Say “hostel,” and instantly the first thing most people think of are: They are dirty, unsafe, sketchy, and, in some ways, a total gamble since you don’t know who you’ll share a room with, full of twenty year-olds.
The truth is not only do hostels offer private rooms, they are full of people that come from all walks and stages of life. They are amazing alternatives to hotels, and on occasion, our editor has even seen cleaner, better equipped rooms than some hotel rooms she has stayed in.
Why go to the Ritz if I won’t be there half the time, right? It’s better to use that money towards a surf lesson in the Algarve, a fancy dinner in Rome, or a tour of Antoni Gaudi’s famous church, the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona.
Whenever I scroll TikTok, it’s amazing how many scare stories there are regarding hostel culture (especially of that in Europe). They are often centered around cleanliness, roommates, location, or all the above. People often think if it’s cheap, it must be too good to be true.
The truth is, choosing hostels the last two years was not only a wise financial decision but a great one for my social life too. I’d go as far as to say everyone should stay in a hostel setting at least once; it’s not just for people in their twenties. [Ed’s note! It’s a great place to meet people .]
But what’s the trick? How did I manage to identify a good hostel from a potential nightmare?
After backpacking to five different countries—and counting!—here are a couple of things I learned about hostels along the way.
The first myth is that hostels are dirty and unsafe.
Before I went to surf in Portugal last August, exactly eight people in my life brought up the exact same concerns to me about hostels.
“I think hostels are dirty and lack privacy,” my friend Kris Kumar said a few months before I was off to the Algarve.
The main caveat is to look for hostels with 7.5 stars and above on Hostelworld (it is possible to filter on cleanliness score as well). Really, don’t go below this. And read through the reviews.
The good hostels are designed to be super welcoming and are proper businesses on their own.
Genuinely, I was lucky with St. Christopher’s Barcelona, the hostel I picked when I got to Spain in the summer of 2022. It has set the standard for me ever since.
Along with great cleanliness, the hostel provided free walking tours, planned activities, pub crawls, a restaurant, and endless resources that made my stay unforgettable.
The bad hostels often lack what the good ones have. The unorganized party hostel I stayed in in Playa Del Carmen that wasn’t maintained well due to all the endless parties and was so noisy you couldn’t sleep.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my travel adventures, a plethora of honest reviews can never be ignored — the good and the bad. And that high cleanliness rating really, really matters.
The myth that hostels aren't as good as resorts.
It depends on what you are looking for, in my experience. If it’s just a simple getaway, I agree
going to a resort might be the better option.
For starters, hostels are slightly more geared towards people who are ready to discover every inch and immerse themselves in a city as opposed to an escape from the normal 9-5. All you get are the basics: A bed, locker, and bathroom, either in the room or just outside the hall. (Though, there are basic, no-frills hotels too.)
Personally, I’m not keen on how resorts and hotels confine travelers in a bubble. When I went to Cancun in 2018, I found myself tied to the resort beach, restaurant, and pool, without really leaving.
That’s not to say hostels are perfect. But during my five-night stay in Barcelona at roughly fifty euros a day, or $54.16 USD a day, I used all the money I would have spent on one-night! at a resort to great use.
I visited Antoni Gaudi sites, had a beach day, explored the Picasso museum—highly recommended!—and more. I wouldn’t have been able to do as much if I spent eighty percent of my budget on accommodation.
Even in the ones that are subpar, I’ve found the culture of meeting welcoming people and connecting over your passion for seeing the world is present.
Granted, I’ve also met my fair share of travelers I didn’t click with, but that’s a reality anywhere you go — not everyone is for you, and that’s okay.
The myth that hostels are in sketchy neighborhoods.
Normally, once I’ve shown my friends back home enough photos, reviews, and evidence it’s not impossible to find a clean and safe hostel, the next argument I get is the question of location.
On one hand, I understand why that’s a legitimate concern. I’ve been guilty of it too. In North American culture, we’re used to transporting from the airport directly to a luxurious resort for a week or two.
That’s our general view on what a vacation should look like–it’s designed for relaxation.
So, when I talk about how difficult it is for me to find my hostel every time I get to a new country, some people assume it means it’s in a sketchy part of town.
Without fail, I usually managed to find most 7.5-10 star hostels walking distance from big name stores, tourist attractions, subways, office buildings, and even five-star hotels.
It’s rare that I ever felt unsafe.
The other hostel myth that strangers are out to get your belongings.
Full disclosure: This was a fear I had before I embarked on my first solo trip. I lost track of the articles I’ve read about how to keep my belongings safe, what gear to buy to do so effectively, and everything else in between.
Not long after I started to travel, I was glad to see every hostel I’ve been to had lockers, security, and small padlocks for a cheap price if you forgot to bring one.
Even the low-rated hostels I’ve been to have those basic things.
Granted, I once stayed in a hostel in Madrid that only had small lockers which were only able to fit a handful of items. In Lagos, the building only had lockers outside in their common area—not in the actual rooms.
In either case, there was enough space for my wallet, passport, and other valuables. So, it was more than fine. None of my roommates wanted to steal my dirty laundry.
They were more interested in getting to know me as a person, as I was intrigued by their stories as well. There’s more a sense of community than there is a sense of apprehension, as well, you’re all sharing the same room together.
Hostel life has taught me more than just about hostels.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road, it’s that seeing the world isn’t as out of reach as some people think. I’m not exactly a mathematician, but traveling on a budget has also taught me a lot about, well, budgeting, in other facets of life.
It does take guts in the beginning to venture off to an unknown place on your own. I still get what I call “travel jitters” each time I get past security at the airport, head to the tarmac, and wait to see what the universe has in store for my near future.