Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Hostels For Budget Travellers: What to Know Before You Go

Hostels are a way of providing inexpensive beds, from $16 (€12, £10) to about $44 (€33, £28) a night, to those of any age that wish to live simply and communally with fellow travellers from around the world. Hostelling is not for everyone, for to live in a simple and communal manner means a loss of privacy and less services in exchange for the camaraderie and spirit of international hostelling.

Hostel in Salzburg, Austria

Hostel in Salzburg, Austria
 Photo: Marco Verch

Hostels provide a vital item- cheap beds for those on a budget. Hostels provide a place to sleep, inexpensive food, and the ability to meet like-minded people from around the world in a relaxed atmosphere. Almost all hostels have lockers so you can lock-up your backpack and valuables while you sleep and while you’re out exploring a new foreign city, not to mention to do some shopping, partying, and meeting even more new people.

Hostels are divided into two categories: those hostels in the Hostelling International (a.k.a., H.I.) network, and those independent hostels that are not in H.I.

Hostelling International (H.I.): Formally known as the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF), this “official” organisation is a union of local hostel associations in over 80 countries. They have over 4,500 hostels worldwide.

To stay there, you can get a stamp on your “guest card” for the first six nights as a guest in an H.I. hostel, and after six nights you become a full member with a membership card. Membership has benefits besides a modest discount for staying in a H.I. hostel that include some travel-related discounts. But still it is a large organisation and it has some heavy-handed rules and regulations. Some hostel staff are very strict.

Sure, the hostels created by this organization do guarantee a good level of cleanliness and acceptable comfort, but a hostel is a hostel and they are mostly very plain and without much charm.

All H.I. hostels are open to hostellers of all ages, from babies to 80 year olds. Granted, most are between 18 and 28, but don’t expect all young people. Many H.I hostels have rooms for couples and families with children. In dorm rooms for solo and other group travellers, the sexes are segregated.

Dining Room at a Large Dublin Hostel

Dining Room at a Large Dublin Hostel
 Photo: Barnacles Hostels

In my opinion, for the same price, and quite often cheaper, you can find at least a dozen independent hostels to stay in with as good or higher quality, and certainly with less rules, warnings, and orders.

Independent Hostels (meaning non-H.I. hostels) tend to be more laidback, easy going, and casual. There are fewer rules, often friendlier staff, more socializing among hostellers, and no children. In fact while some independent hostels are well-organised and “mature”, many major European cities have student-run hostels that are very popular among the more adventurous and cost-conscious student traveller.

Many independent hostels do not accept hostellers over 40, although this is changing especially as more older travellers find they enjoy hostels better than the isolation of hotels, and frankly, some over-40 year olds are cool people. Also, females should keep in mind that the dorms in some independent hostels are not separated by sex. Check beforehand.


How To Find A Hostel

In any major city in Europe there are many budget hostels to be found. Some are criminally cheap, others cost more but they may be nicer, be at a more convenient location, be located in a historic or interesting building, or provide more ‘free’ services.

With so many hostels available in major cities, it can be difficult to sift through the choices. To do this, there are two prime options for the backpack traveller to consider:

  1. Research using a travel book guide. Of the ones available with hostel listings, “Let’s Go” guide books have the most comprehensive and accurate listings. It helps a great deal to have the current version of the book available.
  2. Research on the internet. On some websites you will find comments about various hostels, which can be an advantage. Some hostel sites include:

If you are travelling during peak season, or visiting a smallish town during a major festival, book as early as possible, even months ahead as locating a bed can become thorny.


What To Look For

The quality of hostels varies. But no worries, it’s not complicated.

  • Location: Maybe the most important consideration in selecting a hostel is its location. It will usually make things infinitely easier and more fun if you can stay at a convenient location not far from the city centre (downtown) in whatever city you visit. Everything is more handy, the hostels tend to be more modern and better organised- but cynics might say this is an over-generalisation, albeit with many exceptions. Of course, if you have a specific interest or focus to your visit that draws you to a neighbourhood away from the city centre, then it would be logical to stay at a hostel in that area. Preplanning will determine where you should stay.

    With all that in mind, city centre hostels can sometimes be slightly more expensive than other hostels a little further away. But if you will want to visit the city centre often, keep in mind you will have to walk for to and from your hostel just to get to the areas you want to visit, or you may need to pay to take a city bus.

  • Bedding: In many hostels, bedding will be provided and because of the growing bedbug problem you will not be able to use your own bed sheet or towel. In a few hostels you will have to pay a fee.
  • Lockout Times: Something not so obvious to lookout for are “lockout times.” These are times during the mid-day, usually in the afternoon, when the hostel is closed and the rooms are cleaned and serviced. During cleaning, all inhabitants must exit and wait until cleaning is finished before re-entry. Usually, this is not much of a problem as most travellers will be out exploring the city. However, hostels in the Hostelling International (H.I.) chain often have very long lockout times, while independent hostels have no or much shorter lockout times.
  • Curfews: Hostels in the Hostelling International (H.I.) chain often have very restrictive curfews, some as early as 9PM. H.I. hostels cater to families with children and a quiet environment.

    Independent (non-H.I.) hostels rarely have curfews, especially as the vast majority of their guests are university-aged students and other, solo travellers, and student groups.

  • Backpackers planning a day of sightseeing in Dublin

    Planning a Day of Sightseeing
     Photo: Barnacles Hostels

  • Food: Many hostels have inexpensive but plain food throughout the day. Breakfast is usually free. But if it comes down to a choice between two equally good hostels, but one charges a couple euro extra and has free breakfast, take it. Those couple euro extra will be the cheapest breakfast around that you will find that isn’t a granola bar from the supermarket. It is the most important meal of the day.
  • Locker: If they have it use it. Of course you need to bring your own padlock.
  • Other Amenities: Other amenities that might get overlooked by a first-time hostel shoppers are the cleanliness of the bathrooms and showers and if security lockers (lockable) are in the rooms.


Have a Great Time

Staying in hostels can be something of a necessity for budget travellers, but if you’ve done your research and made the right choices, it should be fun. In fact, you may find that staying at a hostel can be a great experience.