A Beginner’s Guide to Hostels

Hostels have a notorious image: it’s cheap, but it’s also dirty and unsafe. You don’t have any privacy and you share space with complete strangers. It’s a breeding ground for disgusting uncouths, backpacking types who have no money to book proper accommodations.

If you nodded in agreement to every single point I’ve raised, now’s the time to hit the exit button. Because this post will not be a ranting session about some hostel, it’s actually a guide for newbie travelers going on their first hostel stay.

These tips are based on my experience, so you’re guaranteed that this isn’t some sponsored post. I won’t be gaining anything here, not even a smidge of discount. This is just me, one traveler to another. I’ve stayed in a lot of hostel properties within Southeast Asia in the past year, and while yes, I’ve stayed in some questionable digs, be assured that I will do my best to lead you far from them.

So. Here are some tips to guide you before you book your first hostel stay:

a beginner's guide to hostels

Explore the reviews section

I can’t imagine arriving in a new destination with no pre-booked accommodation, so I’m glad there are now online booking sites available. I usually book with Agoda, but there are properties that are with Hostelworld or with Booking.

Don’t just look at the ratings – always read the reviews section and compare notes! I’m very particular about cleanliness, so if I see the words “dirty bathroom” or “bed bugs”, I move on to the next candidate.

Mixed vs Female vs Private

There are three types of rooms in a hostel: the mixed dorms, where both males and females can book a bunk; a female dorm, typically with 4-6 bunks for females; and a private room for one to two persons.

pickled tea dorm

Pickled Tea Hostel’s female dorm

Based on my experience, mixed dorms provide less privacy, but more opportunities to make friends. Mixed dorms are also cheaper and well, noisier and messier. This won’t be a problem though if you choose the right hostel and you get bunked with a good crowd.

Female dorms are quieter and sometimes they get an ensuite shared bathroom and even a vanity table. The mood varies depending on the crowd, but most of the time I ended up with a bunch of introverts like me who kept to themselves.

Speaking of introverts… Private rooms will do you good. A private room in a hostel usually means a double bed and a space all to yourself, with access to a shared bathroom. It’s more expensive than a bunk bed but usually cheaper than a standard hotel room.

Check the amenities and freebies

Once you’ve decided on a property and on a room type, check out if the hostel comes with the amenities you need.

This can be something as simple as a roomy locker or a thick blanket, or something a little more luxurious like a functioning air-conditioner or access to hot shower. Some properties include shower gel, shampoo, hair dryer, and a bath towel, while others offer free breakfast like cereal, toast, fruit, even Nutella!

chao phraya amenities

chao phraya amenities

The most generous hostel I’ve stayed at so far is the Chao Phraya Jasaen in Bangkok, where my bunk came with two, fluffy pillows, a thick blanket, a bath towel, a huge locker, an in-room sink, fridge with free bottles of water, DVD player, headphones, super cold airconditioner AND a pajama set.

Assess the interiors

Okay, maybe this is not as important to most people, but I also judge a hostel by its look. I figured if they took the time to design their space, the least they can do is make sure it’s in tiptop shape.

To be honest though, I like going home to a well-designed accommodation. It’s comforting and, dare I say it, I sleep better.

The dining/common area in OneDay

OneDay is a hostel and co-working space perfect for digital nomads, a touch of rustic chic in the bustling city of Bangkok. There’s also Pause Hostel in Chiang Mai, keeping to the hipster, industrial vibe of┬áhanging light fixtures and cement floors. In Yangon, Pickled Tea Hostel is charming and homey with wooden bunks and huge windows.

Pick the bottom bunk

chao phraya dorm

Chao Phraya Jasaen’s dorm

Getting the bottom bunk is easier and more convenient. You might think there’s no privacy and everyone will be peeking on you and your business, but most hostels have privacy curtains. If they don’t have one, here’s a neat trick: hang a towel, a scarf or a sarong on the side to give you some privacy. Works like a charm, promise.

Bring shower slippers and a quick-dry towel

A shared bathroom means the possibility of shared bacteria or germs. Bring a pair of shower slippers to keep your feet away from the grime!

oneday bathroom

OneDay’s shared bathroom

Most hostels are now upping their game by offering a bath towel, but if they don’t, you can usually rent one for a fee. I don’t like paying for that though, so I always pack a lightweight, quick-dry towel as a back-up.

Protect your stuff

I’m very paranoid of leaving my stuff lying around on my bunk bed. I still do it though – clothing items, toiletries, maybe a book or some make-up. But never, ever with expensive or hard to replace items such as my laptop, passport, credit card or cash, and my mobile phone.

In one of the questionable hostels I’ve stayed at, I went as far as bringing my bulky Kipling messenger bag to the shared bathroom, pointing the showerhead away from it as I took a shower. My lock didn’t fit into the padlock facility and while I can use the handy cable to loop in my lock, it just felt too much of a hassle to keep doing it. I also didn’t trust any one of my 15 roommates(!).

oneday locker

OneDay’s set of lockers

The lessons here? Make sure the hostel has good, quality lockers. Be ready and bring two varieties of locks, one with a long and thin handle and another with a short and thick handle. Oh, and this is a good option from Eagle Creek.

Protect yourself

And by this, I mean arm yourself with items that will make your stay easier. Ear plugs, to block the noise out when sleeping; eye mask to keep the light out; decent sleepwear, because, hello, you’re in the company of strangers.

Play nice

I’m probably the last person you should listen to about making friends in a hostel. I always had some sort of excuse any time someone wanted to hang out with me because (1) I don’t bend my plans just for anyone, and (2) I’m really shy around strangers.

While I do end up going on my own merry way, I do my best to chat up my roomies if we happen to be hanging out in the dorm at the same time. My training in PR kicks in and yes, this girl’s still got it. Although, if I’m going to be completely honest, small talk tires me out.

Be considerate

chao phraya front door

Staying with strangers doesn’t mean you have to forget your manners. Don’t hog the shared shower, be quiet during after hours, avoid “borrowing” other people’s things, and please, for the love of all things holy, keep your clothes on.

Any hostel experts reading this? I’d love to hear your experiences!

Background Credit: Katie Craig via DesignLoveFest

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