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Women on the Road

Staying in a Hostel for the First Time (When You’re Not 20-Something Anymore)

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5 June 2018 — If you remember staying in a hostel for the first time, you might be thinking back to your college days. But if you don't – maybe you skipped over the “gap year” or “taking a year off” bit  the word 'hostel' might you cringe. And this page is for you.

My most vivid memory of the few times I stayed in hostels in my youth is this: the banana pancake - ring a bell? (photo Todd Cravens via Unsplash)

It’s fine if you’re 20-something but if you’re in your 40s, 50s or beyond, you wouldn’t dream of staying in a hostel, right? Isn't that the common wisdom?

Well, the common wisdom is wrong. I stayed in hostels as I crossed Africa in my forties and now, a couple of decades later, I've been doing it again throughout Eastern Europe.

Why would you even stay in a hostel?

Good question  I can think of plenty of reasons!

  • You’re on a limited budget and in the market for cheap lodgings
  • You like surrounding yourself with young people
  • You love meeting people from around the world and from different backgrounds
  • You have a great attitude, you’re open to the world and full of wonder and a desire for discovery
  • You have a yearning for the slumber parties of your childhood
  • You travel solo but once in a while you enjoy being surrounded by people
  • You’re a party animal and a backpacker hostel sounds perfect for you
  • You have no issue with privacy - you’ve had a houseful of teenagers and the idea of a jumble of young people sharing things doesn’t phase you in the least
  • You’re simply curious
  • You don’t believe you’re “too old” to do anything
  • Everything else is full!

I have a soft spot for the hostel culture of community.

If you’re a female traveling solo, it can get lonely out there and staying in a hostel is a bit like finding an instant group of friends. There’s usually a foyer or sitting or common room where people hang out, talk, play music or simply chill.

Most people who stay in hostels are curious about others and you’ll be talking to strangers in no time.

I’ve never found my age to be an issue and often, it's the opposite. Having 50 years of solo travel under my belt is like a badge of survival, a sort of credibility of the road. Many people staying in hostels are young, but senior hostel travel is growing fast, as is the sight of families in hostels.

group of people staying in a hostel for the first timeOne thing about hostels is the camaraderie that builds up between travelers (photo rawpixel at Unsplash)

Apart from meeting people, another good reason for staying in budget hostels is just that - cheap accommodation. Hotel costs can add up quickly and you may end up economizing on food and experiences just to pay for your hotel room. I do feel the urge to splurge once in a while and stay in a luxury hotel, but if I’m spending most of my time sightseeing and using my room only to sleep for a few hours each night, it just doesn’t make sense to pay through the nose for a bed. Let's hear it for "cheap digs"!

The cost of hostels in Europe (where they are a preferred accommodation for women travelers) varies widely depending on the type of hostel, its location and the extras included. You can find a single bed in a dormitory-style room for as little as US$15 a night, while the $20-$30 range is more common. If you opt for a private room, expect to pay between $50-$120 a night. If you can manage with a mere bunk bed, hostels make great budget accommodation. (If you want to plan your budget ahead of time, visit Hostelbookers or similar hostel booking sites and do a search for your destination city to see average prices.)

If the hostel horror stories you've heard come creeping into your mind, try to push them away. You know the ones I mean  the adventures of sharing a bathroom with a crowd, sleeping on one of six bunk beds (the top one if you’re truly unlucky), or feeling music vibrate through the walls at 2am. 

But wait - the travel hostel has come a long way and sometimes you’ll find it difficult to tell the difference between hotels and hostels. It all depends on the individual hostel.

Hostels can be modern and chic, impersonal and cookie-cutter. They can be cosy, family-run and highly social. They can be party venues. They can be serene and relaxing. They can be reserved for 18 to 35-year-olds, or they can welcome all ages.

What’s important is for you to choose the right hostel for your travels.

I've shared a dorm room with a man over 80 who was up and out by sunrise while the 20-year-olds were still sleeping off their night before.

So let's keep an open mind for just a little longer...

Brightly colored bunkbeds you may find when you stay in a hostelHostels come in all sizes and colors

How are hostels different from other accommodation?

What are hostels (hostel definition)
What differentiates a hostel from other places to stay is the existence of shared accommodation and bathrooms, which keep prices low. You can often pay extra for a private room at a hostel, but if the building also houses dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, you can safely call it a hostel.

Hostel vs. hotel
Hotels are generally large buildings with many rooms designed for one to two people. They usually include certain expected conveniences like a private bathroom, complimentary toiletries and optional room service whereas in a hostel, it’s assumed you’ll be sharing a room, even if you can get your own spot for a premium. Towels and sheets are replaced daily (unless you request otherwise) in hotels, while some hostels require you to bring your own bedding; if bedding is provided, you may be expected to deposit it in the laundry bin to be washed. Bathrooms are almost always shared in a hostel (although single-gender washrooms are common) and “extras” like toiletries, towels or hair dryers are typically not included - though the world of boutique hostels are changing these norms. Hotels, on the other hand, include more amenities in the basic price of the room, which raises the price.

B&B vs. hostel
The denomination B&B, or bed and breakfast, has become an umbrella term for everything from a room in someone's house to a luxurious spread in a hotel that happens to serve breakfast only. In its purest state, you'll be renting a room in someone's house, breakfast included. This is the original hostelry, where people stayed back when the only alternative might have been a local inn or a monastery. In a B&B, as opposed to a hostel, you expect a private room and most often a private bathroom. And while you can often purchase cafeteria-style meals at a hostel, a B&B breakfast is included in your price and typically “nice,” which means you expect to pay more for B&B than you would at even the nicest hostel.

Room/house sharing (as in Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, etc.) vs. hostels
In its original intention, someone opens up a room or their entire home for short-term rental, usually because they’re off to travel or because they want to make a bit of extra money and happen to have a spare room. However, landlords and businesses have become involved in a big way, creating controversy and
serious ethical concerns about services like Airbnb. Renting an apartment for the short term can be as cheap as a hostel. In theory, the host lives on the premises and may rent out one or two rooms, but you won’t have the group atmosphere of a hostel. On the other hand, if your host is actually on the premises, you might benefit from connections and conversations with local people you might not otherwise meet. (Another type of sharing is where you get a couch or room in someone’s house for free, simply because the hosts like to meet travelers from other countries.)

Are hostels safe? Hostel safety tips for your first foray

Hostels are great places for solo women travelers. On the safety side, the idea of sharing a room with strangers during your first stay in a hostel can set off all kinds of alarms.

Obviously it’s a risk: you don’t know who you’ll be staying with and what kind of ethical compass they have or don’t have. I once stayed in a six-person dorm and was awakened in the middle of the night by five boisterous men tumbling in. Not my idea of nighttime entertainment, and while they were perfectly behaved (other than drunk) - they might not have been.

There are a few things you can do to stay safe while hosteling. As always, safety is never a guarantee but you can put the odds on your side.

  • Opt for female-only rooms: it may cost you a bit extra a night but it’s worth the peace of mind. This doesn’t mean you’re safe from theft, but it can help with your physical safety. There are even some women-only female accommodation which you can check out here.
  • The buddy system: if you’re staying in a hostel on your own and you're in a dorm, try to make a friend in your room, someone you click with and who can help keep an eye on you and your belongings during your stay (and vice versa, of course).
  • Bring your padlock and wear your valuables: if you brought anything worth stealing, lock it up or leave it under your pillow as you sleep. Better yet, travel with as few valuables as possible. (In a dorm I always keep my important papers in a money belt.)
  • Tell someone: make sure someone back home knows where you’re staying and has a sample itinerary for your trip, along with copies of your essential paperwork - passport, tickets, credit cards.

Frankly, I’ve never had a problem in a hostel but I know things can happen and I’d always err on the side of caution, here and anywhere else.

How to choose a hostel

Before you make a hostel reservation, ask yourself some questions to narrow down your choices.

  • What kind of accommodation do you want? In many hostels you have a choice of single room with ensuite bathroom, a triple or a quad, or a bunk in a larger dorm for 8-12 people.
  • If you're anything like me, you'll be particularly 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 on the private side? 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 unexpected men.
  • A common kitchen can be handy if you want to cook a few basic dishes and maybe meet other hostelers. 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, often because the caretakers are going to bed and don't want to be woken up by someone's joyful doorbell ringing 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. Does the hostel have a locker for you? 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 land line? A computer? Wifi?
  • What about other services, like laundry, bed linen, 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 located. But 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? And are you in the heart of the bar district, with music blaring all night?

What kind of city hostels are there?

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. Here are some hostel varieties, but keep in mind that many of these categories can overlap (for example, cheap hostels and youth hostels often go in hand, while eco hostels could be considered a subset of boutique hostels).

Boutique hostels
This can be a catch-all term for any hostel that doesn’t fit your standard basic-dormitory-with-no-amenities lodging, ranging from designer hostels with amazing artwork to cozy hostels that feel more like a homestay at a relative’s. If the word hostel carries bad connotations for you, start looking at boutique places (here are a few to get you started). You could spend the night in an old castle or a beachy seaside spot on the coast.

Some of these seek to combine the price-point and community of a hostel experience with the amenities you love from a hotel. If meeting people is high on your list but you’d rather not sleep on an ancient cot, a boutique hostel might just be right.

Cheap hostels
For the very budget conscious, these offer the most basic of amenities (bring-your-own-sheets) and usually have the worst reviews from travelers. However, if you go with the right expectations (very low) and you need to save, these hostels will offer you someplace to lay your head (but not much more). You won’t find any fancy artwork and your bed might hurt your back, but you won’t be on the street.

Youth hostels
The “original” hostel, these were designed specifically for travelers under a certain age. But that's changing and the word "youth" may in fact be misleading. Read the fine print to see if it really is a hostel for youth exclusively or if this has also become a hostel for older adults.

Party hostels
These are the ones I avoid. Party hostels typically organize group events, are extremely loud, and have plenty of drunk people. Don’t stay here if you want a peaceful night’s sleep! If you're looking for wild parties, on the other hand...

Eco hostels
If you care about the environment (and you do, right?) some hostels focus on green accommodations that leave a minimal footprint. Most of these are in distant districts and outside the city limits, so better for stays when you’re traveling through the countryside.

Which are the best hostels? The ones that meet your needs (and wants). Your hostel isn’t the Ritz, but it can be a clean and comfortable place to spend the night and make a few travel buddies. That said, if you’re looking for the best hostels in the world, here's a list.

What kind of hostel rooms are there?

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, it’s good to have an idea of what kind of rooms they offer.

Here are the most common.

Dormitories
This is what comes to mind when you think hostel. Dorms sleep between two and sometimes 12 (or more!) people, but quads for four people are fairly common. The larger the room, the more likely you are to be sleeping on a bunk bed and the less money you’ll spend. You will share a bathroom. You can stay in mixed dorms or women-only dorms where these exist. Many dorms offer lockers for your stuff, but be sure to ask.

Pods
These are beds or small areas of large dorms rooms that feature privacy curtains to make it feel like you’re in your own space. Much cheaper than a private room, but more comfortable than a standard dorm bed situation. (Tip: If you can score a bottom bunk in the corner of a normal dorm room, use a towel or sheet to create your own private space - at the risk of alienating your fellow travelers.)

Private room
This is what it sounds like - your own room. It’ll probably be less sophisticated than a hotel room, but will offer the comfort and safety of your private space. Some rooms have ensuite bathrooms, while others require you to share a communal bathroom with other guests (read the fine print). Keep in mind that these might cost as much as a hotel room or an Airbnb. Whenever I stay in a hostel, I do my utmost to get a private room.

What do you pack for a hostel stay?

Unfortunately there’s no straight answer: I’ve stayed in hostels where you had to pay a couple of euros to rent a towel, while some new boutique spots come with communal hair dryers and free breakfast. It’s essential to read reviews and go directly to the hostel’s website to see what’s included.

All things being equal, here’s a basic list of things to take to a hostel:  

  • Travel towel: sorry, but rather than paying for a towel, I’ll use that money for a cappuccino!
  • Eye mask: trust me. Unless you sleep through anything, someone will stumble into your dorm and turn the lights on in the middle of the night.
  • Ear plugs: to drown out the mid-night stumblers and your neighbors’ talking or snoring.
  • Money belt: if you have a locker, great, but I still feel most comfortable keeping my passport and cash on my person at night. Also, don’t forget a…
  • Lock: Even if there are lockers, don’t expect them to have a padlock. Bring your own (you’ll feel safer about it anyway). A great option is the Pacsafe TravelSafe, which allows you to lock up all your valuables and attach them to something sturdy in the room (like the bedframe or an exposed pipe)
  • Sheet or sleeping bag: again, you may have to pay extra for linens.
  • Toiletries: you won’t find tiny free shampoo bottles, so bring your own.
  • Flip flops: communal showers, ladies. Need I say more?
  • Change: if you’re planning on doing any laundry on-site or purchasing snacks or extras, it’s good to have small denominations of bills or some coins.

General hostel tips and tricks

Anytime you’re trying something new, it’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve to help it all go smoothly:

  • Check your expectations: remember you chose a hostel for a reason (probably the price tag) and you can’t expect 5-star accommodations at 2-star prices. While you should expect cleanliness and friendliness from staff, you do, in many cases, get what you pay for when it comes to hostel accommodation.
  • Don’t sleep near the bathroom (or the main entrance): flushing toilets, showers at 2am, people coming in at dawn after a red-eye flight...
  • Choose your bunk wisely: this is a spin-off of the above point, but make sure you get the bunk you want. I was recently assigned a top bunk and hated every minute - the climbing up and down, of course, but spending the night worrying I might turn over and fall off (silly, but I haven’t slept in a top bunk since childhood and would prefer to keep that experience a memory). And if there’s a lot of street noise, you may want to avoid a window location. A bed in the corner can be nice for added privacy and that “cozy” factor.
  • Book ahead: make a hostel reservation if you’re traveling during peak times such as holidays or weekends. Cheap beds fill up quickly, and you don’t want to end up wandering on the streets because you didn’t plan ahead.
  • Consider a bed in a quad: while booking a private room can cost nearly as much as a hotel room, buying a bed in a smaller three- or four-person room can pay off. You won’t have as many roommates, and everything – crowding, noise – will be reduced accordingly.
  • Read reviews: remember that the people who tend to leave reviews are those who are abnormally satisfied or dissatisfied with their stay, so take everything with a grain of salt. I usually start with the negative reviews and get an idea for what people disliked the most. If they think the alcohol selection was lacking, I’ll ignore those comments because I don’t drink (and I’m not looking for a party scene), but if someone reports a case of bed bugs I'm all ears.  
  • Don’t be that person: when was the last time you shared a room with someone - was it back in college? If that’s the case, a quick brush-up on communal living etiquette might be in order (I know you know this but I’d be remiss if I didn’t issue a little reminder): don’t use anything that belongs to anyone else without express permission; don’t eat other people’s snacks; when you’re done charging a device, unplug it so someone else can use it; wear your earbuds if you’re playing music or watching a video; leave your dorm if you want to talk on the phone; if you wake up before everyone, use a flashlight – don’t turn on the lights.

How to find a hostel that's right for you

Hostels can be booked out during peak travel times and just showing up may mean you’ll be locked out. You can indeed get a good deal on a bed if you show up the same day and they have space, but do you really want to take the chance? That’s fine if it’s low season, but don’t try this at the height of summer or when school’s out and students are traveling.

You can find plenty of hostels in guidebooks but the best place to book a room is through hostel booking websites like Hostelworld or the hostel websites themselves.

Why do your hostel booking on a specialist site? It’s great for comparing your options and comes with reviews (a bit like Booking.com for hotels). I like to scrutinize every price and location and choose accordingly. But the reviews help me weigh whether a lower-priced hostel is going to cost more in the long run because it’s far away from where I want to be or doesn’t include breakfast.

Sometimes you’ll find better deals on the hostel’s own website (because they don’t have to pay a fee to the booking site), but that’s not always the case. Also, a hostel finder site allows you Google the accommodation in your destination city, and you can narrow your search with filters so you’re not looking at places that don’t meet your requirements.

Your other option is to get your hostel information from a specific network such as Hostelling International. These hostels are all somewhat similar because they have to adhere to certain standards to be included in the database or organization. You can also get a Hostelling International membership and save on your travels. (Ignore the fact that they use the word 'youth' in their official name  they are in fact open to all adult ages.)

So... 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 others, including 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

...you can still stay in a hostel, but go for a private room.

And don't forget that plenty of mature women use hostels. I’m one of them.

Don't let age stop you

Just as hostels are maturing, they are becoming more welcoming to those of us who are slightly older. Of course, there are hostels catering to 20-somethings who want to party and won't let you in the door if you're over 35, but you don’t have to stay in those. You’d be surprised by the wide age range among hostelers.

The first barrier is getting over the idea that you’ll be the only guest over 30. The vast majority of guests will be younger, but you'll definitely come across older hostelers during your stay.

If you happen to have a car, try hostels on the edge of town. Most travellers under the age of 25 can’t legally rent a car, so an out-of-town hostel will often attract slightly older guests.

When you read the reviews, read between the lines. If you keep seeing the words “fun,” “young,” “modern” and “party” you might want to pass on that one. On the other hand, see if there are reviews from older travellers saying something like “nice and quiet in the evening” or “I’m 65 and I felt at home.”

In fact, if you feel especially self-conscious, why not call or email the hostel and ask them if they see mature travelers frequently? Their answer might help calm those anxieties.

Also, as long as the hostel doesn’t specifically cater to partiers, you might find that you enjoy bunking up with the younger crowd. While it’s always nice to make friends your own age, expanding your horizons rarely hurts.

And please - don't forget your travel insurance before you go! I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

A brief hostel guide

If you want to search multiple sites or compare hostels, this directory will help:

Hostelworld: Search a database of more than 36,000 properties in 170 countries. Simply type in your travel dates and location and filter through results and 10 million verified guest reviews.

Hostelz: The self-proclaimed largest hostel database, you’ll have access to 50,000 listings in 7,650 cities. This site aggregates listings from major hostel databases so you can compare and contrast prices.

Hostelsclub: Another hostel database with a fresh and modern interface to search more than 30,000 properties in 1923 cities. View descriptions in 27 languages and contact staff by phone, email and live chat for help.

My Chic Hostel: Not interested in roughing it? This database only includes “luxury” hostels – a great place to start if you’re a little older with extra spending money.

Independent Hostels: This is a UK hostel database that allows you to filter results by location, facilities, activities and availability. It caters to the younger crowd but includes all kinds of listings in the United Kingdom.

Hostelling International: Here’s a database of all official Hostelling International not-for-profit youth hostels (while these aren't hostels for older travelers, they do offer a membership discount for seniors).

The Hostel Girl (for Women-Only Hostels): This is a great resource for women looking to stay in women-only accommodation. While it’s not a searchable database, it’s a good list of your best options. Here's hoping they add more to their list.

HostelGeeks (for Boutique Hostels): Here’s a list of 28 brilliant boutique hostels you may want to stay in on your next vacation. If you’re looking specifically for unusual and unique, start here.

How about you? Have you had any hostel experiences as a mature adult? I'd love to hear them in the comments below!