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How to Handle Your First Stay in a Hostel

Hostels are great, but it may be overwhelming your first few nights. Check out this guide to learn how to handle your first time in a hostel.

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You never forget your first hostel stay! Once relegated to backpackers and students traveling on a shoestring through Europe, hostels have come a long way in recent decades. They can be found in all corners of the globe and can provide a whole heap of benefits for budget travelers.

Not only do hostels make budget travel possible in many parts of the world, but they are also a wonderful way to meet new people and share more cultural experiences. Hostel staff can help you figure out the best plan of attack for sightseeing, find hidden gems throughout a destination, and organize activities like day trips and free walking tours. Depending on the type of accommodation it is, they may also host different social events that are designed to help people mingle.

Disclaimer: I am a full-time traveler and have been traveling the world for decades. I have stayed in hostels on six different continents. I truly have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, I still love staying in them and all of the benefits that they provide. I may have a touch of rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia when it comes to hostels; however, I firmly believe if you pick the right one and go into the experience with an open mind, you’ll love it!

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How to Survive (and Thrive) During Your First Hostel Stay

When many people think of hostels, they shudder. The loud parties, squeaky bunk beds, dirty kitchens, and the dreaded communal showers have developed almost a legendary status. You’ll often hear horror stories about how bad hostel life is. 

However, in reality, you can avoid some of the biggest problems associated with staying in hostels (noise, cleanliness, loneliness, etc.) pretty easily! If you’re one of the people who has hesitated about staying in a hostel in the past, I promise you that staying in a hostel is probably not what you think. With a little planning, you’re significantly more likely to have a good experience than a bad one.

Below you’ll find a step-by-step guide to handling your first stay in a hostel. This can be used to help you one step at a time. Otherwise, feel free to jump ahead for some great travel trips based on years and years of travel experience. 

Step 1: Choose the right hostel.

One of the most important aspects of having a great hostel experience is picking the right hostel. I can’t stress this enough! Like hotels and other forms of accommodation, hostels come in all shapes and sizes. There are massive party hostels (most commonly found in Europe, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and Australia) where you have dozens of beds in one shared dorm. Then you have trendy hostels with every amenity you can think of such as swimming pools, sunroofs, fancy kitchens, office space, in-house bars, etc. Then, of course, the run-of-the-mill, nondescript properties that provide a bed to sleep in and a bathroom to use and not much else. 

The different types of hostel that you choose throughout your trip can make or break your trip. If you’re looking to find some friends to have a wild night out on the town, book a party hostel. If you prefer to have a quiet place to lay your head and meet like-minded solo travelers or other long-term travelers, book a small hostel that has only a handful of rooms. It’s pretty easy to tell what type of hostel a place is simply by reading the or Hostelworld guest reviews and looking closely at the photos. 

Party hostels usually tend to be some of the lowest-priced hostels you can find, especially in big European cities. If this is something that you want to avoid, I suggest skipping through the cheapest hostels and trying to book some of the more mid-range ones or even opting for the more expensive ones. They usually only end up being a couple of dollars more a night, but it’s worth every penny to get a better night’s sleep.

There are also a few hostels scattered around the world that offer a hybrid of these different hostel types such as the hostel chain Selena and a few other co-living type groups. These are some of the best hostels you can find as they give you the best of both worlds. You get the social aspect of some of the party hostels combined with the more upscale amenities of the smaller, trendier places. They tend to be pretty popular with digital nomads, and there’s usually a pretty high price tag so always keep an eye out for those when you’re booking hostels if this is something that sounds good to you.

Step 2: Be prepared.

There’s a saying that you should always expect the best and prepare for the worst. This couldn’t be more true for hostels. I always carry a few things in my long-term travel survival kit that have saved the day on more than one occasion.

One of the biggest lifesavers you can bring with you is a set of earplugs. Lightweight and tiny, these little things can be shoved anywhere in your backpack without taking up virtually any space. However, they can make a world of difference when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. In fact, I actually just used some on a recent trip to the Galapagos to muddle the sounds of overzealous roosters that took their jobs way too seriously. 

I highly recommend getting earplugs that are connected by a string like the ones construction workers use. This makes it much harder to lose one in the middle of the night or somewhere hidden deep within your backpack. 

Eyemasks are another valuable asset to always have with you. This can help you get a good night’s sleep even if you have roommates that turn on and off the light so much that your room resembles a discotech. Although the cheap ones you get on planes can help in a pinch, this is one area where you want to invest in something a bit better quality. Make sure that they cover your eyes completely without any gaps and are thick enough fabric that they don’t allow light to shine through.

You should also bring a towel and toiletries with you as many hostels don’t provide this. Quick-dry camping towels are usually the best option as they take up very little space and dry quickly. You can pick up travel-sized toiletries at stores like Wal-Mart and Target. 

If you prefer a particular brand, you can also buy empty containers and refill them with your own toiletries before you go. 

Rather than choosing a particular toiletries brand, I tend to focus on buying pre-filled bottles that have wide mouths that are easy to refill. This way, you can stock up whenever there is free shampoo or body wash offered by a hostel, or if you stay with friends who don’t mind sharing some with you before you go. 

The last thing you definitely want to bring is a pair of flip-flops. Remember that the bathrooms for hostel rooms are usually shared bathrooms and that people overall are pretty gross. Having a pair of flip-flops with you means that you don’t have to put your bare feet on the grubby floor or put your shoes on whenever you have to go to the bathroom. Cheap rubber flip-flops take up very little space and can be used for bathroom runs, beach trips, and for lounging around. 

You can usually get all of these things at your local travel or camping shop or in the worst case, you can order them from Amazon. If you’re scared that you’ll forget something, add them to your packing list right away. Go back and check this list a few times before you leave to make sure that you have everything you need. 

Step 3: Pack and repack your belongings.

This is also a very good time to re-evaluate how much stuff you’re bringing with you. While Instagram has created a whole flock of travel influencers who seem to have a stylish new outfit in every photo, in reality, this simply isn’t practical.

Many hostels have very limited space for luggage in both their private rooms and their dorm rooms. This makes it hard to fit a large suitcase anywhere, and the space you take up means that other people may not have a place to put their bag. There’s a high chance that it will end up being in your’s, or your roommates’, way. 

Try to pack as little as possible. This makes it much easier to not only stay in a hostel but also to get from Point A to Point B. Trust me, no one wants to be dragging a heavy bag all around cobblestone streets or up numerous flights of stairs. If this means unpacking that oh-so-cute beach cover-up and floppy hat or that massive pair of stilettos, so be it. Your body and your endurance will thank you for it in the long run. Besides, the less you have, the less you can lose.

Step 4: Get settled in.

Today is the big day! you’re finally going to have your first night in a hostel! The first thing you should do after you check into your room is lock your valuables in one of the lockers provided. Most hostels will provide a locker that you can use with your own padlock, but if not, try and hide your valuables as much as possible. As a general rule, I carry as little money with me as possible while traveling, particularly when I am staying in hostels.

If you’re traveling with a lot of expensive electronics such as laptops, cameras, drones, etc, you may want to consider only booking private rooms. They are usually considerably more expensive than a dorm bed, but they work out cheaper than having to buy everything again while out on the road. 

If you arrive at the hostel late at night, make sure to have your toothbrush, contact case, and pajamas ready so that you simply need to pop into the bathroom to get changed and brush your teeth. Try to refrain from turning on the light or disturbing other travelers as much as possible. Everyone there deserves a good night’s sleep just as much as you do. 

Step 4: Hang out in the common areas. 

Now that you’re all settled in and feel comfortable in your room, it’s time to venture out into the common room or hostel kitchen! This is a great place to meet people, share itineraries, and get some travel tips. This is an invaluable resource when you’re just starting out on your trip. Plus, it’s an excellent way to meet new travel buddies. 

Rather than sitting around using the free wifi, get out there and talk to people. I know this can be very intimidating, but always keep in mind that there are plenty of other people there who feel the same way that you do. You can also feel pretty secure that even if you’re scared that people will think you’re weird, there is always going to be someone weirder than you in a hostel. Be respectful of other people in terms of noise and cleanliness, and you should be good to go.

If you aren’t sure how to break the ice or keep the conversation flowing, why not ask someone if they would be interested in trying one of the activities in the Adventures from Scratch: Friends Edition? This book has been expertly designed to promote engagement and bonding with more than 50 fun-filled challenges. You just need to pick a challenge, scratch it off, and follow the instructions to a good time. In the end, you can keep the book as a reminder of all the great friends that you made and the fun times that you had!

Step 5: Don’t be THAT person.

In almost every hostel, there is THAT one person that drives everyone else nuts. You know the type. It’s the girl blow-drying her hair in the middle of the night in the dorm room with the lights on, the guy that seems to have an endless supply of plastic bags that he wants to crinkle and uncrinkle at 4:00 a.m., and the couple that decides that a shared dorm room is the perfect place for a very loud, very amorous, late-night rendezvous. 

These people can have a horrible impact on the experience of other people. Never be that person. If you need to get up and leave in the middle of the night for an early morning flight, make sure to have everything packed and ready the night before. If you’re a night owl, take advantage of the common room late at night rather than watching Netflix in the room. Even with headphones on, the light of the screen can still be disturbing for other guests. 

By default, hostels are places where people need to follow rules or some type of decorum so that everyone can have an enjoyable time. If you aren’t able or willing to do this for any reason, it’s always better to stay in an Airbnb where you can follow your own schedule and play by your own rules.

Step 6: Stay safe.

After a few pub crawls in Amsterdam and late-night social gatherings in Guatemala, it’s really easy to get a bit carried away with your new friends and begin letting your guard down. While most travelers are good people, there are still a few bad apples, and you should do what you can to stay safe. 

For example, I once had a guy climb into bed with me after a night of heavy drinking. I immediately kicked him out, and he was not happy about it. Another time, I had a guy start shouting and acting erratic in the middle of the night. These were isolated incidents and are a tiny percentage of my overall hostel experience, but it’s always good to keep your guard up. 

If you’re staying in a private room, lock your door. If you’re in a shared room, keep an eye on your fellow guests. If there’s anyone that seems intoxicated or weird in any way, it’s a good idea to ask the hostel staff to change you to another room. A lot of female travelers stay in mixed dorms with no problems. 

However, if you’re staying in a hostel for the first time and you’re worried about this, make sure to choose a female-only dorm room. There may be a small extra cost for this, but it’s usually well worth the money (and women tend to snore less so that is a huge added benefit.)

Another thing is to make sure your valuables stay hidden throughout your stay. This should be common sense. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to steal something by leaving it out on your bed or in plain sight in hostel dorms. And remember that it’s not only fellow backpackers you need to worry about. You also need to worry about the hostel staff. Even if you’re the only person in your room, make sure to hide anything that you don’t want to disappear. Follow the same safety standards that you would at home and everything should be fine.

Ready to roam?

We hope this survival guide to handling your first stay in a hostel has provided you with enough travel tips and strategies for any challenge that hostel life throws your way! Who knows, maybe your fellow travelers can even learn a thing or two from you! As always, we would love to hear your feedback, and please let us know if there are any good tips or tricks we may have missed!

If you want to read more great travel articles, destination guides, and must-see lists written by our very own team of in-house travel experts, head over to the Let’s Roam Explorer blog. Otherwise, head over to the Let’s Roam app to access all of our great app-based scavenger hunts. You’ll find tons of great user-generated travel tips submitted by people just like you!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do people stay in hostels?

People stay in hostels for a variety of reasons. They could be traveling on a budget, hoping to meet new friends, or simply enjoying having other people around throughout the day.

What are the disadvantages of staying in a hostel?

One of the biggest disadvantages of staying in a hostel is that you sacrifice privacy for price. Hostels are more likely to be loud, and you may be more likely to have things stolen at a hostel compared to a hotel.

What are the advantages of staying in a hostel?

Some of the biggest advantages to staying in a hostel are the ability to save money while traveling, make new friends while on the road, and find out insider information about a location from the staff.

What exactly is a hostel?

There are many different types of hostels. Most hostels will offer shared dorm rooms and common facilities like bathrooms and kitchens. They may also have private rooms as well.

What is the best kind of hostel to stay in for a first-timer?

If it’s your first time staying in a hostel, try to pick a small to medium-sized one since it’s often easier to meet people. The bigger ones can be a little overwhelming if you’re not used to them.

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