As I get older and enter my 5th straight year of international travel, I start to ask myself whether I should still use hostels (youth hostels, pensions, etc) or if I should just stick to Airbnb or hotels. Well, to start off, if you’re under 25, the answer is simply yes. You’re young, hostels are cheap, and you’re going to want to party, so just do it! For me, as I am in my early to mid 30s now, its harder to go to a hostel and be around 19-28 year olds (though they all think I am 24, thanks to my youthful looks..). I don’t want to be creepy old guy and at what point am I too old to be raging with the kids? But I’ve had great adventures with the hostel experience, and continue to do so. So I would like to break down the pros and cons of staying in a hostel, to help you decide for your next trip, be it your first, or you’re an experienced and older traveler like myself.
The pros of staying in a hostel are fairly obvious. First off, its cheap, and if you shop around, really cheap. Secondly, its a great way to meet people, especially if you’re traveling solo or in a new place where you don’t know anybody. Since you will likely be sharing a room of 4-12 people, unless you’re super socially awkward, you will meet people within the first few minutes of arriving. A third pro is that almost universally, the language used by staff and spoken between travelers will be English. Signs, instructions, local tourist information, etc, will more than likely all be in English first (other languages too). And a fourth reason being that you have free help should you need information about local tours, things to do, arranging bus or train tickets, even knowing important things like what you should and shouldn’t pay for things like taxi rides or goods, and how to avoid being ripped off. They can also organize the most fun and interesting tours of the local and regional places, which means you will go with the hostel group, not strangers.
The cons of staying in a hostel include what you expect from a cheap place: lack of privacy, the rare but possible chance of getting things stolen (though overwhelmingly, people are honest and trustworthy and in all my years on the road, never once has this been an issue), sub-standard toilets and showers, never really having any alone time, being around loud, irresponsible, drunk kids on a pussy/dick hunt, and if you meet someone “special”, you have no where to go to be alone. Sometimes you want your own space, quiet time, and though you can pick hostels that offer private rooms, or pricier places with more amenities, that defeats the purpose of saving as much money as possible. And then again, for me, the lack of being around a majority of people my own age, though travelers tend to be ageless, as I’ve met great people 28 and over!
So let me run through these points with more detail. First point, cheap cost. Cost is usually the main incentive for choosing a hostel, especially with a long trip, the cost of lodging adds up quick, and its wise to save as much as you can at every stop. But for the cheap cost, you give up a few basics. First is privacy, you’re in a room of usually 8 people, mixed male/female. Dorm style beds are standard and you can hear everyone snoring, talking, coming in late drunk, and sometimes.. doing the horizontal polka (though I think I only experienced this once, most people are usually respectful). I find a good pair of earplugs solves this problem quick. Also, usually bathrooms are communal, boy and girl, and sometimes they are wide open, sometimes they are more private. For really cheap places in less developed countries, you may have some very basic bathroom situations, so always carry wet wipes with you. But most hostels have decent bathrooms, some even have the bathroom in the share room, so your room has their own setup. Overall, the one thing to be prepared for is you may be showering next to someone or pooping next to someone you don’t know, so just get over it, there is no time for shyness.
Another point that is very important is the ability to meet fellow travelers. For me, this is a big plus, as usually I decide on a hostel if I am in a city where I have no friends or haven’t been before, usually because I am solo and travel is better if you have people to explore with, party with, and in some destinations, traveling in groups is safer than being alone. The good thing about hostels is that they almost always have a communal meeting room, rooftop, kitchen, etc, where you can meet people (if you haven’t already met people in your room). Just go up to someone and say hi, they want to talk to you as badly as you want to talk to them. Especially if you’re sharing a room, its inevitable that you will introduce yourself to your bedmates, and actually, creepy if you don’t. As you walk into your room, someone will always say hi, ask where you’re from, and your travel plans. I call this the Traveler’s Icebreaker, it’s how everyone starts conversation. That and you don’t want to be the quiet guy who isn’t talking to anyone, that’s just creepy. So say hi! Everyone there is there for the same reason you are: to see a new place, save money, meet people, have an adventure. And you’ll be a lot less pissed off about the noise at 3am if you’re with the people making the noise because you just came in from an epic night of partying! And for safety reasons, some places like Hanoi, its good to, if you’re out late, walk with a group (especially if you’ve been drinking). I can’t really think of a con for this point.
Thirdly, English is pretty much the default universal language of any hostel, anywhere in the world. I’ve stayed in places in Europe, North Africa, Asia one side to the other, and since English is the language of travel, it’s the language of the hostel. Now you will meet people from all walks of the planet, Australians, Israeli, Chinese, French, German, Russian, Japanese, American, Canadian, Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean, Polish, Turkish, Indian, etc etc etc. But since you usually can’t tell from looking, what a person speaks, everyone usually begins those ice-breaker chats in English. If anything, this is a comfort when you find yourself in a far away land where you don’t even know how to say “hello” or “thank you”. Makes it that much easier to make friends and have a crew to help you get by in a new place. Also a good chance you’ll meet someone who speaks not only English, but the native language. Then you have someone to help you get around, get food, sim cards (if you’re staying a while), etc. For non English speakers, its also a great way to meet others who speak your language, as most hostels, its common to have at least 10 different nationalities present at any time. Germans, Dutch, French, you’ll be in good company!
And the fourth benefit is that you will have a group of trusted local to help you figure out things that you wouldn’t on your own. When I was in Hanoi, this was especially helpful, as unfortunately, being a Westerner there meant everyone (ok not everyone..) was trying to rip you off. Having staff who spoke English and Vietnamese was helpful because they were able to arrange taxi’s to and from the airport, using people they knew wouldn’t rip us off or making sure to negotiate with services who would give us the proper price. Even just hailing us cabs to take us to places close by, they knew who to use and not to use. They can also call ahead other hotels/hostels, destinations, etc, if you need information on how to get to your next place, best way to get there, etc, as they can call the locals and speak for you, then relay the info. They will also have general knowledge of the best places to go, things to do, where to party, and how to avoid common scams and rip-offs. This is all information they can give you in English, and often, in other languages as well. This kind of help is invaluable and a major reason I use hostels still in places where English is definitely not the main language and Westerners are scarce.
They are also able to help arrange tours, as most hostels in touristic places will have their own tour packages that they negotiate with trusted locals. In Hanoi, there are so many places offering Halong Bay tours or tours to Sapa or other places in the area. A lot of them were fine, but many were not to be trusted (as evidenced by bad reviews online). The hostel had its own packages that meant instead of going on a tour with a bunch of strangers, you’re going with the people at the hostel, people you’ve met, eaten/drank with, explored with, and partied with together. Usually the cost is not much different from the places on the street, and even if its a few dollars more, its worth it to go with people you know or at least have a connection. And the stress of not knowing if its a trustworthy company will be gone. Oh and you’ll get drunk and have a blast, so yeah, there’s that! The last tour I took (as of writing this) was a booze cruise to Halong Bay, Vietnam, with the hostel. I think I paid maybe $6 more than the average rate on the street, but I went with a massive crew of people I met at the hostel, we partied till like 2 am, and have the best time ever. Had I taken a street cruise, I would have been with families and their kids having a sober experience. So consider this too when thinking of a hostel.
So end of the day, its really just up to you and what you want. Sometimes I get a hostel, even when I have friends locally, because I want the freedom to be “alone” if I need to work or just need a day off and if its $9 to sleep in a hostel than awkwardly on a friend’s couch at 4 pm, then I do it. If you are feeling really alone or lost in a new place, just go for the hostel. In some places, depending on the time of the year (low season), you may have the place to yourself. I went to hostel in Marrakech once, and I swear, there were like 3 other people there. Massive, awesome place, and I had it all to myself.. for like $8! Cheap accommodation and alone time.
Going back to the age issue, I am not at the point where that is the real problem, I’ve met many great people over the age of 28, some even late 30s and early 40s, who were really cool. And they definitely helped me feel ok about my decision, as I had an older crew to keep me company. But I’ve definitely found myself in the middle of a party full of 22 year olds.. and sometimes, just go with it.. If anything, it will make for a good story. And on the road, a good story always trumps anything! But as you get older, consider, as I do, the items above and decide what is best for you. If it really boils down to money, go for the hostel, but be aware you may sacrifice quiet time and be around the youngins. But roll with it!
But hope this has helped in your final decision. Happy traveling!
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