Some travelers swear by waiting until they arrive in a destination to choose a place to stay. They say they get better deals and enjoy the freedom to shop around. Personally, I’m not hardcore enough for it. I often travel during peak season and prefer the security and convenience of booking a hostel in advance, even if that means paying a few extra dollars to afford a place that keeps an advertising budget. Like any traveler who books on the fly, I’ve stayed in good hostels and bad. Over the course of my year-long solo RTW trip, I learned how to make the most of Hostelworld and book the right place for my stay. When you’re traveling on a budget, choosing a hostel is all about priorities. Read on to learn about five ways you might go about the hostel selection process.
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Many a budget traveler falls into the trap of booking based on price. Nobody wants to pay more than they have to for a simple place to rest their head. Better to save that money for fun experiences in your destination, right? But once you’ve booked the cheapest available hostel once or twice, you’ll find that you definitely get what you pay for. The atomic bunker I stayed in when I passed through Zagreb offered rock bottom prices at just 10 euro a night. On arrival, I realized that there would obviously be no phone or WiFi access underground and the hostel didn’t provide sheets or a pillow. More than any amenity, I was mostly unimpressed with the staff’s unhospitable manner. Looking a bit more carefully at the Hostelworld listing and comparing it to others would have landed me somewhere much friendlier, where I could get more bang for my buck.
In addition to your budget, you should consider what you get for your nightly room price. Personally, the two amenities I don’t book without are free WiFi and provided linens. Other amenities that might be important to you are free breakfast, access to storage lockers, or a provided towel. You may want a hostel with a well-appointed kitchen, en suite bathrooms, or a laundry service. Sometimes hostels offer really unique perks to its guests like free use of kayaks. While it won’t be listed in the amenities section, you should also keep an eye out for how large the dorms are. Small dorms with no more than 8 beds are my personal preference. I especially like to stay in places that give each bed its own reading light and electrical outlet, so I keep an eye out for those keywords in hostel descriptions and reviews. I also frequently prefer to stay in female-only dorms and look for that info before booking. Take some time to think about your wants and needs for your stay. Know what’s negotiable and what isn’t before you hit the search button.
No matter what else drives your decision, don’t ever book a hostel without knowing exactly where it’s located. In Dubrovnik, I got fooled by a clever name. When I arrived in the city – just before sunset, of course – I found out that “Hostel Center Dubrovnik” wasn’t located in the city center at all. It wasn’t even in the city! Instead, I wound up shelling out $15 on a taxi to the suburb Komolac, and taking the bus whenever I wanted to do anything in town. In spite of this, that hostel wound up being one of my favorites. (It was, in fact, the hostel that had kayaks for guests to use, as I mentioned above.) There can be perks to staying farther off the beaten path. Just make sure it’s a conscious choice, not an unpleasant surprise. Decide how far you want to be from your destination’s top attractions, bars and restaurants, and the bus or train station. Know your transportation options and factor them into your decision.
I’ve never booked any spot that had less than a 7 out of 10 rating on Hostelworld, but I’ve found even hostels that meet that requirement aren’t always great. The Fabric Hostel in Portici, just outside Naples, has an 8.0 rating, but was on the dirty side with poorly maintained bathrooms and the worst excuse for a kitchen I’d ever seen. It had its pros too, but it does help make my point that a high overall rating isn’t everything. Hostelworld ratings are all user generated. After you stay in a property, you’re asked to rate its security, location, staff, cleanliness, atmosphere, facilities, and value for money. Hostelworld used to display the averages for each of these categories, but no longer does so. As a result, you have to do some digging to really learn what the property is like. Don’t book a hostel based on its rating! Only use this filter to narrow your search results. Be prepared to do more legwork.
User reviews are much more reliable than ratings to give you a picture of what to expect at your hostel. It’s important to read as many reviews as you can before deciding whether to book. Look at the content, not the numerical ratings. A negative review might be filled with complaints that seem minor to you. A positive review might focus on an amenity you don’t plan to use. To return to my example of Fabric Hostel & Club near Naples, its two most recent reviews are a 6.6 and a 9.1. The couple who gave it a 6 out of 10 did so because they didn’t like having a nightclub next door, even though they admitted the noise didn’t reach the rooms. The group who gave it a 9 out of 10 did so because they loved the music and bar. So when user reviews can paint such opposite pictures of a place, how can you use them effectively? First, know what you’re looking for. What facilities and amenities do you have to have? What negatives would ruin your trip? Figure out what your non-negotiables are, both positive and negative, and scan the first page or two of reviews for related keywords. Second, Hostelworld reviews are accompanied by some demographic information about the user who submitted that review. Use that to your advantage! As a solo female traveler, I always look for reviews left by other women traveling alone. I give less weight to reviews from couples, groups, and men, because those experiences are less likely to match my own. You can also look at the age ranges of reviewers. If you’re in your 40s and nervous about hostels filled with college kids, you can scan the reviews to see how many were left by those in the 18-24 camp and judge how comfortable you’ll be. There are so many ways to evaluate a hostel. If you take the time to give serious thought to what you want and read multiple listings with a critical eye, you can weed out the duds for your best hostel experience ever.
What happens if it’s not the best hostel experience ever? Read my top 5 hostel horror stories from my RTW trip for more tips on how to avoid bad situations while backpacking.
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