“Hostel.” How can one word evoke so many different pictures in different people’s minds? Depending on how much traveling a person has done, what age that person is, and where their travels have taken them, their idea of a hostel could be drastically different from the next person’s.
The fact is that hostels differ not only from country to country and city to city, but within cities themselves. They’re all different, they’re all unique, and they all have varying degrees of comfort (or discomfort). In my opinion, that’s what makes hostels exciting. You know what you’re getting if you stay at any chain hotel around the world. Those hotels are all basically the same – but you never know what you’re going to get when you walk through the doors of a hostel.
When you’re living in hostels for a long period of time, you start noticing the little things that make the difference between a good hostel and a great hostel. The longer the trip is, the more nit-picky you get about where you’re staying and what amenities that hostel has.
If you arrive in a city with nowhere to stay, you wander around popping in and out of different accommodations asking the same questions. Can I see a room? Does it have a private bathroom? Does it include breakfast? Do you have a kitchen? Do you have a computer station or WiFi? Unfortunately, even if you get positive answers on the above questions, you never know if the water pressure in your private bathroom is any good (or if there is even any hot water), if that included breakfast is only bread, if that kitchen only has one stove despite having room for 60 guests, or if that computer is from 1986. It’s also possible that you won’t get a straight answer because the guy working the front desk of the hostel is still drinking vodka from the previous night and isn’t coherent (true story).
It wasn’t long into our year-long trip when I posed the question to my wife: “How cool would it be to open up our own hostel someday?” It was something we talked about throughout the course of our round the world trip, both by ourselves and with other travelers.
The conversation usually started at the hostel bar with a horrific story about a terrifying hostel experience. Over the course of the evening, we would swap stories, both good and bad, about different hostels we all stayed in. What was great about a certain hostel? What made us cringe? As fun as it was to talk about the appalling things we have all witnessed when hostelling, the conversations always came around to the good things. What does a good hostel do to push it over the edge and make it great? If we opened a hostel, what amenities would we include to make it the best hostel ever?
The list of possible amenities that would make a good hostel great could be a mile long. I narrowed the list to eight services (in no particular order) that I would make priorities if I opened my own hostel.
1. A real bar – with real drink choices – placed in a logical location within the hostel
Many hostels around the world have a bar for their patrons to frequent while staying there. Sometimes it’s just a small bar with a refrigerator filled with the cheap, local beer. Sometimes there’s a proper bar with a few types of beer and a few of the local liquors.
Sometimes there’s a bartender; sometimes it’s the honor system (which is dangerous and eye-opening upon checkout when paying the bar bill). But the hostels that stand out against the others seem to have it all. A decent-sized bar, a bartender, and several different types of beer – both cheap, local beer and more expensive imports when you’re craving that taste of home. Some even come stacked with all types of liquor and serve fancy cocktails that you’re not used to drinking when hostelling on a budget.
While drink choices are certainly important, it’s also important to place your hostel bar in a smart location within the hostel. An outside locale is good if the grounds are big enough and it’s warm year-round. But it can be done right even with a small building. Pudu Hostel in Bariloche, Argentina (probably my favorite place we stayed during our year long trip), had the best of both worlds. They had great beer and drink choices with a bar downstairs in their building. There were rooms right above it, but it stayed miraculously quiet upstairs – so if you decided not to partake in the festivities one night, you could still have a quiet evening in your room or the common area upstairs.
>> Read about famous local drinks to taste around the world
2. A good chilling area and a good place to hang out with other travelers
A good bar shouldn’t be the only common area. It could be accompanied by a separate area that is big and open with tables and chairs and couches. Having plenty of options to sit down and eat, read, write, or browse the internet is a great thing. Obviously a bar is a great place to hang out with other travelers. But the hostels that went above and beyond had several different areas within the hostel to cater to all types of travelers.
If you really want to make your guests happy, you could have a third area that’s solely meant for chilling out or recovering from that rough night out the night before. An outside area is great for this if weather permits, and a few hammocks, lounge chairs, and picnic tables can do wonders.
It’s amazing how happy a simple $30 hammock can make a bunch of weary, hungover travelers.
>> Find out how to meet people on the road without hosteling
3. A breakfast that offers a little bit more
When checking out a hostel’s website and pricing, you often come across the words “Free Breakfast” somewhere on the home page. When we first started traveling internationally and staying in hostels, we thought this was great. Saving a few bucks by not having to buy that first meal of the day sounded fantastic.
I’ll never forget that first morning staying in a hostel. As an American, I foolishly thought I would wake up to bacon, eggs, pancakes, hashbrowns, toast, juice, and coffee. Much to my dismay, I woke up to bread and butter and jam. No toaster either. Oops.
Now, breakfasts varied greatly from region to region, and we found that toast and jam was the norm when a free breakfast was included in the price of the room – but there were certainly some exceptions, and most were just simple things the hostel did to go a little above and beyond.
Pudu had homemade scones every morning instead of just toast, which was a very welcome change. Suk 11 in Bangkok served fresh fruit and a different local specialty each morning, along with the usual toast, juice, coffee, and tea.
It’s no surprise that these little things are the ones that you remember and talk about to other travelers.
4. A computer station and WiFi
It’s 2012 – the 21st century. The internet has been available to developed countries for well over a decade, and while I know access isn’t quite as good in developing countries, it’s still available in at least some hostels, restaurants, and coffee shops.
There are internet cafes everywhere I’ve been – from Peru and Bolivia to Australia and New Zealand to Laos and Cambodia to India. Yes, it may be more expensive in developing countries where the infrastructure isn’t that great – but it’s still available, and it’s obviously not that expensive considering you can usually find a cybercafé on every corner.
If I was opening a hostel, I would put at least one computer somewhere in one of the common areas, and I would definitely have WiFi. Just charge an extra dollar or two to each room or bed – it will more than cover the expenses, and it will make your guests much happier.
In this day and age, it’s nice to be able to hop on a computer where you’re staying or get out your laptop and get online to send emails, Skype with family back home, blog, or check out travel information for where you’re going next. Get with the times.
5. Staff that actually cares
When a hostel has a great staff, that can really make them stand out in your memory. I can’t count how many people I’ve told about Pudu in Bariloche, and while it has many of these eight amenities, it’s the owners and staff that made me really fall in love with it. The staff is something that can make or break a hostel. If you have a rude staff that just doesn’t care about their customers, it can turn a lot of people off. Sometimes there may be enough other amenities that make up for it, but sometimes other perks aren’t even enough. You may not leave a hostel because of a rude staff, but you will certainly mention it to other travelers.
The people working at a hostel need to be super friendly, helpful with local information, and willing to just sit and hang out for a few. A simple 5-10 minute conversation over a beer with a hostel worker or owner can make all the difference in the world.
Or if you really want to be remembered, be like the worker at Destino Nomada in Bogota and invite travelers to your family’s beach house for the weekend.
6. Location, location, location
This should be an obvious one, but I was sometimes amazed at the really nice hostels that were situated way outside of the main tourist areas.
Now, I don’t need to be right in the thick of tourist mania like Khaosan Road in Bangkok, but I do think it’s necessary to have some nearby tourist options. As a budget traveler, you’re most likely not going to have a car, so you must rely on your own two feet. Buses, cabs, tuk-tuks, and rickshaws are certainly fine, but I shouldn’t have to take one every time I want to go anywhere.
Any great hostel needs to be within reasonable walking distance to all of the following – a restaurant or food stall, a market, a bar, and a pharmacy. If it doesn’t, then I’m sorry, but your hostel is just not a great one.
7. A kitchen that can actually support the capacity of the hostel
We’ve all been there.
It’s dinner time. You just got into town, and you checked into your hostel an hour ago. You’re hungry and tired and want to save a few bucks. So you go to the nearby grocery store to pick up some pasta to cook in the hostel kitchen. Local markets and grocery stores are always interesting, so getting the few essential items takes longer than planned. By the time you get back to your hostel, you can’t even get in the kitchen door.
Despite the fact that your hostel sleeps 65 people, there’s only one stove with 4 burners (two of them small), one refrigerator with food spilling out of it, 2 pots, 3 pans, 1 dull knife, and 1 cutting board that has what looks like a small, furry creature growing on it.
While cooking in a kitchen jam-packed with other travelers can often be a fun and interesting time – with everyone having to do what it takes to get their meals cooked, sharing and laughing at the absurdity of 32 people sharing 2 pots – it can also be frustrating. I understand that it’s just not possible to have a bigger kitchen without remodeling the entire hostel, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate hostels that have enormous cooking areas with an adequate amount of utensils, refrigerator space, and stovetops.
>> Discover traditional local dishes to learn to cook while traveling
8. A good view
There’s just something to be said about going into your room after a long day of hiking, opening up the curtains, and seeing the sun set over the lake and mountains in Argentina – about knowing that in the morning you can walk out on the little deck outside your hostel room in northern Thailand and see the fog clearing off the river to reveal the bright green rolling hills. There aren’t many better ways to start or end your day.
I know I’m getting a little greedy here. And many of you may be thinking about the bathrooms, or the bed, or the sheets and blankets, or the cleanliness, or any other myriad of amenities that would make your hostel great.
The seemingly insignificant moments of watching the sun set from your hostel are what make travel great, and I’ll take a great view from my room in order to deal with a little bit of dirt any day of the week.
What amenities would you include in your hostel?
You may be able to come up with eight completely different amenities you’d rather have, and I’d love to hear where you think I may have gone wrong.
But I have a feeling that if you walked into my hostel to find a real bar with real options, great common and chilling areas, a unique breakfast, computers and WiFi, a staff that does whatever it takes to make you happy, a location second to none, a mammoth kitchen with everything you can ever want, and a view that just makes you want to stop and take it all in, then I’m guessing you won’t care that your bed may be a little too firm.
Am I wrong? Or would you love to stay in my hostel? Leave your thoughts on what makes a good hostel great in the comments.
photo credits: bunks by Barnacles Hoste, hammocks by Chico75, breakfast table by Or Hiltch, computers by Barnacles Hostels, Galway street by Barnacles Hostels, kitchen by aokettun – cocktails, friendly hostel staff, & sunset pictures by Megan & Adam Seper and may not be used without permission