A Backpacker’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Hostel

Michael Catford

Australia

“What if we filled this 2-person hotel room with 16 more beds and charged people a little bit less to stay here?” – some genius.

Hostels are many things to many people. To the backpacker set, they’re a godsend: a way to travel the world on limited funds and meet some like-minded folks along the way. Non-backpackers often have a different view, dreaming up images of bed bug riddled mattresses, mould-covered bathrooms, and a flock of dreadlocked guitar players singing Jack Johnson on loop in the common area. These people are (usually) wrong.

Over a decade-long backpacking career, I’ve had the pleasure of staying at hundreds of hostels. I’ve been in the 30-bed dorm lying above the middle-aged, overweight traveller whose snore sounds a lot like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. I’ve also been to some truly stunning shared accommodation that feels more a boutique hotel than refuge for the travelling poor.

In that time, I’ve developed a bit of a blueprint of the perfect hostel. Today, I’ll share what could potentially be millions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property with you, for free. We’re all broke backpackers after all.

So, feeling more than a little like Colonel Sanders, here are the six secret herbs and spices that come together to form my perfect hostel:

The mattress/shower combo

Hostel, Bali, Indonesia. Ilya Sviridenko / Shutterstock.com

Why does a backpacker choose a hostel over a night in a tent? The fundamentals are to have a good scrub and a sound night’s sleep. It makes it odd then that hostels often treat showers as an afterthought, presuming that as long as water comes out, the guests will be happy. I once stayed in a hostel that used an electric shower head to warm the water, which unfortunately also electrified it. When I told the manager, he said that if you squat down the current doesn’t get to you. Brilliant.

The same goes for mattresses. They’re backpackers, the owners might think, they’ll be happy with IKEA’s cheapest and lumpiest. Wrong.

A scandalous rarity: if a hostel boasts a clean shower with good heat and good pressure and a comfortable, spongy mattress, they’ll automatically find themselves at the very pointy end of my personal hostel leaderboard.

The best I’ve had: Island Vibe, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Smaller dorms

Luxury hostel dorm room

Most hostels will give you a variety of dorm sizes to choose from. These could have as many as 50 beds or as few as three or four. While the price goes up the fewer people you choose to share with, I’d argue that there are two major reasons why this is one of the best investments a backpacker can make:

  • You’re less likely to share with a snorer or a late night partier.
  • You’re more likely to chat to your roommates and make friends.

These days, I aim to stay in dorms of 6 beds or less. Sure, you’re looking at a couple of extra bucks, but it’s a cheap price to pay for good company and a solid night’s sleep.

The best I’ve had: Mushroom Farm, Livingstonia, Malawi

Safety and Security

Hostel lockers.

While the backpacking community is overwhelmingly friendly, compassionate, and supportive, it inevitably has its bad eggs. When I’m shopping for a hostel, I look at two aspects of their security: whether the rooms are lockable and whether they offer a complimentary locker to put your valuables in. Try as I might, I’ve never had anything go missing when I’ve stayed at a hostel that ticks both boxes.

The best I’ve had: Palmers Lodge, London, UK

Communal space

The Dreamer Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia. Credit: The Dreamer Hostel

I’ve found the best hostels to be destinations all their own— one of the reasons to visit a city, not just a place to stay while you’re there. A hostel’s communal spaces are where it can go all out, treating its guests to a truly memorable experience. Our perfect hostel common area will have a selection of the following:

  • A reasonably priced bar: Ideally with a happy hour to draw everyone together at a certain time.
  • Food: Delicious and affordable.
  • Seating: Comfortable and rearrangeable, so you can shout ‘come on over!’ to that cool group you met earlier.
  • Entertainment: Board games, bar games, and other activities.
  • Events: dress up nights, themed nights, movie nights, quiz nights, etc.
  • A pool: because why the hell not?

The best I’ve had: The Dreamer Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia

Family dinners and group excursions

Yes! Lisbon Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal. Credit: Yes! Lisbon

Sometimes, even an epic communal space isn’t enough to get people mingling, which is why the best hostels I’ve stayed at actively bring people together. Family dinners are the best example: when a hostel offers a reasonably priced meal that guests eat around the same table. Simple but oh so effective, family dinners get travellers chatting with people they wouldn’t have otherwise. I was once in Lisbon, in what was then rated the second best hostel in the world, and family dinners made my stay. It did exactly what it said on the box: made the place feel like home and the guests feel like blood relatives (which made the flirting process all the more awkward).

Hostel-run group excursions are great too: things like tip-based walking tours, hikes, boat trips, and visits to local attractions bring travellers together through a shared experience, and can earn the hostel a few extra dollarydoos too.

The best I’ve had: Yes! Lisbon Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal

A volunteer program

Hostel staff and guests.

I’ve had times where an otherwise great hostel has been ruined before I’ve even checked in. All it takes is one rude dude at reception and I’m instantly hostile with the whole joint. Unfortunately, full time hostel staff can get jaded with the job, which is then vented as anger or frustration at unsuspecting guests. As I’ve visited more and more hostels, I’ve found myself having the best experiences in places where backpackers work for food and a bed. Rather than being fed-up with the work, they’re genuinely happy to be there, creating a super warm and welcoming atmosphere. And if you’re short on cash yourself, a volunteer program might mean that you can stay in this awesome hostel for a whole lot longer than you otherwise could.

The best I’ve had: Hostel Achalay, Bariloche, Argentina

The wrap up:

Gone are the days when the ideal hostel was the one where you were least likely to be invaded by a parasite or catch an infectious disease. In fact, hostels have never been better, provided you choose wisely. Quality, safety, friendliness, and fun–that’s all these six points boil down to, but it’s surprising how few hostels fail to tick each of those boxes. But when you find the one that does, you’re in for the time of your life.