All Things Hostels: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best hostels i stayed in Rodamon Hostel in Marrakech, Morocco established in a Riad

As an American, motels, hotels, and AirBnB reign supreme, hostels have been slowly emerging in major tourist destinations, but most Americans stigmatize hostels as being sketchy and dirty.  After living alone for nearly 14 years and planning my travels, I was filled with doubt and hesitations, “Am I too old?”  “Are they safe?”  “Are they clean?”  “Will people go through my stuff?” 

And after all that worry and stress, on my first stay, I made my first travel friends. 

Cities such as Lisbon, Budapest, Ho Chi Minh, and Cape Town have upwards of 20+ hostel offerings.  If you are traveling on a budget or looking to make some friends I want to offer confidence and reassurance that hostels are a wonderful place to do that.

One of the best hostels i stayed in Rodamon Hostel in Marrakech, Morocco established in a Riad
One of my favorites. Rodamon Hostel in Marrakech, Morocco. And as you can see - not so scary.

What Makes A Great Hostel Experience.

I used to think what made a great hostel was the benefits and free perks- bicycles and paddleboards, breakfast, I even was gifted a beautiful set of chopsticks once with my breakfast ramen. 

All these go a long way, but what I have repeatedly found in the best hostel experiences is the vibe, “this is your home, and you are welcome here.” 

When these three are in sync, it makes for an incredible stay.  You don’t have control over who will be sleeping next to you, but you do have some control over the space and your perspective.

Here I am going to break down some basic hostel etiquette for a respectful stay for everyone, resources, my must-have gear, some tips, and my favorite amenities in a hostel.

 

what makes a magical stay in a hostel? 1. the people 2. the mood 3. the environment

COMMON QUESTIONS

Are hostels clean?

Yes, most are very clean.  Some employees wipe down the kitchen, mop the floors, clean the bathrooms, and change the bedding, but it is also the responsibility of the guests to keep the areas that they use clean.  So, yes, for the most part, and I talk more about it under hostel etiquette.

Are hostels safe?

Yes.  It is a legitimate business, and they are very safe.  I have stayed in countless hostels throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S and have never had an issue with theft or threat.  Take normal travel precautions. 

How to book?

Hostelworld.com and booking.com, both are viable options for booking.  Alternatively, contact the hostel directly.

Good questions to ask before you arrive: 

If you arrive in the morning, ask whether you can get an early check-in, luggage storage, the best way to reach them, and in countries where taxis are negotiated- how much it costs to get to the hostel.  

If you plan to arrive late, give them a heads up, so someone can let you into the bed and the paperwork can be handled in the morning. These people are great resources for local information.

How do I keep my belongings safe?

Many hostels offer lockers, my favorites are the ones large enough to fit my entire bag.  Some are digital now with a keypad. They may have smaller ones, for your personal belongings, such as wallet, phone, passport, and laptop.

 
Keep your belongings together.  The best way to know if you are missing anything is to know where everything is and Stay organized. 

Make copies of your passport
and keep them digitally filed in an email or in the cloud. 

Distribute your cash. 

If you are going out for the day, lock up your stuff.  Don’t leave laptops and phones unattended in public spaces or on the bed when you leave for the day.  

Is it normal to ask for ID or Passport?

Yes, totally normal, and safer.  They log the information of the people who are staying, if something does in fact happen, they have the information to take to the authorities.

Do they take a deposit?

Sometimes.  It depends on each individual hostel.  Whether it is for a key or towels, it is not uncommon to ask for a cash deposit, for these replaceable goods.

 

How to Choose the RIGHT Hostel For You

There are party hostels, chill hostels, cheap ones, expensive ones, hostel chains, hostels run by volunteers and you’re never sure who works there, hostels with private rooms, hostels with 20 beds in a room.

So the questions you should ask yourself are what do you want out of it?

Are you jetlagged and need to sleep?  Are you partying and want a bar crawl every night?  Are you working and need a motivating workplace?  Are you wanting to get fit with yoga each morning and surfing each afternoon?  The idea is communal accommodation, a social environment, at an affordable price.  So, with this many options, it is important to FILTER. 

Filter. Location.  Price.  Women’s only.  Men’s only. Mixed.  Number of beds per room.  Private rooms.  Check-in times.  Stored luggage.  Wifi.  Kitchen.  All things to consider when booking.   

Read the reviews and look at the pictures. I cannot emphasize this enough, and on the other hand, I also take these with a grain of salt (remember mood and perspective).

Amenities I love and look out for:  Individual large lockable luggage storage, fully equipped kitchens, drinking water, privacy curtains, bedside lamps, plugs, and cubbies in the bunks, quality bedding, pillows, and towels, fast wifi, hot water, strong water pressure, aircon, fans, or heating depending on the location and season, and good ventilation.

Bonuses:  It fully depends on where I am and being adaptable to the environment.  But these are some of my favorites- kayaks, bicycles, surfboards, hammocks, free breakfast, book exchange.  Communal activities like dinners, six o’clock beers, spring roll lessons, excursions, boat tours, yoga, and movie nights.  

the dream double bed in a hostel in Slovenia

HOSTEL ETIQUITTE

Have you ever had a terrible roommate? 

The one who hoarded dirty plates in their bedroom, let laundry pile up until it emanated a musky, putrid smell.  The one who would miss the toilet and piss on the floor?  Firstly, DON’T BE THAT PERSON.

While moving from place to place you never know if you will end up with THAT person as your next roommate. Emily Post may not have addressed this, but 21st-century travel requires some common decency, respect, and hygiene that can sometimes be overlooked. 

With so many travelers in and out of a communal space, I feel it’s essential to write about hostel etiquette.  How to be considerate to your roomies, to the space itself, to the employees, and to the people who come after you. 

So much of it comes down to basic respect for people’s personal space and belongings. If you are reading this, you probably have more consideration for people than others.  

I have broken it down by areas for being a great travel co-habitator but this could readily apply to a workspace, airplane, gym space, or anywhere that you are not the only one in the universe.

In the Bedroom

You are renting the bed. ONE BED. Don’t expand your suitcase to the next bed over. The bag you just rolled through the filthy streets of Paris should not be laying on someone else’s clean sleeping space.  Same goes for bunks – If you are on the top bunk, don’t step on the bottom bunks bed, Respect others’ beds.

Be respectful of the communal space, a bag left wide open with all its contents laying around takes away shelf space, floor space, closet space, or bathroom space from others.

Plastic vacuum seal bags. QUIT USING THEM. One of the worst is waking up to someone trying to compress a plastic vacuum seal back at 4 a.m. Ditch the plastic!!!! It’s bad for the environment and while your luggage was all nice and compressed when you left, it won’t get that tight again through the rest of your travels, opt for packing cubes. I am a serious believer. They are your personal organization system, they’re compact, you can wash them, and the only noise they make is a quick zip and maybe a huff to get them closed.

A collage of my various packing attenmpts and how they all fit into packing cubes. These Packing cubes are a great way to keep your belongings organized when you are staying in Hostels. and are a great way to move in and out of a place and not always have to live out of your bag when you can put a whole packing cube in a drawer.

Alarm clocks. Catching a train, plane, or taxi early in the morning is part of travel, and setting an alarm is fine. But make sure you respond to it, turn it off, and get up. Don’t put it on snooze every 10 minutes. Don’t have it sound like a bomb siren or U2’s “Beautiful Morning” and have it run for an hour. Be an adult and wake the fuck up.

If you have an early morning carry your belongings outside the dorm room to pack them up. Your early departure should not affect other people’s sleep.

If you have a late night, the same rule applies. People are already in bed, don’t turn on the overhead light. Quietly fumble through your stuff, get your water, and go to bed.

Turn down or off your phone notifications and take your long calls outside the bedroom.  Maybe you want to say goodnight to your partner, or you are figuring out why your credit card isn’t working.  Your whisper is heard as incessant chatter and would be less annoying than speaking clearly and regularly, so people can eavesdrop.

In the Bathroom

Hygiene. Please shower, brush your furry teeth, and leave your stinky shoes to air outside the door.

Everybody poops. Then there is Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, travelers’ diarrhea, funny tummy, any way you phrase it, -shit happens. When it does, make sure to flush it down. Brush the bowl and wipe the seat.

Light a match. Total urban legend. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but after having a movement, I feel much more confident walking out of a bathroom believing the smell of sulfur has completely covered up my smell of poop and left it nice for the next person. If you do this make sure to run the match under the faucet before throwing it in the bin.

Be mindful that older pipes can get clogged and destroyed. If there is a sign for paper in the bin, put paper in the bin.  Tampons, feminine napkins, and condoms. Wrap them up properly with toilet tissue and throw them in the bin. Not next to, not near, they go IN THE BIN.

Replace the toilet paper roll. If there is none, find an employee to replace it. Don’t be the asshole who makes the next person suffer.

Strong smells. Ditch the perfumes and colognes. Some people are averse to strong smells. If you choose to spray, do it outdoors when getting ready to go out, not in a communal space.

Banksy Bathroom during COVID. Rats ruling the bathroom and wrecking havoc.

In the Shower

Keep it short. Water is a valuable commodity in many places. 15 minutes is not a short shower. If there are only a few showers, be mindful that others may want to get clean as well.

If there is limited hot water, be considerate. Get wet, turn the water off, lather up, and rinse.

Collect your hair. If you have long luxurious hair, make sure to keep it out of the drain, off the walls, and generally out of the shower when you leave, this also includes the vanity counter or sink basin.

If the hostel provides soap and shampoo, then use it, but if it’s not yours, hands off.

Going out?  Make space at the sink and mirror for others.

Laundry.  Panties, bras, socks, bathing suits, t-shirts.  They all need more regular washing.  It’s okay to use the shower, bring a sink stopper and use the sink, but wring them out and hang them only over your area, not draped over the empty bed.  Many hostels provide laundry service for a fee, you can ask about this when booking.  Alternatively, you can find a launderette nearby and bring a book or a friend. 

In the Kitchen

If you didn’t buy it, don’t eat it.  It’s not yours.  Simple.  I recently stayed in a hostel near Granada, Spain, and witnessed the “volunteer staff” and guests scavenging the fridge for anything that wasn’t labeled including loose tomatoes, onions, and jars of olives. They could be fresh in the package and if it didn’t get labeled it got taken. This was the worst attack on food I ever saw in a co-living space and ridiculously unjustifiable. Lesson learned- label all your food.  

My restaurant's walk-in fridge with all the produce boxes labeled. When stayign in a hostel or shared space keep your food labelled

If you are leaving food, label it as free. Maybe it’s a liter of milk or a jar of mustard.  If it is marked free it will get used.  If not, considerate people might leave it alone, and then it could stay around for weeks before someone notices that rancid smell.

Consolidate.  If you cook a big pot of pasta and eat half, put the second half into something smaller. First, someone may want to use that pot, and second, it takes up unnecessary and usually needed space (this practice comes from years of working in a professional kitchen).

Fridge space is coveted real estate — be reasonable about what you store in the fridge, if it can be left out, find a shelf or space.

Clean your dishes, the sink, and your prep space.  Do not make others clean up after you. This includes when you are getting ready to sit down and eat. Spend 5 minutes washing your pans before sitting down. If you wash them, someone else can use them. If you leave them on the stove or in the sink that means others have to work around your dirty dishes.. Wash them, rinse them, dry them, and put them away, this includes coffee percolators and presses.  When you are done, clean out the dish drainer.  Others should not have to clean out the sink catcher with your wet scrambled eggs.  

Wash your dishes with dish soap, don’t rinse them only.  Germs people (see the previous reference to Delhi Belly, etc.) Gross! 

When cooking something pungent, put the hood exhaust fan on, open a window, or something to air out the space, especially when bedrooms are near kitchens.

Eat in designated eating spaces. Keep the food out of the bedrooms. Most of us would rather not share our bed with flies, ants, and other critters.

Communal Areas

Smoke in designated spaces

If there is a limited number of outlets, don’t have three devices charging at once when someone else may need a battery boost, be accommodating and remove one of yours.

Crash pads.  Yes, it is common to find someone asleep on a sofa or floor poofs if they arrived before check-in or have a late transport and not paying for a full night’s sleep in a bed.  Usually, I let them lay and work my way around them. 

 

Sex, Drugs, and Other Stuff

Sex

If you bring someone back with you, they are entirely your responsibility.  Be wise and don’t bring sketchy people back with you. 

If you are planning to have sex, book a private room, take it to the shower, or at very least close the privacy curtains. Try not to have an all-night romp and know that everyone in that room will hear what you’re doing. While sex is relatively accepted, masturbation is a big NO NO. Yes, its totally healthy and most people do it, but if urge comes, take it to the private bathroom, someplace you are all alone.  

NO MEANS NO.  If you had an incredible night with someone from your hostel filled with talking, partying, and exploring, and feel there is a connection, if there is no invitation, then drop it and see them in the morning.  Do not offer a massage, do not offer a cuddle, go to your bed. END OF STORY.

Drugs

Drugs are not everyone’s candy. Don’t pressure others, this needs to be their safe space and sanctuary as well.

Never feel obligated to do anything you are not interested in and don’t feel safe doing.  Reading the reviews before booking can give you an idea of the vibe.

Illness

Traveling can be rough on your system. Partying late, change in environment, blasting aircon when it’s a million degrees outside, COVID. If you are sick, get a private room, an AirBnB, or a hotel. The price may affect your budget, but keep others healthy and your germs to yourself.

Bed Bugs

This can happen anywhere- the whole city of Paris had an outbreak.  NOT ONLY HOSTELS.

Take apart your bedding and check your seams and hems, and check for blood or dark spots on your sheets.  Do your due diligence. 

If you start to notice red itchy bumps, IMMEDIATELY tell the manager, ask for your money back, and get out!!!  They will wreak havoc in a hostel. 


You don’t want these nasty little critters that take up residency in your stuff.  


Here is how to identify them, and how to get rid of them.

Also, if you do get them, this doesn’t mean you are dirty.  It can happen to anyone.

a black sketch of a bedbug to know what to look for

Now, PLEASE don’t let these things deter you from staying in a hostel. Yes, I have pulled some very specific examples of problems that have occured in my experience. And yes, any of these can sour a hostel experience.  

However, if more people follow these basic courtesies, it will make better stays for everyone. After years of traveling, I still very much love the environment. So…

When It's Time to Go

Great, you made friends!

Don’t hesitate to get their contact info., their socials, emails, whatever it is to stay in touch. Make the world a smaller place.  You may end up in another part of the world and have an entirely new adventure.

Travel romances are incredibly special, it’s okay to feel all the feelings when you are leaving someplace special. 

Check all the spaces.  Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, are you forgetting anything?

If you booked through a site, do the next traveler a favor and LEAVE A REVIEW.  The good, the bad, the ugly.  If something was wrong, best to tell the management directly, but don’t be afraid to write your honest opinion of a place.  Feedback is a great way for places to make improvements and isn’t that what got you there in the first place? Complete the cycle.

My Go-To Hostel Gear

an aerial view of my go-to hostel gear plus a list of everything. Compression cubes, flexible lock, sleep liner, head torch, ear plugs, headphones, sink stopper, deck of cards, and a turkish towel
  1. Compression bags.  They turn into little drawer systems while you are away. My two favorite brands have been Sea to Summit and Eagle Creek. Durable and solid warranties.

  2. Flexible cable travel lock the small wire makes it possible to fit most closures.

  3. Sleep liner.  It’s lightweight and compact and ensures that you are always sleeping in your own sheets.  It’s ideal for places that are not the cleanest and it can keep you cool in the summer or an extra layer in winter. 

  4. Turkish Towel.  If the privacy curtains aren’t available, there may be a way to hang this up.  It is my preferred towel of choice while traveling. It’s quick drying, can be used a wrap, sturdier than a pashmina, light enough to carry to the beach. They are great. (I’ve tried the microfiber and prefer this better).

  5. Sink stopper.  Small and light and makes handwashing essentials easy-peasy.

  6. Head torch.  Great for reading, finding the toilet, and anytime you need a light without blinding your roomies with overhead lighting.

  7. Ear plugs.  I always carry them, and I rarely use them. I have found a Swedish company called Happy Ears that makes sustainably sourced reusable ear plugs. If you buy these, I would love some feedback about them.

  8. Headphones.  Probably why I don’t use the ear plugs.  If there is a snorer in the room, I will often plug in a meditation or some chill music to help relax.

  9. Playing cards.  Great for entertainment and making friends.

  10. Books. Once read and ready to be traded.   

If hostel travel is still something you are curious about, but still feel hesitant or nervous about, reach out and book a one-on-one travel coaching call.  If this is something you are considering, best to go in with confidence.

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