Hostels: Love-Hate Relationship?

by Annie on January 5, 2011

Whenever I make the decision to take a trip, I get a lot of joy out of researching. Exhausting all the resources to see if I can catch some tips to get the most of my destination.

One very important part of planning is the hostel search. I love hostels and I’m always searching for one that can add to my already exciting experience. There are a few very important factors to consider when searching for the perfect hostel.

Location is a huge factor for many people, especially in a big city. You either want to be able to easily access the most important site, and some top bars and restaurants or you want to be located in some cool neighborhood of the city that you want to get to know better.

Our big yet cozy hostel in Porto

Atmosphere this is the most important factor for me when choosing a hostel. It’s a mixture of the amenities, the ‘fun’ rating and the staff rating. It takes a lot to deter me from a place, but a good overall rating is the first step to getting me to take a closer look. Helpful and friendly staff is always a bonus, although not an essential, as it’s easy to ignore them in most cases. Depending on the vibe I’m looking for, I’m usually pretty intrigued by a hostel that has a bar or even a great common room. The most important part of this jumble of ratings is the accessibility of other travelers. I would always prefer a hostel that is rating highly on fun, because chances are that means you will meet some fun people along the way. The more open and welcoming the common areas are, the merrier the party becomes.

My recent very short stay in London and the last minute decision to do so led me to question the accountability of ‘reviews’ on some hostel booking websites. My booking was so last minute that I picked a place solely on location and a reasonable deal without even checking the other factors. As we got ready for our trip I looked the hostel up again for directions. That was when the fairly low rating made it’s blatant appearance. A little apprehensive, I started sifting through the reviews. The most common complaints included cold showers, dirty toilets and rude staff. The first two of which had potential of being a serious issue. Then the reviews went on to list every tiny detail, down the the ‘depressing decor’ and the tiny elevator. I got to the point where, as I was reading through the reviews, I started to even question who these people were. Seven out of ten of the reviews I read seemed voiced by people who would be much better off in a four-star hotel.

the outside patio of our Alicante hostel

Arriving to the hostel, I was not ecstatic with the set up. Reminiscent of a concrete and eery version of my freshman dorms it wasn’t the most welcoming atmosphere I had ever encountered. The three staff members I met on the way to my room were just as pleasant as anyone and the private room we had rented was bigger in size than any hostel room I’ve had in the past, simple as it was. With all of that extra space it wouldn’t have hurt to put at least some kind of table or dresser inside, but then again, hostels are really meant for the bare essentials.

I’m happy to report that my 9am shower was pleasantly warm and other than a funky smell coming from the window ventilator, the toilets were clean. The hostel has a large common room with a foosball table, large sectional couch and a projected screen for TV. The internet was set up through Global Gossip, which was the first time since Australia I have seen that, I was less than impressed with the idea of having to pay for internet.

No this was not the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in by any means, but I saw no reason that I would give it a horrible review. It is located smack in the center of Picadilly Circus a very well-known pub neighborhood of London.

The experience raised the question in my mind, what does it take for you to complain about a hostel? What is ‘good-enough’ and when are you left wanting more?

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  • Lynda

    I’ve only ever stayed in a hostel a handful of times throughout parts of Europe, but atmosphere is definitely what makes it or breaks it! Some were just so boring, the more lively ones were mire fun than a nice, expensive hotel! Great post!

  • Chris – The Aussie Nomad

    You can read the reviews and check out the photos but until you get to a hostel you never really know whats going to happen.

    Maybe you’ll meet awesome people and you wont care about the cold shower or you could have a hotel style hostel but have it empty with no atmosphere.

    Some reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt as well. I know of a couple of hostels that the owner pays his staff to leave good reviews for him.

  • Darren Overby

    When I was backpacking in Europe I was a guidebook researcher and used to study what makes a good hostel. Some hostels had all amenities and facilities you could ever want, but were devoid of friendliness and atmosphere. Others lacked amenities but the atmosphere was epic and life changing.

    I found that in terms of a great experience three elements were usually present. Small size, central cozy common room that can’t be avoided, and friendly staff.

    My hostel in San Francisco, Pacific Tradewinds, was purposefully designed to incorporate these three basic elements. For the most part, I think we do a great job, immensely satisfying most backpackers. That said, we still get the reviews from travelers who probably should have never been in a hostel. This can be disheartening for us especially your rating drops a full percentage point from someone who gives you a 20% rating and says “There was no privacy”. Which to us, is like someone expecting a waiter at McDonalds.

    Chris, you made a couple of good points. I always say a “Reservation” is a financial promise to buy a product you have never seen. Personally, I’d rather plan to arrive early and visit a few places and check them out. I’m also hearing more and more about review fraud these days. It doesn’t help that uses a straightline simple average of the reviews. This means unscrupulous hostels can skew the rating both positively (for them) and negatively (for competitors) very easily.

    Good post, Annie.

  • Eurotrip Tips

    I like the concept of hostels, but somehow, I always feel a bit uneasy to stay in one. I just don’t feel like I belong there, because really, I’d much rather be in a 4 star hotel.

    On the other hand though, it’s always a great pleasure to know you just saved possibly hundreds of dollars on something in which you’re only going to stay a few hours in.

    While the fun factor certainly is to consider, the one thing I care most about is tidiness. I can’t stand dirt, nevermind someone else’s.

    Good post!

  • Alouise

    From someone who works front desk at a hotel, I know some reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s not to say customer service isn’t important, but it is true that some people who book a hostel, or low budget hotel expecting the Ritz. I like to go to TripAdivsor and other review websites. If there’s a common theme in the reviews I might take note. But if only a few reviews are bad, it’s less likely to persuade my opinion. For myself I try to be realistic. I want the basics, clean, safe, comfortable and affordable. Extra bonuses if it’s by good public transportation, or in a diverse and interesting neighborhood, or has amenities like free wi-fi or breakfast.

  • Annie

    Wow guys, thank you all for the awesome comments on my post!!

    @Chris and Alouise, I agree with what you guys have said about “a grain of salt”, although initially concerned when I started reading the reviews I know that some people just like to complain and if others do it it’s seen as an encouragement to join in!

    On the same note, yes although not pleasant to be taking a cold shower in the middle of a London winter I think I’m safe in saying it could be worse and that maybe that’s the least of your worries in other countries!

    @Darren, I think you have absolutely got the right idea on that. If the common room isn’t central and hard to miss then chances are many will miss it and in the process miss out on a lot of potential fun!

    @Marie-Eve, nothing wrong with enjoying the comforts of a hotel. When we checked into the hostel we had been in a hotel for a wedding and part of me was considering running back to the plushy bed and BBC but for me it’s situational. I don’t have anything against hotels either! :)

    First and foremost a personal review gets the most weight for me! If someone I know has recommended it, I’ll probably choose it hands-down (assuming we have common interests in the area).

  • Ayngelina

    I always stay at hostels and wow can they all be so different. Some definitely feel like dorm rooms and others boutique hotels.

  • Kyle

    I think cleanliness is now pretty much the only thing to deter me from a hostel. I really don’t care about staff. I always cross my fingers and hope that it’s a cool gathering place to meet other travelers, but if it’s not, that’s fine too. And location is more important, but since I live in a big city as it is, I’m used to traveling long distances on inconvenient routes to get where I need to go, so that’s also not a deciding factor. Like I said, cleanliness is it because I am totally germaphobic. If a bed looks like the sheets haven’t been washed in a while I will be out of there before you can say, “Hi, how are…”

    That being said, we don’t stay at hostels anymore. Traveling with expensive camera equipment makes me nervous enough as is and I’d rather not add more stress to our lives by having to sleep with the cameras in bed with me.

  • Annie

    @Ayngelina, definitely! And some that look so cool are completely empty, it can be a matter of timing as well how a place reflects on you!

    @Kyle, haha, I was laughing out loud at the image of you and Seba cuddled in bed with two giant cameras and all the equipment nestled between you hahaha. But it’s true although I have had no safety issues in hostels it doesn’t mean that A. it doesn’t happen and B. that I’m not still paranoid.

  • Laura

    Interesting subject. We have pretty low standards and don’t get too fussy about hostels. Usually we just show up in a town and walk around to try to find the best locations and then ask to see the rooms. Somewhat comfortable bed, room not stinky, we’re ok. However, we’ve walked out of many hostels that claim they have Wi-Fi but really don’t. I always check the signal with my phone in the room.

  • Annie

    That’s a really great approach Laura! I guess I’m always too paranoid that I won’t have a bed if I don’t book in advance. Although I have slept in the airport and the bus station in the middle of winter so it could be worse!

    That’s great advice for hostel searchers!

  • Kyle Morgan

    I’ve stayed in some pretty awesome hostels…as well as some pretty horrible ones. You really just don’t know until you get there!

  • Kenan Lucas

    When it comes to traveling I should probably be more frugal but I find I am slowly starting to avoid staying at hostels and sometimes pay that extra $20 or so a night for a budget hotel. I guess I have stayed in some pretty dodgy places that have put me off! I tend to do more couchsurfing now anyway.

    In answer to your question, I generally don’t complain if the service is below average; I just end up thinking you get what you pay for.

  • jade

    We recently stayed in a hostel in London and had to use Global Gossip which really made the whole experience kind of awful! Plus, we could only get wifi from their kitchen/ living room area- not our rooms. Anyway- we stayed in a lot of hostels during our RTW trip, and most were okay. Since there were three of us, sometimes it was cheaper to stay in a hotel- so I’d always suggest people check prices before making their pick!

  • georgette

    great article Annie.. I remember when I was looking for a hostel in Amsterdam ( we ended up at the white tulip ) the reviews were soooo horrible. I mean detailing everything that was wrong and more to the point it freaked me out. We ended up just taking a chance and were pleaseantly surprised how clean and nice it was. I really do agree that people need to know what to expect from their hostel and remember its not a hotel. There are plenty of other options such as booking a private room or even a vacation rental apartment. Wifi is important and should be free or at least a low price.I tend to check out hostelworld and tripadvisor ..

    when looking for hostels in Paris , we almost booked one but there were several reviews about bedbites and pigeons hanging out in the communal kitchen area, i decided not to go there… there are always comments about rude staff on almost every hostel Ive looked at but I take that with a grain of salt and usually if you are nice and courteous you will get the same in return. I figure also that people are more apt to write when they are upset or disatisfied than on the contrary…

  • Annie

    @Kyle, you’re right, you just never know!

    @Kenan, in the end it’s a personal choice. If you decided that you are happier in a budget hotel then it’s better to just pay the bit extra and make your experience better!

    @Jade, so true I have definitely become spoiled by free wi-fi but to be honest it seems to be the trend almost everywhere these days so I think that hostels (and Starbucks) would benefit from jumping onboard!

    You make a good point about hotel rooms being cheaper sometimes for more people. Because you pay per bed in a dorm room and per room with a private room often you can save money even in a private hostel room (good for couples/friends) but it all depends on preference too!

    @Georgette, you made a lot of great points. I’m glad you gave the hostel in Amsterdam hostel a try because it’s very true that people will record a bad experience before a good one unfortunately!

  • Laura

    I’ve seen extremes- fantastic hostels I could stay in long term to ones that had me running out the door! The experience is largely dependent on what roommates you end up with since you have no control over it. Cleanliness comes a close second for me. Reviews can be all over the place but I’ve found that after staying in some extremely dingy ones, I rave about others when they’re probably just standard :)

  • Annie

    Very true that the roommates effect the review of the hostel because even if it’s a nice one, it won’t be any fun without some cool people to share it with! Same goes the other way around!

    It’s nice to hear that you are giving some good reviews for a change! :)

  • Michela

    I love staying in hostels and sofar the best country for hostels is according to my experience: yes, you guessed it: Australia! :) I have been to over 30 hostels, and keep going back to most of them…whenever undecided in my choice I try to be on the safe side and go with yha, which to 95% of times live up to the expectations. In Italy uhm have always had troubles with figuring out which hostels have female dorms!…maybe Annie you can suggest some good ones to me! would love to have your help here :) Thanks for this lovely post!

  • Annie

    I agree, although I didn’t get to stay in many hostels in Australia as I would have preferred just from what I have heard and seen it seems like they’ve really got it figured out!

    As far as Italy, I’ll let you know! I’ve only stayed in hostels in Rome actually, but am heading to Sardinia next month so should see a few there too!

  • Andrea

    I definitely think that the best thing about hostels are the people you meet. We’re totally missing the communal feel of our travels at the moment because we don’t get to our first hostel until next week. But from then on that will be our main accommodation type.

  • Annie

    Agreed! I’m glad that you guys are getting to some hostels now since you’ve been looking forward to it, although it looks like you have been having a great trip anyway!

  • Nicolas

    It’s strange what people’s expectations for a hostel appear to be.
    A not very long time ago, the principle of “hostels” was slightly different: it was a place where you could stay for a very low rate in exchange for doing some cleaning, cooking, dishes,… Most of the time there were only dorms.

    Now times have changed and so have hostels, but they are still the cheapest option (after couchsurfing of course) to stay somewhere.
    Then I wonder how people can choose to stay in a hostel and expect 4-star hotel services. Do they also expect to get lobster when dining at Mc Donalds?

    The art is to filter out the comments of the “complainers” to get a real idea of a place.
    To me, a basic level of hygene is quite important, and if I’m planning to have a party, I need a bar. If I’m planning to have a good night sleep, no bar :-)

  • Annie

    Great points! I laughed when you said that people expect lobster and McDonalds, but I think it’s true some people just can’t quite grasp the concept of what you get for certain things or in certain places!

  • Chris

    I had a mixed experience with hostels over the last month, and I blame myself. The ones my ex-girlfriend selected for our time in New Zealand were universally quite good, but I didn’t do the same homework on Fiji and we had some real flops as a result.

    I do like the communal feel of things but I need to travel alone more to really experience them. Traveling in a couple is a vastly different experience.

  • Annie

    I agree, my boyfriend and I travel together and stay in dorms a lot and it’s much harder to meet people but I attribute that to both the time and place and the fact that because we are together we don’t need someone to talk to as much. Where as, when you are alone, if you don’t make friend you don’t talk to anyone!

    We have met some great people in hostels even as a couple, I think it depends a lot on the people that happen to be there at the time you are.

  • Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_

    It totally is all about atmosphere. I usually look a place up online first to look at pictures and get a feel for it. Even the crappiest of places can just look like they would be a lot of fun and the nicer ones can look somewhat stuffy. All depends! And as we discussed, it’s all about the bar onsite haha :)

  • Annie

    It’s so all about the built-in bar!!

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