I recently stayed at a hotel called Rooms.
Online it was called the McCracken Inn but when I drove up to it I was horrified to find that the inn’s name was nowhere to be found. There was just a huge banner hanging over the door that said “Rooms”!
This is not the sign of a quality hotel.
I arrived around 8:30 pm as the only train across Northern British Columbia gets in late. I paused, thought it through, remembered that the reviews had been fine, and decided to go in and check it out. It was clean and much nicer inside than out, so I stayed. But I must say, I was anxious the whole night. Who sleeps in such a place? The term “fleabag hotel” came to mind. I had to shut those thoughts down. I endured the night and got up early in the morning to go.
The experience reminded me that, given the choice between a cheap hotel and a hostel, I’d go for a hostel every time.
Here’s my attempt to convince you that hostels are a great choice, and in many cases the preferred choice, for solo travelers. You can get more information on budget and backpacking travel for people in their 20s and 30s here.
Why I Love Hostels
I started going to hostels when I was 15 on my first trip without family. I fell in love with them then and continue to go to hostels now. They are:
- Inexpensive. I prefer to spend my money on more travel rather than more luxury.
- Friendly. I meet travelers from all over the world at hostels. Conversations with them give me an insight into the traveler’s country as well as a different perspective on the country I’m visiting.
- A source of recommendations. Because everyone is friendly and chats you can find out what people enjoyed most and least, what was worth the price of admission, what wasn’t, and why.
- A great source of budget travel information. Because hostels cater to budget travelers they are the best source of budget information on day tours and excursions.
- Good breakfasts. Sometimes your breakfast is included in the price of the hostel and sometimes it’s extra. Whichever, it’s usually a great value.
How to Book a Hostel
A few points to help you book the perfect hostel.
- My favorite booking sites. I start with booking.com as they have more budget accommodation options than any other booking site. After that, I’d check Hostelworld. If you still aren’t finding what you’re looking for, google your destination and hostel. The hostel I found on the Isle of Skye wasn’t on either of those sites.
- Check the 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.
- Check reviews. As you would with hotels, 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.
- Look it up on Google Street View. See what the surroundings are like on Street View before booking. I find this has helped me make my final decision.
- Check Rome2Rio. If you are choosing to save money with a hostel out of a city center, for example outside of Paris and you want to visit Paris, check Rome2Rio to find out how long it will take to get to the city center and how much it will cost.
The downside of hostels can be the dorm experience. You’re never sure who you will bunk with. So far, I’ve been fortunate. It has not been a problem for me.
The Urban Hostel Experience – London, England
A 12-minute walk to Oxford Street.
10 minutes to Marylebone High Street.
Just 45 minutes by foot through the heart of London to get to Buckingham Palace.
Yes, including “central” in the name of the hostel YHA London Central 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.
My first stay at a YHA hostel, as I mentioned above, was when I was 15. That stay and many others since have led me to have a particular fondness for them. They have a unique personality as do most hostel networks. YHA hostels are:
- Calm. They are not party hostels.
- Safe. You need to use your room card to enter the hostel building at night and to access your dorm and dorm floor at all times.
- Affordable. They usually include kitchen and laundry facilities in addition to a low-cost cafeteria.
- Diverse. YHA hostels tend to attract adults of all ages, including seniors and families.
- Well serviced. Each bunk has a duvet, pillow, and sheets. At each bunk, there is a reading light and an outlet for charging your phone, etc. There is also a locker for each resident. It holds a standard-size suitcase (one up from a carry-on)
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.
At YHA Central London I spent my first two nights in an 8-bed dorm and the remaining five nights I was 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. I want to share the experience with you.
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 in the hostel for a month while looking for work and a place to stay (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, though it varies according to the day.
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 Affordable London! 32 free and low-cost tips
The Back Country, Small Town Hostel Experience – Banff, Canada
Much of what is described above for urban hostels is similar for hostels in more adventurous territory.
My next accommodation after the hotel that will forever be known as “Rooms” was the YWCA Hotel in Banff, Alberta. It has single rooms with ensuites, single rooms with bathrooms down the hall, and dorms. I stayed in a 6-bed dorm.
The hostel portion of the YWCA is not as well serviced as the purpose-built YHC Central London. However, it does offer a typical level of quality that you’ll experience at many HI (Hosteling International) and independent hostels. Here’s a feel for what you’ll experience.
- Linen. At the YHA hostel, your bed is made for you. More typically, you are given your linen when you check in to a hostel. Yes, you make your own bed. You also bring your linen to the front desk and deposit it in a hamper when you check out.
- Key deposit. You pay a key deposit of $15, which you’ll get back when you return the key. Only the six people in your dorm have access to your room.
- Locker. You have a drawer beneath your bed that you can lock with a padlock if you brought one. It is not large enough to store your whole suitcase in.
- Charging your technology. There are electrical outlets in the room, however, the hostel was not purpose built so, like many hostels, you have to share the outlets to charge your technology.
- Location. The dorms are in the basement. This is not always the case with HI and independent hostels but I’ve experienced it before.
What struck me on this stay in Banff as well as in hostels on the Isle of Skye and in Chile for that matter, was how early all the women in the dorm were going to sleep. This was for two reasons. Either the women were living at the hostel while working in tourism, which is at its height in August and requires an early rise, or they had spent the day hiking and were exhausted. So, I was in an “early lights out” dorm.
Sleeping in a dorm at a hostel 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 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.