I’ve done a lot of backpacking in the past and even today I love staying in backpacker hostels type of accommodation. I didn’t think there was anything unique or scary about them until Sandra from Vancouver asked me “What’s it like to stay in hostels? What can I expect, especially for a woman?”.
It dawned on me that not everyone has experienced staying in backpacker hostels and may even fear it. Sandra has always stayed in hotels. I must admit, when I first started travelling, I only ever stayed in hotels. In fact, being sent on educationals/familiarisations to foreign countries as a travel agent, we frequently stayed in 5 star hotels.
So how did I migrate from 5 star hotels to backpacker hostels?
It wasn't with ease. I started my first introduction to Europe on a Contiki tour – a bus tour for 18-35 year olds. It gave me a brief overview of many countries in 4 weeks and I took note of the countries I wanted to go back to so I could spend more time there.
So after the tour I arrived in Paris in the morning and booked two nights into a backpacker hostel for the first time. My travel diary notes explain my state of mind:
“I’m sharing a room with 5 other girls – I can’t sprawl my things out. I won’t be able to sleep thinking someone will pinch something. How am I going to share with five strangers? I want a room of my own so I can sleep peacefully and without worry.”
After checking in, I walked around the city and booked myself into a 2 star hotel to move into after my pre-booked two nights at the hostel.
I arrived back to the hostel in the evening and got to meet the other girls in my dorm. In the first 5 minutes, after telling them that I was travelling for one year, they said I was so cool and they all gave me their addresses in the US and said I must visit them. However, that evening I still slept hugging my daypack containing my valuables (which were only a camera and passport) under the covers.
The next evening, I met two American girls in the hostel and they took me out for dinner and paid for me! It was their last night and wanted to use up their French Francs (this is pre Euro days!). I couldn’t believe how generous they were.
Why was I judging other travellers to be horrible thieves? I then realised that tourists at hostels are doing the same thing as me – travelling the world and experiencing new cultures on a budget. After that dinner, I didn’t want to move to the 2 star hotel. In fact I stayed in that 2 star hotel for one night only as I got bored in a single room with no one to talk to. I have been hostelling ever since (when I’m in my backpacking groove).
What can you expect staying in backpacker hostels?
It involves lots of sharing.
- Dorms. Lots of people travelling on low budgets. Therefore, a hostel consists of multiple rooms with multiple bunk beds called dorms. There can be anything from 4 to 25 people in one dorm! Prices can vary according to how many beds in each dorm – the more beds in a dorm, the cheaper the price.
Most hostels also provide choice in male only, female only or mixed dorms. You choose what is comfortable for you.
- Bathrooms. Sometimes each dorm has its own bathroom, other places will have a communal bathroom at the end of the hallway or even on a different level. It may have one shower or several showers, depending on the size of the bathroom. Some bathrooms are spacious, others are tiny (I remember one bathroom in India where the shower head was over the toilet, so you had to wipe the toilet seat dry each time).
Dorms without its own bathroom will be cheaper than dorms with a bathroom.
- Lockers. Majority of hostels/backpackers provide lockers for each person, located in the dorms. Make sure to bring with you an extra locking device.
- Communal lounge/sitting area. This is the main hub of the hostel/backpackers. This is where us intrepid travellers gather to meet up with friends, make new friends, watch TV/movies, use the internet, book tours or your next train/bus journey or ask the staff for sightseeing tips.
- Communal kitchen and dining area. Some hostels provide a kitchen giving you the choice to cook your own breakfast and dinner – this is handy when you’re on a tight budget or finances are running low. Generally speaking most hostels/backpackers provide breakfast – sometimes included in your room rate, sometimes at an extra charge. I particularly love the hostels that have their dining area/café on roof tops – it’s so special to peer over the town/city while having a drink with a few new or old friends.
So what tips can I give to first timers staying in backpacker hostels?
- Carry with you a sleeping bag, a sleeping bag liner and pillow case. Some hostels will provide sheets and blankets, others don’t (that’s when a sleeping bag comes in handy). If you don’t want that extra weight, then only book into hostels that provide linen. Remember that hostels are not 5 star hotels, so don’t expect everything to look crispy clean!
The pillow case is optional – some pillows can look so grotty. I’ve never travelled with a pillow case because my silk sleeping bag liner is designed with a pillow case attached. I never leave without my 100% silk liner – it rolls up so tiny, it’s so light in weight and adds extra warmth if placed inside a sleeping bag for those cold wintery places or camping.
- Ear plugs are essential if you’re a light sleeper. Many people about, all going to bed at different times. Plus you get the snorers too!
- Flip-flops – as multiples of people are using the shower, you will want to protect your feet from any nasty diseases such as tinea.
- Talk to other travellers. I love meeting new people in the communal lounge/sitting area. This is where I find out things I MUST see as well as places that are not worth it. Quite often I find out about places that weren’t even on my schedule because I didn’t know about them and they turned out to be truly amazing places that I was so glad to experience.
Sometimes you end up travelling with a new group for a short while and sometimes you meet up with travellers that you met in a hostel two months prior! It’s such joy to see where our travels took us. It is rewarding to share your experiences with other people – especially if you are travelling on your own
- You can now pre-book. When I first started backpacking in the late 90’s, there was no internet. So you just arrived at a city/town and either looked for a hostel booking booth to make your reservation or found a hostel in the Lonely Planet guide and made your way there hoping there was availability. Today, the adventure of finding accommodation is taken away with the advent of the booking engines on the internet.
Hostelworld is the site I use. It contains many hostels for each destination. You can view the details, the dorm prices and travellers feedback comments to help you make a decision and then make a reservation. Confirmation is instant.
Now yes, you do sometimes meet strange people, scary people and some look untrustworthy. But that can happen in hotels too. So always keep valuables in lockers or locked in your suitcase/backpack, as you would do in hotels (which provide safes instead of lockers).
Also, backpacker hostels have changed over the years. They are no longer all dingy, dirty, small accommodations – although some still do exist. But new backpacker hostels have emerged to suit the new type of travellers – glampackers! Check out this article from Hostelworld, showcasing 27 LUXURY hostels. It’s not about slumming anymore!
Some backpacker hostels also have 5 star views:
So hostelling is just another way of travelling. There is nothing to fear about, even if you’re a solo female traveller. In fact, it helps provide some security for solo travellers. It helps you open up to making new friends and experiencing new adventures.
Do you have any other tips for travellers new to backpacking and staying in backpacker hostels?