Hostels are my preferred type of accommodation while traveling, primarily because they are a great way to meet other people while maintaining a reasonable budget. However, with the tourism industry growing, there are a plethora of options, and it can be overwhelming to make a decision about where you stay. Here, I will share some of the most important factors to consider before booking.
Personally, the most important factor that I consider when booking accommodation is the location. My purpose in traveling is after all, to TRAVEL. I want a hostel from which I can easily access the parts of the city (or town, or beach, etc.) that I want to explore. Something miles out of town might be a lot cheaper, but if I end up paying double in daily transportation fees or wasting hours in travel time each morning, the extra $3/night I saved on a bed won't do me any good. I generally do a bit of research beforehand, so that I can get an idea about what part of the area is ideal for me. This isn't always the city-center; it depends on what my personal goals are for the trip.
Of course, as a budget-backpacker, price is always something important to consider. However, I have learned that "cheap" in a touristy European city like Rome is much different than "cheap" in a off-the-beaten-path spot in Latin America. I love HostelWorld, which compares prices from multiple accommodations in the same city. It is a great tool to help you get a good idea of what a "normal" price is for the region. Booking a dorm room is usually significantly cheaper than a private (and allows for much more socializing!) Another tip is to book only your first night or two before arriving, so that you can immediately sleep off the jet-lag and chill out without rushing to find a place to sleep. Then once you've rested, you can explore the area and talk to other travelers to find out if there is a better deal at another spot nearby.
3. Building Lay-Out
I prefer hostels to other forms of accommodation primarily for the social aspect. Hostels are a great place to meet other travelers - to share stories, get inspiration and tips for other nearby areas, and to find people with whom you can continue the journey. Some hostels are better set-up for these type of interactions. I like hostels that have a lot of "communal space." Barefoot Backpackers Hostel in Takaka, New Zealand was a great example of this. The set up here was very open, with a communal kitchen, living room, and colorful back deck, which made meeting people easy. It can be difficult to get a feel for a hostel's physical layout online. Pictures help, but I like to read the reviews of previous visitors, as they will often mention this aspect.
This probably depends on how big of a breakfast person you are, but personally, I have found that I almost always book hostels that include a complimentary breakfast with stay. Having at least one guaranteed meal each day for free means that I can splurge a little at other times. When I'm traveling, I usually eat breakfast for free in the hostel (as well as get my daily coffee-fix, which is often also included), splurge a little on lunch to try a local dish, and then keep dinner cheap (getting groceries from the supermarket and cooking with new friends at the hostel is fun!) However, this varies depending on the region - Latin America, for example, has so much delicious street food for really cheap, so I can afford to "eat out" for most meals. In Nicaragua, I generally spent less than $5/day on food and was eating out for all three meals.
Although I do think it is a waste of time to spend your trip abroad staring at a cellphone or other device, free wifi access is very helpful for booking future accommodations and transportation, as well as for researching destination information. And personally as a blogger, a wifi connection directly translates to my "travel fund" income, so long periods of time without access is unwise. However, it is nice to get completely "off-the-grid" occasionally as well, so I am mindful of when an internet connection is/is not worth considering when booking.
6. Cancellation/Change Policies
Hostels vary with their cancellation policies. I have often found that there is not a charge if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance, but any later results in paying the price for your first night of accommodation and sometimes an additional "change fee." It is of course different for each place. Backpacking tends to be a spontaneous type of travel, and so flexibility with accommodation is vital. There is a very good chance that you will connect well with another traveler you meet at the hostel and decide last-minute to completely change your plans in order that the two (or three, or ten...) of you might do some exploring together. Again, it might be best to book only your first night or two before arriving, and then decide how much longer you want to stay once you've checked out the area a bit.
I have found these six factors to be the most important for myself, but of course there are many other qualities to consider depending on your style. For example, how many people share a bathroom, whether or not there are hot showers, general cleanliness, whether female-only dorms are available (vs mixed dorms), laundry service, kitchen access, airport transportation, luggage storage, etc. In my experience, the longer I stay abroad, the more relaxed of a traveler I become. Hot showers become more of a luxury than an expectation, and sleeping in a room with 20 complete strangers becomes "normal." I have found backpacking to be an experience and a learning opportunity all on its own.
What do you consider the most important factor? Share in the comments below.
In case you're in the area...
Here are a few of my favorite hostels that I have personally stayed at and recommend!
Barefoot Backpackers - Takaka, New Zealand
La Bohemia Hostal - Capurgana, Colombia
Hostal El Momento - Granada, Nicaragua
El Viajero Cartagena Hostel - Cartagena, Colombia
Ostello San Frediano - Lucca, Italy
* These are NOT affiliate links, just honest recommendations :)
I believe in God's grace through Jesus. I love to learn, in a variety of contexts - reading God's Word, interacting with people from diverse backgrounds around the world, and as a student of Linguistics and Foreign Languages at Western Washington University. Pages of My Passport is dedicated to sharing this journey of learning through written and visual content.