Picking a hostel is a crucial part of my trips. Before I talk about how I pick one, let me give a quick advertisement for hostels.

Hostels are not just for young people.

Hostels are great for:

  • solo travelers of any age
  • budget travelers of any age
  • outgoing travelers of any age

My hostel in Queenstown had families with young children, a few solo travelers in their sixties, and everyone in between.

One common misconception is that hostels equal dorms. Most hostels house most guests in dorms, but there are usually private rooms too, often with private bathrooms. These rooms are more expensive and almost as much as getting a cheap hotel or motel room, but they might be preferable to cheap hotels.

If you are traveling alone, I recommend a hostel to meet new people. (Tips on that tomorrow.) Traveling alone is lonely if you don’t have activity partners, and hostels are the place to find them.

So even if you’ve got the money (or points!) for hotels, if you’re traveling alone–which I recommend for the experience of accomplishing something on your own and to sate a travel appetite bigger than that of your friends–I recommend staying at least part of the trip in hostels. Hotels are nicer. And having your own space to relax and unwind is something hard to come by at hostels. But meeting people at hotels is almost impossible.

You’re in. I’ve convinced you to stay at a hostel. How do you pick the right one?

This is easy. The best source is word-of-mouth.

If anyone you know has traveled where you’re going in the last year, ask for his hostel recommendation. Ask specific questions about the things important to you related to cleanliness, presence of a free kitchen, ease of meeting new people, whether there’s an attached bar, alcohol policy, or anything important to you.

You don’t just have to rely on people you know. My last hostel in Queenstown was recommended to me by a person I met at the airport bus stop. He said he’d been staying at a hostel for a few days, and it sounded pretty good, so I changed my plans and stayed there at his recommendation. Fresh, first-hand information got me into a great hostel.

The second best source is online reviews. I use hostelworld.com, which is the largest hostel site as far as I know. Here are the search results for one night in Sydney, quite an expensive city for hostels.

The first thing I do is change the dropdown to Overall Rating. Now we’ve got a look at the best-loved hostels according to hostelworld.com users.

Now the results look like this.

I pretty much ignore the exact rating percentages at this point. Everything near the top of the list is well-liked, so I have to find the right one for me. My own preference is for a packed hostel, a good location, free wifi, a late check-out, any cool extras, and in this case I have a one-night stay, so the first two listed are out because of their stay minimums.

I’ll open up the pages of several hostels on the list, and read the Facilities section of the Info page and the Reviews.

The facilities here note a kitchen and free wifi. Score! Breakfast is included, but I never take advantage of that.

Then I’ll check some of the reviews, which will give me clues about how fun it is and whether the location is good.

These reviews give a lot of pertinent info: no A/C, kitchen open until 10 PM, close to bars but not the city, can bring your own alcohol.

Usually searching a few well-rated hostels will result in my being undecided between several choices. In that case, I use my special tie breaker.

Remember the front page where the hostels were listed by which was top rated? There was an even more important detail to me there: the number of ratings.

The hostel with the most ratings is probably the biggest, and for my preferences bigger is better. At the biggest hostels, I have the best chance to meet cool people.

If you prefer quieter hostels, you should choose the hostel with the fewest ratings when in doubt between a few.

Guide Books

I think the worst reference for hostels is guide books. They are outdated when they are released, and they are path dependent. If the last edition reviewed a hostel, this one probably will too even if newer, cooler ones go unreviewed. Word of mouth and Hostel World beat guide books for hostel reviews.

Recap

Hostels are a great place to stay for travelers of all ages who want to meet new people and save money. The best place to get info on the right hostel for you is from someone else’s mouth. The second best place is hostelworld.com. The worst place is a guidebook.

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