Home Hostel Tips What Is A Hostel? The Ultimate Hostel Guide
What Is A Hostel? The Ultimate Hostel Guide

What Is A Hostel? The Ultimate Hostel Guide

written by Katie Dawes September 21, 2014

What is a hostel? If only there was one simple answer to that! Because a hostel can be so many things: a cheap bed for the night, a place to make new friends, the home of beer pong and pub crawls, the host of yoga classes and surf lessons. So, to help you get a hang of the basics, here is my ultimate hostel guide to hostels in Europe!

P.s… absolute hostel newbies might also benefit from this post: A Newbie’s Guide to Staying in a Hostel for the First Time.


What Is A Hostel? The Ultimate Hostel Guide


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

What Is A Hostel?

A social living environment for travellers

Ultimately, the most crucial aspect that separates hostels from other forms of accommodation (such as hotels or Airbnb) is the social environment.

Hostels are literally designed to help you make new friends from all over the world!Click to tweet!

Whether it’s in the shared dorm, the common room, the bar, or the kitchen, the beauty about hostels in Europe lies in their ability to help you meet other travellers.

So yes, it might seem strange at first to share a room with strangers. But travelling is just as much about the people you meet as the things that you see!


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).

Not sure whether to stay in a private or a dorm? You might want to read this hostel guide: Dorm Rooms vs. Private Rooms in a Hostel

What Is A Hostel The Ultimate Hostel Guide to Hostels in Europe 1

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 school teacher, 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), 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 The Ultimate Hostel Guide to Hostels in Europe 2

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. So while hostels began springing up after Schirrmann first designed his own, it is only recently that they have become a common form of accommodation.

Interested in learning more about the history of hostels and the movement’s founding father? I highly recommend this thoroughly researched book by Duncan M. Simpson: Open to All – How Youth Hostels Changed The World.


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 in the introduction to this guide to hostels.

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 wasn’t 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. 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 of all ages.

To get a better understanding of the difference between traditional youth hostels and modern day backpacker’s hostels, you might want to read this hostel guide: Youth Hostels vs. Backpacker’s Hostels.


What is a Hostel? Types of Hostels in Europe

Hostels come in all shapes and sizes! Which makes answering the question, ‘what is a hostel?’ pretty tricky!

And unfortunately, the reason that so many travellers have been put off staying in hostels in the past is because they have (or someone they know has) had a bad experience. But often, this comes down to them having chosen a hostel that wasn’t best suited to them.

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

This is why it’s so important to read the descriptions of a hostels (and reviews of hostels) to understand exactly what type of hostel you’ll be staying in before you book it.


What is a hostel? Advantages & Disadvantages

Like any form of accommodation, and despite my not-so-secret fangirl love of them, there are pros and cons to staying in a hostel. In this section of the hostel guide, I go over the main advantages and disadvantages so you can be prepared!

Advantages of Staying in Hostels in Europe


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!

City secrets

Owners of hostels, and workers who have lived at the hostel for a long time, often love the city they now call home. This is especially true for hostel owners who may have 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.


Modern hostels now offer so much more than a bed and a shower. Often they run excursions, or they’ll organise 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!

Disadvantages of Staying in Hostels in Europe


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 now offer private rooms – or look out for those special few hostels that have privacy curtains around each bunk bed!

If you want to stay in hostels, but don’t want to share a room, I’ve created a hostel guide to My Favourite Hostel Rooms in Europe!


Safety & Security

Safety, both for yourself and your belongings, is something I often discuss with readers of this blog. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to say that you will always be 100% safe in a hostel. But it’s also impossible for me to say that you will always be 100% safe in a hotel or Airbnb.

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!

The second most common question I get asked, after “What is a hostel?” is “Are hostels safe?” So I put together a free hostel guide on how to stay safe in hostels, and how to keep your valuables safe. You can read it here.



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 be the one making the noise…

My advice? Go with the flow and pack a pair of earplugs to be on the safe side. I often put in some headphones and listen to my latest Spotify playlist, and that seems to do the trick!


Amongst many other hostel myths, there is the general perception that hostels are dirty places inhabited with bed bugs and lost sweaty socks. But 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!

Interested in learning more about using reviews to find the perfect (and clean!) hostel? Read this: Using Hostelworld Reviews to Find the Perfect Hostel.


What To Look For When You Book Hostels

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!


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


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…


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.


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 can make or break a hostel experience! And honestly, the majority of them are genuinely kind people, who are as much in love with wanderlust as you are. But as always, there can be a select few who take advantage of their situation. Again, make sure you check the reviews on this.

Dormitory Size

Please don’t book a 12-bed dormitory if you’re uncomfortable sharing a room 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!

Not sure if you want to stay in a mixed dorm or female-only? Read this hostel guide: Are Mixed Dorms Appropriate For Solo Female Travellers?


How To Book Hostels in Europe

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.

Booking With Hostelworld

There are countless ways to book hostels in Europe online these days. Booking.com now lists hostels, as does Airbnb.

However, to truly get a good idea of the description of a hostel, and to see relevant reviews from travellers just like you, then I recommend Hostelworld. It’s basically Booking.com for hostels.

Guide to Hostel Packing

What Is A Hostel The Ultimate Hostel Guide to Hostels in Europe 3

A good hostel should provide all the basics you need for an overnight stay! 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 of hostels in Europe section!
  • Headphones – for the same reason as above!
  • Travel 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 – added comfort to throw on after a day traipsing around town on a guided tour. Also definitely recommended for communal showering.

Want to know exactly what I pack when travelling around hostels in Europe? Find out here: The Essential Hostel Packing List.


If there’s anything you think I’ve missed in this hostel guide, 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,

Katie Dawes The Hostel Girl Signature

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David Uribe Gosselin 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 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 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 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 🙂

Michael October 1, 2017 at 10:37 pm

This fun, design hostel website must be the funniest website I have ever seen 😀

Love the article, Katie. The padlock is a good idea, packing it now

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