Hostel Dormitory living or dorm living is unique and quite the experience, particularly when you are new to staying in this type of accommodation. Now travellers of all ages and nationalities stay in hostels mostly because a hostel provides cheap accommodation. And it is cheap because you share your room and all the amenities and facilities with complete strangers. Even though there are many advantages to staying in a hostel there are also disadvantages which makes this type of accommodation not for everyone. So here is my take on hostel dormitory living.
A brief history of hostels
It seems a German school teacher, Richard Schirrmann first conceived the idea when he took school kids on excursions and created dormitory style accommodation for them. His concept took off and morphed into the youth hostel movement which you find all around the world. However, youth hostels have morphed again into what we know and love as backpacker hostels. Where youth hostels were aimed at the youth, backpacker hostels are aimed at travellers of all ages including singles, couples and families. And backpacker hostels are changing also. To get your dollar hostels are offering many more services than just a bed in a dorm.
Cheap Hostel Accommodation with lots of extras
Now don’t get me wrong, I think hostels offer some great advantages to travellers. The biggest advantage being they are cheap. They are cheap because of the number of occupants in each dorm. It can range from the the average of 4-6 people to dorms where you find 8, 10, 12 or more people in a room. If you don’t think you’d feel comfortable in a dorm with a dozen people, request to be in a smaller one. Hostels are now offering double, twin and family rooms and sometimes they have a single room.
Most dorms though are same sex dorms, but there are some hostels that can place you in a mixed dorm. I remember arriving in Darwin after an 18 hour bus trip from Alice Springs only to find I was put into a four-bed dorm with three guys. I was too tired after such a long trip to worry about it and hey, the guys turned out to be alright. But if you would prefer to share with people of the same sex remember to mention this when you book or check-in. In most cases you won’t be spending much time in your room anyway, but the time you do, you want to feel comfortable.
As I mentioned to get your dollar hostels are offering loads of extra services to make your stay enjoyable. So the usual things are there like shared bathrooms and communal kitchens and living areas but many hostels now have a cafe, bar or dining room where you can grab a meal. In hot climates they may have a pool and air conditioning. They are also very informative places with staff on hand to answer your questions and maybe even book your travel for you. Most of them are also in convenient locations near public transport, in the centre of town or in fantastic locations such as near a beach or in a ski resort. Some have a mini-van to pick you up and drop you off at public transport hubs.
Many hostels are set in buildings with a lot of character. So you could find yourself in an old castle in the UK, a villa in Italy, a beach hut in Asia, etc. This adds to the charm of staying in a hostel.
Choosing a hostel to stay in
So with all that is on offer at hostels now how do you choose a hostel to stay in? One of the best ways I found to choose a hostel to stay in is to visit the HostelWorld website. Once you have searched for hostels in the city or town you are wanting to stay in a list of hostels should appear. From the list choose a hostel and read all about it. You will be able to tell what type of hostel it is and whether you want to stay there. What I mean by ‘type’ is you will be able to tell if the hostel might suit you. Ask yourself what type of hostel stay are you after. Do you want somewhere quiet to rest after a long day sightseeing or do you want a party hostel? You will be able to tell from the words that are used to describe the hostel. A more ‘homely’ hostel might mean it is a quieter more laid back place to stay while a hostel that has a bar and nightly ‘fun’ at the bar will mean it is a party hostel. So you will need to work out what you want first.
Most hostels are only short-stay hostels meaning they don’t like you staying longer than a week because they have other travellers who want to stay there too. But some hostels don’t have a limit on your length of stay and you can find some people live in hostels while they go off to work. In fact in some agricultural areas you can find ‘working hostels’ meaning this hostel has an agreement with the local farmers where you live in the hostel and they ferry you to and from your agriculture job each day.
One of my favourite hostels – cheap, great amenities and a great view
Your health and sanity during your hostel stay
Even though some don’t mind staying in a huge dorm because it is cheaper, I have met people whose health has suffered. A male friend always seemed to have snorers in his dorm. He was becoming crankier and crankier as the days passed because of lack of sleep. In the end he booked a room in a cheap hotel to get some sleep. Another friend copped a person with the worst foot odour and they wouldn’t put their shoes outside for fear of someone stealing them but the odour was becoming very irritating and he too booked in to a cheap hotel.
And when awoken from a peaceful sleep at 5.30 in the morning because another occupant of your room has to catch a train or bus, you totally forget about the advantages of cheap accommodation. Instead, you vow tonight you will stay in a hotel room on your own. If you do, check out Booking.com to compare and book something. But when night comes and you are posed with the choice of either spending your whole week’s budget on a single room for the night or having enough cash to last the whole week, you will usually choose the second option. Thus you spend another night in a hostel dorm.
Other things that can make your health suffer is over indulging in alcohol, eating unhealthily and sleep deprivation. Plus going out for meals all the time can prove expensive on the hip pocket so one option is to cook meals yourself. If you feel self-conscious cooking on your own in the hostel ask your room mates if they would like to cook and share a meal. Check out my ebook ‘Travellers’ Fare – Fast and Fabulous Meals for Travellers‘. I wrote this for this exact reason. Inside you will find fast and fabulous recipes for meals to help you stay healthy during your hostel stays. You can get a copy here.
It can be a bun fight for the best bunk
Although some hostels will assign you a bed, most travellers choose their own in the dorm. You won’t find many that will swap if you don’t like yours. It is usually first in, first choice of bunk. Lower bunks seem to go first. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is because of consideration to other travellers! You don’t make as much noise when getting into a lower bunk as someone who has to climb to the top bunk. Also, they are easier to get into if you have partied really hard, and easier to get out of it you have to make a quick dash anywhere. Just watch your head!
Now with your bunk chosen there comes the question of bedding. Some hostels provide bed linen and blankets for hygiene reasons. While others prefer you have your own, so check this out before you book in.
Staying safe and secure in your hostel dormitory
A good thing to look out for when living in a dorm is the security of your belongings. Sometimes it is not professional thieves you have to worry about, it can be your fellow travellers. Yes, we all know about those transients who steal your jewellery or camera and sell them quickly. But take care of items such as that expensive shampoo and conditioner you’ve just bought to bring your hair back to life. Or that new deodorant or that souvenir t-shirt as I have had experiences of outgoing backpackers taking items. Most hostels provide a lockable cupboard for you to store your things in but it is worthwhile to travel with your own lock to use.
Each dorm room should have their own lock which you should be given a key or the code to. Don’t give it to anyone that is not part of your room. It is wise to familiarise yourself with the building by finding out where the emergency exists are – just in case!
Alcohol can play a large part in your existence in hostels. It is nice to have a drink by the bar after a day’s sightseeing but be careful, as alcohol can remove your inhibitions and also remove your common sense. This is why you should know where your things are at all times and watch your safety if you have drunk a few too many.
As I originally said, dorm living is an experience if you aren’t used to it. You will be sharing with people you’ve never met before and sometimes you will need to be very tolerant. Be prepared for people changing in front of you. People coming in late and getting up early. Zippers zipping, bags rustling, alarms going off, snorers, talkers and even bonkers (who are usually embarrassed in the morning!). Even readers who won’t turn their light off. But you don’t want to be known as that backpacker who is inconsiderate because word can get around!
Meeting people during your hostel stay
It is inevitable you will meet people during your hostel stay, after all you will be sharing a room with complete strangers. So if you are travelling by yourself, break the ice by introducing yourself to your new room mates. Get to know the hostel and have a look around, particularly the communal areas and join in with activities, maybe there is a ping pong table or sit with someone watching TV. Maybe suggest you grab a meal or go to a bar with a new friend. There are endless opportunities to meet new people and some might just become life-long friends.
Get a job in a hostel
Hostels are a great source of employment. To run smoothly they require staff at reception to check people in and out, they need people to clean and also to run the services such as in the bar or cafe. So as well as a great place to stay you just might find a job. This could be a paid position or it could mean you can swap work for free accommodation. Check out my blog on finding a job in a hostel.
Book your hostel stay in advance
One of the best pieces of advice about staying in hostels is to book in advance. I say this because some hostels in certain cities are very popular and book out months in advance. And if you are getting off a long flight or train or bus journey you may feel jet-lagged and/or disoriented and need to find your bearings. So I would definitely be booking my stay in advance and through a trusted booking site such as HostelWorld.
Tips for long-term hostel stays
So you may have found a job or just love the place so you want to stay long-term. I suggest you firstly speak to the manager about a long-term bed because many hostels might have a particular room available where they allow long-terms to stay. To help you budget I would suggest you pay weekly, in advance, so you don’t have to worry about paying every day or so. Paying weekly may also see you with a cheaper rate. You may also consider working in the hostel. Maybe not full-time but a couple of days a week might see you with free accommodation.
Always remember as a long-termer the hostel is not your home, it is still a hostel and you need to respect all the other residents and/or visitors.
Useful items for your hostel stay
During my stays in hostels I have discovered some useful items. A sarong has always come in handy for walking to and from the showers. A sleeping bag and liner is great if the hostel doesn’t supply bedding. Earplugs have come in handy when I’ve had snorers in the room. Not all hostel beds have their own light so I have always found a torch useful. A padlock has helped to keep my things safe. My favourite item of all is my toiletry bag, particularly one with a hook so I can hang it up in the shower.
Hostel dormitory living is a specific type of living and many travellers have and will continue to stay in them. They have a number of advantages, some disadvantages but overall are a great place to stay cause they are cheap, provide the services you need when staying there and are a great way to meet other like-minded travellers. Happy Hostelling!
Sharyn has travelled most of her life thanks to her dad who worked for an airline. In her 20’s she went overseas and spent 4 years living, working, playing and travelling through many countries. Her travels inspire her ‘Live Work and Play’ series of working holiday guides and LiveWorkPlayTravel where she shares her knowledge of travel, being a digital nomad and blogging. Sharyn continues to travel and currently calls Melbourne home.