[Updated March 19, 2017. Originally Posted: April 2012.]
Hostels are possibly the best type of accommodation for backpacking/budget travelers 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 10-15 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.
Curious about hostels? Keep reading.
What Is A Hostel
Hostels — sometimes called “youth hostels” — are the bastions of budget travelers. They are similar to hotels except for the rooms (dorms) are filled with enough bunk beds to house anywhere between 4-40 people. In a hostel, you only rent the bed, so you share 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 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 rooms are unisex.
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 the room (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 ($15/night in Eastern Europe). Keep in mind that I usually 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 or Airbnb for that price).
Reasons To Stay In A Hostel
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. It also makes meeting other travelers super easy — which is extra great for solo travelers.
Hostels are also usually located in the heart of the city, so you’re close to all the action.
And hostels are cheap — so you can travel even longer.
Who Stays In Hostels
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 Kiwis who are traveling for 9+ months at a time. 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 hostels 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.
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. Then 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.
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 two 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 fewer strangers/snorers. Most rooms are unisex, but plenty of hostels offer female-only rooms.
Security and Lockers
Each hostel has its 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 for storing your luggage for when you first arrive (if your room isn’t ready) and when you’re checking out. These rooms can range from a locked storage room monitored by CCTV to an open area on the floor with a pile of bags.
Hostel bathrooms can be super nice or really terrible. Each hostel has a different setup when it comes to the showers and toilets. Most 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 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, and 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/smartphones 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.
TIP: 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.
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 consists 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.
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 is becoming standard in hostels. Most hostels have computers with internet access, but they usually charge you to use these computers. Some hostels have free computers with free internet and that is really nice. However, free computers can be a little annoying because they’re always occupied with people checking Facebook.
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.
However, most hostels don’t have washing machines so don’t expect this.
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 is worth booking. You can also see videos, pictures, amenities, and directions. You book your reservation by paying 10% of the total payment (by credit/debit card), and then you pay the remainder 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:
- 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 in the 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 way to meet other travelers.
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