I’ve been spending the blog mentioning hostels, discussing the pitfalls and their benefits, but I don’t know that I’ve gone into enough detail about them. Before my trip, I had never stayed in a hostel, or even considered one, choosing budget motels if I ever was travelling by myself or with friends. I know that that is the case with most of the few people reading this blog. Some people in response to my decision to stay in hostels before I left asked me, eyes wide in terror, if I had seen the movie Hostel. No, I haven’t, and don’t be an idiot.
So here is my rundown and thoughts on hostels. The following is based only on my experience, and it should be noted how much hostels vary.
-Assuming you go for a large dorm, it’s cheap (mostly: a bed in an Amsterdam hostel on the weekends can set you back 40-50 euros a night!) and provides much the same as a motel would, . They range from private suites to doubles to solely female rooms or male rooms to a few people to up to like 40 people; the more people, the cheaper, the less likely you are to get a full night’s sleep and the more likely you are to make long lasting friends. While I’ve had some bad nights, some of which I haven’t gotten to yet in my blog, I’ve never regretted staying in a hostel for the amount of people in the room.
-It’s almost always a social bonanza. I’ve had a few hostels whose common areas were a dead zone for chatter and merely a place for wifi at your own table, but most have groups of people randomly thrown together, getting to know each other, and within 3 minutes, have plans to get drunk together or see the city, what have you. Others take this to the next level, with crazy happening bars, happy hours, people everywhere, pub crawls, outings at clubs organized, walking tours, etc.
-I’ve stayed at one that had free dinner every night (the Kabul hostel in Barcelona), and it actually didn’t suck. I felt like orphan Annie amidst a sea of orphans, but at least I got some more baguettes.
-The internet. All hostels have WIFI, though some have shitty connections and don’t spread out across the entire hostel. Some have free computers in the lobby to use whenever you want, though most of these have connections that reboot every so often, I suppose in an effort to kick you off, or just because they have shitty internet. Still, you can’t complain with a place that has free computers to use. Some charge you exorbitant prices, others have WIFI in select rooms and spaces and dangle these nice computers in front of you that you have to pay for. The aforementioned Kabul Hostel was actually one of the worst: it had internet on the 5th floor that you could access most of the time, but the lobby and main common room you had to either pay for, or only got 20 minutes a day for your time at the hostel. Also, this place had almost NO outlets in the entire hostel, necessitating you to charge your laptop or anything at the front desk. Truly cheap and ridiculous.
-The complimentary/free breakfasts. This isn’t always the case, but most have strict eating times and only provide toast, butter, jams, and watered down juice, coffee or tea every morning. Some also provide cereal, but it’s usually whole grain tasteless crap. This standard meal gets wrote pretty fucking quickly. Some have better stuff but charge you obscene amounts for them. In Edinburgh, some lady wanted 2 pounds for a mini box of Cheerio’s, or whatever the hell it was. Others provide apples, most of which are grainy and bruised, but it’s better than nothing. The best was the free legitimate English breakfasts at Lagan Backpackers in Belfast, that had an actual menu to pick from (of course this place also gave me bed bugs and Bieber fever).
-The beds and trying to sleep. First, you better get used to cramped spaces inbetween beds with little room for any extranneous shit, and subpar pillows. And bunk beds, lots of bunk beds. You’ll have to deal with being on the top bunk, or being on the bottom with someone shimmying on top of you. A lot of the beds have the tiniest ladders ever that are difficult even when sober, and I’ve seen beds without ladders. Don’t ask me how people got up, I was lucky enough to be on the bottom. Some rooms, however, are better spaced out, and don’t try and squeeze as many beds/money into one room, allowing for more room to breathe and a more comfortable experience. St. Christopher’s in Paris had screens for privacy and reading lights. In terms of trying to sleep, it’s not always bad, since some hostels are relatively quiet and not “party” hostels, but most have travellers getting up at all sorts of wacky times to go to their next destination, others coming back from the bars drunk off their ass, and there’s always a few people that are insanely disrespectful. No one can gripe with you trying to catch your bus and zipping up all your bags and shit, but if you come back at 4 AM and continually switch on and off the lights (the worst), scream, talk to your buddies like it’s 9 PM or snore like you’re a fucking freight train, that’s when you regret the hostel life. This also goes the other way: if you’re meeting new people, drinking, socializing on a Friday or Saturday night in a dorm of 20 people and one person asks everyone to leave because they want to sleep. Sorry bro, it’s not happening. I recommend earplugs, but for me, they feel weird and always pop out. A lot of people use their ipod and listen to their music, which is a better alternative.
-Trying to get it on. Some couples travel and sleep in the same bed (which is against the rules, but nobody follows that) and create little caves of privacy, using blankets and towels to hide their bed. Other couples sleep separately in a bunk bed. A lot of people bring guys or girls back to their beds, but in my travels I’ve actually never been disturbed by it; either I sleep through it, or most of the guys in my dorms go elsewhere for it, or they just come to snuggle. I’ve heard a story about a guy bringing a girl back in about a 20 room dorm, and them having coitus in front of the entire room, with people cheering them on, a bedroom turning into some twisted auditorium or colisseum (or an Amsterdam sex show), with the girl slipping out afterwards. This actually repulses me, and something I could never do. Part of it would be stage fright, but also, I don’t think I want to sleep with a woman who’d be willing to do something like that. Maybe I just haven’t been drunk enough. You can try and do stuff on the sly, and that adds to the fun, but anything more than that…eh. Note to self: meet locals who have apartments.
-The showers. They’re cramped, on timers, have weak shower heads, and hot water is sporadic at best. Some never get hot, others get blindingly hot within seconds/minutes which is even less useful and much more painful. The worst I had was one where you had to continually pull down a chain for the water to go, leaving me with one hand to bathe and shampoo myself. Again, some showers are normal and don’t shut off every 5-15 seconds (you have to keep pushing a button to start the water again) and allow you to take a shower as long as you normally would at home. When you get those, you take advantage. For those with locker room shower phobia or are a never-nude, you’ll be fine. All showers have separate booths or whatever, and you can change in one of those, or in a stall, or wait till the coast is clear, etc. It’s not an issue.
-The help/front desk. Some workers are young, vivacious and like you. They’ll tell you the best and cheapest places to eat, they’ll let you know where to party, they’ll party with you, they’ll draw everything on a map and let you know the name of the girl you slept with last night so you can facebook them the next day. Others send you to chain restaurants when asked for local cuisinal goodness, are gruff, unhelpful, and try to charge you for a conversation, or won’t shut up about that night’s pub crawl that has four people signed up with names like Tyson.
-Booking/finding them. If you can get advice from fellow travellers, do it. Take their recommendations. They usually want the same thing you do (comfort, wi-fi, friends, fun, security, etc.). If you don’t, it gets trickier. There are a lot of websites with listings for hostels to book in advance. I know many travellers that don’t book in advance and prefer to wander till they find one, or pick a couple out in advance and just show up hoping they have rooms (this is probably safe during off-peak months and weekdays but you’re playing with fire on the weekends). I can’t do this; I need to know that I have a bed saved for me, especially after the feeling of terror I had in London when my booking didn’t go through when I was just starting this trip. I’m not sure what happened with that, but I think the website simply didn’t load properly; you’ll get an e-mail confirmation instantaneously if it went through but I didn’t know that then.
The main website I’ve used is hostelworld.com, which has the largest selection and is essentially the backpacker’s bible. It has reviews, prices, maps, but does charge a booking fee, which is unfortunate, and why some travellers prefer to book the day of in person. Hostelbookers.com doesn’t have a booking fee, but has a limited selection. If I know where to stay, I search it there first. There are also various hostels across Europe that are apart of organizations, including Famoushostels.com, of which I have stayed at them, purposefully or not, in London, Paris, Dublin and Barcelona. Their website is free to book, and these hostels are some of the best out there. Because they are a large organization they are usually cheaper, have as good a facilities as you will find, and a lot of activities for you to do, and these are the party hostels. You don’t want to just do these or else you’ll never sleep, and the charms of a quaint little hostel outside of the city center is more appealing sometimes. One of the problems I’ve had, and again, it’s been stupidity more than anything else, was locations of my hostels. I’ve chosen hostels that are far away from the city center and a pain in the ass to get to with all your bags from a bus or train station or airport, and I’m just awful with directions without a map (which you usually won’t have until you reach your hostel, though you can buy them at information centers and the like).
Many hostels add to the confusion by advertising themselves as close to the city or in the best location and you soon find were full of shit and just want your money, just like every other business. The worst was a hostel that advertised itself as being in Dingle and was listed under that city, but was really in a small street/city called Anauscaul nearly 8 KM. When I arrived in Dingle just before dark after a full day of buses to get there, I was pretty fucking upset to find that I had no way to actually get there (it’s a tiny town on the west coast of Ireland; it’s not meant to be easy to get around). That said, it proved to be serindipitous, which will be documented later.
The problem is that usually when booking a hostel, you have limited internet access, not a lot of time, and are distracted by all the other travel flotsam, so you’re in a rush to find one, and sometimes this leads to poor decisions. But again, even if it’s a bad one, and there are bad ones, you almost always won’t be suffering alone (I’ve only had one night where I had a room to myself).
-Bed bugs. I’ve gotten them twice. Once in Belfast that I mentioned which actually was no big deal from what I would encounter later. I’ll save the story for Barcelona and the infamous Kabul Hostel. Bed bugs are the bane of a hostel’s existence, but there’s really no way to combat them. If you get them, tell the reception immediately, and they will do their best to eradicate them. Good luck.
-Thieves. I’ve never had anything stolen except for stuff that I’ve forgotten in the shower (except for a cream puff I left in the fridge for later in Amsterdam without marking my name on it, my own damn fault amidst the munchie maven of Holland), and even that could’ve been just cleaned up by maids and left at the front desk. That said, you have to be on constant vigil, and some hostels don’t even have lockers. Some vary in size and can only keep the most important stuff safe, others can fit all your bags, liquor bottles and dead bodies, and some are in separate rooms where the hostels charge you for locks, even if you have one, which sucks (my pet peeve is when hostels take advantage of travellers by peppering little charges whenever you want something basic and necessary that many hostels do free of charge). But mostly, you know when your shit is safe in your bones once you’ve been travelling for awhile; most everyone are travellers like you, and if they are open and leave their laptops and stuff out in the open, why should I worry about my underwear? Take that shit. For me, I leave my backpack in the room without a care in the world, but I need my smaller day pack with my life essentials (passport, credit cards, laptop, camera, etc.) locked up somewhere, on my back or in my hand, or at the very least, in my bed nestled next to me.
-Getting stuck in a room with Kimpossible (Edinburgh) or with the Pope of Snoring or with someone who sleep walks and tries to diddle you while you sleep (okay that never happened, but it COULD).
Sometimes it blows, for sure (and I think you should treat yourself to a private bed in a hotel every once in awhile on long journeys; of course, I’ve only done this once, but I’ve been able to stay at people’s houses and apartments, which is better), but there is no better and more reasonable way to travel, and I don’t think this opinion is restricted to backpacking. I know that, until I have a family or a wife that I want to bone at my own discretion (then: bed and breakfast), I will always search out hostels in the places I will stay, whether I’m there for a day, or a week, or 97 days bumming around, bed bugs or no. I’d even like to spend a weekend in a Seattle hostel and see what it’s like.
Hostels, Auberges, Hostals, or whatever the name for them, are cheaper than motels and you get almost the same “amenities.” The money you can save can be better spent on the important stuff: food, booze and tourist crap. Where else can I meet someone from Canada, Norway, Poland and Australia in the same room as a guy who graduated in the same year as me at Ithaca College? It’s a Master’s in being social, college to the nth power, a melting pot of crusty linen. Instead of being isolated from the city you want to “see” in a hotel room, you are thrust in the middle of it with a bunch of people from all walks of life, different cultures, languages, hometowns, likes, dislikes, but with one important common denominator that Cindi Lauper can appreciate: everyone just wants to have fun (ew).