10 Ways To Survive Youth Hostels
by Roswell Ivory
How to find cheap youth hostels and make it a quality experience when budget travelling. If you don't need matching towels or sachets of hot choccy by your bed, these tips will ensure you travel on the cheap in the best way possible.
The first time I stayed in a hostel, I was eight and on a budget family holiday in the countryside. We booked a teeny room with triple bunk-beds in a quintessentially English village with fields, cows and a nice line in cheese-making. Over a decade (and a certain horrible film) later, I felt a little differently about hostels but I'd been offered work overseas and decided to do some travelling at the same time. I didn't need little sachets of hot chocolate by my bed, matching towels or any price-inflating hotel trimmings; I wanted a crash-pad and a safe place for my stuff. If there was breakfast in the mix, I'd count myself lucky! So three years, several countries and a lot of toast later, here is my guide to surviving youth hostels...
1) Ask the experts
So you're thinking about staying in a hostel? First, ask any globetrotting friends, friends-of-friends or relatives if they can recommend somewhere. Anyone who has been backpacking should come up with more places than you'll ever need.
If no-one is forthcoming, ask the other experts at http://www.hostelworld.com. There are a few hostel reviewing sites out there but Hostelworld is fantastic. Reviewers are categorised ("Novice Nomad", "Avid Traveller", "Globetrotter") according to the number of reviews they have submitted so you know who is most experienced. They rate hostels on a number of factors e.g. cleanliness, safety, atmosphere etc. They list information on a wide range of hostels worldwide.
2) What can you normally expect from a youth hostel?
At any hostel, you can expect a reasonably-priced bed for the night, a shower and a safe place for your stuff. Unless you book a single or double room, you'll be staying in a dormitory with bunkbeds. Most good hostels offer the choice between a mixed dorm or a gender-specific one.
- There should always be lockers for personal belongings. Some hostels rent out padlocks but I'd recommend investing in one of your own.
- Most hostels offer a free (or very cheap) buffet breakfast.
- There is usually a common room for socialising/watching films/reading books/playing games.
- There may be a wi-fi connection- it is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
- Some hostels provide towels but don't count on it! Bring your own- you should always know where your towel is.
3) White rabbits! Got a feeling you'll arrive late at the youth hostel?
If you think you may arrive late (after 7pm), call the hostel a day in advance and let the staff know, especially if you are coming straight from an airport. If your flight is delayed, you may not be able to use your phone. Preparing for it will stop you panicking if this does happen. Most hostels will charge your bank card if you do not show up when you say you will, but if the staff know in advance that you may turn up late, they are usually very laid-back about it.
4)The MOST valuable thing you can bring to a youth hostel
The first time I ever stayed in a hostel, I was in trouble: they didn't provide padlocks. I spent a paranoid, uncomfortable night sleeping on top of my suitcase and waking up every ten minutes checking it was still there. Never again. For the love of all that is holy, BUY A PADLOCK!!!
5) Your friends at the desk
So you've just arrived, you're too tired to go exploring properly but not tired enough to curl up and sleep. Have a coffee and then go and make friends with the staff. They can tell you about hundreds of things in walking distance- including local supermarkets, good places to eat, clubs, attractions and there are usually several taxi numbers at the desk. You can always do them all tomorrow when you're awake. Seriously, get talking - most of the staff will have travelling tales of their own.
Forget films like "Hostel" and "Vacancy" and get to know some of the other guests! Most people who have chosen to stay in dormitories and hang out in communal areas will be friendly and want to know about you- especially if you live on the other side of the world to them!
If they have been there for a while, they may have first-hand info about which tourist attractions are worth it and which takeaways are not! (If you're the one who has been there longest, share your knowledge- it will be appreciated and is a good way to break the ice.)
One of the best hostelling experiences I have ever had involved spending an evening in the kitchen with German, Australian, Canadian and Scottish people, all pointing out our towns on a huge map and dancing to Rammstein ("ooh wow, you have German music here!!")
7) Have an adventure
Once you've put your luggage away, go exploring! Do people hang out in the kitchen or the common room? What games are in there? Are there any interesting places to go in the area?
Collect flyers for attractions at reception, ask the staff where to go, or just stride out of the door with the hostel's address and a taxi number on a piece of paper so you can find it again a few hours later!
8) Best-laid plans of backpackers
Be open to the idea of changing your plans. You might have been looking forward to checking out the nightlife with your group and then sleeping in the next day, but if you hear a better suggestion, take it up.
Team your group up with the volleyball team from New Zealand and play Twister, go to that gig around the corner with the Swiss guitar-players, or join the all-guests-invited pyjama party in the common room!
9) Be safe.
Follow the same safety rules you would back home, but even more carefully. Joining forces with the New Zealand team might rock, but going alone to a party with a group of people you don't know is not a good plan.
Going home with a stranger in your own town when you have taxi numbers ready is risky enough, but doing so in a place you don't know your way around is dumb.
Make sure you know the address of wherever you are and have a taxi number or two in your pocket.
10) A round trip
Did you have a good time? Good enough to write home about?
If so, spread the word. Recommend the hostel to someone else and if you booked your stay on hostelworld.com, post your own review on the site! Swap e-mails with people you met while travelling and find out where they recommend... and you're back to step one.
I've stayed in some great places so I thought I'd recommend some good ones in the UK:
Birmingham Central Backpackers (Birmingham, England): I've stayed a couple of times and loved the themed nights, the friendly guests and the enormous TV screen. It isn't in the best area of town, but once you get in, you probably won't want to go anywhere for the rest of the night!
Vagabonds Youth Hostel (Belfast, Northern Ireland): Close to town, self-catering with a cosy sociable kitchen area with a log fire, a fun communal area and comfortable beds.
The Generator Youth Hostel (London, England): Right in the centre and close to tube stops, friendly staff and a great place to stay if you want a lively night!
Hostels are often better than hotels for anyone who wants to go travelling. The sense of community is far greater and meeting people from other countries forges contacts and friendships for next time you fancy a trip. As I left one hostel, I heard two other backpacking guests arranging to meet up in a hostel a month or two down the line! I hope you have as much fun as I do travelling.
Roswell Ivory xxx