How to hostel: A beginner’s guide to bunking in the backpacker’s

By Shannon Kilgariff 

After being in transit for hours you finally arrive at a multi-story building downtown where the dark night does not hide the large ‘Backpacker’s’ sign that is illuminated out front…

Exhausted from your trip, you let yourself in, where you are greeted with a huge group of people congregating around the tiny reception under a chalkboard that says ‘Saturday night pub crawl’. You finally weave through the group to the desk and eventually a lovely receptionist shows you to your room. You immediately think that this place seems like a great, fun place to be, as soon as you get a good night’s sleep to get over your jetlag.

That is until you realise that sleeping in a dorm with 12 other people involves constant light flicking, noises so loud that they can’t possibly be booming out of one human being and you know that group of people that went on that pub crawl? Oh yes, there is suddenly two of them in the bunk below you at 5am. Motion sickness is not what you need after a 15 hour flight.

When travelling on a budget, hostels are the way to go in terms of affordability. You do, however, get what you pay for. My early hostel experiences were, well, interesting. I can’t say that they were bad, but there are definitely things I wish I had known so I could prepare for what to expect.

The fact is that where you choose to stay can make or break your experience at a particular place, so before you throw yourself in an adventure of low-budget accommodation for the first time, be prepared for what you are really getting yourself in for. If you do it right, staying in hostels will provide you with some of the best memories of travelling and some of the best friends from all around the world.

Find the right hostel
In my experience, finding the right hostel is highly important and there are many things you should look out for.

Firstly, do your research on websites such as TripAdvisor and Hostelworld. They have star ratings for each place and I usually try not to stay somewhere that has under a 70% rating. Saying this, the comments are usually more important. Make sure you look at online reviews and read comments that other travellers have made. Take these reviews with a grain of salt, as many do not accurately depict what the hostel environment is like.

Location is probably the most essential thing to look for when booking a hostel. You always want somewhere with a central location, or at least extremely close to an easy, cheap means of public transport. Walking around a new place is fun, but you soon get sick of it if you are in the middle of nowhere.

Check the hostel’s facilities. See if the place has a bar, restaurant or common room, as having these facilities makes it much easier to meet people and make friends. Also look to see if the hostel has organised activities such as tours, walks, quiz nights and pub crawls.

When it comes to booking, one thing I noticed was that even though hostels can be huge, they are often booked out. This is particularly problematic on the weekends so book as early as you can.

Shared dorms
Shared dorms are the way to go for affordability and for making friends, although walking into a shared dorm can be daunting. You don’t know anyone, you don’t know what bed to choose and…what is that smell? The way to survive a shared room is simple. Firstly, get over yourself. Accept the fact that you share a space with several other people so a good night’s sleep is probably not going to happen. Don’t get grouchy when people are a little bit noisy when they come home late after a few drinks.

There are tricks to enjoying your time in a shared room. Ear plugs and eye masks are a necessity. People won’t be courteous and won’t keep the noise down or the light off. The best thing to do is to let these small things go. Try to choose a bed that is next to a window so that you can control the room’s temperature or at least the stench. Think carefully about choosing the top or bottom bunk. Bottom is usually best, as it is easier to leave the bed for any reason. You can also create a barricade with your towel to keep out light and sound and to give you some personal space. But bottom bunkers, do beware that people WILL stand on you when they try to uncoordinatedly manoeuvre their intoxicated self into the bunk above you in dead darkness.

In terms of your mattress, be prepared that it won’t always be up to your expectations. They are often too hard or too soft, with a paper thin pillow. One hostel I visited in Niagara Falls made me sleep on a tiny inflatable mattress for the night which inconveniently deflated halfway through my restless sleep. I hate to think what my roommates thought when they heard a loud, fast, creepy breathing noise in the middle of the night.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and tell people off when they have crossed the line. A little extra someone in the bunk underneath you does not equate for much sleep. Don’t be scared to confront them and tell them to go elsewhere. I mean, what are hostel bathrooms for?

Don’t let the bed bugs bite
You or someone you know will probably suffer from bed bugs at some stage—yes, they do exist and yes I have had them before. There is one word to describe them: excruciating. To prevent bed bugs, check your bed and sheets before sleeping, as they like to hide in the small crevices of your mattress. Alternatively, use your own pillowcase and sheet that has been sewn so you can sleep inside. These irritating bites can last for weeks and the insects can be a headache to exterminate, so prevention is best.

Use the lockers
Purchase your own lock—preferably a combination so you don’t have a key to lose to lock up your valuables every day. After travelling for a while you can get very complacent, but remember that roommates are constantly changing. Your passport in particular should get locked up, as that tiny paper book is the most valuable thing you own when travelling overseas.

When it comes to the bathrooms, make sure you bring thongs and soap. Try to ignore the hairball that has been resting in the corner of the shower for the last three days. Bathrooms will not always be spotless, so learn to turn a blind eye to that unknown matter on the toilet seat on a Sunday morning.

WHEN not IF you get sick
Getting sick is inevitable when you are travelling so don’t let it get you down. I recommend that when you ARE sick, you invest in a single room to wait it out so that you get some much needed sleep.

Be you. Be someone else.
It doesn’t matter who you choose to be when you are travelling. The great thing is that no one knows you. Make sure you get over your anxiety and talk to people. If you are usually a shy recluse then maybe try to get out of your comfort zone and throw yourself out there. Saying that, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Chances are you aren’t ever going to see these people again so if one person doesn’t like you then it doesn’t really matter. You will not get on with everyone. If you are not a confident person, now is the chance to come out of your shell.  Learn how to talk to strangers. The biggest tip on enjoying hostel life is to have the confidence to meet new, exciting people.

Free stuff is good stuff
Take advantage of freebies within hostels, many you wouldn’t even know about. The free food fridge for example. When other travellers move on they leave behind food so be quick to check the free food area often—you will have some great finds. Be sure, however, to not mistakenly put your own food into the free food fridge. That fridge is mostly empty for a reason. Use your brain.  My friend once put our food in there and within an hour, half of our week’s supplies had been taken. Not ideal.

The laundry also offers giveaways. There is often a free clothes pile that people don’t want any more which is great when you need an extra jumper when it gets cold. Just make sure you wash the clothes first before wearing, and I wouldn’t suggest taking underwear. Similarly, there are book exchanges where you can take someone’s book and leave your own. It is a great way for free bus entertainment.

Take advantage of the free walking tours and activities that hostels organise. These are a great way to make friends and it is often a local showing you around so you get to see and hear about things that you otherwise would not have known about.

And lastly, don’t stay in a hostel if…
You love your sleep. You’re a grumpy bum. You hate foreign people. You get grossed out easily. You don’t like beer. You don’t like talking to strangers. You have a short temper. You don’t like being out of your comfort zone. You’re not open to new experiences.


Hostel tips from other travellers:

‘Don’t stay in your room, get over any anxiety and go talk to people.’

‘Check your sheets for bed bugs. Turn off all lights and scan the bed with a torch or phone torch.’

‘Sleep with your phone in your pillowcase.’

‘Earplugs and thongs and soap for the shower.’

‘Pay extra for a hostel in a central location. You save money that way.’

‘Always get the bottom bunk, as top bunks are not fun climbing after a few drinks (may fall out).’

‘Thongs for the shower.’

‘Hang your towel on top bunk to cast shade when snoozing on bottom bunk. Doubles up as a barricade between you and the couple in the next bunk. Earplugs also help that.’

‘Always check the “free food” cupboard in the kitchen for stuff other travellers have left behind. This saved me a few times when I was on a very tight budget! Got a whole jar of peanut butter once.’

‘You can make some awesome friends in shared hostel rooms!’

‘Remember what you paid for so you don’t have ridiculously high expectations and generally enjoy the hostel more.’

‘Always have a padlock and silk sleep sheet.’

‘Make an effort to make friends and do the hostel activities.’


1 Comment

  1. I think tours do have their place. I mean, Europe is so huge, and there are so many transport opoitns that I can understand it can be bewildering. The good thing about Europe is that it’s so heavily backpacked that there are a lot of what I like to think of as in between’ opoitns halfway between a tour and independent backpacking. I used trains on my own quite a bit, but I also used busabout ( and MacBackpackers ( Both work on the idea that their coaches follow certain routes (and busabout’s is very extensive) and you can hop on or off the busses at any point along those routes. so you still have a lot of independence, but it’s just that little bit easier to organise everything. having done both, I personally enjoyed that more than training, because I met a lot more people and there was just a teeny bit less stress. I don’t think I would’ve liked a fully organised tour, like Contiki, though. I knew a few people who did Contiki, and it was kind of they’d all been to exactly the same places, the same beer hall in Munich or the same viewing point in Switzerland, becaus they didn’t really get much time to see anything beyond where the guides took them. I’m sure it does differ depending on how long your tour is, but it just seems too structured to me. they are also notorious for being very party-oriented, which is fine if that’s you, but I wouldn’t personally like it. anyway, that’s just my two cents. If you only have a really short amount of time, two weeks or something, then I’d probably lean towards a tour, because otherwise you’re just not going to see much. but if you’ve got longer, it’s probably more rewarding to go it alone, or at least look at one of th eless structured opoitns.

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