Hostels are thought of as cheap accommodations for broke college students backpacking through Europe. But their unusual approach to shared living offers community, security, and comfort to travelers of all ages and incomes.

A cheap place to spend the night—that’s the popular image of hostels. And while they do provide bargains for thrifty travelers, there’s much more to be gained.

So what is a hostel?

The hostel concept was invented in early 20th century Germany by a teacher who wanted to take his students out of the city on weekends to expose them to nature and cleaner air. That greater purpose—travel not just for travel’s sake but to enrich one’s life—is still the spirit of today’s hostels.

Of course, many hostels are now located in cities and their mission has evolved to foster community through shared living spaces. They’re not just for the young and broke either. Whether you stay in a traditional, amenity-free hostel or the new wave of “poshtels,” you’ll meet people of all ages and backgrounds. So if you’ve never tried the hostel experience before, consider it for your next trip. Here’s everything you need to know.

Where to find a hostel

  • Hostelling International (HI) USA is a nonprofit membership organization. That means you can’t stay in one of their hostels unless you’re a member. An adult membership costs $28/year and comes with a coupon for a free third night, discounts on car rentals, restaurants, stores and activities. There are over 4,000 international HI hostels and more than 50 in the US.
  • Booking.com is the a great place to compare hotels, rentals and hostels in one place. Visit Booking.com’s dedicated hostel search to help you find accommodations around the world.

What is a hostel like?

Sleeping arrangements

Most hostels offer a range of options from dormitory-style bunk beds to private rooms. If you choose a dorm bed, check to see if the room is single sex or co-ed. Prices will be lowest for dorm rooms with the most beds (some can sleep up to 22 people, though six-eight is average). Many hostels also offer group and family-friendly options, so ask if you’re traveling with multiple people.

Bathrooms

A shared room will come with a shared bathroom. Private rooms usually come with an ensuite bathroom. If you’re sharing a bathroom, try to take your showers outside of the peak morning rush. This will mean less waiting in line, more hot water, and you can stay in there a little longer without inconveniencing your fellow dorm mates. 

Sheets and towels

They may be included in the reservation price or offered for rent at an additional fee. You can also choose to bring your own.

Food and drink

Hostels usually have shared kitchens where you can make a meal for yourself or travelers can cook together, adding to the community feel. Some hostels may also have bars and restaurants open to the public. Many hostel bars offer cheaper drink specials than you’d find elsewhere. A free breakfast may also be included with your reservation.

Common room

This is the heart of the hostel experience. Meet other travelers, relax, and enjoy entertainment options like TV and Wifi.

Are hostels safe?

You should feel very safe staying in a hostel. Most have a 24-hour reception desk and lock the front door for a fixed period at night. Also, dorm rooms usually have access codes so that only people sleeping in that room can get in. Of course, if you stay in a communal room you’ll still want to use a locker or safe (which should be available onsite) to store your valuables or keep them with you at all times.

Night noise

Most travelers will try to be as polite as possible while sharing a hostel room, but you can still expect to hear snoring and people coming in and out of the room during the night. Pack earplugs if you’re a light sleeper.

Laundry facilities

If you’ll want or need to do laundry on your trip, look for a hostel that has a laundry room.

Benefits to staying in a hostel

Once you experience hostel life, you may not want to stay in a regular hotel again. While the affordability of hostels is certainly a top benefit, there are other reasons travelers who could afford to pay more for accommodations choose a hostel instead. In fact, hostels aren’t always the cheapest option, especially if you want a private room.

Company

For solo travelers, a hostel is a great way to meet other people traveling on their own. A conversation in the common room can turn into a friend to sightsee or have dinner with.

Even if you have a travel companion, you can meet people from all over the world who are staying in the same hostel. Perhaps a friendship you start on this trip will be the inspiration for your next adventure.

Safety

Many female travelers appreciate hostels’ curfews, locked front doors, and 24-hour front desk clerks.

Fun

Hostels are often more fun than a regular hotel stay. Just as New Yorkers  go out a lot because their living spaces are so small, hostel guests use their beds for sleeping and spend the rest of their downtime in common rooms, communal kitchens, and hostel bars. This ends up being more stimulating and social than watching cable TV alone in your hotel room.

Summary

Hostels have always been popular among younger travelers, but right now they’re downright trendy. People of all ages and income levels are embracing both the traditional nonprofit hostel and its chicer for-profit reinvention. There’s something for everyone, so give a hostel a try on your next vacation. Chances are your experience will be richer for the people you meet and the conversations you have.
Share your hostel experiences and any advice for new travelers in the comments.

Looking for a hostel? Search hostels worldwide on Booking.com now.

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About the author

Elizabeth Spencer
Total Articles: 42
Elizabeth Helen Spencer is a personal finance and travel writer based in the Philadelphia area. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and still nurses a secret fiction writing habit on the side. When not writing for work or pleasure, she loves to sweat it out in a hot yoga class and find new books to read. Elizabeth lives with her husband and two children and has reached the conclusion that "having it all" is a myth.