Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Booking Hostels in Europe
Matthew Lepori (MattL)
This guide is intended for those new to the world of hostelling. It mostly relates to Europe, however some things in here are universal to the world of hostels.
First things first: to eliminate any antiquated ideas of hostels from your mind, I assure you that the world of hostels has vastly changed in recent years. I know this first hand. I have seen the hostels that are relics of an earlier age, where hostelling was more an activity for high school kids on school trips. Luckily they are being marginalized in the industry, and are being replaced by hostels that themselves constitute a destination.
Hostels as destination, and not simply a place to rest your head? Absolutely true.
Some hostels cultivate an atmosphere that is immediately welcoming and fraternal (and not in the John Belushi sense of the word). They become a place you want to spend time at, instead of dread. Which isn't to say that there aren't dreadful hostels out there, some being dirty, claustrophobic, institutional, unfriendly, or very un-central. Some are all of the above.
Luckily there are three systems in place today to keep you out of such a hostel:
I do not recommend using guidebooks to find yourself a hostel. Guidebook reviews are written by some guy or gal you've never met, and are highly subjective. On the other hand, online booking sites feature hostel ratings from up to hundreds of your peers (eventually some of these hostels will have 1000+ user ratings). Furthermore, with word of mouth at least the person giving you the advice isn't some faceless stranger who may or may not have been paid off by the hostel to write a glowing review.
Hostels generally fall under two categories: independent hostels, and HI hostels. The HI organization began almost 100 years ago as means to facilitate trips for school children. Unfortunately not much has changed since then, except for the clientele. Their guests today are less and less of the under 18 variety, and are more and more your average backpacker. But unfortunately the HI system hasn't exactly been quick to change with the times. HI hostels have a (fair) reputation for being very institutional, meaning lots of rules and not a lot of vibe. You'll encounter curfews, lockouts (meaning they lock up the hostel during the day), having to pay to rent sheets and towels, very bland breakfasts (every HI breakfast I've ever eaten has been a roll with butter and jelly, a quite depressing breakfast to wake up to on a daily basis), bunk beds, and very boring common rooms. The latter is due to the common rooms almost always being small and under the eye of whoever runs the front desk/reception, which like the curfews can be traced back to HI's beginning as a place for school children. To be fair, HI hostels that are in the major cities tend to be more modernized that their rural, or small town brothers. For example, I have stayed at HI hostels without a curfew. The problem is that in most instances the smaller, out of the way places won't have an independent hostel option and you'll be forced to stay at an HI. That's where the "fun" begins.
The moral of this story is to use a combination of online booking sites and word of mouth to find those cool, funky, hip hostels. And there are plenty of them out there, some of which I will list at the end of this article.
What to Expect
Your average modern, independent hostel will feature some or most of the following:
Some hostels go beyond this. The very best hostels include these things alongside some intangibles that make the place stand out from the rest. They are places other backpackers call "real backpacker hostels." It's a certain atmosphere. A certain hands-off, chilled out, laissez faire attitude (read more about this below). These hostels are truly hard to find, both because the places that foster this type of atmosphere are rare, but also because the guests make the hostel too. Meaning if you are at a hostel with a good group of people, good times result. If your hostel is full of immature brats or the socially inept, it can ruin the vibe of any well-intentioned hostel. So there is a random element to the hostel experience. That being said, some places seem to somehow foster a regularly good time.
The idea of a "good time" is, of course, subjective. To some a "good times" hostel is one that features pub crawls and crazy parties that put frat-houses to shame. To others, a "good times" hostel is more of a laid-back and easy-going hangout. Hostels generally, in my opinion, try to shoot for one of these two atmospheres, thus it's important for you to identify what it is you want in a hostel, and read the hostel reviews to find the ones that provide it.
Europe represents the biggest hostel market, so I'll restrict this section to Europe and use the euro. In a broad sense, hostels will tend to cost you between 12 and 30 euro per night. Why such a disparity? I'll break it down for you: capital cities in Western Europe are the most expensive, pushing or exceeding that 30 euro/night threshold. Other major cities of interest are most times right up there. On the other hand, you can stay in some rural HI hostels for as little as 12 euro a night. Keep in mind that HI will tack on 3 euro per night if you aren't a member, and a membership costs around 24 euro. They also may charge you for sheets, towels, and breakfast. To put it in further perspective, most hostels in Rome will run between 20 and 30 euro in the summertime, whereas you can stay in places like Forio or Modena for somewhere around 15 euro/night.
The basic rule: the more popular the tourist destination, the more you're going to pay. There are some bargains out there, true, but they can be hard to find and/or may be total dumps. Again, see what the hostels are rated and what others tell you about them.
Hostels in Britain are generally 50% more expensive their continental cousins. Hostels in Portugal and Spain tend to be cheaper than the other euro-zone countries. For Italy, which I know best, I consider any hostel that's under 20 euro/night to be cheap, 20 - 25/night normal, and over 25/night expensive. Central and Eastern European hostels are generally much cheaper than in the west. Even in hotspots like Prague and Budapest you can stay in great hostels for 15 euro or less. Even cheaper are Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. This may change when these countries switch to the euro, but for now they are great values. Croatia is a big exception. Expect to pay Western Europe prices.
Room types vary across the board. I've seen a disconcerting increase in the number of beds that get stuffed into rooms. I remember back in the day (and this is really only four or five years ago!) when I considered an eight-bed dorm to be big. Nowadays many hostels, especially the big hostels in the big cities, feature 12, 14, and even 16-bed dorm rooms. That's a lot of bunk beds stuffed into a room. Most hostels have options for staying in a more reasonable sized room, but you end up paying for it. Part of finding a place that's a good value is finding one without the double digit bed count.
The vast majority of dorm rooms are coed. Only HI really seems to vary from this, although not all HI hostels are separated. Bathroom arrangements are as numerous as there are hostels: single sex, unisex, single-user, multi-user etc. The idea of showering in a "communal" shower, a la your high school locker room, died out a long time ago. I've never seen one of these arrangements. Typically the smaller hostels have single-user bathrooms, and the larger variety have larger bathrooms that will have multiple toilet and shower stalls. In my opinion, this is another reason to seek out the smaller hostels. The bathroom-per-guest ratio can completely vary, just like everything else. Best to read the reviews.
Security, again, varies. Most hostels offer some way to lock up your stuff (bring your own lock), but many small hostels do not. I personally never bother, and have no bad stories to report. You develop a sixth sense when it comes to this sort of thing. I tend to be much more paranoid about the guy on the street than the guy sleeping in my room, when it comes to theft. In my experience, the hostels that tend to have looser security rules tend to be more fun.
Hostelbookers is one of many online hostel reservation websites. The nice thing about their site is that they don't charge you a fee to make your booking. Other sites, such as Hostelworld, Hostels.com, and Hostelz.com charge you a $2 fee. It seems that all sites, including Hostelbookers, require you to pay a 10% deposit when you make your booking. Hostelworld is the longest established site, thus it has more hostels (and hotels, guesthouses, and apartments) listed. I see this changing over time since Hostelbookers represents a free alternative.
Using Hostelbookers is rather simple. All you need is a credit card. Using the drop down menus on their start page, select where you want to go, and when. The next screen displays room types, availability, and prices. There select what type of room you want, and for how many people. The next screen requires you to input your personal and credit card data. And that's it, you're confirmed.
This part is, of course, highly subjective. Each of these hostels give off a vibe where it feels as if you're staying at a friend's house. Each has great staff and at each place I ended up staying longer than I had originally planned (the real sign that you dig a hostel). My favorites thus far are:
Rambutan in Granada, Spain
The best breakfast of any hostel I've ever been, along with barbecue nights, an unforgettable view of the Alhambra, and very personable staff. Nice patio too.
Enjoy San Sebastian - Urban House in San Sebastian, Spain
Perfect location, small and cozy. Rooms have a max of four people, and you're only five minutes from La Concha.
Fattoria Bassetto in Certaldo, Tuscany, Italy
Smack-dab in the middle of Tuscany, this old farm house and monastery is an excellent place to get away from it all. A nice place to return to after hectic Rome and Florence. They run great van tours all over Tuscany, plus have bikes for rent and a swimming pool. Tends to attract a much hipper and more mature clientele than most hostels in Italy. The Aussies who run the hostel are very cool, they've been there for years.
Ring Hostel in Ischia, Italy
An incredible value on a beautiful island. The hostel is really nice, with a great terrace with views of the town and mountain. The family who owns the hostel also run a restaurant, which has delicious food.
Backpack Guesthouse in Budapest, Hungary
Great staff, great atmosphere, great common room. Tons of movies. They even have a backyard with a gazebo and hammocks. Not very central but definitely one of my top three hostel experiences ever.
Dubrovnik Backpackers Club in Dubrovnik, Croatia
The best staff, hands down, of any hostel I've experienced. I must have made up for my nightly rate by all the free food and drinks they gave me (and everyone else). Has a nice balcony with a great view over the port of Dubrovnik. This is a real hidden gem, as it's the only hostel in Dubrovnik other than the ancient HI.
Celica in Ljubljana, Slovenia
A former prison, now an "art hostel," it really won my vote with its hookah lounge and good breakfast. Unique in the hostel world.
Jakelj Backpackers House in Bled, Slovenia
A very family oriented affair, with quirky staff and a beautiful location. They serve dinner and breakfast. Not central (a few km from Bled), but has a great atmosphere since everyone comes back at night to have dinner and socialize. They run all sorts of trips out of the hostel, I went rafting with them and had a great time.
The thing that makes a good hostel is atmosphere. Atmosphere is that initial feeling when you walk into a room or a house or a building. You know atmosphere when you feel it, but describing it can be thing of difficulty. Here's an attempt to describe what goes into making the "backpacker atmosphere" in a hostel.
In is a feeling of commune-ality. Not that you are in a real commune, but that you are in a place that is relaxed and accepting. Out are overt security measures, which counteract the feeling of communality. In are rooms painted with different themes, or furnished as such. Out is the color white, beige, or any other neutral wall color. Out also is cleanliness, too much cleanliness ruins a place's character. In is a little dirt in the corners. Bathrooms can be the one exception. In are young people running the show, meaning the workers at the hostel are twenty-something travelers like yourself who are just working there for a month and then continuing on. Out are old proprietors and managers, no matter how lovely or helpful. In is word-of-mouth to find such a place. Out are guidebook recommendations. Definitely out is a curfew. In is someone working at the hostel who can cook real breakfasts, out is the ubiquitous continental breakfast that after a month of traveling you come to detest. In are room names, out are room numbers. In are the availability of movies and beer, right there in the hostel so that you don't really need to go anywhere for a good time. In is a backyard, stoop, or big patio and the opportunity to sleep outside if desired. In also are sprawling, maze-like old buildings. New buildings with interior symmetry are out. In hostel bars can be both in and out, depending on music and style. In are pool and ping pong tables, but out are pool and ping pong tables which are not free.
Have Fun on Your Trip!
Hostels are where you meet people from all over the world, make friends, and develop an international network of people. My best memories from traveling aren't the places I've been to, but the people I've met and the experiences I've had with them. Enjoy.
© Matthew Lepori, 2006
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