Guide To Hostels in Europe: Bunk Beds, Beer and Breakfast
Hostels are possibly the best type of accommodation for backpacking in Europe. They’re inexpensive, they’re located in every European city, and they’re full of other young travelers. Competition between hostels has grown over the past 5-10 years so the quality has risen considerably. Unfortunately, hostels are pretty uncommon in the US, so many Americans are totally clueless about them and have a lot of misconceptions (I know I did). This complete guide to hostels in Europe will cover everything from hostel basics to tips for choosing a great hostel.
What is a hostel: Hostels — sometimes called “youth hostels” — are the bastions of budget travelers. They are like a hotel except the rooms (dorms) are filled with enough bunk beds to house anywhere between 4-40 people. You’re only renting the bed so you’ll be sharing the room with a bunch of fellow travelers. Obviously privacy is limited, but the low cost and thriving social scene more than make up for the negatives.
Most hostels will have multiple options when it comes to the type of dorm rooms available. Nearly every hostel will have a couple of private rooms (one bed/one bunk bed), but all will have dorms of various sizes. For example, a hostel could have 4 rooms that hold 8 people, 5 rooms that hold 12 people, and 8 rooms that hold 18 people. From my experience, the biggest dorms usually hold about 10 guests. Many hostels also have female-only rooms, but most dorms house both males and females.
Cost: A bed in a hostel will cost anywhere from $10+/night (in Eastern Europe) to $30+/night (big cities in Western Europe). The price depends on the size of room you choose (the cheapest beds are in the rooms with the most people), the location of the hostel, the amenities, the competition from other hostels in town, and a few other factors.
I think I usually paid about $30/night on average in Western Europe ($20/night in Eastern Europe). Keep in mind that I always opted for the cheapest room available. A private room with 2 beds can cost up to $120+/night (so you might as well get a hotel for that price).
Why: Hosteling is the best way to meet tons of interesting people from all over the world. You’re surrounded by like-minded travelers who all share the love of adventure and a love for having fun.
Hostels are also usually located in the heart of the city, so you’re close to all the action.
Who: There is a wide range of people who stay at hostels. Most are young travelers between 18-30 (some hostels only allow guests between 18-35 years old). But I once meet this really cool 70 year old Australian who was traveling for 6 months. From my experience, there are always lots of Australians and Kiwi that are traveling for 9+ months at a time. A bunch of Irish and Canadians. There are quite a few Americans who come over for 2-3 weeks, or who are studying abroad somewhere in Europe. I’ve met a handful of South Africans and a few French. I’m sure there are plenty of other nationalities, but people who speak the same language tend to stick together. Some people live in hostel for a month or more, but most only stay for a few days.
Features Of Good European Hostels
There are a lot of great hostels in Europe and there are just as many terrible ones. I’ve compiled a list of features that you should keep in mind when searching for a hostel.
24/7 Check-in/Reception: Every hostel has a check-in desk. This is where you pay, get your key, and receive all the important information about the hostel. Be sure to ask for a map. Some hostels don’t have 24/7 reception and it usually isn’t a big deal… until your train/flight is late and you try to check-in after reception closes. Now you’re stuck looking for a new hostel.
TIP: The people at the front desk usually have the best idea about what is going on in the city. They’ll be able to recommend the best things to do/see around town. It is helpful to give them an idea what you’re interested in doing. Questions like “what are some cheap restaurants?” or “I’m looking for a fun nightclub, any recommendations?” are a lot better than “So… what things should I do here?” The point is: don’t expect them to plan your stay for you.
Bedroom/Dorm Room: Hostel dorm rooms are almost universally filled with multiple squeaky bunk beds (I’ve even seen three-level bunks). Dorms can range from small rooms with 2 bunk beds to large rooms with 20+ bunks. From my experience the most common rooms usually have 4-6 bunks (that’s 8-12 people for all you who failed math). Some hostels offer private rooms with only two beds (you must book each bed so the price can get really high). The cheapest rooms have the most people so expect to pay more if you want a room with less strangers/snorers. Most rooms are unisex, but plenty of hostels offer female-only rooms.
Security: Each hostel has their own version of security. Some require a key/buzzer/secret knock to enter the building. Most hostels at least require a key to enter the dorm rooms.
Most dorm rooms have lockers. These are usually located under the bed but some rooms have cabinet-style lockers. You normally have to supply your own lock. I just lock up any valuables and leave my backpack on the bed. I’ve never had any problems with theft—besides, no one wants a bunch of dirty clothes.
The hostel will probably have a room to store your luggage for when you first arrive (if your room isn’t ready) and when you’re checking-out. These rooms can range anywhere from a locked storage room monitored by CCTV to an open area on the floor with a pile of bags.
Showers/Toilets: Hostel bathrooms can be super nice or really terrible. Each hostel has a different set-up when it comes to the showers and toilets. Much of the time each room has its own bathroom. This means the room of 8 people could be sharing one small bathroom. Some have large community style bathrooms with a few sinks and multiple private shower stalls. Some showers require you to push a stupid button every 30 seconds for the water to work and some are operated by pulling on a chain. I’ve even stayed in a hostel where the you had to walk through the kitchen and through the outdoor courtyard (not fun in the winter) to get to the shower.
The absolute worst are the shower/bathroom combo. I want to dance on the grave of the person who thought this was a good idea. Basically there is no separation between the shower, toilet, and sink. The entire room gets wet and this is a pain in the ass trying to get dressed when every inch of the room is covered in water.
Lounge/Chill-Out Room: The better hostels have comfy lounge rooms where people can go chill-out and meet other travelers. A lot of these rooms will have a big TV (usually with satellite channels), DVD player with a bunch of DVDs, books, board games, big couches (often adorned with hungover Australians). This is a great place to meet other people and exchange travel stories. This is also where you’ll find all the people with laptops checking their twitterbook and facepage.
Kitchen & Dining Room: A hostel with a nice kitchen is a godsend. I try to exclusively book hostels with kitchens—even if it costs a little more—because you can save so much money by cooking your own meals. Hostels with nice kitchens are also much more social, as it gives people a chance to really interact with each other. A great way to make friends is to organize a meal and have everyone chip in a few euros. I think I met all my best travel friends in the kitchen.
The best kitchens have everything you’ll need to cook a meal; stoves, ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, sinks, utensils, cups, plates, and pretty much anything else you might need. Don’t expect any kitchen to be super clean because they get a lot of use, and the hostel staff usually don’t enjoy cleaning kitchens.
Breakfast (free): A lot of hostels have free breakfast. Don’t get too excited because it’s usually pretty meager — but it’s free, so whatever. Just about every breakfast consist of generic corn flakes, white or wheat bread (w/ jam, peanut butter, some yummy chocolate spread, & butter), orange juice, milk (room temperature), tea and coffee. If you’re lucky you’ll get a croissant. I’ve been to a few hostels where the breakfast isn’t free and it usually costs a lot for what you get.
Hostel Bar: If you want a hostel with a lively social scene then you’ll want to find one with a bar. The beer prices at hostel bars are usually pretty affordable and sometimes it’s the best deal in town. And drinking in the hostel is safer than wandering the streets drunk after a big night out.
The bars do get a bit noisy, so you might want to book a hostel without a bar if you’re a light sleeper—or don’t enjoy drunk people.
Free WiFi/Computers: Free wifi is becoming standard in hostels. Most hostels have computers with internet access, but they usually charge you to use the computer. The internet is often fairly expensive and the computers usually suck. Some hostels have free computers with free internet and that is really nice. Free computers can be a little annoying because they’re always occupied with people checking facebook.
Washing Machines: If you’re a long-term traveler a washing machine is a great luxury. Hand washing your stinky socks (and trust me, your socks will stink) is never fun so having a machine do all the work is a miracle.
Good Location: The location can really have a big impact on your hostel experience. It is much more convenient if you’re located near the sights/bars/clubs/grocery stores/public transportation/McDonald’s.
How To Find A Good Hostel In Europe
Thanks to the Internet, booking a hostel is incredibly easy. Sites like HostelWorld.com allow you to read past reviews of other travelers so you can judge the quality of the hostel before you book it.
I only really book with Hostelworld because they are the largest site and they have the most hostel reviews/community base—and the site is super easy to use. Simply enter your travel information and the site will give you a list of results. Each hostel is rated by fellow travelers, so you’ll get a pretty good idea if the hostel worth booking. You can also see video, pictures, amenities, and directions. You book your reservation by paying 10% of the total payment (by credit/debit card) and then you pay the reminder of the payment directly to the hostel when you arrive. It’s super easy.
Hostel booking sites are also nice because they allow you to filter your search results based on price or rating. I usually look at the highest rated hostels first and then find one in my price range. But you can always filter based on price alone if you’re on a strict budget.
By doing a little homework, you can find some truly amazing hostels.
Recommended Hostel Booking Sites:
More Helpful Hostel Tips
- Write detailed instructions for how to get to the hostel from the train station/airport/wherever you’re coming from. Getting lost sucks and some hostels can be tough to find.
- Book hostels ahead of time during the busy season—especially summer.
- Bring ear plugs and a sleeping mask. There is bound to be one person who snores super loud when you’re in a room of 12 people. He is probably the same jerk who turns the lights on when returning to the room at 4am. He’ll probably brush his teeth and leave the water running the entire time too. And I bet he hates puppies.
- Renting a towel from a hostel is a lot better than carrying your own stinky wet towel around in your backpack. Not all hostels offer towels for rent so I suggest buying a special quick drying travel towel.
- I always like to book hostels that only allow people 18+. Large school groups often rent hostels for school trips. 50 middle schoolers running around isn’t remotely enjoyable. I also like hostels that don’t rent to bachelor/stag parties — as these groups often get belligerently drunk.
- Read the hostel’s policies. Some only accept cash, some have a lockout period (usually between 11am-4pm) for cleaning, and some even have a curfew.
- Some hostels charge for linens. I’ve never encountered this but I have had to pay a refundable deposit on sheets.
- I’ve never met a front desk worker who didn’t speak pretty good English.
- Many hostels have pub-crawls and the guides know where to get the cheapest drinks. This is a great ways to meet other travelers.
City Bike Share/Rentals
More and more cities are starting to install bike share systems that are free/cheap. The biggest is Paris’ system of over 14,000 bikes and 1200 stations scattered throughout the city. Basically you use your credit card to put down a deposit on a bike at any of the automated stations. Then you can use the bike for free for the first 30 minutes and then you’re charged a small fee based on how long you use the bike. Once you’re finished you can return it to any station. This means you can rent a bike for under 30 minutes multiple times a day and never pay anything.
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