Recently, I’ve been asked a number of times if hostels were OK to stay at. Again, I’m no expert in the matter, but I can safely say for the most part yes. In my experience this is particularly true for larger, well known cities on the backpacker’s trail. Hostels today can be as ritzy as hotels, offering many of the same amenities, but some can literally be 4 wooden walls and a door. It all depends on what you are comfortable with.
One of the key advantages of hostels is the price point. Many backpackers travel for months on end and hotels are simply not a cost effective option, costing $60-$120+/night. From what I’ve researched and experienced, a dorm bed in many SE Asian cities will cost as little as $8 but averaging $12-$15 a night. European hostels, I’m told cost $20-$30 a night. A friend of mine traveled through Eastern Africa for a few months and a dorm bed in these hostels cost on average $11-$14/night. If you are traveling with a larger group, it may be worth looking into a private room as the added security and privacy may come at only a few dollars more. From a price standpoint, they are the most affordable option available. I should note that for many European cities, bed and breakfasts are a good option priced between a hostel and hotel. Rick Steves says they are a great way to mingle with the locals and experience a piece of authentic architecture.
Many of the amenities you would expect from a hotel you can now find in many hostels. Things like wifi, laundry service, public computers, an in house restaurant and bar and even satellite TV were common in the SE Asian hostels we stayed at. A very basic breakfast of toast, coffee/tea and sometimes fruit is also included more often than not. Showers/washrooms are shared (unless you opt for a private room) and towels are often provided. Hostelworld has some pretty comprehensive reviews that are helpful for choosing which hostel is right for you. Guidebooks also offer unlisted hostels and their contacts.
When you come across a really neat, clean, well maintained hostel, you can really feel at home. However there are some hostels were you should take a few precautions for your sake. One of the essentials for hosteling is a sleeper or sleeping bag liner. These are basically sheets folded over and sewn into a sac of sorts that you can slip in. This acts as a barrier between you and the bed to lend some protection against any potential critters. I wrote briefly about this in the Prep series. While hosteling, never leave valuables in your pack. Valuables like passports, money, electronics etc should be locked up in a locker, which is often provided for you with a deposit or on a “bring your own lock” basis. So bring a lock with you.
Large backpacker hubs like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur will offer very nicely decorated, well equipped facilities. One such that stood out was in Kuching, Malaysia, where Bindi (a Swede) and Rick (a local) run the Threehouse Bed and Breakfast in the heart of Chinatown (see images above). Aside from being ultra friendly, having cheap laundry service and clean showers etc, the building itself had so much character. Dark wood floors that creaked ever so slightly, rich red walls with Buddha paintings and narrow staircases all added to its homey feel. Conversely, when we were in Batad, Philippines, the conditions were a bit more rough (see images below). Understand that this is a remote hillside village so amenities are understandably more modest. Mandeep and I used the beams on our walls as shelving and sprayed down the windows with off before going to bed, which were covered with Sailor Moon and Power Ranger sheets/pillow cases. Very quaint. Shower and washroom facilities were quite basic. Toilets were flushed with a pail and everyone shared one mirrorless basin. Ohhh yeah, it was fun putting my contacts on without a mirror. The redeeming factor was the friendly staff and unforgettable view of the rice terraces from the in house restaurant. All in all, the rougher accommodations take a sense of adventurous bravery but make for great stories after!
In the end, its up to you how comfortable you are with hostels. If you see the room and it feels all wrong, then go find another place. Hostels are a great way to meet like minded people. You love to travel, chances are they love to travel, and that should be enough to get you through most things! Some of my fondest memories are with friends met at hostels. They bring a new dynamic to your group and offer companionship for people traveling alone. The hosteling experience is rougher than hotels but its an experience worth having at least once!