Just as a great hostel can make a trip, a crappy one can break it. Mice, bugs, other people’s bodily fluids, flooded showers, cold showers, not enough showers, a bad crowd, filthy beds, smelly beds, beds that might as well be the floor: this is a small sampling of the horrors that can leave you feeling crusty and unnerved for the duration of your stay. At this point, I’ve seen the awesome and the awful, and I know what to look out for when booking my stay. Some tips:
Location: It’s all fine and well to book a dirt-cheap hostel far from the city center, but be sure to calculate how much you’ll have to use public transport, what that will cost, and how long it will take. You don’t want the price of transportation to the city’s attractions to negate the money you thought you were saving, nor do you want to be on a bus for three hours a day. You also want it to be safe. Quickly Google the safety of the area you’re visiting, and check Street View. Will you feel safe coming back to the hostel after a night out, or leaving it early in the morning? Is the hostel very isolated? What are the operating hours of the nearest public transportation?
Bed bugs: This is a big one for me, though other people have surprised me with their lack of concern about it. I personally don’t want to carry bugs back to my home, where they can multiply and cost a gabajillion dollars to exterminate. When booking a hostel, I usually Google “[name of hostel] [city or town name] bed bugs” and just look at the first page, as well as check registries like http://tinyurl.com/pt79x5y, if available. It takes 30 seconds.
24-hour reception: If you plan to arrive at night, make sure you know that the hostel has 24-hour (or at least late-night) reception. You don’t want to be out in the cold at 2 am with nowhere to go (this has happened to me in not-so-safe cities and is not-so-fun).
Internet access: Especially in cities and countries with limited public wifi access, check if you can get it for free at your hostel. It’s pretty annoying when you need to book the next night of your trip, and there’s only one computer, and it’s making dial-up noises, and it costs 2 euros for half an hour.
Is it a total shithole?: Hostels, by their nature, are hard to keep clean, and a pristine hostel is a rare thing. Manage your expectations and just make sure that you’re not going to stick to every surface. The reviews on sites like Hostelbookers.com and Hostelworld.com can be useful, as long as you ignore the ones that have clearly been written by princes and princesses who’ve never shared living space before. If EVERYONE seems to be saying that they slept in poo, however, then it’s probably a good idea to move on.
Bonuses (features that are really nice, but rare at the time I posted this)
Lockers: Free lockers in the room so that you don’t have to pay to protect your stuff. I pack light, and when there aren’t free lockers, I usually keep my valuables (camera, wallet, passport, phone) with me during the day and sleep with them at night as a precaution.
Curtains: Curtains that you can pull around your bed, making the dorm experience just slightly more private. Also, when the bathroom situation is less than ideal, the curtained bed works as a built-in changing room for the modest.
Lamps and outlets next to beds: This way you can charge your phone while you sleep, instead of just barely keeping it alive when you have a free moment to plug it in during the day. Lamps make it so that you don’t have to get ready in the dark, and other people can’t keep you awake flipping the room light on and off.
Social atmosphere: Is the common room big and comfortable? What is the kitchen like? Does the hostel host or recommend any social events? Photos and reviews posted on hostel booking sites, as well as hostel websites themselves, can help you judge the ambiance and crowd. Some hostels are exactly like frat houses, others are like impersonal no-frills chain hotels. Some are cozy, some are wild. I personally prefer cozy-but-social, so that I can meet some nice people to go out with if I and my friends so choose, but not so social that I have to deal with wasted dudes trying to pee on me or climb into my bed in the middle of the night.
A view like this, from the Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, Switzerland, is also nice.