Life On The Road: Hostels

After a recent comment about a bad experience at a Bed & Breakfast, I started thinking about what makes a good place to sleep, and how I find such places. Throughout this post I use the word “hostel” because that is the name travelers look for most often, but really I am talking about any place to spend the night. Hotel, Motel, Hostel, Hospedaje, B&B, or anything else you can think of, it is all the same. Read on for how I find a good hostel, how to avoid a bad hostel, and how hostels could be improved to become better businesses.

There are four sections to this article. Read on or click a link to jump to a specific section:
Finding a Good Hostel
What I Personally Avoid
Suggestions For Hostels
Simple Suggestions For Improving A Hostel

NOTE: This article may be updated in the future as I travel!
NOTE: I ramble a lot in the lists below. Someday I may come back and edit all this to be more clear and concise.

I have never run a hostel I have never worked at a hostel. I have no clue how much of what I say is actually good for business. I just know what I look for and what has kept me in one place longer than I expected….

Finding a Good Hostel

Finding a good place to sleep can be done when you arrive in a town, but it is best to begin far in advance. Forget the internet review sights. I have universally found them to be misleading. Great if you want to find a party hostel, but if you are reading this article I can almost guarantee that is not what you are looking for. The best place to look is other travelers. Talk to other travelers. Talk to people who have been on vacation in the area you are headed to. Search internet forums used by a similar type of traveler for interesting locations. For example, Horizons Unlimited has forums dedicated to good motorcycle friendly places to sleep. If on the road for a long time, one of your first question to travelers going the opposite direction should be about interesting places to sleep.

When you arrive at the hostel, never check in until you have done the following:

  • If possible, get recommendations ahead of time on what is good (or bad).
  • If available, see what guide books say (Lonely Planet, Footprint, etc.), but be aware that it might have changed or that the reviewer might not actually have stayed there.
  • Ask about the price, even if it is listed on the wall in front of you. Ask if a discount is possible. If no price is listed at the counter, this is your indication to start bargaining.
  • Ask about any special considerations specific to you. For me, this is motorcycle parking and internet access (wifi).
  • Ask what is included (internet, breakfast, other meals, laundry, etc.). If the price is a little bit high, ask if services that normally cost extra can be included in the price.
  • When relevant, ask if you can get in all night. Many places it is common to lock the door at night, but such places normally have someone available all night to let you in and out.
  • Ask to see the room. Check the bed for comfort.
  • If in a dorm room, look for a few extra things: Consider potential security problems. Take a guess about the quality of roommates based on what is sitting around (you will learn this with experience). If in a bunk bed, test how sturdy it is (not much worse than a bunk that squeaks and sways at every twitch of the other person). Don’t forget to smell the room!
  • Look at the bathroom and verify it meets your standards. Ask about hot water availability.
  • Look around at the other facilities, especially at the quality and comfort of the communal area.
  • Pay attention to the type of guests.
  • Pay attention to any music being played and its type and volume.
  • If there is a restaurant or bar on-site, pay attention to how close your room is. Ask how loud it gets and what time it shuts down.
  • Was the staff polite and helpful during this entire process? Consider this one even after check-in and don’t be afraid to demand your money back and leave if there is a problem!

If anything does not meet your needs, walk away! Do not be afraid to look around at other options in the area. If you are at all suspicious that the place does not suit your needs, talk to some of the other guests and ask questions of them.

Lots of experience goes into this process. The longer I travel, the more accurately I can estimate a good hostel on arrival. This process is not foolproof, however. I sometimes miss something. I sometimes am too tired to notice warning signs of problems, or too tired to care. I sometimes do not have a choice because of the need for motorcycle parking.

What I Personally Avoid

Here are a few things I personally try to avoid when I can:

  • Party Hostels. They are almost universally noisy, uncomfortable, and filled with guests with no interest in courtesy to travelers who want to sleep.
  • Smelly rooms. Hard to sleep if you can’t breath.
  • Dirty shared bathrooms.
  • No common area, or one that looks uncomfortable. I want a place to relax and meet other travelers, not to hide in my room.
  • Lack of internet access if I expect an extended stay.
  • Lack of motorcycle parking.

My Ideal Hostel

I have seen lots of good and bad places to sleep in my travels and have a very clear picture in my mind of the perfect hostel. The list below gives an idea of what I am ideally looking for as a long-term motorcycle traveler. Note that this will NOT apply to all types of places to sleep! Business travelers, vacationers, and people quickly passing through town all have their own set of requirements each night that differ from my own!

Yes, I know this list is a bit of a hodgepodge of things I look for and suggestions for things I think a hostel should provide.

  • Secure motorcycle parking on-site. Bonus features: close to my room and space to work on the bike.
  • Dorm rooms and private rooms available. Best setups I have seen have some rooms with 4-6 beds that double as both dorm rooms and private rooms depending on how many beds are rented. Many long-term travelers are delighted to give up privacy in return for saving some money. Dorm rooms should be relatively inexpensive compared to local prices, even if private rooms cost more. Best setup I’ve seen has dorm room prices vary based on the size of the room (and thus space available for each person).
  • In dorm rooms, provide large lockers for each person. Sufficient for a large backpack. (or bulky riding gear and luggage in my case).
  • If space for this is not available, it helps to have beds high enough off the ground to put lots of stuff underneath.

  • Comfortable beds. If using bunk beds, sturdy enough that sleepers do not bother each other.
  • Rooms isolated from any sources of noise to the extent possible.
  • Rules that are strictly enforced. My favorite is a quiet time from Midnight – to 7:00 AM (or perhaps 2:00AM – 7:00 AM for the weekend). I want to be able to sleep, but also want to be able to have fun!
  • A common area to relax in and meet other travelers. Should have lots of plugs for electronic devices. A mix of hammocks and tables is ideal (include power outlets at the hammocks).
  • Shared bathrooms are fine, but work best when the toilet is in a separate room from the shower and sink. At least two of each should be available.
  • If the plumbing cannot support toilet paper, be certain the waste basket is big enough for the use it will get!
  • Internet access, both wifi and on a computer provided by the hostel. Charging a minimal fee for the use of a hostel computer is a good way to offset the cost of making this available.
  • Drinks and snacks available at the hostel at a reasonable price. Should include beer and water.
  • If outside of town, provide a restaurant, but be aware of potential noise issues!
  • In a city, provide activities most nights to make the location more interesting. Examples: Movie night if there is a place to setup a projector. Language exchange between travelers and/or locals. Karaoke. Social night (best I have encountered was $1 for unlimited Margaritas followed by a guided tour of bars/nightclubs nearby). Remember to enforce the rules on event nights! If an event is unusually loud later than about 10:00PM, consider warning travelers of this when they check in!
  • Provide Free towels.
  • Provide on-site laundry service (for a fee, of course).
  • A kitchen for communal use.
  • Interesting location. Either great natural scenes or interesting city stuff within easy walking distance.
  • Good food. Either have restaurant recommendations or, ideally an on-site restaurant with a good cook.
  • A fireplace, especially if it gets cold at night.
  • A few games. Board games, pool table, deck of cards, etc.
  • A book exchange. Allow travelers staying more than one night to borrow a book.
  • A friendly cat. I realize this causes problems with some people who are allergic, but to me this is a great touch.
  • Location for camping if outside a city, especially if there is a time of year with little rain.
  • In places that get cold at night, hot drinks available all the time (hot water for tea and instant coffee is sufficient). Boil yourself in the kitchen is sufficient.
  • Provide speakers where guests can plug in their own MP3 player or computer for music. Works best if there are two common areas, one that gets the music and one that does not!

Simple Suggestions For Improving A Hostel

The above list is a mixed list of stuff I would like to see in a perfect world, but what can hostels do to attract more travelers for a minimal cost? This list of changes could make a huge difference in the quality of most places I have slept yet the cost is minimal in most cases.

  • Comfortable beds. No matter how nice a place is otherwise, uncomfortable beds can drive me away. An unusually comfortable bed has more than once lured me into staying an extra night!
  • Clean and colorful building/rooms. Even just using non-white paint helps a lot!
  • Comfortable common area to relax and meet other travelers. Minimum is three comfortable chairs. Ideal is a few hammocks and tables and sofas.
  • Friendly and helpful staff that knows the local area.
  • Information on things to do in the local area. Printed handouts help but are not needed.
  • Clean bathrooms!
  • Internet access (no matter how basic).

10 comments to Life On The Road: Hostels

  • Elizabeth

    Lot’s of great info there. And most of it is really common sense, but things that you just don’t always think about. Thanks for putting that together!.

    One comment struck me as odd. But then I’ve not been to the types of places you have so far. “If the plumbing cannot support toilet paper, be certain the waste basket is big enough for the use it will get!” Wow… plumbing that doesn’t support TP! I guess living where we do, that doesn’t come to mind. I can see how that could also be a smelly problem too. Especially in the case of a messy #2…

    It would be interesting to hear what a hostel/b&b owner would say about your lists.

    • othalan

      Bathrooms are one of the more …. broadening …. experiences. Yes, TP typically goes in a waste basket. Yes, it can get nasty beyond words when the bin is too small. Another interesting feature is a frequent lack of toilet seats….

  • Mom

    Travel with my parents used almost the identical criteria in the 1940’s. Dad and Mom went into the cabin and checked all mentioned above.

    • othalan

      Just to be clear, I would now look for all this in the USA and Canada too. The average quality of a room is higher, but there are still lots of problems that can make for a miserable experience.

  • Margaret

    I’m way behind reading, due to multiple business trips. Ecellent list, but so different from mine for business!

    My Likes: a high quality restaraunt in the hotel that is open all day; room service is available any time; shower has some way to stop water splashing around the room (surprisingly rare); room is large enough for a nice sitting area / miniature living room.

    My Dislikes: neighbors who can be heard through the wall (especially after 10pm); maids who throw away my soap; free American breakfast of cardboard eggs, stale pasteries, flavorless sausage, and coffee flavored tea.

    Imponderable: All hotel bathrooms have a sign saying that the maid will leave a towel if you hang it up, thus saving water. I’ve only had a maid do this twice in ten years with 10% to 20% of my nights spent in hotels. What is up with that?

    When I’m feeling social, I seek out business associates. The hotel’s common spaces are irrelevant except for the bar, which typically serves a good meal at a fraction of the price of the sit-down restaurant and much faster besides.

    • Elizabeth

      I agree about the sign about the towels & saving water! I also have yet to find a hotel that has actually left the towel behind even when I hang it up again. I think they put the sign there because it gives people the warm fuzzy that they (potentially) do something for the environment. When in all reality they don’t enforce such practice. Not to say they don’t have rules or regulations for the maid / cleaning staff… I don’t think they enforce them.

    • Margaret

      Ken thinks that the maids are told to wash the towels, in direct contradiciton to the sign. Your “warmy fuzzy” theory makes sense to me.

      I enjoyed this posting reviewing hostels. It really highlighted the differences for me, between these two very different types of travel. For one thing, I rarely find my own hotel–my host recommends a hotel. Hotels focused on business travel don’t have organized activities for guests to meet one another and interact (like karaoke); they have guided tours of nearby points of interest. Instead of a common social area that encourages people to meet and interact, business hotels have chairs and sofas at the hotel entrance, where you can get free wifi or meet with business colleagues on your way to dinner or a meeting.

      Another difference is my attitude. Once I’ve closed the door to my hotel room, it feels like “home” to me immediately. That’s relatively new. It used to be that I had to unpack first, which let wander around and familiarize myself with the room. The rest of the hotel is “outside”.

      • othalan

        Sounds like the same phases of “home” I went through. Now, the bike feels like home so I never seem to leave. But I would probably feel lost without the Phoenix nearby! Curiously, this means I have very little differentiation between “inside” and “outside”, even if I have an actual room.

        I agree with your view on business travel hotels. Very different requirements from traveling for non-business reasons. Towels….I too never had a dirty towel left for more use no matter where it was placed. I suspected that either house cleaning is not actually told of this policy, or perhaps there is a conflict between “being green” and a rule to “keep the room clean”.

        An interesting difference in Latin America: Towels will typically never be changed out unless you request it. Most places will not even clean your room during a stay unless specifically requested, so that you don’t have to worry about safety of your stuff. At least this is true for the types of places I stay at.

  • It’s always a bonus when a hostel provides free drinking water.

    • othalan

      I admit, I do rather like that. Free drinking water was very common in Mexico and has gotten more and more rare as I travel south.

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