It might sound weird, but I actually really love hostels. As an extrovert, I feel energized at the end of a day when I’m in a room filled with people talking, and hostels are made for these sorts of interactions. They are usually an affordable housing option, available in some parts of the world for mere dollars a night. Hostels also are a plethora of knowledge for tourists, so you can sometimes show up to a city, and activities and things to do will pop up right in front of you.
Hostels aren’t perfect, and there are some downsides to hostel life — lack of privacy and sometimes cleanliness, depending on the place (and the guests), just to name a few. And while there are definitely some stellar hostels out there, there are also a lot that you’ll leave thinking, “Well, you get what you pay for…”
Honestly, it had been a while since I’d stayed in a hostel, but for my trip to Brazil and Chile I really wanted to mix things up — AirBnB, hotels, hostels, and Couchsurfing. I found some fantastic hostels to stay at in Chile, and I was quickly reminded why I love hostels so. I also got a nasty case of hostel cough and slept on a rock-hard mattress at a hostel in Rio, making me long to curl up in my own bed at home. But at all the hostels I stayed at, I was reminded that there are a few things to have when you’re hostel bound:
* Cash. If you use a booking site, you’re usually required to put down a deposit and then pay the remainder upon arrival. A fair number of hostels accept cash only, so be prepared.
My recommendation: Always have some cash on you when traveling, especially when you’re just taking off…not too much, but enough that if you don’t hit an ATM for a few days you could manage okay. My first day in Brazil my bank cards weren’t allowing me to withdraw funds, and without that option to pay you can feel pretty helpless.
* Flip flops (a must). Unless it’s my own shower, I’m usually not too keen on bathing barefoot. Something about it just feels gross. Sandals are a pretty universal thing to throw in your pack, so don’t go to a hostel without a pair. Trust me.
My recommendation: I’ve had Havianas for years and loved them. Versatile, light, and I could wear them all day (I have the silvery color).
* Earplugs and an eye mask. Even if you intend on booking only private rooms in a hostel, sound may carry from the common spaces. In shared rooms, know that not everyone will want to go to bed when you do, and you will inevitably be put in a room with someone who stumbles in drunk at 3am and turns on the light to look for his or her bed. In Brazil, I was in a shared room with a grown-ass woman who thought it was okay to pack her bags at 4am with the lights on…loudly. You can bet I lifted up my eye mask and threw her some shade.
My recommendation: an eye mask like this one from Lewis N. Clark that has extra material at the bottom to keep light out, and these heavenly ear plugs that I always recommend to my readers are cheap and better than the foam ones you’re probably familiar with.
* A lock. Most hostels will offer some kind of locker for you to put your things, but oftentimes you are expected to bring your own lock. All of my hostels on this trip offered plentiful storage — I was actually able to pack away all my stuff in them — but not all lockers are like this.
I’ve stayed at a hostel before where I was only given a small space big enough to put a camera and computer in. Also, some places have a poor situation all around when it comes to safely securing your stuff. At the last spot I was in, a girl was telling us how she stayed in a hostel that had wooden bins under the bunk beds that you could put your lock on — but if you lifted up the mattress on the lower bunk you could simply reach through the slats and pull things out!
My recommendation: Any combination lock will do, as a key is just another thing to lose or have stolen. I brought two with me, actually, and ended up needing them both: one with a thinner hook and one with a thicker one. And, if none of this sounds good to you, you can opt for a PacSafe ExoMesh in defense of those really sketchy situations. I brought one with me but ended up not needing it…but better safe than sorry.
* …and a headlamp. When I notice that roommates are asleep, I try not to turn on the lights out of courtesy. This means I then bumble around with my iPhone, trying to hold it and grab my things and keep track of all my stuff. No bueno. It’s a small item to throw in (that I forgot) and it will make life way, way easier.
My recommendation: Something small since (unless you’re camping) you’ll only need it for a little bit certain evenings.
* a lingerie bag. Yup, even for you dudes! Some hostels offer laundry services meaning you can pack less and don’t have to worry about cleaning your own stuff (yay!). Of course, busy hostels can’t be held accountable for every single item of clothing you own, so to prevent losing stuff use a lingerie bag. Then you can simply put all your clothes into it and not worry about getting 3 socks back when you definitely had 6.
My recommendation: I got a pack of these mesh laundry bags a few years ago and love them. Lightweight and even useful for packing to separate items.
* Towels and linens…maybe. Some places will happily include linens, a pillow, blankets, and towels at no charge. Other places make you pay á la carte. What’s the best choice? Well, it’s really up to your preference, the hostel, how long you intend to travel, and your budget.
Many hostels in Iceland charge for sheets, so if you’re looking to save cash you should bring your own. One of my hostels in Chile included a down blanket at no cost, so bringing sheets for my week there would have been a waste of space.
My recommendation: Research and go with your gut. If you don’t like the thought of a hostel providing you sheets then pack them. If you don’t mind paying a few bucks a night for some, then leave them at home. I knew most places I was heading would include linens, so I didn’t give it a second thought. I did, however, bring a microfiber turban towel (essentially a turbie twist) and a pashmina scarf as a pseudo-towel, since the places I stayed at did charge for towels and those items weren’t too bulky.
* Something to share. The chances you’ll stay at a hostel and not interact with another person are slim. But if you’d like to get conversation started and are feeling a little reserved, bring something share, since a great way to bond with people is to offer them something (usually food or drink, let’s be honest). I’ve been given wine, chips, spaghetti, and more on my trip, and I’ve happily given fruit, conditioner packets, and even a mini sewing kit. People will l-o-v-e your generosity.
My recommendation: Chocolate. Or really, whatever you like. But probably chocolate, right?
* (Relatively) open travel plans. At the end of the day, when you’re paying $12 a night you can’t expect to stay at the Hilton. There will inevitably be some things you don’t like about any hostel, no matter how great it is, but I suppose that’s part of the journey. A wonderful way to cope is to make sure you keep your lodging plans somewhat flexible so that when you do end up somewhere less-than-awesome you can easily make a move.
My recommendation: Don’t book too many nights in a hostel at a time. Unless you’re traveling during a very busy season or event, understand that many hostel travelers don’t make definite plans and often decide where they’ll be just a few days ahead of time. And how much would it suck to arrive and pay for your hostel for a week only to end up hating it after day one?
Think of it like this: hostels are budget accommodation and not every single one will work for you. Somewhere, there are corners they’ll be cutting—a place with really comfortable beds will only provide dry cereal for breakfast, and another spot with an amazing rooftop terrace will provide the most uncomfortable pillows for you (FYI that was basically Chile for me). After time, a relatively decent hostel experience can end up just getting under your skin, so allow yourself the freedom to move around. That’s what travel is all about, after all!
Do you like the idea of staying at a hostel, and why or why not? What do you always bring when traveling in hostels? What advice do you have for those who have never stayed in a hostel before?
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