Hostels are great for solo travelers. And with the cost of everything going up, including the cost of travel, hostels are a better deal than ever.
But, the industry has had a hard go of it due to the pandemic and their comeback is not completely solo traveler-friendly. According to an article in the New York Times, almost 20% of hostels have closed, either temporarily or permanently, since the beginning of the pandemic. Hostels are running at reduced capacity and some are only taking groups.
It's time to update this, our primary post on hostels.
Can hostels be safe for solo travelers? Are hostels still a social experience? Here, I'm digging into it all, including what I love about hostels generally and what you can expect from them in these interesting times.
Should You Stay at a Hostel During the Pandemic?
Hostels are open and eager for your business. But is a hostel a good idea right now?
In a communal environment, there are no guarantees about being safe from COVID. Certainly, we all need to assess our own situation and risk tolerance. Here are things I think worth considering as you do so. To be clear, these suggestions are based on experience with hostels and reading articles. I'm not a scientist.
- Vaccination policies. Some hostels require proof of vaccination. Since vaccinated people transmit the virus less, this is a good first touchpoint in terms of safety.
- Your vaccination status. If you're fully vaccinated, and especially if you've had a booster, you are less likely to get COVID-19 and, should it happen, less likely to become seriously ill from it.
- Precautions taken by the hostel management. Check in detail what they say they are doing to protect guests and then see if you can read current reviews to determine what the actual practice is at the hostel.
- Capacity limits. Fewer people means fewer variables and potential exposure. It also means more spacing between individuals. Hostels operating below capacity are likely safer than those ready to maximize their bookings.
- Private rooms or small dorms. The largest dorm I've slept in had 12 beds. The smallest dorm was 4 beds. I've also stayed in private rooms at hostels, though they can be quite small. For safety, the fewer people per room, the better.
- Pods and privacy curtains. Pods with privacy curtains come in all shapes and sizes. Most are standard bunk beds with a curtain. The ones that you crawl into from the foot of the bed and have solid walls all around are likely the safest.
- The building's age. There may be greater safety in a purpose built hostel with a good ventilation system than one that is a retrofit.
- Season and weather. If good ventilation was not a top concern when the hostel was built, you might want to consider the season, the weather, and whether there are windows that will increase ventilation.
The Hostel Experience for Solo Travelers: Cheap, Cheerful, and Social Accommodation
I started going to hostels when I was fifteen. It was my first trip without family. I fell in love with them then and continue to go to hostels now, despite being, well, a few decades older.
Hostels have personality. They tend to be unique and individual with decor to match. There are hostels in purpose-built buildings and hostels in buildings–hotels castles, chalets–that have been modified to suit. Some are the passion project of an individual and others are part of larger hostel chains.
There are party hostels that are the priority for some solo travelers. But there are also quiet hostels, backcountry hostels, and some for digital nomads.
The thing most hostels have in common is that they are meeting places. They are where travelers connect for an hour in a common room, for a day on a tour, or sometimes longer, as friendships develop and further travel plans follow.
10 Reasons to Stay at a Hostel
The hostel experience is rich despite the low cost. Here are 10 reasons to choose a hostel.
- They're inexpensive. I prefer to spend my money on more travel rather than more luxury. Need I say more?
- Hostels are democratic. Everyone is an equal in a hostel. Whether you're the CEO of a large company or a student, it doesn't matter because no one knows.
- They're friendly and welcoming. I meet travelers from all over the world at hostels. Conversations with them give me an insight into the traveler’s home country as well as a different perspective on the destination I’m visiting.
- Privacy is possible. Dorms have changed. The trend is for hostels to be purpose-built, offering dorms with pods and privacy curtains thereby creating personal space with shelves, reading lamps, lockers, and outlets for charging electronics.
- Hostels can deliver luxury. Sometimes called poshtels, there are hostels that are worthy of impacting the decision of where you'll travel. Just as you might choose a resort based on how special it is rather than the destination, the same goes for very special hostels. Read Budgettraveller.org. Kash, the man behind it, has written Grand Hostels, Luxury Hostels of the World.
- They offer a range of facilities. Hostels have gyms, pools, yoga classes, cooking classes, restaurants, rooftop bars, and more. Every hostel is unique; they don't have all of these features, but they typically have something that makes them very special.
- Travelers share their recommendations. Because everyone is friendly and chats it's easy to learn what people have enjoyed most and least, what was worth the price of admission, what wasn’t, and why.
- They're an excellent source of budget travel information. Because hostels cater to budget travelers they are the best source of budget information on day tours and excursions. They almost always have free maps that are sponsored by budget-friendly local businesses.
- You can find good food at reasonable prices. Sometimes your breakfast is included in the price of the hostel and sometimes it’s extra. Whichever, it’s usually a great value and a good start to your day. Many hostels have full restaurants.
- It's a sustainable travel option. Choosing a hostel is, by its nature, sustainable travel. Hostels tend to support the community and help the locals by supporting small, local suppliers, whether they be farmers or tour guides.
How to Book a Hostel
When booking at a chain hotel, you pretty well know what you'll get. Reading reviews is not that important. When booking an independent hotel or hostel, the reviews are extremely important. This is why the booking process starts with two sites that help you understand what to expect.
How to Find the Right Hostel for You
Not every hostel is listed on Hostelworld, however, it is a good place to start looking for your accommodation. You can book through them, however, given the tough times that hostels have been through, I suggest that you reserve directly with the hostel to save them paying fees to booking sites.
- Use my favorite research sites. I start with Hostelworld as they are the largest hostel booking site. If they don't have a place in my destination, I go to Booking.com as they have more budget accommodation options than any other booking site.
- Watch a virtual tour on Youtube. You can also research hostels, and get a video tour of a hostel, on Youtube. Even better, get a video review of the hostel by someone who has stayed there.
- Search with Google. Sometimes you just can't find what you're looking for on any of the above sites. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. On the Isle of Skye, I wanted a hostel out of the city, in the countryside, near to hiking. I found it all in Flodigarry Hostel with a Google search.
- Check the hostel's location on a map. Both Booking.com and Hostelworld will show you the location of the hostel on a map so that you can get an idea of how close it is to where you want to be. Of course, you can do the same once you have basic hostel information using Google Maps.
- Consider dorm size and gender. I prefer a smaller dorm as it minimizes the coming and going and reduces the variables in terms of personalities. I also prefer an all-women's dorm, but that's just me. Before you book, know what you're getting.
- Check reviews. This can't be emphasized enough. Before booking a hostel, check the reviews. Both Booking.com and Hostelworld have reviews by travelers who are verified as having stayed at the hostel. Know what you're looking for and read them carefully.
- Look it up on Google Street View. See what the surroundings are like on Street View before booking. You don't want to end up in a dodgy part of town. I find this helps me make my final decision.
- Check Rome2Rio. If you are choosing to save money with a hostel outside the city center but the city center is where you'll spend a lot of time, check Rome2Rio to find out how long it will take to get into town and how much it will cost.
- Check the cancellation policy. It gives me peace of mind to know that I can cancel up until a certain date without penalty.
Book Directly and Support the Local Economy
It's not just about finding the unlisted hostel. When you book on a site, the hostel loses money on each reservation as they have to pay a booking fee to the site. Send an email to the hostel or call and book directly. By doing so you'll be supporting the local economy.
Top Hostel Chains to Book
A 12-minute walk to Oxford Street. Ten minutes to Marylebone High Street. Just 45 minutes by foot through the heart of London to Buckingham Palace. Yes, including “central” in the name of the YHA London Central hostel makes sense.
YHA London Central is, of course, part of the Youth Hostels Association, a charity begun in 1930 with a mission “to inspire all, especially young people, to broaden their horizons gaining knowledge and independence through new experiences of adventure and discovery.” It is probably thanks in part to YHA that there is a notion that hostels are for the young. However, they have certainly adapted over the years and I can confirm that they are for the young at heart.
There are now a number of hostel chains that provide a reliable experience for you to consider.
- YHA UK, YHA Australia, YHA New Zealand, YHA India
- Hosteling International – HI – North America
- Wambats – Europe
- Hostels Hub – Portugal
- Selena Hostels – Worldwide
- Jo & Joe – Europe
- Jugendherberge Youth Hostel Association – Germany
If you want your own room rather than a dorm you can get one if you book early enough. However, for me, dorms are fine.
An 8-bed Dorm and a 4-bed Dorm Experience
At YHA Central London I spent my first two nights in an 8-bed dorm and the remaining five nights in a 4-bed dorm. Before going, I wondered how this would work out given that many of those days I would have to be up and out early to attend the World Travel Market. The trip was a combination of business and pleasure.
Let’s start with the 8-bed dorm. I was there on the Friday and Saturday nights over Halloween weekend. These are party days so I was a little apprehensive. The 8-bed dorms have a sink, a mirror over the sink, and also a full-length mirror. In this case, the toilet and the shower were separate rooms just outside the dorm room.
- The 8-bed dorm experience:
- I found everyone to be friendly, polite, and courteous. There was me in my 50s, another woman I’d guess to be in her 40s, a mother-daughter pair, and four others in their twenties.
- I chatted with a few of the women but especially one from Hong Kong who had been staying at the hostel for a month while looking for work and a place to live (she was moving out that day) and another from Poland who was at the beginning of the same process. It was fascinating to learn about the challenges of London. Meeting people is one of the reasons I really love hostels.
- Even though it was a weekend and Halloween, everyone was back in the room by about 12:30 am. It was difficult to sleep with someone returning home every 15 minutes or so but I could count how many were in and knew that it was coming to an end soon. As I say, everyone was very considerate of others in the room.
- The cost: approximately US$27 per night, though it varies according to the day.
The 4-bed dorm has the same basic amenities in terms of the bunk, sheets, outlets, etc. but has a bathroom for the room. With fewer people, there was less coming and going.
- The 4-bed dorm experience:
- On this occasion, I shared the room with three women from Mexico who were traveling together. They were in their twenties and very sweet.
- They seemed to realize that I had to be up and out early in the morning so they often showered at night or let me get ready in the morning before they got up.
- The cost: approximately US$49 per night.
The 8-bed dorm was fine while I was simply touring but during the work week, I was glad to be in the 4-bed dorm.
If you’re going to London, read Solo Travel London on a Budget: Top Tips for Free and Cheap.
Etiquette Tips for Dorms
Sleeping in a dorm requires a bit of patience and a lot of consideration. It’s important to treat people as you’d like to be treated. Here are some of the basic rules of etiquette for hostels.
- Don’t spread out. Keep your gear in your suitcase, backpack, or locker. With a number of people in the room, there’s no place to spread out anyway.
- Keep things clean and tidy. Whether it’s the bathroom or the dorm room itself, don’t leave paper, wrappers, food, or other garbage around.
- Stay quiet in the dorm. Typically, the dorm is a quiet place, even during the day. Yes, people chat but they do so quietly, respecting those who may be in their bunk reading.
- Eat in the common room. If you’ve brought in food for dinner, eat in the dining room or common room rather than where you and your roommates will be sleeping.
- Early morning? If you know you’ll be leaving early in the morning, get everything set the night before to minimize the amount of rummaging you have to do to get ready. Be quiet so that others may continue to sleep. Don’t turn the light on. Hopefully, there will be enough light from the window to get by or you can turn on the light in the bathroom and leave the door open a crack to get just as much light as you need and no more.
- Late nights? Again, be very quiet. Don’t turn the overhead light on. Use what you need and no more. Let people sleep.
Packing for Hostels
There’s not a lot that you’ll need beyond your regular packing list but I do suggest that you bring:
- Toiletries, including soap, shampoo, and conditioner.
- A padlock.
- Flip flops for the shower.
- Ear plugs if you're a light sleeper.
I hope this helps you understand what it’s like to stay in a hostel and encourages you to give it a try.