Does everyone know what hostels are about? If you haven’t been in one in a long time, you might be surprised how many big city hostels have been modernized and gone upscale, particularly in Europe. In the USA it’s really a mixed bag. Only some hostels have been upgraded, so it’s understandable if you still have the old connotation of hostels being musty, decrepit and only on a dare would you cook in the kitchen with the scuzzy pots, plates and utensils. Some are still like that. After one night in the Durango, Colorado hostel, I was ready to hang myself.
          It is becoming a 50-50 proposition as to whether you need to buy a card for the worldwide chain of international youth hostel federation (IYHF) hostels. It depends where you are going. It also depends on how cheap you can get the membership card. The price can vary quite a bit from country to country. Check each country’s website to see what they charge. If it costs too much, it may not be worth it since there are so many private hostels around. Usually you can stay in an official IYHF hostel without a card, but you pay a bit more. Some countries are strictly members-only. It can also happen that you get stuck at an IYHF hostel that doesn’t issue cards. Be sure you get the right hostel card as some countries sell a national card or some weird thing where you need to affix stickers or stamps. You want the international one that is valid worldwide.

What’s wrong with booking online?
          I almost never book any kind of hostel in advance. I might phone ahead and see if there is room, but I like to see what I am getting. I hardly look at photos nor amenities of hostels in their websites. The fabulous facilities, killer location and photos of everyone having the time of their lives–it never looks the same in person.
          I know I am completely in the minority with this opinion, but what’s out there? If I was going to Paris in July, I wouldn’t just hope for the best, but Budapest? Cape Town? Rio? There are tons of hostels.
          If you prefer more certainty in your life, at least resist booking for more than one night. What if there are bedbugs or the location is sketchy or it’s upstairs from a loud disco when you have been on a bus all day and just want to sleep? Hostel sites now commonly allow you to book without a fee, but I have also seen arguments for refunds when the online price is higher than the walk-in price. (See how this is the anti-commercial website?)
          Sometimes it is best not to call ahead as a hostel might tell you it’s full, but if you do show up, a bed could be scrounged up. Some bigger hostels keep emergency beds for this reason. Once I went to a remote hostel in Norway and the manager felt bad for me and let me sleep on a couch for half the price. In effect, I had a room to myself instead of being in a full dormitory. However, the risks of relying on this gambit are obvious.

     Hey, don't forget Take the melodramatic comments on the site with a grain of salt. As far as I can remember, I've slept in airports in Paris, Orlando, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Muenster-Osnabrueck, Oslo, Dhaka, Bangkok, and Singapore, none a big deal. This photo of some of my peers is from Athens airport. Cozy!

          A quick tip for the tallish of height: I am 6′ 1″ (187cm) and when I look at a hostel bed that has a frame where I can’t stick my legs through, I have to analyze it more closely. Since I am as tall as I am wide when I extend my hands, I stand next to the bed and see if I can touch both ends of the bed. If I can, I know it will be very hard to sleep–and I am a horrible sleeper, so these things matter to me. I don’t know why I mention this as anyone tall already knows how to fend for themselves. It must be a solicitation for sympathy from shorter people.

Party Central
          Hostels can be a simple place to sleep or they can be a full-on, non-stop rager. Take Loki Hostels, a small chain of hostels in South America.
          Usually I’m in total denial about how old I am, but I felt it there. I must have been double everyone’s age, the entire staff included. Every night was like a college party after finals: blasted music, beer spilled everywhere, lots of screaming. It’s like a self-contained island where you hardly need to venture outside, where the country and people become mere background. It was surreal to walk outside and be in La Paz, Bolivia.
          Before I start to sound like a judgmental hypocrite, I stayed there to meet people and enjoy myself, too. I didn’t spend my free time in the corner translating ancient Incan texts, if you get my drift. It’s all about balance. Besides, I don’t want to hang out with “my people”, as my goal is to be the oldest and dumbest of all my friends. The bar is set pretty low, I know.


Hostels — 3 Comments

  1. Actually, in developed countries I always book ahead online because it is usually cheaper than if you do it in person for the same night at the reception.

    A short story: I went to the US and wanted to visit Washington DC but I didn’t know the exact date I was going to be there. I found an IYHA Youth Hostel downtown, saw on their website that it was 16 $ a night in the dorm and wrote down the address.

    When I arrived the dorm bed was suddenly going to be 28 $ instead of 16$. WTF?! 16 $ was their online price the receptionist explained, 28 $ the walk in rate. He would not budge.

    There were some Internet computers for a dollar a pop just across from the reception in the lobby. So if I went online for a buck couldn’t I just reserve online, copy down the reference number and then get the bed for 16 $ + 1$ for the Internet? Not for tonight, but for tomorrow night, yes. The receptionist even pointed me to some hostelbooking site where exactly the same bed was only 12 $. So that’s what I did. I paid 28 $ for the first night and 12 $ each for the second, third and fourth night at the Internet terminal that was only a few meters from the reception….

    The other day I was in a hostel in London (10 pound a night) and because London was so great I decided to stay an extra three days. So I went to the reception and asked if I could stay another three days. Sure, lots of beds available. Great. So I hand over 30 quid and the receptionist informs me that won’t be enough because the rate is 15 pounds a night. I say: “But online it’s a third less” – “Well online, but we are here offline”. Fine.

    So I trek over to the computers in the lobby, pay a pound for 15 minutes of the Internet and reserve my bed in exactly the same hostel for – you guessed it – a tenner. Walk over to the reception, pay 30 quid for three nights and thought how ridiculous this was.

  2. Ah, this is a good counterpoint. Thanks for taking the time to post this and your other comments. Isn’t it an insane system? Lately I have been talking to hostel owners and they say that these days very few people are just “walk-ins”; everyone books in advance.

  3. Hi Kent!

    My general rule is to book only the first night, especially when I’m flying in late in the night (which is usually the case given I take the cheapest flight available). I don’t bother too much on how close to the pictures the venue might actually be (it never is very similar, anyhow) and usually spend a part of the next day checking out the other cheap hostels I looked up. But then, I often don’t change as I am pretty adaptable (or lucky to stumble upon a good one?).



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