Hostels and Hostelling FAQ and Insider Secrets

Everything You Wanted to Know About Hostels
But Were Afraid to Ask
And Insider Info About Hostelling

My plan is to make this website into a youth hostels information source... mostly for the stuff about hostels that most backpackers don't know about. Sort of a behind the scenes view of hostelling. I've done a lot of hostel travelling over the years and I've learned a lot of surprising things from chatting with hostel owners and other backpackers. So that's what this site is for... with no paid ads and no BS. with The site will be a work-in-progress probably for a long time...

How do online hostel reservations really work?

Most of the hostel websites (see below) offer online reservations at hostels, either through their own reservations system or by being an affiliate of another company's system. The way it works is hostels sign an agreement with one or more of the reservation systems and then set aside some number of their beds to be made available through the reservation system. A hostel might offer anywhere all or just a few of their beds online through a reservation system. Typically they set aside something like 20-50% of the beds for online reservations. That's important to realize, because what that means is just because a hostel doesn't have any beds available through the reservations system, that doesn't mean they don't still have other beds available. If you're determined to stay at a particular hostel and there aren't available beds in the online reservation system, you may want to try contacting the hostel directly. It's a little more work, but there's at least some chance that you may be able to still get a bed that way.

Do you need a reservation to stay at a hostel? Not necessarily, but it's usually a good idea. The more popular hostels are usually full during the busy season (which in most areas means summer), but they may also be full other times of the year, particularly on holidays and weekends. If you do book online, the reservation systems usually require that you book at least two or three days ahead of time. If it's sooner than that, you need to try to contact the hostel directly, or you could chance it and try just showing up. For busy hostels, it's best to book as far in advance as possible. But if it's more than a couple months before your arrival day and you aren't finding any available beds, don't panic because that usually just means the hostel owner hasn't put available beds in the online system yet.

When you book a bed or room you usually have to pay a deposit (typically 10% of the total cost of your stay) plus a booking fee of a dollar or two. Then when you show up at the hostel you pay only the remaining percent of your stay. Oh, but make sure you really do only pay the remaining percent... hostel staff sometimes have a tendency to forget to subtract out the deposit you already paid, but they'll always do it if you remind them.

The Truth About all those Hostel Websites

It seems like there are a zillion websites that have databases of hostels. But really there aren't as many as you think and only a few are worth using depending on what you're looking for. Here's the real story behind them...

* Recommended * (rating: 9/10) - isn't perfect, but it does have a lot of advantages over the other hostels sites, and if you're going to only use one website to find hostels, it's your best option (despite the somewhat cheesy sounding name). They have by far the most complete database of hostels, and it's one of the only sites that gives you contact information for hostels (their website, phone #s, etc.). They're best known as the place to read real reviews of hostels since they don't censor negative out comments like websites run by the booking companies (and some of the comments are really really negative!). Sometimes that's also a downfall, since you don't always know which comments to believe (some hostels have both very positive and very negative comments). For many hostels they have full "hostel reviews" from actual paid reviewers, and those are great. For reservations they use multiple reservations systems and combine data from all of them (including all the big ones, so it has all the hostel data and booking availability of HostelWorld, combined with Hostelbookers, Gomio, HostelsClub, and probably others)... so you have a good chance of finding available beds at a wide selection of hostels (with no added price mark-up). If you take a look at their Sydney hostels page for example, they have almost twice as many hostels listed as a booking site like Hostelworld does.

HostelWorld (rating: 6/10) - HostelWorld is the most used hostels site... not because it's the best site, but because HostelWorld spends a ton of money advertising the site all over the place. It was started by a business developer who admits he's never actually stayed in a hostel. Prices tend to be higher on Hostelworld than other sites, and in additional they charge an extra $2 fee, which no other websites do. They only list hostels that are in their reservation system (which means many of the best hostels aren't listed), and they don't give you any kind of contact info for hostels at all. They offer a rating system and customer comments... but it's actually a sham because they let the hostel owners delete any comments that they don't like! There are other hostels websites that have every hostel HostelWorld has, plus a lot more. (rating: 7/10) - This is a small site, but if you're going to Europe it's worth checking it out. This is kind of a "best-of" list of about 15 hostels around Europe. They really are some of the most popular hostels in Europe and if you're looking for fun party hostels, you can't go wrong with any of the ones they list. The website is run by the owner of one of the hostels on the list (I can't recall which one it was). Update: They contacted us and wanted to clarify: "Europe’s Famous Hostels is an association of individually owned, independent hostels. The association was founded in 1995 when it was made up of just 5 members. As of 2014 we have grown to include 49 Hostels, both in Europe and beyond." (rating: 6/10) - Years ago this site was run by a hostel owner in San Francisco and it used to be a useful site that provided phone numbers, email, and website links for hostels. But then guess what... HostelWorld's parent corporation (Web Reservations International) bought the site and deleted most of the contact info for hostels and made it into just another site to book HostelWorld hostels :-(. Despite the claim on their front page, it's no longer the largest hostel database on the web, and reportedly it isn't being kept up to date (...except for hostels in the HostelWorld booking system of course). (rating: 6/10) - Used to also be a fairly good hostels website, but it too was bought by Hostelworld in 2014. (rating: 7/10) - This site has a lot of useful info, including partial hostel listings for Europe. It doesn't have all the hostels listed and some of the info is out of date (and they don't have any pictures), but it's worth checking out for some comments and reviews of some of the better known hostels.

HostelsClub, HostelBookers, HostelTraveler, HostelTimes, Gomio, and others (rating: 5/10) - There are a lot of these sites popping up lately that have their own independent booking systems and they're basically trying to do exactly what HostelWorld has been doing (to various degrees of success). There aren't really any major differences among them, except that in a few cities some may offer reservations at hostels that HostelWorld doesn't, but most of them don't have very many hostels in their systems yet.

Hostelling International... do you need to join?

Hostelling International (HI) is also known as IYH, YHA, and other names in various countries. It's a nonprofit organization that many hostels belong to. HI has been around for a long time and they have hostels all over the world. In total, a little less than half of all the hostels in the world are HI members (the rest are called independent hostels). You can count on finding at least one HI hostel in most major cities, particularly in Europe. Some HI hostels are actually owned and run by the HI organization, and others are independently owned and operated, but they pay a yearly fee (and meet certain requirements) to be an HI hostel.

Are HI hostels better than independent hostels? Not necessarily. HI hostels can vary from clean and modern to run-down and poorly maintained (especially in Italy). In many cities the best hostels are the independent ones. Your best bet is to consult a hostel reviews website that has reviews of hostels. Although there are exceptions, HI hostels are typically clean, but perhaps a little too sanitized with an institutional feel. They're more likely than independent hostels to impose rules and to have curfews [a time at night you have to be back by or else you get locked out] and daytime lockouts [a period of time during the day when the hostel is closed for cleaning]. HI hostels are also less likely to offer mixed dorm rooms. But like I said, there are exceptions.

Should you buy a membership card? Technically to stay in an HI hostel you have to be an HI member. You join by ordering a membership card from the HI organization in before your trip. But there's a backup option. If you show up at an HI hostel without a membership card, you can pay a little extra for each night you stay. What's nice is you get a temporary membership card and a stamp on it for each night you stay, and after you've paid roughly about as much extra as a membership costs, then you're a member. The catch is not all hostels let you do that (but most do), and even the ones that do sometimes run out of stamps. So if you're doing any substantial traveling and you plan on staying in HI hostels, you're best off just buying a membership ahead of time. Of course you don't need any kind of membership to stay at independent hostels.

Random fact: Hostelling International used to claim that only HI hostels could even be called "hostels" since they had trademarked the term in several countries, but after losing some court cases over the matter, they've mostly backed off on that claim.

Mixed Sex Dorms... guys and girls sleeping together?

Most hostels now offer mixed sex or "coed" dorms with guys and girls in the same room (and actually many of them don't offer gender separated dorms at all). Despite what some old fashioned moralists might think, that doesn't automatically lead to all kinds of debauchery. There isn't usually anything exciting going on in the coed dorms except people sleeping... and perhaps an occassional pillowfight. For female travelers who may be concerned, hostels are safe since you'll be in a room with at least a few other girls and guys, so you're as safe as you would be in any public place. More and more hostels now have coed dorms as they realize that there isn't any reason to segregate sleeping areas. If you need privacy, such as to get changed, then you can always head to the bathroom.

Mixed dorms are also a good option for couples who are traveling together who still want to sleep in a dorm room. Speaking of, what about sex? Well, couples (and people who have found a new hook-up buddy) would probably be best off getting a private room (many hostels now offer private rooms). But that's not to say shenanigans don't happen under covers in the dorm rooms from time to time, especially in some of the crazier party hostels. But that's pretty rare at most hostels, and usually the coed dorms are used just for sleeping.

Coed dorms are most common in independent hostels, and are sometimes hard to find in conservative countries.

Group Showers?

It used to be that some of the older hostels in Europe had those non-private shower rooms (not coed -- sorry guys) where basically the shower was a big tiled room with a bunch of shower nosels... you know, like what you see in prison movies. These days, virtually all hostels have private showers. Typically there are one or two large bathrooms per floor in the hostel, like you would find at univertity dorms, with private shower stalls. But there are also hostels that have bathrooms in each room. If you're staying in a private room rather than a dorm bed, you often have the option of choosing a room with a private bathroom (usually for a little more money). By the way, just like at the university dorms, it's a very good idea to bring sandals or flipflops to wear in the shower if you want to avoid getting athlete's foot (a common itchy skin condition).

Fun/Party/Social Hostels

In the past youth hostels really were just for young travelers (generally 18-25) and a lot of hostels had age limits. These days it's pretty rare to find a hostel with age limits and many of them (especially the HI hostels) are catering to older travelers and even families and kids.

But not all hostels are fit for families and kids. There are plenty of fun social "party" hostels full of nothing but young travelers who are there to have fun. These sort of hostels may not necessarily have age limits, but older folks and families would definitely feel out of place. These hostels are great for young travelers who are interested in getting to know their fellow backpackers. They're especially good for solo travelers. It's pretty easy to hang out in the common areas and start up a conversation with whoever is around. Before you know it you'll have new friends to explore the city with. Meeting new people is one of the best parts of the traveling experience, and social hostels are the best places to meet them. You may find yourself exploring Paris with a group of Aussies and Kiwis one day, and then experiencing Amsterdam with a bunch of Swedes and Spaniards the next day. That's what traveling is all about.

Many of the social hostels have their own full bars right inside the hostel, particularly in parts of Europe.

You can usually find out which hostels are the fun social hostels by reading their descriptions and reviews. But one thing you should know, typically hostels are either nice and clean, or fun and social, but only rarely are they both. Many of the top party hostels aren't spic-n-span clean, and some of them can be noisy until late at night, so keep in mind there might be a trade-off, so think about what you're really looking for before you choose a hostel.

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