guide to gap year hostels
Backpacker hostels are a good choice for the gap year traveller. While they may not be as lush as a hotel they offer basic amenities and are cheap, and for this reason they are a popular choice among travellers.
Backpacker hostels are usually a hive of activity and you will most definitely be among like-minded individuals. Being at a backpacker hostel also gives you the opportunity to meet people from all over the world that are having similar experiences.
Regardless of your personality type you should find it pretty easy to make friends and meet travelling buddies. They are also great hubs for getting advice and recommendations on where to go, what to do, where to stay next and where’s good to eat. This can save you from a lot of trial and error.
But I also realise it can be a daunting experience walking into a hostel for the first time, or even the second and third. It doesn’t have to be though and soon enough you'll find your confidence growing.
In this gap year hostel guide I will detail what staying in a hostel implies, and give you loads of tips and tricks so you can have a great experience while staying in a backpacker hostel for the first time.
Book a hostel for your gap year before you travel
When it comes to booking a hostel for your gap year travels being organised is key. Never leave booking a hostel as an afterthought, even if is not the first time! Booking your backpacker hostel in advance is safest, and choosing the right one for you will enhance your gap year travel on many levels.
Your hostel is not only the place where you are going to be sleeping, but it’s also the place where you will keep all of your belongings, as well as socialise and meet new people. It’s important to get it right.
Your first consideration when thinking about booking hostels while on your gap year is how much is your budget, where you are going and the dates that you would like to stay - broadly speaking.
Obviously, accommodation of some sort is a necessity, therefore over the course of your travels it will be one of the biggest outgoings. But remember, you are looking for value and not just the cheapest.
Good value is found in the extras that they offer. This list is not exhaustive, but I will be looking at things like:
You always need to book your hostel in advance. I know some people will differ arguing that it takes away the sense of adventure and all that, I was one of them, but after a couple of not so nice experiences I will always book a backpacker hostel, a couch, a hammock or someplace that I can rest my head, in advance.
This rule is even more important if you are a first time traveller and staying in hostels for the first time, you want to have done your research, read the reviews and made sure that it fits your budget and style.
And I’m not just talking about when you arrive in a country for the first time, it also applies when you are travelling from one town to another.
Arriving at your destination
If you have arrived at your destination without pre-booking then you become an easy target. You will look lost; hanging around with all your belongings is like having a sign saying “please rob me”, or worse.
You, and your parents, will feel much better if you both know where you are going to spend the first few nights. Your first nights away as a first time traveller, before you settle in, will be the most vulnerable time of your trip.
Another bonus about pre-booking is that some accommodations offer rides from the airport or bus station; this is sometimes free or may cost a small fee but it’s better than getting a taxi when you don’t know the town/city.
If they don’t offer this service you should ask them about taxis or buses and how much you can expect to pay; this saves paying for the overpriced fares usually offered at the station or airport.
You must make sure that you have the address and phone number written down and that you are familiar with what part of town the hostel is in. Arriving at your destination for the first time with all this information is going to fill you with confidence and make getting to the accommodation a piece of cake.
To be on the safe side, when you first arrive and need to get your bearings, you should be prepared to pay a little more for a central hostel with a good reputation. Don’t be tempted to choose hostels near bus or train stations as these areas tend to be less safe than other locations.
In some towns, cheap hostels just mean that the amenities are more basic, but in other places, it simply means it is dodgy. Your research should determine this.
Research your hostel first
If you research and book accommodation beforehand, you will choose a better place that suits your needs. This comes from having done research and reading the online comments of past guests, or even talking to people who have stayed there and recommended it to you.
You can also visit travellers’ forums, like TripAdvisor or the Thorn Tree Forum, to read what other travellers are saying about the different places where you are planning to stay. Other people’s first-hand experience is always a good indicator.
It's a very good idea to buy a guide book of the places or areas that you are going to be travelling to on your gap year. You will find detailed information about the town or city and hostels available. I recommend the Lonely Planet guides just because I always find their reviews to be spot on.
There are many websites that you can use to find and book a hostel for your gap year before you travel. A good place to start looking for information is your Lonely Planet guide and then use Booking.com to actually book the hostel.
I find the Booking.com platform very easy to use. You will also find reviews from previous guests and a rating system. I always find the cheapest deals there, even cheaper than the hostel website itself.
Believe me when I say that I used to spend hours searching for hostels, making sure that I found the best price available. Booking.com more often than not deliver me the cheapest deal and save me precious time and energy!
What you can expect at a traveller hostel
Hostels have basic facilities, simple/minimalistic or out of date décor and clean accommodation (well not always...)
Most often facilities will be shared, such as the kitchen, washing facilities, bathrooms, and bedrooms. There will probably be a common area where people mingle and where pool tables and swimming pools are not uncommon.
Dormitories, or dorms, are the cheapest option. Private rooms are usually available and though they are more expensive they can be a viable option if travelling with somebody. Often there is the option of single-sex or mixed dorms; this is to make female travellers feel safer.
A lot of hostels have bars and they finish serving at a reasonable hour, (but not always) after which people move on to the local night club, bar, or go to sleep.
Although it helps to break the ice and meet people, it is important to be sensible and not overdo it, especially if you staying in a hostel for the first time. Alcohol clouds the judgement and unfortunately some people will take advantage of this.
You can definitely expect a lot of friendly and happy people; gap year hostels are wonderful places for meeting people, so even if you consider yourself quite shy, you should try and make an effort to talk to new people and get to know them - it’s what the hostel experience is all about!
Type of hostels
From my experience I would say that they are four types of hostel you will likely come across. You can probably work out what category your potential hostel falls in by reading the reviews of past guests, and also the price is another give away
These ones are...well, just cheap. Don’t expect much when it comes to decor and comfort. Usually the dorms are huge or cramped, lack safety features and the toilets are in a poor state. They are a bit further from the action and are commonly in unsafe neighbourhoods.
I usually try to avoid them. Having said this, remember what I said about value?. Have a look at the reviews, facilities and location and don't knock it just because it's the first on the list after applying the filter “lowest price first” at Booking.com. Make an informed decision.
These are quirky hostels that stick to certain standards and are usually themed. They are more comfortable, stylish - and just cool, but they are a little bit more pricey.
Expect well designed accommodation that is as nice as a cheap hotel but still has the laid back social atmosphere of hostels.
I occasionally stay in boutique type hostel just for the experience or because they offer the most value in the area (that word again!). Check Oxotel hostel in Chiang Mai, I stayed there in my last trip to Thailand - a great example of a boutique hostel and value!
Party hostel facilities tend to be modern with open spaces and a bar onsite. You will find a great variety of sleeping options. From massive dorms to single rooms and all in between. They’re great places to meet people and well...party.
How do you know if it's a party hostel? A massive give a way is the name (generally ‘party something’) and the pictures that they post on their site and social media.
What can you expect at a party hostel? Expect lots of rowdy people, grand quantities of alcohol to be consumed and sex in the dorms (not always, but don’t be surprised if it happens). Sleeping its not top priority…so you choose.
Family run hostels
These places are fairly price, clean and well maintained as they are usually set up on their family home. Expect small dorms, cosy shared areas and gardens where you can relax. Though don’t expect much private time (because they will want to talk to you!).
You would think that they are being nosy, they just want to get to know you as they usually treat their paying guests as part of their extended family. I have to say that this is my preferred set up (more then once I have been invited to family weddings and birthdays).
Travel discount cards
There are different organisations that offer accommodation in backpacker hostels at a discounted rate if you are a member. One of the most well know is Hostelling International (HI). HI is a non profit organisation that boast more than 3.7 million members and work with over 4000 hostels worldwide.
If you are a hostel owner and want to become a member of HI you have to meet certain standards when it comes to facilities and customer service. So in that sense expect high standards and clean facilities and really helpful and well informed staff.
Their membership for a year is dead cheap at just £8.95 for a year. You will not only get a 10% discount on the hostels in their database, but also discounts at travel shops in the UK and abroad as well as discounted trips and activities in many countries all over the world.
The Budget Backpacker Hostel Card is another worthy accommodation discount scheme, though they only give you discounts in New Zealand. They help you with local knowledge and advice, plus their discounted hostel prices are hard to beat. I found them extremely helpful while planning my trip to New Zealand a few years back and they saved me a ton of money.
If you are a student or under 30 you can apply for an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) or a International Youth Travel Card (IYTC). Both cards will give you access to tons of discounts over a wide range of things.
You can also get discounts for flights and hostels, but only if you book through STA Travel. Well worth having a look at and it will only cost you £12 a year.
As always safety must be a priority here. Just a few key checks can give you peace of mind. It is always important to remember that many developing countries do not have the same standards and rules as we do at home.
This are my top 6 safety checks that I do every time I walk into a hostel. I will recommend that you do the same, once you have done them a few times it will become second nature to you.
1. Are there locks on the door? Yes? Good, there should be.
2. Carry a door wedge as they can be used if there is no lock. They also become useful when using shared toilets in hostels as sometimes they won’t lock.
3. Are there accessible fire exits? Do you know where they are?
4. Are there smoke alarms? Probably not. I recommend buying a travel smoke alarm before departure.
5. Are there safety deposit boxes in the room or reception?
6. Always carry your own padlock.
Safety when Using Shared Dorms
Make sure that the dorm locks so that only people staying in the dorm can access it, but don’t forget that these people are complete strangers. Even if they are friendly and easy to get along with it is important to always use common sense and be vigilant.
The two main rules are to be organised and tidy and don’t flash expensive belongings. Oh, and one more rule - never put anything of value under the mattress, it doesn’t work anymore!!
Take your time to understand the security proceedings for each hostel that you stay in as they will be different every time. What time do they lock the doors? Is a code needed to re-enter, a key, or is there an all-night guard?
Always have your head torch handy in the middle of the night. Not only for safety and security but for a number of reasons; fire, natural disasters, finding the way to the toilet or preparing for that 5 am bus without disturbing other roommates.
Follow the traveller etiquette of cleaning up after yourself. Don’t let the kitchen get in a mess, be considerate to other users of the same space and you won’t be the annoying one that everybody is talking about.(remember ‘non dickhead attitude’!)
Globally, backpacker hostels tend to have a fairly similar vibe, however, they are all a little different from each other; some are great, some not so much.
You should never stay in a place that doesn’t feel right. You shouldn’t talk yourself into something that you are not sure about. You can always find another place to stay, you should trust your instincts, always!!
Leave your shyness at the door and make connections
Introduce yourself. Small talk like “where is the kitchen?” or “do you know the password for the wifi?” are good icebreakers. Talk to people! you will be surprised with the results. Read ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People.’ It’s a classic.
As a first time traveller and staying in a hostel for the first time you will be pushing yourself out of your comfort zone - and believe me that’s a good thing.