What Are Hostels – A Guide To Answer: What Is A Hostel?

What are hostels?

As long term travellers, we have stayed in hundreds of different accommodation types.

When we first set off on our trip, we had no idea what to expect from hostels. We relied solely upon the blog posts we could find online to fill us in. 

We were both a little apprehensive on our first night in a shared dorm room in a Bangkok hostel.

Fast forward 5 years, and we’ve now stayed in hundreds of hostels. We’ve spent many, many nights in all kinds of hostel beds. From shared dorm rooms to luxury private rooms, we’ve seen it all. 

Well, now that we have the experience, we are ready to share everything we know about what hostels are. So, here is our guide to: what is a hostel?

Types of hostel

To be honest, there are so many different kinds of hostels, that it’s impossible to describe every one. However, usually hostels fall under one of two categories: budget or luxury.

Budget

This is the typical ‘backpacker hostel’. The cheapest place in town, with the cheapest room in town. Think: ‘sharing a room full of bunk beds with 30 other strangers’. 

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this kind of establishment. It’s just that that’s their aim. Give people a really low price, and just a bed in a room in return. That’s all a lot of travellers want.

We’ve stayed in a number of hostels like this. And, honestly, they’re not really worth the money saving most of the time. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re getting old now (27 at the time of writing), but there’s something about the risk of bed bugs and being woken up at 3.30am by a fully grown, crying German man that just makes it so unappealing now.

But, they are what they are. So, if you don’t mind sharing 3 feet of floor space with 3 other people, and being woken up at the crack of dawn by someone packing their bags loudly, then this is the type of hostel for you! 

If you do stay in one of these big, shared rooms, just make sure you bring earplugs and an eye mask to help you sleep.

bunk beds in hostel

Luxury / High-end

As the name suggests, these hostels are the more expensive kind. But, the expense is usually justified. 

Although most luxury / high-end hostels do have dorm rooms, they are generally much, much nicer than the budget equivalent. Most luxury hostel dorm rooms are usually no larger than 6 beds. That means less people to be potentially disturbed by in the late hours of the night.

And, if you’re only sharing a room with just 5 other people, it makes it much easier to socialise and get to know each other. We’ve stayed in a lot of small dorm rooms where we’ve exchanged travel tips and gone to dinner with the people in the bed opposite.

Another great factor in these dorm rooms is the facilities. Although you will still be sleeping in bunk beds, they’re usually more like little ‘pods’ than actual bunk beds. With your own light-blocking curtain, and a sturdy frame around you, it’s like staying in your own little private room.

Each bed will usually be equipped with a light, USB ports, a plug outlet and a little shelf for you to charge your devices. In some hot countries, you’ll also probably get a fan. That way, you’re less likely to be disturbed by other people turning on the main light and fighting for the AC remote.

In general, the facilities will be better in a luxury hostel. You’ll probably find a kitchen and a social/common area of some kind. There may also be a restaurant or bar attached and some even have swimming pools. The staff in these hostels may also run various events and activities for guests, and will be able to help you book tours independently or with them.

luxury dorm room in a hostel
Fancy hostel dorm room

Types of rooms

The types of rooms in a hostel can usually be broken down into two categories: shared and private. Shared rooms are often referred to as dorms – or dormitories.

The difference between the two is obviously whether you share the room with other people, or if you get the whole room to yourself. A private room can have a private bathroom (sometimes referred to as ensuite) or it can have a shared bathroom.

Whether or not the room has a private or shared bathroom is often reflected in the price.

Dorms / Shared

This is where the vast majority of people staying in hostels end up. Dorms are what set hostels apart from hotels and guesthouses. For the most part, if you want to stay in a dorm, you stay in a hostel.

As stated above, dorms vary considerably from one hostel to another. Some dorm rooms are amazing. They’re spacious, clean, air-conditioned and safe. Some offer little pods of privacy within your bed space, and it is almost like having your own little private room. Some hostel beds are so solid, it’s easy to forget that there is someone above/below you.

hostel dorm room

However, the opposite can also be true, and we have stayed in some truly awful dorm rooms. Tiny, flimsy bunk beds, 6 square feet floor space and 20 beds to a room. With one toilet and shower to share between everyone, it can get pretty nasty sometimes.

Personally, I would recommend giving dorm/ shared rooms a go. If you don’t like it, don’t stay in one again. Generally, they’re much better suited to a younger, more party-oriented crowd; typical backpacker material. However, some nicer, more expensive dorm rooms can be lovely, and feel worlds apart from the smelly, 30 bed dorms in the cheaper hostels.

Private

In many of the hostels we have stayed in, the private rooms work out more expensive than the equivalent in a guesthouse. A lot of the time, hostel private rooms are overpriced for what they are, and you can actually get a much better room for less money elsewhere.

Sometimes, the private rooms in a hostel can be lovely. We’ve stayed in some amazing private hostel rooms in numerous countries. However, they do tend to be very expensive for what you get. Particularly if you compare it to nearby guesthouses.

what are hostels
Private room in a hostel

Having said that, they are almost always cheaper than staying in a hotel, and offer a great social element to travelling. For some people, the shared common spaces and opportunities to mingle with other travellers are what set hostels apart. Therefore, it’s worth paying the extra price for a private room in a hostel.

Pros & Cons

So why stay in a hostel? Well, there’s lots of good reasons.

Pros 

The main highlight of staying in a hostel is the social atmosphere. We’ve stayed in so many hostels where we’ve met loads of amazing other travellers. Most hostels have a common area for chilling out in. They vary in quality, but some of the better ones are spacious, comfortable and attract a nice crowd.

Also, a lot of hostels arrange events and activities. From pub crawls and drinking games, to walking tours and cooking classes. Some of the activities put together by good hostels can be great opportunities to learn about the local culture and meet new people. 

There’s also the cooking facilities. In some hostels there are fully equipped kitchens for cooking your own meals. We’ve found that these are particularly common across Europe, Japan and the US. The quality of the kitchen equipment varies greatly depending on the hostel, but sometimes they can be a great way of saving money on food whilst travelling.

To see how we saved money on food during our one month Japan trip, read this post!

Cons

So, the negatives. Staying in dorm rooms can be a negative experience sometimes. The other travellers that you share the room with can completely change your whole stay. If you end up sharing a room with disrespectful people, you’ll end up hating it. They will leave the main light on at 2am, shout while you’re sleeping, pack their bags loudly at 3am and hang smelly clothes all over the room.

Some hostels also have bars attached, and sometimes these bars will play loud music until the early hours of the morning. If you’re going to be in the bar every night, it won’t be an issue for you. But, if you’ll be trying to sleep to get up for that early flight in the morning, it’ll drive you insane.

Who stays in hostels?

There’s a huge range of people that stay in hostels. Mostly they attract a young, backpacker crowd, but some of the more expensive ones attract older, more sensible people. The hostels with bars attached can sometimes be full of a younger, partying demographic. However, more luxury hostels can host everyone from old couples, to young families.

Where to book hostels

When we first set off on our travels, we were usually primarily Hostelworld to book most of our accommodation. We just assumed that they would have the best range of hostels available. However, we now find that Booking.com has a much better range of hostels, and every other kind of accommodation.

Most of the properties that are on Hostelworld are also on Booking.com. And, Booking.com charges less commission than Hostelworld, so you’ll actually pay less than you would on Hostelworld. There is also no booking fee or deposit if you book through Booking.com, so you won’t need to lose your deposit if your plans change.

what is a hostel

Hostel rules & etiquette

There’s some really basic rules to follow when staying in a hostel, particularly in dorms. Every hostel will have its own set of rules to follow, but there is also some general etiquette/rules you should be following when staying in shared rooms/ dorms.

Quite simply, try to be as respectful of staff and other guests as possible. If you are about to do something that you wouldn’t like another guest to do, don’t do it. Whether that’s stealing someone’s food from the communal fridge, turning the AC up to 30ºC and hiding the remote, or turning on the main light at 2am because you want to pack.

We wrote an entire post on why packing cubes are the best way of packing – particularly on when staying in dorm rooms. You should read it!

If you’re not sure of the rules, you can usually find it on your booking confirmation, or you could always ask a member of staff.

what are hostels
Capsule hostel in Japan

Q & A

Are hostels safe?

For the most part, yes. Obviously there can be horror stories in every aspect of life, but usually hostels are very safe. Lots of hostels provide female-only dorm rooms for extra peace of mind for female travellers. There’s also lockers provided in the vast majority of dorm rooms, however you’ll most likely need to supply your own padlock.

How do hostels work?

Pretty much the same as a hotel. You make a booking online, and then you show up at check-in time. Usually you’ll pay on either arrival or check-out, and you may have to leave a small deposit for keys, which you’ll get back upon check out.

How much do hostels cost?

It varies hugely depending on the location and the quality of the hostel itself. In general, hostels are cheaper than hotels, but private rooms can be more expensive than guesthouses. If you’re looking for the cheapest room in town, it’s probably a dorm in a hostel.

Are hostels cheap?

Same as above.

Am I too old to stay in a hostel?

If a hostel has an age limit, they’ll state it on their bookings page. Some ‘party’ hostels have an upper age limit, which can vary from 30 – 45. Most hostels have a lower age limit of 18.

Will there be bed bugs?

Maybe. There’s a possibility of bed bugs in every accommodation type. Even luxury hotels can get bed bugs. However, of all of the places that we’ve ever witnessed bed bugs, it’s always been in a hostel. But, it’s always been the cheapest hostels in town. Most hostels are clean and bed-bug-free.

Is it always bunk beds?

Nope. Private rooms are rarely ever bunk beds, and some dorms are regular, single beds. There are also double bed dorm rooms, but these are usually bunk beds.

Can I request the bottom bunk?

You can try, but it’s usually random or first come first served. You could request it in your booking notes, but we’ve never successfully reserved bottom bunks.

So that’s it! That’s our guide to hostels.

I hope we have answered the question: what are hostels?

For our other travel guides, check out the travel guide page.

To see how we packed our lives into a carry on backpack, click here.

One of the best travel packing hacks out there is packing cubes, so make sure you read our post on what they are and how to use them!

Brenna & Danielle

About Us


We are Brenna & Danielle, two travel bloggers and photographers from England. 
After quitting our jobs in 2017, we backpacked and travelled to over 3 continents, and 20 countries together. We aim to inspire, through our honest and detailed travel guides and advice.
This blog exists to serve as an in-depth guide to many destinations across the globe, but also to inspire travel and adventure in all those that peruse these pages.

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