A First Time Solo Traveler’s Guide to Hostels

by Ekua on February 11, 2012 in backpacking,d.i.y. travel,safe travels,solo travel

Hostel Kokopelli, a clean, colorful, and welcoming hostel in Lima where I kicked off my first big solo trip.

When I travel on my own, where I choose to stay can make a huge difference in my overall experience in a location. In my second post for my solo travel for beginners series, I suggested that hostels were excellent place to begin if you want to meet people while you’re traveling solo. I know that some people who are squeamish about hosteling will immediately start backing away at that suggestion.

But I think that everyone is more capable of living differently or more simply than they are used to, especially when in the scheme of things, it’s such a brief period of time. With just a little bit of research, in many locations you can find a variety of hostels that appeal to a variety of travelers.

When I was planning my first big solo travel trip, I browsed some of the hostel websites and would often arbitrarily reserve rooms at hostels that had good ratings. While this might guarantee a decent bed to sleep in, I’ve found that if you’re traveling solo, it’s often better to look a little deeper into what a hostel is all about. Here are some of the things I consider before I book a hostel:

» Safety and Location

Sometimes I’ll see a hostel review that says something like, “This hostel is located in a dark, decrepit alley and it’s really hard to find… but it’s a good hostel!” Um, no thanks. Safety and location are first and foremost. If it’s a large city, I typically opt for places that are central to a neighborhood and in smaller cities, I prefer to stay in the center of town.  I also like to stay locations that have easy access to public transportation.

Another thing I look for is whether or not the hostel has lockers and if past visitors have given the impression that they felt that it was a secure environment. You can find shady people in any hostel or hotel, but some places do a better job of looking out for the safety and well being of their guests by doing things like providing lockers for everyone and by letting guests have access to reception 24 hours a day.

Casa Angel, my hostel of choice in Oaxaca. This toilet used to be in one of their bathrooms. When it stopped working, one of the hostel staff members brought it up to the roof and converted it into a flower pot.

» Size and Atmosphere

On my first big solo trip, I figured that large hostels with a party atmosphere were the best for meeting people. While I certainly did meet plenty of people at hostels like that, I’ve found over and over again that I make better connections with better people when I stay at smaller, cozier hostels. There is often a greater variety of people in the crowd at smaller places and people tend to congregate in the same areas so faces become familiar.

I also keep an eye out for hostels that put time and effort into making the hostel inviting by keeping it clean and giving it some kind of personality. Homey and decorative common areas filled with books, ideas on what to do in the area, and friendly faces can make you quickly feel at ease and they draw people out of their rooms to socialize.

» Hostel Events and Free Breakfast

Hostel events and outings are a good way to settle into the environment when you arrive in a new location. I always  prefer to stay in hostels that keep their guests in mind by organizing gatherings, nights out on the town, or trips to local events. I’ve found that if I first get to a new place and I’m not really feeling it, taking on these kind of opportunities always ends up enhancing my experience.

I’ve regularly found that the breakfast table is the best place to meet fellow hostelers. Hostels that offer free breakfast often do it in a small window of time and people traveling on a budget usually take advantage of this, even though it usually takes place earlier than they like to wake up. A number of my great travel friendships have begun this way, with a conversation struck up over coffee and toast.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi February 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Good tips – in my younger years (cough) I used to just book hostels based on price, but now I’ve started putting a lot more emphasis on atmosphere. Even if it’s a few dollars more, I want to stay somewhere fun and social – it makes the trip that much more enjoyable!!

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Ekua February 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Haha about the younger years thing. On my first solo trip, I did a lot of showing up to locations without a reservation and booking based on whatever was cheap or I sometimes prebooked beds in big party hostels. Towards the end of that trip, I stayed in a couple of cute artsy hostels with really great courtyards where I’d meet really unique people and I realized that was much more my thing. It seems like more and more hostels are realizing that hosteling is about more than providing a cheap place to stay, so that’s good news for those of us who want to be social and continue the backpacking travel style as we age 😉

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This Battered Suitcase February 11, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Great advice! I have stayed in at least 100 hostels over the course of my travels and I absolutely love them. They are so great for meeting people – I’ve met countless friends, travel partners, and even a boyfriend or two when staying in hostels! Safety and location are of top priority for me, too…

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Ekua February 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Thanks! It’s crazy to think how many cool people I’ve met at hostels who’ve become a regular part of my life. In fact, on Friday I went to dinner with the person who converted the toilet into a flower pot in the picture above!

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