If budget travelers around the world have anything in common, it’s a mutual love of hostels. But not all of these low-cost accommodations are created equal — they range from bare-bones dormitories to comfortable suites with snazzy add-ons. That’s why it’s important to know a little bit about them before booking your first hostel stay.

It’s check-in time!

What to know before you go

Every successful hostel stay begins with a good amount of research. After all, hostels dot the entire globe, so there’s no shortage of options‚ but it’s important to choose the right one (which typically varies from person to person, since each traveler is unique).

Hostelworld is often the best place to begin your search. This website contains a huge repository of information on 36,000 properties in 170 different countries, so wherever you’d like to go, there’s a good chance you can find a hostel there. The site allows users to filter their search by price, facilities, rating, payment option, type of room, and more, so you won’t find it difficult to obtain perfectly tailored results.

By default, your options will appear in a list, but you can also view them on a map to learn more about each hostel’s location. This feature comes in handy for anyone who prefers to stay in a particular neighborhood, and it’s also useful for travelers who want to plan their transportation costs in advance.

A pink backpack hangs up in a hostel.
Photo by Charlie Solorzano

When you’ve found an option that you like, you’ll need to go through its list of amenities and make sure that the hostel provides your must-haves. For example, if you need linens, lockers, air conditioning, or free breakfast, you’ll save your future self a headache by double-checking the full list of offerings before booking.

You’ll also need to choose the type of room you’d like to sleep in. The cheapest ones are large, mixed-gender dorm rooms, so you’ll have to pay more to stay in a small or gender-specific room. (And if you’d like a private bathroom, you’ll need to book an ensuite room — otherwise, you’ll have to go down the hall to use a communal shower and toilet.) Of course, if you’re traveling with a group, you can reserve a private room to ensure that everyone sleeps in the same place.

A brightly lit kitchen in a hostel
Photo by Jason Briscoe
A black-and-white photo of a shower in a hostel
Photo by Yip Vick

As far as packing goes, you should always slip a padlock, an international converter, and a pair of flip-flops into your bag. That way, your belongings will be secure, your electronics will remain charged, and your feet will stay clean in the bathroom.

What to know about your stay

This is the fun part. First, make sure you pay attention while checking in — the hostel employee might offer up valuable information about public transportation, nearby restaurants, or community events. Some hostels even provide discounted tickets or arrange guests’ transportation to major sites, potentially making your life easier and your vacation cheaper.

Next, get settled in. No two hostels are exactly alike, so you might want to take a minute to find the bathroom, kitchen, and other common areas. What’s more, many hostels include bars, cafés, game rooms, and entertainment centers, all of which make it more fun to come “home” in the evening. In fact, during major holidays and peak-season weekends, some hostels will even hire a live music act, screen a movie, or throw a block party.

Once you’ve checked out your homebase, it’s time to get out and explore the area you’re staying in — if you chose your location well, you should be able to find something to do nearby. You can also go farther afield and get to know other neighborhoods within the city. Just remember your hostel’s address, or you might be in for a long night!

A common area in a hostel in Beijing
Photo by Whitney Brown

You should also note that you probably won’t meet your roommates until later that evening, as hostel-folk often spend their days exploring. Sharing a room with strangers might feel uncomfortable at first, but most guests get over the initial awkwardness quickly. If you’re introverted and prefer to keep to yourself, that’s fine — just greet your roommates with a friendly hello and a quick introduction. However, if you’d like to make new friends, a hostel is a great place for that, too. Strike up a conversation, find out if anyone is interested in hanging out or joining in on your plans, and, most importantly, have fun.

You’ll find that, in general, hostel guests are pretty respectful. They won’t touch your things, make a mess, or be loud and obnoxious if they come home late — but they expect the same courtesies from you. Treat your roommates the way you want to be treated, and you’ll get along just fine.

When you check out, remember to double-check your locker and other personal areas for your possessions, and strip the bed if the staff asked you to.

If you’re hoping to save costs and/or make friends during your travels, there’s no better way to do so than by staying in a hostel. And if you’re a solo traveler, this type of accommodation makes it all too easy to reset, recharge, and reflect.

Congratulations — you just made it through your first hostel stay!

Header image by @rawpixel

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.