For many travellers, hostels are the preferred form of accommodation. There are a tonne of bonuses to hostel living, but there can be a few inconveniences and difficulties too. However, a little knowledge and a smidge of forward planning can make any hostel better. Here are a bunch of easy way to improve your happy little backpacking life.
Earplugs & Eye Mask
The fact that earplugs are a must really should go without saying. Even if you are only planning to sleep in smaller dorms, you never know if one of your bunk mates will snore like a freight train, so it pays to be prepared.
Also, some hostels are designed to have a healthy ‘party’ vibe – which is fine if that is what you were looking for. But sometimes, you can book a hostel and have no idea until you arrive that they like to play loud dance music until 2am each morning. In instances such as this, ear plugs are a veritable godsend.
As for an eye mask – I rarely use mine as I sleep very well without it, however, sometimes your bunkmates can be just plain rude (arriving to a 12 bed dorm at 3am and turning on all the lights instead of using your phone torch makes you either an idiot or an asshole – end of discussion) and having an eye mask can help block out that last little bit of dorm life just long enough for you to catch some zzz’s.
Padlocks & Lockers
The vast majority of hostels will have lockers inside their dorms. Occasionally these locks will be electronic or the old school style where you are allocated a lock with a designated key – however, more often than not, these lockers will require you to have your own lock.
Travelling with one lock is smart, but travelling with two different sorts of locks is even better. The variety in lockers is enormous and some will be better suited to different types of locks. For example, most people will carry a small combination lock suitable for locking their luggage – these particular locks can also be used on most types of ‘school style’ lockers that sit against the wall.
However, some places will have nifty lockers that sit underneath the beds themselves, and on numerous occasions my little combination lock has proven too small to actually keep these suckers secure. As a result, I now also carry a little padlock which suits these styles of lockers much better.
These locks are teeny tiny and are worth chucking in your backpack as you never know when they will come in handy.
The best hostels are the ones that have 1-2 electrical outlets at each individual bunk bed and the worst ones can have just 1 outlet for a 20 bunk dorm! Either way, having a power board handy can be incredibly useful.
For example, if you have multiple devices that require charging (tablet, laptop, phone, camera, other camera, portable battery etc) only having 1 outlet available can make this a tedious and time consuming process. Spending extra time charging devices can cause you to waste time that could be better spent either exploring, sleeping or eating foreign delicacies. A power board can cut down charging time to just a fraction of what it would be otherwise.
Alternatively, even if you only have 1 or 2 devices, having a power board in a big dorm that has far too few electrical outlets makes you a figurative goldmine for other travellers. Believe me, people will ask to use the open plugs on the power board and will often show their gratitude by offering to buy you a drink, sharing travel knowledge or giving you something that they no longer need; in the past I have scored books, spare change and even food. Not bad at all!
I have only stayed in one hostel in my entire life that didn’t offer some sort of WiFi *cough* Portree Independent Hostel *cough*.
Most hostels will have semi decent free WiFi. General rule of thumb – keep your expectations low about the speed and consistency and occasionally you will be pleasantly surprised!
When you check in, use your phone to take a quick picture of the WiFi password (it will usually be written somewhere at the check in desk) and then you won’t have to worry about keeping track of bits of paper with usernames and passwords written on them.
I have already written about my love of the solid shampoos created by Lush – click here to read more – but they improve hostel life so much that I thought they deserved a second mention. Lush create and sell solid shampoo, solid conditioner bars and even solid toothpaste called toothy tabs! Staying in hostels is pretty synonymous with having limited space, so these space-saving toiletries will be easier to stuff into your backpack, shove into a locker and balance precariously on a tiny hostel sink. Get around it.
Microfibre towels should be a packing staple for any happy little backpacking vegemite. These towels are super lightweight, fold up to barely anything and dry super quickly. While they won’t dry you as effectively as a big fluffy towel would, you’ll be thanking yourself when you have to use your tired arms to lift your backpack up onto a trains luggage rack. You can buy exxy versions of these towels at most outdoor specialist stores, but I got mine on Ebay for like $5 each about four years ago and they are still going strong today.
Oh man, whoever invented Happy Hour is a bloody hero!
As a general rule of thumb, backpackers hate to spend excess money but they love to drink. A lot of hostels have their own bars and any hostel with a bar will surely offer happy hour specials. Not only are these specials usually very good value (70c beers in Cape Town – yes please!) but when the drinks are flowing, you are more likely than ever to make some new friends. Sure the drinks may be kinda crummy, the floors sticky and the music either outdated, loud or both, but I have had so many fun nights begin at hostel happy hours, they really are worth giving a go.
Free breakfasts in hostels can be a bit hit and miss – but if you get a great one, you are finding the backpackers equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
An average brekkie might include some toast, some juice and maybe some sort of porridge – nothing there that is overly thrilling, but if you are seriously pressed for cash, yoinking a few extra pieces of bread could get you through until dinner.
The best hostel brekkies will have things that are transportable; I’m talking fresh fruit like banana and apple that nobody has tried to cut into a fruit salad, muesli bars and dry cereals. Grab whatever you think is reasonable, stash it in your backpack and use it to graze on during your day of adventures. It will cut down costs way more than you can imagine!
Another way to save money on the road is to cook your own food more often than you eat out. The type of hostel you stay in can play a big role in how successful independent cooking is.
If the kitchen is stocked with one dodgy looking saucepan and only a few other mismatched bits of kitchenware, chances are that cooking will prove too difficult and you’ll go out and buy food.
On the other hand, hostels with good kitchens actually invite you in. Good kitchens become the most popular communal spots and are often very social. Not only that, but a well stocked kitchen means that you have no excuse to eat junk all the time or to completely blow your travel budget on food.
Location, Location, Location
When choosing a hostel, make sure to suss out the location before you go booking anything. If you want an upbeat and lively hostel, try to find something within stumbling distance from the main nightlife drag. If you want a quieter experience, hostels that sit just outside the city centre tend to be a little more chilled out.
Work out what you want from your hostel and book accordingly.
The ease of which one can meet other travellers is one of the best parts of choosing hostels over hotels – especially for solo travellers.
If you are looking to meet new people or make new friends, make the most of whatever your hostel has on offer. If there is a communal lounge – spend your down time in there and strike up a conversation with anyone else who comes in. If there is a happy hour – buy some cheap drinks and get chatting. If there are communal dinners – sit next to a stranger. When a newbie arrives in your dorm – say ‘hi’.
A little effort goes a long way!
I love reading on the road. However, I am not a fan of both e-readers and multiple books weighing down my backpack. That may sound like it would leave me between a rock and a hard place, but thanks to a commonly seen hostel feature, it is rarely an issue.
Many hostels have free book exchanges. This means that when you are done with a book you can simply give it a temporary home on the book exchange shelf and then adopt a new literary friend.
While many hostels do have these exchanges, many will not, so when you find one, make sure to take advantage of it.
If check out time is 10am but your next flight/bus/train/ferry isn’t until much later in the day, almost every hostel will happily hold your luggage for you – free of charge. Just make sure you don’t leave anything super valuable unattended.
Ever seen food or toiletries which appear to just sit around unclaimed? Often you can find little baskets with stashes of such goods that have been intentionally left behind by other travellers – often before catching flights with strict agricultural customs or tight baggage and/or liquid allowances.
Often these baskets are a bit junky, but sometimes you can find some seriously good stuff.
When in doubt, Ask!
Hostels may be super budget lodgings, but that doesn’t mean they will be unaccommodating. If you have a need, a question or a request, just ask! The worst someone can say is ‘no’.
Now go forth and make the most of every hostel experience!