The Ultimate Guide to Staying at a Hostel

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Yesterday one of my good friends asked me a few questions about hostels in prep for a trip to New England and today, she came back with a few more… and it dawned on me- even domestic (read: in the US) staying at a hostel is still pretty foreign to most people.

Well, I’m here to help!

I’ve stayed in hostels since I was 16 and travelled all around the world so I have a really good understanding on what makes hostels tick, what to do, what NOT to do and where to go.

But first I want to explain how freakin’ awesome and amazing hostels are so you understand why you should consider staying in one.

Staying at a Hostel in Los Angeles
Freeland Los Angeles – a top hostel in the USA. Image courtesy of HostelWorld.

Top reasons to stay at a hostel

Price. Hostels are cheap (obviously).

Some even dirt cheap (and some not so cheap but we can get into that later.) Traveling solo or even with a friend, you would be hard pressed to find any accommodation as low in cost with as many amenities as your typical hostel. Which brings us to…

Fun! Hostels are fun, seriously seriously fun.

Those ‘amenities’ mentioned in 1. can be anything from a rocking bar inside the hostel to pool tables, grills, a full kitchen, swimming pools, community guitars- you name it, I’ve probably found it for free (or cheap) to use in a hostel.

Location.

Hostels cram a bunch of people single room with bunk beds (you can pay more for a private room but why would you?) which means they bring in some cash during busy seasons which really means they can afford the high rents in busy, “travel destination” locations.

  • This a. ROCKS because you are in the middle of some awesome city
  • and b. means the hostel is usually somehow or another accessible by public transit which is always great too.

The Staff and other Backpackers.

80% of traveling is the people you meet and same goes for staying in hostels. From the young, vagabond staff to other travelers staying in the hostel, everyone is there to have a good time. Most hostels have activities set up from city tours, pub crawls, themed dinner nights and even open mic nights to bring everyone together but even without all of that fun activity stuff, staying in a hostel is an amazing social experience that you just don’t get at your local Motel.

There are hostels all over the US so even if you just want to plan a rowdy weekend getaway by yourself or with a few friends, there is probably a rockin-good-time (and sometimes totally-chilled-out) hostel much closer to you than you think.

If you wanna check out hostels in your area, I recommend hostelworld.com because of their rating system (you can get a better idea of what to expect before you go.) I can play around on that website for hours, looking at prices and rating of where I want to go and what activities the hostels have planned. It’s rad. Go ahead and check it out. Really. I’ll wait…

Welcome back! I’m assuming now you are super stoked to finally plan that crazy weekend trip with your best girlfriend so I’ll give you a few tips on what to do when you get there.

HI San Francisco - City Centre
HI San Francisco – City Centre – a top hostel in the USA. Image courtesy of HostelWorld.

Tips for staying in hostels

Get a travel backpack

Backpackers usually stay in hostels and backpackers are called ‘backpackers’ because they (usually) carry a backpack… not a suitcase. Hostels are notoriously NOT roller suitcase friendly. There are typically stairs (if you are physically disabled there are certainly options here though) and tight quarters.

If all you have as a big ass roller suitcase than by all means, take that but if you have carry options of a duffle bag and a backpack instead, I would recommend that simply for easier mobility.

We highly recommend any of the Osprey Farpoint backpacks. They offer various sizes for both men and women.

You need to lock your shit up.

No, hostels are not the hangout places for shady characters and thieves like some people have made them out to be but here’s the deal- just like you would lock your car even if you live in a safe neighborhood, you should lock up your stuff, even if you’re in a safe hostel.

There are a few ways to do this. Most hostels will assign you a locker with your bunk bed that you can put your stuff into and most of the time it is in the same room as the beds. It’s super convenient but you NEED TO BRING YOUR OWN LOCK. Let me repeat that, for 98% of any hostels that you stay in you will NEED TO BRING YOUR OWN LOCK. A little combination lock from Amazon is really all you need. I personally use a little Burton snowboard lock that stretches so I can lock it around my pack on trains or buses but totally anything will do.

Hostel Kitchen Etiquette.

An awesomely amazing thing about most hostels is access to a full kitchen. Not only is it a really fun way to meet people (in the AM cooking breakfast, at night making beer munchies) but it is also super super super convenient (can you say, beer fridge?!)

Check out what’s stocked in the kitchen before you go shopping so you know better what to buy. A lot of time, people will stay at the hostel and leave whatever extra food they bought behind which usually becomes a communal food supply. Anything from bread to condiments to boxed meals- you can totally score big in the hostel kitchen. Most stuff will be labeled or marked and obviously, don’t take anything that’s not yours but it’s safe to say the huge ass container of generic brand peanut butter that’s not specifically labeled “STAFF” is fair game.

Always clean up after yourself (cleaning supplies provided) and label your stuff with a Sharpee or Post It… and I always write “COMMUNAL” or “Up for grabs” on the stuff that I leave behind.

Kitchen at the Firehouse Hostel, Austin
Kitchen at the Firehouse Hostel, Austin – a top hostel in the USA. Image courtesy of HostelWorld.

Lock Outs and “Work to Stay”.

Some hostels have something called a LOCK OUT which is anytime during the day that the staff basically kicks out everyone in the hostel for a few hours to clean and prep or whatever. Lock Outs are usually boldly stated on whatever you sign to check in and I have to say, they are not common in US hostels and seem to be fading in Europe as well. Some people get all bent out of shape about Lock Outs but I figure as long as it’s not before 10am, who cares? A little forced sightseeing never hurt anyone (and that’s kind of why you’re traveling, right?)

“Work to Stay” is a really cool thing about hostels too. Work to Stay means just that if you are planning on staying in a place for a week or more, sometimes you can talk to the staff there and set it up that you work a few shifts in return for free room and board. Super super money saver and it gives you a whole new perspective on where ever you’re traveling through as well. Admittedly, that is more of an “experienced” hostellers’ thing but still rad.

The Layout and What to Bring when staying at a hostel (that’s different from a hotel)

Hostels come in all different shapes and sizes (isn’t that cute?) and I love them all.

Your average hostel is pretty predicable though so let me walk you through one…

Most hostels have a courtyard or outdoor space set up with some sort of chairs and tables and a grill. The courtyard is where everyone meets up and chills at night either before they hit the bars or if money is tight, they just hang out there all night. If you want a quieter hostel experience, request a dorm room away from the outdoor area.

Lobby/ Front Desk.

Hostel lobbies and front desks are super laid back so don’t expect a door man or even any help with your luggage. The staff is usually some 20-something who came to visit from some foreign place and never went back and almost always they are super nice and helpful.

Dorm Rooms.

Down the hall from the ‘lobby‘ (if you can call it that) will most likely be the dorm rooms. The rooms vary as much as the hostels themselves with 2 to 12 bunk beds, single sex, shared (which means both guys and girls) and even private if you want to pay more (again, why?) You walk into your little assigned room and throw some clothes on a open, clean bed, sometimes tape the little paper they gave you on the bedpost and BAM- you’ve claimed your bed (if the bed number wasn’t already assigned, those are the really organized hostels though.)

Bathrooms.

Think college dormitory bathrooms. Shower stalls that you walk your little shower bag or caddy to, stalled toilets and usually outlets by the sinks to shave and blow dry your hair. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of most hostel bathrooms. Some people wear flip flops in the shower, some don’t. Some people walk from their dorm room to the bathroom in just their towel, some change in the actual bathroom. Whatevs.

Community Rooms and Kitchen.

Aside from the outdoor area, front desk, dorms and bathrooms, the communal rooms are a toss up. A hostel in Hollywood has an upstairs bar with lounge couches, a big screen TV and fooseball table. A hostel in Amsterdam has a pool table, bar and “smoking room” complete with a communal bong and beanbag chairs. Some hostels have night clubs, some have computer rooms, usually you can get an idea of what the hostel has from their website but if not, it’s just going to have to be a fun surprise!

Staying at a hostel in New York
The Local NYC- a top hostel in the USA. Image courtesy of HostelWorld.

What to Bring.

When you pack, pack kind of like you are crashing at a friend’s house. Bring your own toiletries and towel but almost always the hostel provides bedding (it will be boldly stated if not the case.) Bring a lock and your sparkling attitude and you’re set!

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences I had whilst traveling. You’re in a certain place and a fellow traveler, or a local, tip you off on a little-known beach, bar or accommodation. Great travel tips from other travelers or locals always add something special to our travels.

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The Ultimate Guide to Staying at a Hostel