Are Hostels Safe? From 5-Star Hotels to $5 Beds
“Why are you staying at a hostel? Are they safe? Can’t you afford a hotel?!”
It was 2am in Lugano, Switzerland. I had just logged into a video conference for a live fantasy football draft. Not wanting to wake Janet, I found myself with laptop in hand sitting in the handicap bathroom down the hall. Naturally, the first question I got was, “Where are you?!” and when I replied that we were staying at a hostel in Switzerland, it prompted the response above! And it got me thinking: are hostels safe?
The question didn’t surprise me. And it hasn’t been the only one I’ve received recently about my transition to hostel accommodation.
Hostels have historically (and notoriously) had a poor reputation, and are often associated with cheap facilities with cramped beds, reserved for backpackers and travelers who just need a bed for the night. This unflattering perspective is magnified in America, where there is a general lack of information about hostels and by people who often don’t travel internationally with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts.
As a result, several dated misconceptions still exist today.
Hostels are not for everyone – the wrong Google search will scare you (like the worst hostel in the world, nicknamed the “pigeon graveyard”). And I understand that many value privacy when traveling.
However, you’d be surprised by some of the options available, for all types of travelers. And for those of you willing to try a different travel style and give hostels a chance, the cost savings can be substantial! If properly researched, hostels could be the most affordable choice for many people (especially in America) – think about all that could be done with the extra money (did someone say…happy hour?!).
This article is for everyone who thinks:
- traveling outside the US isn’t affordable
- hostels aren’t safe
- you’re too old to stay at a hostel
- having a family prevents you from accessing the benefits associated with hostel accommodation
Hostels: the common misconception
Hostels provide budget-oriented, sociable accommodation where guests can rent a bed, often a bunk bed, in a dormitory and share a bathroom, lounge and sometimes a kitchen. Rooms can be mixed or single-sex, although private rooms may also be available.
The main difference between a hotel and hostel is that the latter offers shared living and communal spaces, at a significantly reduced price. You trade privacy for cost. Historically, because of the lower cost, the quality of hostels were sub-par, which, in addition to the lack of privacy, resulted in many of the negative preconceptions that exist today.
Haunted by these misconceptions is the modern-day hostel: clean, comfortable, secure, and with amenities that rival hotels – sometimes available at or below the cost of a beer in NYC!
Just read about the poshtel trend sweeping Europe and the States.
Because my personal transition has been met with so much skepticism (“are you sure you’re not going to get bed bugs?”), I wanted to briefly address a few common questions I’ve received:
- Won’t your stuff get stolen? As long as you remember to bring a lock – you’ll be fine. Most hostels are locked at night, have lockers or safes where you can secure your valuables, and have staff working 24/7. We’ve even stayed at hostels that access rooms using key cards.
- Aren’t they dirty? What are you sleeping on? Hostels operate similarly to hotels here – sheets and bedding are washed and changed after every stay. Sometimes you’re given fresh sheets when you arrive to make your own bed. They have cleaning staff that work daily.
- What about location? Aren’t they in the middle of nowhere, down sketchy backward alleys? This one is more difficult to answer because location varies greatly – you have to do your research. But many hostels we’ve stayed at are in prime locations – often within walking distance of the city center or other main attractions. Our hostel in Venice was located right on the water with views of San Marco Square!
- Don’t only dirty backpackers stay there? Or old, homeless men? Again, there are outliers wherever you go, but my experience so far has only been positive. I’ve found that most people who stay at hostels are like-minded: excited about travel, open to new experiences, and always willing to make friends. The number of friendly, “normal” people I’ve met vastly outweighs the “weirdos” (except for that one time in Koh Phi Phi, but that story is for another time).
There’s a hostel for everyone
There are hostels that cater to every type of traveler – backpackers, students, groups of friends, families, etc. Many offer the same amenities as hotels – complimentary breakfast, wash/fold laundry service, wi-fi, pool, bar, gym, en-suite bathroom, concierge – and a lot of them have a great view (the hostel we stayed at in Interlaken, Switzerland, had a balcony and view of the Alps)!
Additionally, most hostels have private rooms available that cater to the sensibilities of families. Our hostel in Lugano had a pool, trampoline, volleyball court, and children’s playground! I know that my little brother and sister would have had a blast there. These are a great option if you want to save some money and still have privacy.
Assisting in the revival of the modern-day hostel: online booking services (like Hostelworld!) that provide pictures, rankings, and customer reviews, so you can filter and sort to find exactly what you’re looking for – and avoid any surprises!
How my perception changed
Until last year, I never would have risked a stay at a hostel. I thought the accommodations were dirty, unsafe, and only for backpackers on a shoestring budget! If I stayed in one of them, my laptop would disappear and I’d be kept awake all night by the Australian couple in the bed above me (and probably step on something I didn’t want to in the bathroom!) I can picture a lot of you nodding your head right now!!
I often traveled for work, and I was accustomed to staying in upscale, well-known hotels. So whenever I traveled outside the States, I (like many of you) started the vacation planning process by searching for hotels – weighing cost with name-brand, location, and amenities. This expense would compete with airfare as the largest component of my budget. I recently discovered that I would often spend more money on hotels in a week than the average Albanian makes in a month – which was really eye-opening.
As I took more trips and met more travelers, I learned that many of them were staying in hostels. They told me it was a low-cost option and a great way to make new friends. I became curious – did some research, and discovered that not only were hostels a viable travel accommodation, but often preferred by travelers my own age!
My transition from hotels to hostels
When I planned my trip to Thailand in April 2016, I decided that I would only stay in hostels.
The transition has been pretty seamless for me. Sure, my four pillows have been replaced with one, and I can’t lounge around in a bathrobe, but I can easily strike up conversation with the cute girl from Germany in the bunk next to me, and it’s great to have so much more flexibility with my budget. I’m pretty laid-back so the lack of privacy hasn’t bothered me.
It’s completely worth it, too. Not only have some of my best memories been while at or with people from a hostel, but I’ve also made some unforgettable friends along the way. Most travelers I’ve stayed with are very respectful while staying in shared areas, although I might be the exception, as I have an uncanny ability to fumble and drop chargers in the middle of the night – apologies. And it’s where I met Janet!
Plus, the overall consensus I’ve received from others on the road is that the reward of staying at a hostel outweighs the risk (of a bad experience). I don’t regret it one bit – and now that I’ve experienced the benefits, I wouldn’t dare travel any other way. But I will admit: every once in a while, we splurge and spend 25EUR (that’s it!) on a hotel room.
The benefits of staying in hostels
The most obvious benefit is price savings relative to comparable hotels. Exactly how much depends on several factors, including region, room type, and quality, among others. When you determine your destination – do some research – it’s easy to compare prices between them both online. Do you want to spend a week in Venice, known to be one of the most expensive cities in Italy? Check out the price difference in price between a hostel and hotel I stayed at last summer:
This example is extreme – but during my week in Venice, I would have saved over $1k if I had stayed at a hostel instead of hotel. Wow! If only I had known..
And when I speak with my friends, cost is the number one issue I hear when considering travel outside the US. Saving on accommodation will make your budget go farther and significantly expand your travel options. The possibilities are endless! Suddenly that trip overseas you’ve been telling yourself you can’t afford becomes much more financially reasonable.
Additionally, there are many websites dedicated to traveling on a budget and booking cheap flights, Janet has two great articles here and here. Now with a bit of creative, advanced planning, your dream trip becomes a possibility!
There are other advantages when staying in a hostel. Every hostel is unique and has it’s own culture (often related to the city where it’s located), and most have a friendly, communal atmosphere. When you check into a hostel, you’re given a personal tour of the facilities and an overview of the city, with tips on places to visit, things to do, where to eat, etc.
Travelers meet and mingle in common areas, share kitchens, and hang-out at the bar. Many offer daily organized events – tours, theme nights, happy hour, family activities, etc. Some even have in-house restaurants. It’s very easy to meet new people and make friends – whether you are traveling alone, with a group of friends from university, or a family of four.
My mom recently told me about friends who bought a vacation home in Nicaragua. They frequent the local hostel just to hang out and have a beer. It’s this type of environment that is universal across the globe! If you want to make friends or have a good time, no matter your background – a hostel is the place to go!
A reader wrote on Rick Steve’s Travel Forum: “My partner and I stayed in a ‘youth’ hostel for the first time by Lake Como and thought we’d be the oldest people there. Not so! At our table was a 60-ish couple from Sydney and a 79-year-old British woman who was backpacking alone through Europe. All three were a delight, but especially the backpacker, who said she stays in hostels for the evening company.”
The people I’ve met
There are very few places where you can so conveniently meet such a diverse group of people from all different parts of the world!
We made friends with John from the UK, an actor whose parents, as a birthday present, bought him tickets to the Venice Film Festival. He was in one of the movies that was being screened there – but had a rude awakening when he discovered the premiere was cancelled. But that didn’t stop him from making the most of the trip – he attended other films and sat in the front row, and even gave us a private performance outside our hostel!
We met Rudy at a hostel in Lucerne, Switzerland. He was a Masters student from South Korea studying biology, with the desire to get a PhD. We descended Mt. Rigi together and I asked him what he wanted to focus on after graduation – he told me “eyes” – that he wanted to work to cure the world of blindness. Wow.
Dory stood out from the moment we met – with her German accent, tattoos, dreadlocked red hair, with multiple piercings. But it was her energy and enthusiasm that made her unforgettable. We had so much fun exploring Zagreb, Croatia – I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in an afternoon. We became instant friends and met up again in three other countries!
And I’ve met more crazy Australians than I could pretend to remember. Seriously.
Want to learn more about hostels?
There are several online tools that provide information to help you plan your next stay at a hostel. Websites with detailed descriptions, pictures, ranking systems, and customer reviews allow you to sort and filter results to find exactly what you are looking for. With these services – it’s easy to find a hostel that is quiet and family oriented or catered more towards young people looking to have some fun.
For example, Hostelworld (a favorite of ours) allows you to search for hostels by city, and filter based on: price, room type (single, twin, family, mixed dorm), amenities (24/hr security, bar, free breakfast, free parking, luggage service, swimming pool), and rating.
And there are several out there if you’re interested in exploring options for your next trip. In addition to Hostelworld, you can check out hostels.com, hostelbookers.com, hostelsclub.com, or booking.com.
Here’s a quick look at a few of the hostels we’ve stayed at while on our trip.
Luxury: Generator Venice
A high-end chain of hostels that boasts a “boutique style without breaking your budget.” It operates across Europe and has aggressive plans to expand across Asia and the USA. Their modern, contemporary style and posh decor could compete with (and surpass) many hotels. We stayed at the Venice location, where there was a bar, restaurant, lounge, and photo booth on the first floor. The dorm-style rooms had private bathrooms a breathtaking view of San Marco Plaza from the window.
Shared rooms started at $16/night, private rooms at $38/night.
Family: Lugano Youth Hostel
Don’t let the “youth” in the title give you the wrong idea – this only means that the hostel was originally intended for school groups traveling (which means that the facilities were built with comfort as a priority). This hostel had a similar structure as a hotel, with multiple buildings and an open layout. Amenities included an outdoor pool, volleyball court, trampoline, playground, bocci ball court, BBQ area, ping pong and foosball tables, common areas and kitchens.
We stayed in a private 4-bed room (that could easily house a family of five) and also noticed several families staying here in private rooms. Their kids were having a lot of fun taking advantage of the outdoor facilities.
Themed: Sarajevo War Hostel
We stayed at one of the most unique hostels I’ve ever been to in Sarajevo. The city was under siege (the longest ever for a capital city) from 1992 until 1996. The hostel emulated a bunker during the war – complete with make-shift beds, only blankets (no pillows), limited electricity, and a war shower (all you had was a bucket). Memorabilia, graffiti, bullet holes, and newspaper clippings covered the walls – and there was a museum in the basement dedicated to the war. While not the most comfortable, it really felt like we were in a military bunker and was one of the most unique experiences we’ve had so far on the trip.
Have you made a similar transition? How did it go? Would love to hear your thoughts!