I have stayed in countless hostels, budget guesthouses, run down rooms, and the like. I almost always try to save money while traveling, but that doesn’t mean I want to sleep in a crap hole. Though I have stayed in many crap holes, obviously. But as I have aged, my patience for the crappiest of the holes has decreased. With good reason…
Have you ever slept in a plywood room with cats being chased by rats down the hall? I have.
Have you ever walked on a floor that had someone else’s vomit on it? I have.
Have you ever looked out your window and stared straight at a brick wall? I have.
Have you ever not had a window at all? I have.
Over the years, my accommodation has not always met the highest standards. As such, I have come to value certain qualities in budget accommodation that make everything ok. Or at least better.
Getting all the details right can be difficult if you are booking budget accommodation from afar online, or if you are in a busy city and you are just desperate for a room. But there are some telltale signs that a hostel or budget guesthouse is going to do you well. And it’s normally in the fine print…
24-Hour Check In and Security
As a budget traveler, I will guarantee that you will arrive into a town outside of ideal business hours. Maybe 1am, or 4 am, or 10am on a Sunday (thanks Catholic cities in Mexico…). There is no bigger annoyance than arriving at your accommodation and being forced to wait to check in, especially in the middle of the night.
Lindsay and I once arrived somewhere in Malaysia at 4am and they wouldn’t check us in until 10am. Seriously?
We just sat on hard benches in the lobby, leaning on our bags, and scowling.
A 24-hour check in person is invaluable! Often times you will wake them up, but hey, it’s their job!
You may think the 24-hour security is a no brainer, but you will be surprised at how lax this standard can get especially in developing countries. The security considerations at a hostel take us back to the major ideas of safety as a solo traveler that we all need to keep in mind.
Most of the time, 24-hour check in and security will be featured on a hostels website or the online booking profile. Definitely look for it!
A Great Hostel Offers Free Breakfast!
I will spend extra to stay at a place with free breakfast. This is not only because if I need to eat within 45 minutes of waking up or I get mega ‘hangry’ (The effect of being so hungry one becomes angry).
In many countries, breakfast isn’t much of a thing. In Kyrgyzstan, local families just ate whatever was left over from the night before, which in many cases would be sheep fat soup. Few countries in the world do breakfast like Canada, the UK or the USA, so finding a cafe that serves eggs and bacon at 9am can be difficult. Many hostels know this, so they in turn offer breakfast to their people, making it a convenient service.
Of course, hostels have different ideas of what constitutes ‘breakfast’. In Mexico, a hostel provided loaves of bread, jars of jam, and a toaster. One time In Kingston Jamaica, we were left with bread and carton of eggs to do with what we wished. In Kyrgyzstan, we were served restaurant style.
Clearly, it varies. But hey, who doesn’t like breakfast? As Ron Swanson says, “Just give me all the bacon and eggs that you have”.
Show Me An Epic Common Area
One of the biggest reasons to stay in hostels, besides the cost, is to meet other travelers. As a solo traveler, hostels will be the best chance you have at meeting up with likeminded folks, making friends, and finding travel buddies. Most of these meet-ups will happen in the hostel common areas. This includes living rooms, TV rooms, patios, rooftops, bars, and whatever else the hostel features. I met my lovely friends Laurie and Pat while eating that Mexican bread and jam one morning and then we travelled together for 6 weeks.
Lindsay and I met a very drunk man in the bar of our Chiang Mai hostel who turned out to be the head chef at Wimbledon.
Plus, if you’re looking for love, you’re not going to find it in your ladies only dorm 😉
I love a good rooftop patio. By day, it’s the perfect place to read like a nerd and by night it’s the perfect place to drink cheap wine.
Even just chatting to people who have been where you are heading will give great ideas. Maybe that chat will lead to destinations you hadn’t considered.
Of course sometimes people surprise you (Lizzie and I met a legit racist Swede in Nepal, so weird!) but the beautiful thing about the common area is that you can just get up and leave. See ya later bigot!
The Little Things Count
I have often said if I was ever to own a hostel there are some little features I would make sure to include.
First, reading lights for every bed in a dorm room. Nothing is more annoying that having one overhead light for a dorm room of 8 people. That light is either on or it’s off, and unfortunately not every traveler is as considerate as you and I are. Reading lights, I love you. The same theory goes for personal fans. Dorm rooms are often stuffy and heat regulation is touchy business. A small fan mounted above your bed in a dorm room can go a long way!
Second: lockers are lovely. I’m not horribly concerned with people stealing my gear. If someone wants my dirty laundry they can go for it. But it is nice to know I could lock up my passport and iPad if I want to.
Thirdly: Bunks are a fact of dorm life. And often time, those bunks are metal, shakey, and squeaky. But they don’t have to be. Show me sturdy wooden bunks attached to studs in the walls, and I will be a happy camper. Literally. Sleeping in bunks makes you feel like you are at a children’s sleep-away camp.
Lastly, I would guarantee a well-stocked book exchange. Sure, in the days of e-readers this has become less valid, but I still love picking up books along the way, especially books that are topical to the destination. I vividly remember a string of weeks in Southeast Asia where I read nothing but Vietnam War non-fiction memoirs. It was a dark time, but it helped me understand what I was seeing in those museums.
Also, despite the e-reader revolution, if you’re on a Nicaraguan island for a week with no Wifi and you run out of juice or library selection, a good old-fashioned paperback is all you need!
10 years later, Lindsay still makes fun of me for a certain smutty novel I devoured in Malaysia.
Female-Only Dorm Rooms? Sign Me Up!
In an ideal world, I would share a room with just my travel buddy. But when I’m travelling alone, I can rarely afford a private room. Unless I’m in Southeast Asia. Dorm rooms are a fact of life for the budget solo traveler, but for us ladies, a female only dorm is an absolute godsend!
No more rancid boy smell or snoring like a freight train roommates!
Banish bathroom messes!
Female-only dorms are also great places to meet other solo female travelers and share travel stories. There is a good chance that lady people may be a bit more considerate, but then again, women can be just as annoying as men! Whose hair is that?
Location Location Location!!!
As we know, it’s all in the location. A hostel can be the crown jewel of accommodation, but if it is 5 km from town or a hefty walk uphill to the closest decent restaurant, or to the best attractions there is little chance I want to be there. I am not inherently lazy, but at the end of the day I do not want to walk up a massive hill to get anywhere!
Hostels near the centre of towns often are a bit pricier and have fewer vacancies, so I often look for secondary centers, like in a hip fringe neighbourhood. Proximity to public transit is also a crucial factor to account for, especially in large cities. I stayed in the Mission District in San Francisco, and loved how the hostel was slightly away from the craziness of downtown, but easily accessed by the subway system.
Alternatively, if I’m outside of a city, about to go hiking or if I’m chilling at the beach, I look for a hostel with easy access to the trail, the mountain, or that beach. Give me a hostel in the middle of nature, and I’m set!
Self-Catering Kitchen Facilities
Nothing drives up the cost of travel more than eating out for three meals a day. If you can find a hostel that offers a free breakfast and then you make your own dinner (read: boil ramen noodles and pour concentrated sodium on top), you’ll be laughing with all the cash in your pocket for beer.
Certain countries are more likely to have self cater kitchens in hostels than others. Luckily for us, often the more expensive the country is the more likely it is that a hostel will have an open kitchen. I remember very few kitchens in Southeast Asia, but the food there is so cheap, no biggie. Alternatively in Australia, Canada, and Iceland, hostel kitchens are the norm, and very crucial.
Disclaimer: hostel kitchens can be absolutely disgusting. Same theory goes dorms; communal spaces are hard to keep clean because nobody is really held accountable and no one thinks it’s their job. Just so we are all clear, I expect everyone who reads my blog to wash their dishes. Done.
Free Pick-Ups from Transit Centers
This is the Holy Grail!
If you find a hostel or a guesthouse that picks you up from the airport, the bus stop or the train station, do it! Nothing is better than avoiding a fight with a taxi driver in a new town after a 9-hour bus ride.
A Room with a View
I am a complete sucker for accommodation that offers views and ambiance. Give me a rooftop with a city skyline, a patio with a lakefront, or a picture window facing a mountain range and I will basically overlook every one of the above-mentioned requirements.
If you’re booking accommodation online, the hostel profile will definitely include photos of views or scenic ambiance if there are any. If they say they are lakefront but there are no pictures, ask questions. And if there are no pictures provided of all of anything, run!
Free Happy Hour
Believe it or not, there are brilliant hostel owners out there who know that the way to most travelers hearts is through free beer. And who am I to step away from that pack? It’s clearly such a cheap tactic, but it is amazing. Give me one free beer a night, I will probably buy at least 2 more. Plus I will definitely tell people later on down the road about “that awesome hostel with free beer!”
I know very few people who would pass up a free Happy Hour, which I realize does say something about me and the people I love, but come on!
How to Choose the Perfect Hostels
Now obviously, not all hostels will have every one of these luxuries. For most hostels, even if they have just a couple of the points I mentioned, they will be decent places to stay. If a hostel has none of these qualities, that hostel sucks and the owners should go away.
Of course, far more factors go into choosing the perfect accommodation for you. Factors may be like where in the city you want to be, your budget, whether you want a party vibe or a chilled out vibe, if you are travelling as a group or a family, and if you have special accessibility issues you are travelling with.
I have not always spent a lot of time choosing hostels, but I find that I am always happier in the long run when I do. Some of my best travel memories come from times spent hanging around hostels with new friends and cold beers. Finally if I can find a hostel that is unique or quirky, I love it!
Sleep in a old prison at the Ottawa Jail Hostel or in a cave at the Aydinli Cave Hotel in Cappadocia, Turkey, or in a treehouse in Portland Jamaica! And if there is a pool and I’m in a hot country, hold me back!
So choose wisely, just because you are on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t rock it!
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