How to avoid dodgy hostels

One of the hardest things to do when planning a trip is deciding where to stay. We consult guidebooks, friends, TripAdvisor, but still we know there’s a high chance of finding that omnipresent dodgy hostel.

They’re everywhere, and often not where you’d expect. Just like I got food poisoning in Switzerland and Singapore, of all places, I also found dodgy hostels here.

Slowly though, I’m running into less and less of these establishments. I’ve tried sticking to some hard and fast rules.

Firstly, Hostelworld is your friend. I’ve been using this website for five years now (and received lifetime gold membership – why won’t airlines do the same?) and it’s your best bet to find a decent place to lay your head for the night. The good thing about Hostelworld is that everybody rates their stay, but not in a TripAdvisor sort of way (more on that later). Everyone rates things like security, cleanliness and how social the place is, giving a more rounded opinion. If you don’t care about a bit of grubbiness but want to meet people, for example, you’ll pay more attention to the social rating.

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A hidden gem – this is Number Twenty in Melaka, Malaysia.

As a general rule of thumb, I usually stay at the cheapest place that is rated higher than eighty per cent. I’ve had to dip below this a few times (places are all booked out, or everything else was too expensive) and I’ve never been happy about it.

On Hostelworld, make sure you look at their map. On most occasions I like to stay near the central train station. Even if that means it’s an extra euro or two a night, you’re going to save that anyway on public transport fees getting out there. I personally hate navigating my way to hostels; if you also don’t have to deal with the public transport system right away (while toting a backpack) you’re easing your way into it a bit more if you stay near the station. Of course, there are exceptions – in places where trains aren’t widespread, for example, I’ll just try to stay pretty central or near a metro station.

Hostelworld isn’t the only good accommodation resource out there. They do charge a booking fee if you’re not a member, so check out HostelBookers as well. They don’t have as broad a selection, but they don’t charge a booking fee. I usually check to see if a place is on HostelBookers as well, just to compare ratings.

For some places though, there just doesn’t seem to be any decent hostels. A lot of it depends on the hostelling culture of a particular country. It can be very hard finding good, cheap, friendly hostels in France, for example. However, this isn’t the case next door in Germany. Despite single-handedly keeping the EU afloat, you can consistently find great hostels here for well under €20 a night.

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I’m not usually a fan of campgrounds, but who can resist a view like this? This is Camping Jungfrau in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

In this instance, I would also look at cheap hotels. You can find some of them on Hostelworld, but note that they charge by person, not by room. I prefer using Expedia, booking.com or even wego.com, which compares a number of different hotel websites. For cities like Paris and Florence, it’s often cheaper for two people to get a double or twin room rather than two beds in a dorm. Similarly, accommodation in a similar price range can be found in a different form than a hostel in some countries. In Mediterranean Europe these can often be pensions, in Southeast Asia guesthouses are the norm and in parts of the Commonwealth you’ll find dorm rooms above rowdy pubs.

Another popular website is TripAdvisor. I use this website extremely sparingly as it can be unnecessarily brutal. In TripAdvisor reviews, hotels and hostels are bemoaned for everything from not being able to check in at 6am to not having headboards on beds. I’ve found hotels perfectly fine which have otherwise been canned on TripAdvisor.

Obviously, I’ve been talking about booking accommodation ahead of time. This is something I haven’t always adhered to – I’ve turned up in about a dozen cities without a bed. The amount of time I’ve wasted in foreign cities with the Beast on my back trudging between hostels is testament to me deciding to never do that again. You don’t seem to save any money (better deals seem to be found online) and more often than not you will prematurely end your search just because you can’t be bothered any more. Even if I’m making up my itinerary as I go, I’ll try to book at least a day in ahead.

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Sometimes hostels aren’t that great, but have otherwise very redeeming features. The Hostel Stadion in Helsinki, Finland, is actually located inside the 1952 Olympic Stadium.

It may seem common sense, but also ask for recommendations on the road. Travellers themselves are the best source of this sort of information, as you know the type of person the comments are coming from. If someone strikes you as similar in travel style to yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll look for similar hostels. In a similar vein, check if a good hostel you’re staying at also has a sister hostel. There’s plenty of Khaosans in Japan, Wadas in China, Wombats in Central Europe and St Christophers in Western Europe, just to name a few.

Some other tips I’ve found useful are:

  • Hostels are also notorious for not checking their emails, and that doesn’t straight away mean that they’re dodgy. If you can’t book them through a website, call them. Don’t rely on email.
  • Don’t rush for hostels advertised in Lonely Planet. These were probably great when reviewed, but are often now overpriced and overbooked.
  • If you’re keen to avoid tour groups, aim for small hostels in pedestrianised areas. Tour buses need to park close to the hostel and tour groups will rarely walk more than five minutes to get to their accommodation. The smaller the hostel, the greater your chance will be that you won’t run into them.
  • As a general rule, most hostels run by Hostelling International are terrible. I originally thought that this might just be a European thing, but the worst hostel I’ve found in Asia I later found out was run by HI (Shanghai Soho). There are exceptions – the ones in Liverpool and Geneva are decent, and apparently Aussie ones aren’t bad – but even these ones were also overrun with school groups. Just avoid them completely.
  • Don’t be put off by shared bathrooms. I find that one shower block on each floor sure beats one shower in an eight-bed dorm; you don’t have to plan a stake-out to get into the shower before your dorm-mates.
  • Work out if you’re a backpacker or a flashpacker. It’s not a bad thing to be a flashpacker, you’re just happier when surrounded by things like free wifi, cocktails in the hostel bar and modern fittings. If you fit into this category, go for hostels opened in the last couple of years, that look new and flashy. If you’re not so concerned about this, stick with older establishments that might be a bit rough around the edges but have built up a good reputation over time.
  • If you’re going to be checking in quite late (say, after 8pm or so) double-check with the hostel that this suits them. Some close their receptions at a certain hour, whereas others (in my case, Annie’s Place in Alice Springs) reckon you’re not going to show up at all and give away your bed.
  • Check to see whether dorms are in a separate building or quarters to private accommodation. Often photos on websites will be only of the private rooms, which are a world away from the dorms. It happened to me at a hostel in Switzerland – called Funny Farm – private rooms were in a mansion whereas dorms were in a barn.
  • It may seem silly, but be aware of the size of the dorm you book. Some otherwise great hostels have massive dorms – Jaeger’s in Munich is pretty decent but has a 40-bed dorm – which can sour your experience.
  • Some hostels have age restrictions. This can be found particularly in Germany, some are specifically youth hostels and can bar people over twenty-six.

Of course, this isn’t a foolproof system. But, with a bit of preparation, you can do it. You can conquer the backpacker’s nightmare – the dodgy hostel.

3 Responses to How to avoid dodgy hostels

  1. Cameron Chen March 4, 2012 at 12:04 PM #

    Hi Caitlyn,

    Really enjoying your blog and looking forward to my next trip to the USA in May. I really love your photo of the hills around Yangshuo, Guangxi – I have a photo of the same area.

    Thank you for your advice on hostels. I was unlucky enough to have my laptop stolen from the HI Auberge de Jeunesse in Geneva, Switzerland in September, 2007. Luckily they didn’t steal my Eurail pass at the same time. I was also left with bedbugs that itched for a month. Next time I will read the reviews before booking! Which was what I did when I went to Paris last year.

    In solidarity

    Cam

    • Caitlyn March 5, 2012 at 9:20 PM #

      Point taken on HI Geneva! Looks like I just had a good experience but it just goes with my general line – avoid HI hostels!

  2. Julia March 7, 2012 at 3:32 PM #

    I do the same thing! The cheapest spot rated above 80%. And I like sites that have many categories to judge on, because you’re right — it gives a much better rounded way of evaluating a place. Thanks for this, I am totally going to share it!

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