Hostel 101: A Guide for First-Time Travelers

I didn’t always want to stay in a hostel. Before I even packed my bags and booked my first solo trip to Patagonia, I was plagued with anxious thoughts about how strange and dangerous the entire “communal living” situation would be.

Now as a seasoned backpacker who has stayed in numerous hostels domestically and abroad, I can say without a glimmer of doubt that I was initially way more stressed about hosteling than was necessary. I was too nervous to ask questions about what exactly it’s like to stay in a hostel — and during those first few trips, my overall experience suffered.

So, for all you first time hostelers out there, here are some questions that were buzzing through my mind before I ever booked a bunk bed. Hopefully my answers can help calm some of your fears as you prepare for your stay in some of the world’s most exciting budget travel accommodations.


Okay, how awkward is it really going to be?


No lie: The abstract concept of putting a bunch of strangers in a room is really awkward. But in reality, I don’t find hostels to be awkward at all. While there’s no rhyme or pattern to decide which visitors share a room, you’ll already have something in common with your bunkmates: You all, to some degree, enjoy traveling. For me, that’s enough to strike up a conversation or share a meal with someone, and once you’ve got your first hostel buddy, all the others just seem to fall in step.

I’d also like to point out that most hostels also offer private rooms, where you can stay if you want some alone time. I’ve tried that option, but I’ve always found it’s harder to meet people if I’m staying in a private room.

Ocean Drive, Miami
Palm trees and umbrella tables near my hostel on Ocean Drive | Miami, Florida


Can you book upon arrival, or do you have to have a plan?


Both options are fine, depending on the goal of your trip. I’m a planner. As a result, I like to know where I’ll be staying when I arrive in a new city. My biggest fear arriving at a hostel without reservations would be that they were fully booked or were charging crazy high last-minute rates. I’ve got many friends who swear by the “wing it” approach, though. It all comes down to personal preference, but one option is not inherently better than the other.


Are communal rooms actually safe?


Whether walking across your college campus or traveling abroad, nothing is inherently “safe.” Hostels are no different. But while my experience is not representative of everyone’s, I can honestly I have never felt unsafe in a hostel. I have also never had my belongings stolen. With that being said, I do take all the recommended precautions (i.e. lock up all your belongings when you leave your room, don’t share deep, personal information with random strangers, keep your valuables in a safe place, etc.). I’ve seen people leave their wallets and laptops lying around the room unattended, though. And the last time I traveled through Latin America, it seemed like no other traveler put their valuables in a locker besides me. More power to them, but I can’t travel like that.


How do all those people use one bathroom?


Delicately. I’ve stayed in hostels with all kinds of bathroom arrangements. The most common situation I’ve seen in hostels is several rooms sharing one bathroom in the hallway. That, or each dorm room has one private bathroom. Traffic is really only a problem at night and mid-morning, but it’s okay. A little pre-planning can ensure you get to shower and brush your teeth each day. Most times people are very considerate of their hot water usage and bathroom time. However, there are always a few guests who splash water everywhere and spend 40 minutes in front of the mirror. Gentle prodding usually speeds them along, though.


Medellin Elevated
Colombia from above. I stayed in a hostel here, too! | Medellin, Colombia


What should I bring? What will be provided for me?


This varies by hostel. After one too many experiences where I didn’t bring a towel and the hostel didn’t offer one, I’ve started calling or emailing beforehand to ask about amenities. Usually this information is online. If it isn’t, a quick email to the hostel will give you a precise response. As a general guideline, I always bring my own toiletries, a towel, and plastic bags for keeping dirty clothes separate. I also bring an extra blanket or sweater in case I get cold at night. I’ve been to hostels that charge for all of the above. So, when I’m traveling on a budget, I’d rather pack more and be sure to have everything I’ll need.


How do I make friends if I’m there alone?


Easy — go out and talk to people! Whether it’s a pair of friends backpacking through Latin America for the first time or a solo traveler hitting the Gringo Trail, people in hostels are usually always down for a chat. I think it’s a part of the communal nature of hostel living, and a simple “Hey, how’s it going?” can easily secure you a posse of dancing comrades if you’re hoping to check out your new city’s club scene or a friend to grab dinner with at that hole-in-the-wall restaurant you found this morning. I’ve never had issues making friends in a hostel. (That is, aside from my first stay in a hostel when I didn’t talk to anyone.)


One final tip: Like many things in life, hostels are what you make of them. Exercise some precautions, but take some time to enjoy your fellow travelers, too. It’s not every day you’ll be surrounded by so many open-minded, curious individuals, and that’s perhaps one of the most rewarding part of staying in a hostel.

Did I miss anything? Have your own hostel fears? I want to know about it! Toss me a comment below, or feel free to send me an email.

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