want? In many hostels you have a choice of single room with ensuite bathroom, shared bathroom, a triple or a quad, or a bunk in a larger dorm for 8-12 people.
  • You'll probably be interested in a hostel's bathroom arrangements. Will you have to share? With how many others? How far is it from your room? If you go for a private room with your own bathroom, be prepared to pay for the privilege.
  • Are you shy? Some hostels have mixed dorms and if you have an issue with that you'd better find out before you end up in a room with five Sri Lankan men (as I once did in Malawi - they were very proper but I didn't exactly have a good night's sleep).
  • common kitchen can be handy if you want to cook a few basic dishes and maybe meet other hostellers. If there's no kitchen, you'll have to eat (more expensively) out.
  • Check if there's a curfew. It's becoming increasingly rare but curfews still exist. You may have to be in at a certain time at night, perhaps because the caretakers are going to bed and don't want to be woken up by your joyful singing at 3am. Some have day curfews as well, not allowing you in between certain hours; this is the time they use to do household chores.
  • Ask about storage. A good hostel should have a safe place to store things while you're out and about.
  • Determine your communications needs: do you need a long-distance phone? A computer? Wifi?
  • What about other services, like laundry, bed clothes, breakfast or someone on the premises all night?
  • In the cheapest hostels guests may be asked to undertake small chores or at least clean up after themselves - that's how prices stay low, so think twice about saving those extra pennies.
  • Location, location, location. If you're trying to save money you won't mind taking three buses to the end of the world - which is where some hostels are. There's a lot to be said for being near interesting sights, even if it is a bit pricier. Consider your safety: will you have to walk through deserted areas at night?

Hostels can be fun or downright unusual - a jail cell in Ottawa, a mill in Ireland, a freighter in Germany or a jumbo jet in Sweden?

Hostels are great places for solo women travelers. If you're worried about crime, hostels are full of other travelers with whom you can hang out, and there's safety in numbers. If you're feeling a bit lonely, you can just stand in the foyer at dinner time and look for traveling dinner partners. Hostelbookers lists these recommendations for top women's hostels. And don't forget to reserve!

Hostels can be booked out during peak travel times and just showing up may mean you'll spend the night under the nearest bridge. Guidebooks tend to list hostel phone numbers and emails, and a number of chains have websites, some with sophisticated reservations systems so you can plan ahead. 

So what do you say... are you a hosteler at heart?

If you...

  • dislike sharing a room and love your privacy
  • sleep lightly and wake up at the first sound of a snore
  • are uncomfortable half-dressed around members of the opposite sex
  • love peace and quiet
  • are radical about cleanliness (don't get me wrong - most hostels are clean but with all the coming and going, it's hard to keep them spotless)
  • hate having someone barge in on you when you're brushing your teeth

...then choose your hostel with care and choose a private room.

And by the way - in case you were wondering - plenty of mature women use hostels!

Still not the hostel type but can't afford luxury? If you're looking for a night or two, try couch surfing and if you're planning on settling in for a while, why not become a housesitter?

One last tip: Do your research! With all the review and research sites out there (you can try Hostelz), there's no excuse for walking into a hostel with no idea of what to expect.