Everyone you meet seems to have a different opinion on hostels. Some people see them as a means to an end while travelling, some avoid them at all costs and some people will tell you glorious tales of their months of travelling in hostels, backpacking and having the time of their lives. Hostels have historically been most popular in Europe but they have spread to other continents and can be found all over the world including South America, the USA, Asia and more great travel locations.
Naturally, not all hostels are created equal so we can't treat them all the same, but there are certain pros and cons which are normally the same when you are staying in this kind of accommodation.
Before we delve into the list of pros, we need to look at one very massive advantage and the reason people stay at hostels; Cost. Due to the fact that you are sharing your room, the burden of the cost is significantly split. Hostels can often cleverly design a space that would, in a hotel, would be a couple of rooms for 2-4 people, and turn it into a bunk bed filled space suitable for 10, 12, even 20 people. This allows them to provide the space at a hugely discounted price.
Pros of Hostels
More beds mean more availability. A lot of people staying in Europe will not book their stay until quite late. Schemes such as interrail (rail tickets to allow travel on most major European railways) means you can travel flexibly and change your plans if you so wish. The fact that there are often lots of hostel rooms scattered through cities means that you can get a bed at short notice, something that can't always be said of hotels in popular towns and cities.
Hostels actually tend to have a really fun, community spirit. It depends who is running the hostel, and of course who happens to be staying there at the time, but generally, they are full of people looking to make the most of their stay. Not only can this lead to a good, fun atmosphere it can also mean there are people to talk to and get tips on the best places to visit in the city, or where to avoid. Nobody wants a sour atmosphere in a hostel with rooms you have to share and most of the time people are very pleasant.
Breakfast and Cooking Facilities
Often, hostels will do a breakfast buffet for free or for a small daily cost, this is a great way to save on the money it costs to eat out. Also, there are often kitchen facilities for those staying in the hostel, meaning you can prepare yourself meals if you don't want to eat out or are in a location where eating out is particularly pricey. It is always nice to have the option to cook yourself.
Most hostels like to make the most of the fact that there are a lot of people staying there and put on activities to make the most of this luxury. People in hostels have no choice but to mix with one another and this is often made easier with communal spaces and activities. Many hostels even have their own coffee shops or bars within the facility to encourage people to mix and to make more money out of the people who are staying. It can be great knowing that this is all on your doorstep (or even closer!)
Hostels tend to be in pretty good locations. This varies from place to place, of course, but ultimately if you are looking to stay somewhere on a budget you are not likely to find somewhere that is central to a city and cheap unless you are travelling around a very cheap country. Hostels can fix this issue and give access to central accommodation in some of the coolest spots in the cities and student and travel hotspots, without costing the normal prices you would pay for this privilege.
Cons of Hostel Life
Hostels are generally a really good option for a lot of people, and if you take the right precautions they tend to be safe too, but there are some downsides that need to be explored.
If you value your privacy then a hostel might not be for you. Often you will have to share a room with lots of other people, and really your bed is the only part that is totally yours. For some people, this is not much of a discomfort at all. Many of us have had to share rooms at various times in our lives and are used to it. There are people who consider this a nightmare though and will not even consider it.
If you are travelling in a group, sometimes you can reserve a whole hostel room to ensure you at least are staying next to people you know.
In a hostel, people can come and go as they please, and though most people are respectful and pleasant, sometimes alcohol has been consumed and the noise (and snoring) can start to wear you down. It is hit and miss, and there are always earplugs and eye masks to try and tackle the problem, but there is always the chance that someone might interrupt your sleep. If you are a light sleeper who is likely to be disturbed by this then it is worth considering.
I'm not saying hostels aren't secure at all, and owners tend to do absolutely everything in their power to make them safe, but you may not have the luxury of knowing who you are sharing a dorm with and this might make you nervous about your security and your belongings.
The best methods of keeping things safe include lockable luggage which isn't easy to break into and most hostels also give the option of a locker to keep valuables if you don't want to take things like your passport or all of your travel money out with you, for instance. Sometimes these lockers are even kept in staffed offices which can provide peace of mind.
The Risk of a Bad Hostel
Unfortunately, there are always bad hostels and bad hotels to avoid when you are travelling. This has become much easier to avoid in the modern age of reviews and tripadvisor, but there is still the possibility that you can end up with a ‘dud'. A bad hostel could be dirty, noisy, unsafe and generally unpleasant.
There is a lot you can do to mitigate the risk, but it will always be a slight risk. The same is true of hotels, of course, and this can't really be used as a negative specifically for hostels.
There are a lot of different schools of thought when it comes to hostels. As you can see, they definitely suit the more sociable creatures among us and anyone with social anxiety might want to look at a hotel. In general, though, the world is a better place for having hostels available. They are a great way to travel to places you otherwise couldn't afford and for students and ‘gap year' adventurers, these can be a great way to get some rest but also enjoy the social side of travel.