I almost exclusively book hostels whenever I’m traveling solo. I’ve usually had good experiences in them; in fact, I still keep in touch with a handful of people I’ve met as a result of staying in them.
So flash forward to a little under a month ago when I decided to book a solo trip to NYC and Washington D.C. I had limited options because per usual, I booked my NYC hostel a few days before flying. I ended up settling on a hostel in Queens, conveniently located only three stops away from Manhattan. I decided to pay extra to stay in an all-female dorm.
It was my second night in New York, and I came back to my dorm around midnight. After I took a shower, I walked out and began changing until I heard the door knob turn. Half-naked, I turned my head and then immediately dived for the bed – a guy was entering the dorm. Confused, I watched him come in with his own set of keys as he casually asked if I wanted to go out for drinks. I shook my head no, and then he walked out the room and said he’d come back later.
He couldn’t have been an employee – most employees don’t come in the rooms in the middle of the night. I quickly got dressed and went downstairs to the front desk to confirm if he was booked in the dorm. As I was talking to the receptionist, he listed off the names he booked in the room, until I realized he HAD booked a man to stay in the female dorm. When I asked if he could relocate me to another female dorm, the employee replied that mine was the only one there.
“I paid extra to stay in this dorm. Can you move him to the mixed dorm?”
“Why don’t you call me when he comes?”
“I have an early morning start tomorrow, I don’t want to wait up since I don’t know when he’s coming back.”
“Well… I can deactivate your keys so he can’t get in, and he’ll have to come to the front desk. I’ll explain the situation then and have a female employee pick up his things.”
The proposed solution wasn’t ideal – the guest didn’t ask to get booked in an all-female dorm, and a stranger would then be handling his things. The guest ended up coming back sooner than expected, and he was able to come back to the dorm to retrieve his things – without warning and without honoring the initial agreement laid out by the receptionist. I found out from other guests the next morning that the hostel has a tendency to book men in the all-female dorm when the hostel is overbooked.
My main problem with this hostel experience is the blatant disregard they had for customers – overbooking the hostel isn’t an excuse to put men in all-female dorms (especially when women pay extra to stay there). There’s a plethora of reasons why some women decide to stay in an all-female dorm; one of the other women staying with me was hijabi. If overbooking is a consistent problem, then they should keep all the dorms mixed instead of advertising and over charging women to stay in an all-female dorm.
In hindsight, there were some red flags I overlooked after my first night with this hostel. I should’ve listened to my intuition and paid extra to stay somewhere else for my second and third night. I’ve always pegged myself as low-maintenance, but this experience made me realize I do value my privacy; if I stay at a hostel again, it’ll probably be in the confines of a private room instead of a dorm. After a handful of stays in hostels within the past year, here are a few pros and cons when booking hostels:
Part of the reason I’m able to travel as often as I do is because I choose to stay at hostels. In Central America, the most expensive hostel I stayed at was 20 USD per night. A good hostel will usually include a combination of the following amenities: community kitchens, free breakfast, WiFi, lounges, free towels and linen, pools, etc. One of my favorite hostels in Iceland had a fully stocked bar accessible 24/7. Staying at hostels also allowed me to splurge on experiences. I’d rather spend the extra money to go on a tour than stay in more expensive lodgings.
It’s an easy way to meet a diverse group of people.
I think a common misconception about traveling solo is that it can get lonely. Hostels gave me the opportunity to expose myself to people all across the globe. One of the best pieces of advice I got before I took my first solo trip was to make effort with strangers in the hostels. Staying at hostels forced me to go out of my comfort zone and talk to people I wouldn’t normally meet in my 9-5. In Belize, I ended up connecting with group of people on the islands; we all went out for lobsters that same night and snorkeling together the next day. You never know who you might click with on your travels. Let yourself be open and flexible to the possibility of meeting new people. A good hostel will also have common areas for you to socialize with other guests.
You usually get access to shuttles to popular tourist attractions.
Hostels thrive in tourist economies; so it’s a no brainer why some have on-site shuttles to take you to nearby tourist destinations or to the airport for an extra fee. If you’re sans car, this is incredibly convenient when shuffling from one destination to the next. Sometimes hostels also have deals for popular tourist attractions. Do your research and figure out what your hostel has to offer and shop around for deals. I’ve found for most tourist attractions, it’s cheaper to book the day before or the day of – mainly because there’s an endless stream of places to negotiate tour packages in-person that aren’t always available online.
There’s minimal privacy, especially if you book a dorm.
My first hostel experience felt oddly reminiscent of my freshman year of college – bunk beds were lined up against every wall in a uniform fashion. You don’t get to choose who you’re bunking with or even necessarily your bed. It’s incredibly important to carry your own lock and key to store your important documents, laptops/tablets, and other expensive belongings in a locker. Although I’ve never had anything stolen, you’re otherwise entrusting complete strangers to safeguard your things. You also don’t get to control when people walk in and out of the room. This is probably terrible if you’re a light sleeper.
Even booking a private room can put a dent in your privacy plans. I recently spoke to my cousin that travels far more extensively than I do about my recent hostel experience. She told me during her last trip to India, she decided to book a private room at a hostel in New Delhi. Partially because of the floor layout, employees walked freely in and out of the room without permission to her discomfort. Airbnbs and hotels are typically the safest bet if you value your privacy.
You’re not always blessed with the best conditions.
You get what you pay for. ALWAYS check reviews on Hostelworld. As a rule of thumb, I never book a hostel if it’s ranked below 8.5 on the website. Look specifically for comments about sanitation and cleanliness. I always carry shower shoes and wet wipes in my suitcase as a precaution. Keep in mind, if you book a hostel, you’re choosing to forgo certain luxuries. In San Ignacio, I woke up to the sound of dogs barking at 5 am because the owner was a dog breeder. In NYC, my bathroom door wouldn’t lock. In Caye Calkner, my mattress was stiff and I had a hard time finding a comfortable position to sleep in. In Keflavik, I had to use community showers. Hostels are valuable when you’re a traveler on a budget; however as I get older, I find myself unwilling to sacrifice certain comforts.