What Is A Hostel - The Ultimate Hostel Guide to Hostels in Europe from The Hostel Girl
Hostel Life, Travel Tips 5

What Is A Hostel? The Ultimate Hostel Guide

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends

– Maya Angelou

This is a slightly longer post that I’d normally write, but I wanted to create an article that would be less of a blog, and more of an information source. I hope this will help a few of you out there to venture in to the hostel community I love so much!

Read on, enjoy, learn, and if I’ve missed anything let me know in the comments!

The Ultimate Hostel Guide – Contents

What Is A Hostel?
Brief History Of Hostels
Hostels – Just For The Youth?
Types of Hostels
Advantages & Disadvantages
What To Look For When You Book Hostels
How To Book Hostels
Guide to Hostel Packing

If you’re looking for information on the price of hostels in Europe, click here!

To see hostel reviews of my favourite hostels, click here!

What Is A Hostel?

Dormitories vs private rooms

A hostel is a form of accommodation for travellers, backpackers, and tourists that houses shared dormitories, private rooms, common areas and often a shared kitchen. Each hostel is different, and will have various sizes of dormitories to choose from, whether it be a 4-bed dorm or a 40-bed dorm.

Bed prices tend to be cheaper for the larger dorms, and most expensive for the smaller dormitories or the private rooms which many hostels now offer as a cheaper alternative to hotels. It is also possible to find female-only or male-only dorms in some hostels (such as YHA UK).

A social living environment for travellers

Whilst there is a debate as to whether hostels should provide higher class professional service, or whether they are more successful as communities, hostels tend to be far more laid back than hotels in terms of service, but in exchange they offer more of a friendly vibe.

In a hotel, you aren’t likely to talk to the receptionist about anything more than your booking, but hostel receptionists often take guests out on the town, stay up late playing FIFA on the playstation and overall acting more like a brother or sister than a receptionist.

Amsterdam Hostel Review Hans Brinker Budget Hotel -9

Brief History of Hostels

It is widely believed that the idea of hostels, or Youth Hostels, was first conceived in Germany at the turn of the 20th Century. Richard Schirrmann, a German Schoolteacher, was inspired to create a dormitory style youth hostel in Altena, Germany, after countless school trips in which he would provide makeshift dorms in schools for his students.

Little did Schirrmann know that by opening up the first dormitory style youth travel hostel (which is still a hostel today) that he would inspire a movement that would eventually create the Youth Hostel Federation (YHF) in 1932, an organisation that held representatives from hostels all over Europe.

What is a hostel? A Brief history of youth hostels

YHA Cambridge – review

Of course, having a place to stay on the road was not uncommon centuries before this, when travellers would knock on inns or coach houses looking for a bed and rest. Hostels as they are now however have only been around for just over 100 years! This isn’t very surprising considering how difficult travel, especially international travel, was merely 50 years ago.

In the last few decades, air and rail advances have created a vibrant economy based around budget accommodation for travellers, and whilst hostels began springing up after Schirrmann first designed his own, it is only recently that they have become a common form of accommodation.

Hostels – Just For The Youth?

If you haven’t yet cottoned on, I’ve mentioned the term ‘youth hostels’ over ‘hostels’ a fair bit in the above brief history. At their conception, hostels were designed as out of city dormitories to provide school children on trips, and young people hiking or cycling in the countryside, a place to rest and clean up. It was until the 60s and 70s, when travel became more affordable and morals became slightly more liberated, that hostels started to move away from their tag as youth accommodation.

Travellers began to travel later in life, but still on a budget. People began to become more concerned with quality of life and importance of travel and more and more we saw the change from the idea that travel was only for the rich.

Now, in the 21st century, you don’t have to be rich to travel, which is why budget accommodation such as hostels provide such an incredible service to travellers.

What is a hostel? sz_Hostel Room Rotterdam_19

Hostel ROOM Rotterdam – review

But travellers of all ages choosing to stay in hostels comes down to more than just a lust for travel on a budget. I spent a few nights in Exeter at the Globe Backpacker’s Hostel where I met a lady in her 70s. I’ve forgotten her name, but she had recently lost her husband and decided to move out of her house in order to find a community to belong to in which she would be less lonely. She was very spritely for her age, and was a pleasure to bunk with!

If you need more convincing that hostel life is not just for the young, meet John Waite – the world’s oldest backpacker!

Types of Hostels

Hostels come in all shapes and sizes, which means the term ‘hostel’ is a consistent description of ‘budget accommodation that regularly lacks consistency’. The reason that so many travellers have been put off staying in hostels in the past is because they’ve had one bad experience which was probably down to choosing a hostel that wasn’t best suited to them.

A more mature traveller is likely to feel out of place in a hardcore party hostel, whilst an 18 year old first time ‘euro-tripper’ will likely be very bored in a chill hostel.

Read more: Types of hostels: Booking hostels that are right for you

What is a hostel? - Types of hostels: Booking hostels that are right for you

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like any form of accommodation, and despite my not-so-secret fangirl love of hostels, they have both advantages and disadvantages.  I’ve listed some below, but for a more in depth overview take a look at my article for Company Magazine: The Pros & Cons of Hostel Living.



Hostels tend to be far cheaper than any other paid accommodation option available. You can of course consider free options such as Couchsurfing or Work Exchange for free beds, but if you’re not looking to stay in someone else’s house, or work for them(!) then hostels offer the most cost-effective method of travel!

Social Environments

More than anything, my love for hostels is rooted around the international community that each hostel brings together.

You can read more about this here, but in a nutshell hostels are melting pots of multiculturalism from which each traveller takes away new thoughts, ideas, and most of all new friends for life!


Because hostels, unlike hotels, can be set up in an ordinary house adapted for dormitories, they are often found in the very hearts of the cities you want to visit, or right next to that ocean you want to spend every day surfing in!

Budapest City Guide Itinerary 101 ThingsCity secrets

Owners of hostels, and those workers who have lived at the hostel for a long time, have done so because they genuinely love the city they now call home. This is especially true for hostel owners who have likely uprooted their whole lives to set up their hostel (unless they’re locals of course)!

What this means is that they are often passionate about all the little non-tourist spots that litter the town or city and can give you the best tips on spending your time with them like a local.

ps. I spent seven months loving a hostel life in Budapest, which is why I wrote the ebook 101 Things to do in Budapest to share my city secrets with you.


Modern hostels now offer so much more than a bed and a shower. Often they run excursions to various natural sights, or they’ll have activities such as surfing, yoga, or city tours to take you on.

For great free walking tours in Europe, I’d highly suggest Sandemans New Europe Tours as every guide I’ve had with them has had extensive knowledge on the city.

A lot of hostels also offer night time activities such as bar crawls which means if you do have five minutes of boredom one day, you’ll probably be too hungover to care!



I find this to be one of the top issues for travellers who have never had to share a room before – many people grow up in the 21st century with their own bedroom from birth and even UK university students rarely share dorms.

But it is amazing how quickly you get used to changing in a bathroom or letting people see you first thing with no make up on. If you really can’t get over sharing rooms, a lot of hostels offer private rooms now – or look out for those special few hostels that have privacy curtains around each bunk bed!

ps I filmed my last experience in a hotel to click here to see the video of my comparison of hostels vs hotels

Safety & Security

The idea of shared dormitories can bring worries to the minds of travellers concerning not only the security of their belongings but also safety for themselves. Unfortunately the truth is that the world and it’s inhabitants are not all morally bound to do good.

The good news is that those who are likely to threaten your safety and security tend to be far and few between, at least in my experience, and more often than not hostels are safe environments for backpackers – as they should be!


Unless you are in a chill hostel with noise curfews, chances are you will be subject to loud neighbours, snoring roommates, and drunk backpackers tumbling in to room long after lights out. Then again, you may also experience being the one making the noise…

My advice? Go with the flow and pack a pair of earplugs to be on the safe side. I used to listen to my iPod and that alway did the trick of banishing unwanted noises from my beauty sleep!

ps. if you are the one making all the noise you might want to read my advice on how to be the best hostel guest ever!


Amongst many other hostel myths, there is the general perception that hostels are dirty places inhabited with bed bugs and lost sweaty socks. For the most part, this is ridiculous and with the competition that hostels now face with each other keeping a firm eye on cleanliness is top of the list for getting good reviews!

If you want to know more, I’ve made short videos on the things I love and hate about hostels…Click on each image below to watch the videos!

Things I HATE about hostels  Things I LOVE About Hostels

What To Look For When You Book Hostels

I recently wrote a more in-depth article on What Makes A Great Hostel, but below I have listed the absolute essentials that you should consider when booking a hostel!

Good Reviews! – left by travellers just like you, reviews are likely to tell you what the environment is really like, more than the photos or description ever will

ps. I’ve put together a directory of hostel reviews by bloggers so make sure to check that out too!

Location – find the hostel on a map of the city you’re visiting to see how convenient it will be for your needs

Facilities – a modern hostel without a common area such as a lounge or shared kitchen is likely to be pretty boring!

Free WiFi – very important if, like me, you work on the move! Or perhaps you need Skype access to stop your mum from worrying about you…

Cost – pretty self-explanatory, check average prices for the same dorm sizes in different hostels around town and find the one that best fits your budget.

Dormitory Size – please don’t book a 12-bed if you’re uncomfortable with sharing with more than 3 strangers. Also make sure you book a female dorm and not mixed if that’s what you want. It can be difficult for staff to move guests around if they book to the wrong specifications!

ps. read my answer to the question “are mixed dorms appropriate for solo female travel

Cleanliness – as mentioned above, most hostels these days run to a very high standard, but if you’re looking at a hostel with terrible cleanliness reviews – you have been warned!

Staff – staff can make or break a hostel experience, and whilst the majority of us are genuinely kind people who are as much in love with wanderlust as you are, there are a select few who can take advantage of their situation. Again, make sure you check the reviews on this.

How To Book Hostels

Circus Hostel Berlin_24

Book direct to support hostels and save money

Back in the early days of the internet, it wasn’t surprising to find that booking directly with a hostel (over the phone or by email) was more expensive than using booking agencies, comparison sites, and online travel agencies (OTAs).

However, each bed that a hostel sells on a booking site today is subject to commission fees from 10% to as high as 25%. Hostels don’t want to pay this fee. In fact, a lot of hostels would rather give the money back to you, the traveller, in the form of lower prices per-bed if you book on their own website than through an booking site.

Supporting the hostels

Here’s one more reason to book direct – because commission fees are now so high, more hostels are choosing to list fewer bed or room options online than they do on their own website to avoid paying large sums to the booking sites.

This means that booking directly through a hostel’s website or by email will not only be cheaper, but your likely to be offered a wider range of availability and options.

Best price guarantee

To encourage direct bookings, some hostels now operate a best price guarantee that will match the lowest price of your stay to any found elsewhere online. Take a look at Generator Hostels to benefit from this great offer!

Guide to Hostel Packing

What Is A Hostel?

A good hostel should provide all the basics you need to live and will act as a home from home. However, a few items can help your comfort when staying in hostels abroad and I’ve listed them below!

  • Earplugs – see the above note on Noise in the disadvantages section!
  • MP3 player & headphones (for the same reason as above!)
  • Your own towel – a light travel towel can save you from rental costs and/or no towel rental facility at all!
  • Padlock – whilst most hostels offer lockers, sometimes you have to rent padlocks so it’s best to carry your own to save on costs.
  • Laundry bag – I suggest a brightly coloured one. Getting laundry service in a 100 bed hostel is much easier when you know exactly what your bag looks like. You can even get mesh laundry bags that can be thrown in as a whole – which can help heaps in preventing lost socks!
  • Flip Flops – I’ve raved about the necessity of flip flops before, but basically they’re easy to thrown on after a day traipsing around town on a guided tour, and I’ve known some travellers to avoid any communal shower unless wearing flip flops!

As a digitally connected traveller, I’ve also put together a list of my flashpacker essentials that I never leave home without, and make sure to watch the video “What’s in my weekend bag?” if you’re heading away for a short hostel break!

Weekend Travel Bag Packing

If there’s anything else you need to know about hostels, let me know in the comments below!

Also, feel free to share this with your friends who are asking the question ‘what is a hostel?!’ by using the share buttons below!

Lots of love,

guide to hostels

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  • David Uribe Gosselin says: January 18, 2015 at 3:28 am

    Hey!… How long have you been posting about Hostels? This is a great post and it looks like you definitely know a good bit about Hostels =D

    PS: Your fb link in the sig is broken!

    • Katie Dawes says: January 18, 2015 at 11:56 am

      Hi David – I’m glad you like the post! 😀 & that you found me on Facebook anyway… I must take a look at that link!

      I’ve been writing about them for just over a year now… hopefully many more to come 🙂

  • Ana says: August 15, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Katie,

    It’s a good blog post to introduce hostels’ universe.
    I would like to add something about “How to book Hostels” section: online travel agencies (Booking.com, Hosteworld, Mychichostel…) are spending a lot of money to help hotels, hostels, resorts, gueshouses to be popular and generate revenues. It’s fair to have a commission. 🙂
    It’s even more fair than using Google Adwords with a low ROI, the main advantage of OTAs’ is: it costs nothing to have your presence online, so you have a fantastic visibilty for 0 investment, it’s a win-win deal”.

    • Katie Dawes says: August 16, 2016 at 10:19 am

      Hi Ana – great input! It’s always best to see both sides and the lack of investment is definitely helpful, especially for new hostels. Here, I just prefer to promote direct 🙂

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