Hostelling 101 (Part 1): An Introduction to Hostels

Curious about what it’s like to stay in a hostel? Not sure what to expect? Part 1 and 2 of Hostelling 101 give you all the information you need to know about staying in hostels.

I decided to break this up into two parts as there was so much I wanted to share about staying in hostels. These are as follows: 

  • Part 1: An Introduction to Hostels – A clear explanation of what a hostel is, how hostels are different from hotels, who you are likely to meet in a hostel, why you should stay in hostels and how to pick a hostel.
  • Part 2: How to Survive and Enjoy a Hostel Stay – Advice on what to pack for a hostel stay, how to have the right attitude when staying in hostels, pro-tips for staying in hostels and hostel etiquette. I’ve also included a list of my favourite hostels around the world in this post. This post will be published next fortnight so stay tuned.

From 4 bed dorms to 44 bed dorms, I have stayed in TONS of hostels around the world including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Singapore and Malaysia.

I stayed in my first hostel with a good friend of mine while visiting New Zealand back in 2014. We were both very skeptical about the idea but the price difference between hostels and other accommodation was too huge to ignore so we decided to give it a go… Surely it couldn’t be that bad right?!?

While a little uncomfortable at first, we soon warmed up to the experience of sharing a room with strangers. With each time we stayed in a hostel, it seemed to get easier and easier.

In this article I’m going to give you the low-down on hostelling, including what a hostel is, how they operate and how to have the best possible experience while staying in hostel. I also answer a number of burning questions about hostels.

What are hostels?

Hostels are budget-oriented, short-term accommodation where you rent a bed rather than a full room. These rooms, referred to as ‘dorm rooms’ or ‘dormitories’ are shared with others, although there are usually with private rooms available as well. Most hostels provide the option of female or mixed-bed dorms so you have choice in what you prefer.

Part 1 - Dorm
A dorm room at the HI in Jasper, Alberta, Canada.

Hostels generally cater to budget travellers and can range from extremely basic with ‘no frills’ to luxurious with fantastic facilities rivalling decent hotels. Facilities often include common areas to relax, a fully equipped kitchen, washers and dryers, as well as entertainment such as board games, TVs and books.

Most hostels:  

  • Offer communal facilities including common areas and kitchens: These provide a great chance to cook your own meals, relax and connect with fellow travellers.
  • Have shared bathrooms: Some hostels have ensuites in the room, while others have shared bathrooms outside the dorm that you sleep in.
  • Provide bedding: including sheets, a pillow and blanket. Back in the day, it was common to bring your own bedding but that has dramatically changed now due to the bed-bug issue (which is not exclusive to hostels). It is now common for hostels to explicitly note that you cannot use your own bedding.
  • Give plenty of recommendations for what to do in the local area: Hostel staff are generally extremely friendly and willing to give you tons of suggestions of what to do in the area you are staying in. Also, there are often notice boards full of ideas of what you can do. These suggestions usually include free activities, classic tourist attractions and hostel organised events (which can be awesome)!
  • Provide wifi: (which can be extremely helpful when you’re travelling). While the quality of wifi varies from hostel-to-hostel, it’s usually pretty good and is a super handy way to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
Part 1 - Activity suggestions
Suggestions Board at the HI Hawthorne Hostel in Portland. 

What are the differences between hostels & hotels?

  • One has an “s” and the other doesn’t (sorry that’s just my cheeky comment).
  • Unless you’re in a private room, you usually need to take off your sheets and take them to the front desk to check out.
  • It is common to share rooms with strangers – it’s really not as weird as you might think (I actually think this is the best part).
  • There are often full kitchen facilities and common areas in hostels (as mentioned above).
  • Hotels usually have a more mature-aged clientele, whereas hostels typically have a younger crowd (although this isn’t always the case).
  • Hotels are usually more expensive and often have fewer facilities. 
  • Hotels usually attract more of a corporate and professional clientele whereas hostels are usually more homely and attract a diverse range of traveller. 
  • The purpose of a hotel is to give people a bed for the night, whereas the purpose of a hostel is to connect travellers (and give them a place to sleep).
Part 1 - Facilities
Common area at Urban Holiday Lofts in Chicago.

Who am I likely to meet in a hostel?

You are likely to meet a huge variety of people while staying in hostels. These people include:

  • Backpackers
  • Budget travellers (on short or long term trips)
  • Travellers of all ages – from fresh out of high school to mature-age travellers
  • Solo travellers  
  • International travellers exploring the world
  • People needing a temporary place to stay when moving for work, school etc.  
  • School groups – occasionally you will find school groups in bigger hostels who are on excursions

You should note that the people you meet in hostels will vary depending on the hostel location, facilities, price and reputation.

Why stay in a hostel?

Hostels provide the perfect opportunity to meet other like-minded people, socialise and make new friends, learn from other travellers and make travel companions that you can do things with or meet up with again along your travels. I recently met a few Irish guys in my hostel in Dallas who suggested I check out Ireland. I ended up staying in touch with one of them and just spent a few days staying with him and staying in Galway, living like a local (my favourite way to travel).

This is not to mention that staying in hostels gives you a chance to save some serious cash (I’m talking easily cutting the cost of your accommodation by a third). Don’t underestimate the savings of staying in a hostel, it’s not just the price you fork out for a bed, but also the ability to cook your own meals and the fact that hostels generally suggest free or budget activities (which are often better than expensive tours offered by hotels). This means that you are able to spend your money on other things (such as a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon), or even better in my eyes… travel longer!

I love staying in hostels because they provide the chance to connect with other people from around the world. I’ve met people from all-over and love to keep up to date with their travels and catch up again along the way. Some of my most memorable hostel experiences include a walking tour of Chicago, a Harlem Gospel tour in New York and a pub crawl in San Francisco.

The great thing about hostel activities is that you have the choice as to whether or not you want to participate. You have the option to go along, or do your own thing (which may involve chilling out at the hostel if you want a quiet one). These kinds of experiences RARELY happen in hotels as people tend to stay in their individual rooms and do their own thing.

Part 1
A group of people from my dorm in Hollywood exploring Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach together. There were two Canadians, a Norwegian, an Italian and me! 

How to pick a hostel

While you can never be 100% sure when booking a hostel (same as hotels), here are some suggestions to help you choose a good hostel for your travels: 

  • Look on Hostelworld – I use Hostelworld for basically every hostel booking I make. They have a comprehensive list of hostels around the world and provide tons of valuable information on each place listed. They also include reviews from ACTUAL guests and rate hostels based on a range of criteria including location, cleanliness, security and atmosphere.
  • Read reviews – while this can be considered time-consuming, it is extremely important that you read over reviews before you book a place. These provide invaluable information on what hostels are like and what to expect. Don’t be that person that ends up at a dodgy hostel because they booked the cheapest one they could find and didn’t read the reviews.
  • Ask friends and other backpackers – this is probably the most valuable way to get hostel recommendations because you can ask people who have actually been there and know what it’s like.
  • Look at the quality of hostel’s photos – you can tell the difference between photos taken on a phone and a good quality camera. It is also important to check the number of photos of the hostel – if there are limited photos it can be a warning sign that they don’t want to show everything about the place.
  • Look at google maps to see what the area is like. While a hostel might look good on the outside, some can be located in dodgy neighbourhoods. Make sure you look at google maps to see where the hostel is located and what is nearby. For example, I nearly booked a hostel in San Francisco that was right by a very sketchy area. Lucky I checked and read reviews because I was able to find another hostel in a safer area.  
  • If you want a place that is 99% likely to be good quality, check out hostels under the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) brand as these hostels are regulated and must uphold certain standards.
  • Be clear about what you want in a hostel. Do you want a social party hostel, a quiet hostel, somewhere extremely clean or the cheapest option out there? It’s helpful to know that backpackers hostels usually have a younger crowd saying at them. It’s also worth noting that even ‘party oriented’ hostels aren’t necessarily crazy, there is usually always the chance to relax and stay away from the party scene. Participating in social activities is always optional and there’s always places to chill out instead.


So there you have it, part 1 of the 411 on staying in hostels. I hope you found this information valuable and that you are brave and adventurous enough to give staying in hostels a try.

I’ve honestly had some incredible experiences in hostels and met some amazing people who I continue to keep in contact with.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Do you have any questions or ideas to add? Leave a reply below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Thank you very much for reading, I appreciate your support.

If you found this article useful, please share it via the social media channel(s) of your choice.

Thanks again and happy travels.

aLarkin Abroad 

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