Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Selecting a Hostel or Renting Someplace Else to Crash

When travelling internationally, the budget traveller will generally have three practical options when time comes to select a hostel or someplace else to crash:

Portland Hostel in Oregon, USA

Portland Hostel in Oregon, USA
 Photo: LWY

  1. You can rent hotel rooms everywhere you go. This option is the least cost efficient and in many ways the least desirable. Hotels don’t provide the same avenues for social exploration and camaraderie as other forms of lodging while you’re on the road. You won’t likely meet any other travellers and you aren’t likely to connect with any locals either as hotel staff tend to keep a professional distance from guests. Nevertheless, staying at a hotel occasionally isn’t a bad idea. It can offer a great way to break up your routine and experience a new facet of travelling. If you’re going to stay in a hotel, do so in a country where the currency rates work in your favor. Do that, and for a little more than the price of a hostel bed, you can rent a truly spiffy, lap-of-luxury hotel room.
  2. You can Couch Surf. Searching online for individuals opening their homes to travellers is a great way to save money on accommodations as you travel. Add on the fact that most locals who participate in Couch Surfing offer one of the best ways to get a real feel for a city and it seems like seeking local homes to crash represents your best bet while traveling. Unfortunately Couch Surfing can be VERY hit or miss. It’s almost always impossible to find arrangements last minute, it’s often difficult to stay with the highest rated homes without booking them far in advance, and succeeding at Couch Surfing often requires a real commitment to building up your social dynamics on the service’s networking site. Couch Surfing can be a great option for travelers but it’s not the automatic home run as some paint it.
  3. You can stay at a hostel. Hostels represent a great middle ground between hotels and Couch Surfing. Hostels are basically locally-owned-and-operated boarding houses where you can rent beds or rooms for very reasonable rates. Hostels provide you with opportunities to connect with friendly locals and to make friends with other travellers due to the combination of shared living quarters, large common rooms and a regular stream of tours and activity groups leaving from hostel lobbies at all hours of the day and night.

I highly recommend staying in hostels, though I’d like to add on the caveat that quality varies WILDLY between hostels. Thankfully it isn’t difficult to choose a great hostel that will quickly feel like a welcome home away from home.


Never Choose the Least Expensive Hostel

One of the main perks of hostels is the fact they tend to be very inexpensive compared to hotels in most countries. Over an extended period of time, that’s real savings. Prices do vary depending on when you travel (slow season vs. busy season) and the city (the more expensive the city the more expensive its hostels). But I’ve been able to find high-quality hostels in major European cities for under $10 USD (€8, £4.50) a night.

That being said, just because hostels are generally inexpensive that doesn’t mean you should seek out the cheapest beds around. Staying at the cheapest hostel you can find is almost always a bad idea for some big reasons:

  • A city’s cheapest hostels tend to be dirtier with less conscientious and engaged staff members than their slightly more expensive counterparts. It’s worth spending a little more to enjoy your stay and receive real help from the hostel’s staff.
  • A city’s cheapest hostels tend to skimp on the facilities, meaning uncomfortable common areas, insufficient shower facilities and flimsy storage options. It’s worth spending a couple extra bucks a night to know your laptop isn’t going to be pried out of your locker while you’re out for the night.
  • Backpackers playing music in a hostel common room in Galway, Ireland

    Hostel Common Room in Galway, Ireland
     Photo: Barnacles Hostels

  • The cheaper the hostel, the worse the neighborhood it’s in. Sometimes “worse” means you’re going to stay in a neighborhood with legitimate safety concerns, sometimes it means finding yourself inconveniently located complete with long travel times to find the city’s life.
  • A city’s cheapest hostel tends to attract the city’s weirdest lodgers. Yes, you can meet good people at bargain-basement hostels. Yes, you’re going to meet the odd weirdo at high-class hostels. But a city’s cheapest hostels always have the highest percentage of antisocial individuals and it’s those individuals that tend to bring the crazy in a more intense manner than those socialized eccentrics you’ll meet at more expensive hostels.

The good news is you don’t need to go to a city’s most expensive hostel to avoid all the above problems. If you want a great hostel experience you usually only need to rent a bed at a hostel charging just a little bit more than the city’s cheapest accommodations. It sounds like a small thing, but paying a couple extra bucks a night makes a HUGE difference in the quality of your hostel experience.


Read Reviews

I generally recommend booking your first couple nights at a hostel at one of the large aggregate sites like as these sites make it easy to find available lodging for your travel dates. It’s also easy to find good prices and special prices using these sites.

But the BEST reason to check out large hostel aggregate sites is the fact they provide a home for user reviews. All of the big hostel aggregate sites provide a combination of written reviews and a numerical score for all of the hostels they represent.

When searching for a hostel only search for those that have received a rating of 90% or higher. Hostels with an average rating of 80%-90% tend to be alright as well, but if you’re travelling to a well-trafficked city you won’t have any difficulty finding plenty of affordable hostels with top scores.


Testing Your Hostel

Even if you plan on staying in a city for a month or two you should only pre-book 1-3 nights at your hostel of choice. No matter how well reviewed a hostel may be you don’t want to commit to a long stay anywhere until you’ve had the opportunity to spend a night or two there to evaluate it firsthand. Just because other travellers loved a place doesn’t mean it will tickle your fancy.

If you find you like the first hostel where you stay, feel free to book for an extended period of time (and make sure you ask the front desk if they have any discounts available for extended stays). But if the hostel doesn’t quite meet your needs leave after a couple days and try out a new set of beds, repeating the process until you find somewhere you’re happy to stay for weeks at a time.

Sometimes you’ll want to change hostels because:

  • You don’t feel safe.
  • You don’t feel comfortable.
  • You just don’t like the other extended-stay visitors.
  • You’ll want to stay in another neighborhood.

That’s perfectly OK. The flexibility offered by hostels is one of the biggest benefits they have to offer, so take full advantage of this quality to make sure you’re always staying exactly where you want to rest your head at night.