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How do hostels work?

Last Updated: September 21, 2023

In this article, we explain, what is a hostel, how do hostels work, the different types of hostels, and the facilities can you expect at a hostel.

What is a hostel?

First off, what is a hostel? A hostel is a type of accommodation that caters primarily to budget-conscious travelers, backpackers, and those seeking an affordable place to stay while exploring various destinations. Hostels offer a distinct lodging experience compared to traditional hotels or guesthouses, emphasizing affordability, communal living, and a unique social atmosphere.

Key features of hostels include:

  • Dormitory-Style Rooms - Hostels are renowned for their dormitory-style rooms, which typically contain multiple beds or bunk beds. Travelers who stay in these dorms often share the room with other guests, either of the same gender or, in some cases, mixed gender, depending on the hostel's policies. Dormitory rooms are an excellent way to keep accommodation costs low.
  • Private Rooms - In addition to dormitories, many hostels also provide private rooms that can accommodate one or more guests. While these private rooms come at a slightly higher cost compared to dorm beds, they are still generally more affordable than equivalent hotel rooms. Private rooms offer added privacy and comfort.
  • Shared Facilities - Hostels commonly offer shared facilities, such as communal bathrooms, fully-equipped kitchens, and common areas where guests can relax, socialize, and interact with fellow travelers. These shared spaces foster a sense of community and make it easy for guests to exchange travel stories and tips.
  • Bathrooms - These are normally large, with several shower stalls and a row of sinks. Hostels tend to have only one or two bathrooms on each floor, but this, of course, varies from hostel to hostel. A lot of newer hostels have ensuite bathrooms even for dorm rooms and some of these can be super fancy.
  • Budget-Friendly - One of the defining characteristics of hostels is their affordability. They are designed to cater to travelers on a budget, making them an attractive option for those looking to reduce their accommodation expenses while still enjoying a comfortable place to sleep.
  • Backpacker Atmosphere - Hostels often have a laid-back and sociable atmosphere, making them particularly appealing to young backpackers and adventure-seekers. The communal living environment encourages interaction, cultural exchange, and the formation of new friendships with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Safety and Security - Most hostels prioritize the safety and security of their guests. They typically provide secure storage options, such as lockers or safes, where travelers can store their valuables. Many hostels also have 24-hour front desk service and may employ security measures to ensure a safe stay.
  • Location - Hostels are strategically located in popular tourist destinations, city centers, and near transportation hubs. This makes them a convenient choice for travelers who want easy access to attractions, public transportation, and local amenities.
  • Diverse Room types - While dormitory-style rooms are the most common, hostels may offer a range of accommodation options to cater to different preferences. These options can include private family rooms, female-only dorms for added security and comfort, and themed rooms with unique designs.

How do hostels work? General FAQs

1. What do I get when I book a bed in a dorm room?

These really depend on the hostel. At a minimum,  you will get a bed, (shared) bathroom facilities, and free WiFi. But most hostels offer various amenities such as a living room-style common room, kitchen facilities, guest computers, board games, a pool table, etc. A lot of hostels will have a bar and some even have a restaurant as well.

2. Do hostels provide bedding?

Hostels normally provide all bedding.

3. Do hostels provide towels?

Hostels generally don't provide towels when staying in a dorm room. Many hostels will give you the option of renting a towel (normally at a cost of €1 to €2 per night), but it's best to bring your own. However, towels are provided when staying in a private room in a hostel.

4. Do hostels have showers?

Yes. Most dorms have large communal bathrooms with rows of showers and sinks. Normally the showers are partitioned for your privacy.

5. How much do hostels cost?

The price of a bed in a dorm room in a hostel in Europe varies a lot. It depends on many factors such as the type of hostel and proximity to the centre. Hostels in Western Europe are the most expensive and the more East you go the cheaper it gets. Hostels in Western Europe start at €15 per night. The most expensive hostels are in London, Paris, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich and  Scandinavian cities. Hostels in Germany, Spain, Portugal and Austria are slightly less. You can still get hostels in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary for as cheap as €5 per night.

6. Do hostels have lockers?

Yes, hostels nearly always have lockers for your bags and valuables. It is best to always bring your own padlock for your locker. These are normally located in your room close to your bed. A new trend is that many hostels have been offering over the last few years is a second smaller locker for your important valuables such as your phone, camera, and passport. Some of these small lockers even have a power outlet inside where you can charge a device.

7. Are hostels safe?

What is a Hostel - The RoadHouse Prague Locker
Under-bed Locker @ The RoadHouse Hostel Prague

In general, hostels are very safe and in most cases, they're actually safer than most other forms of accommodation.

Most hostels have 24/7 reception, some even have security staff and in a lot of hostels, a personalized key card is required to enter even dorm rooms. Nearly all hostels come equipped with large security lockers in the dorm rooms for you to lock away your valuables when you’re out. It is advised that you bring your own padlock.

8. Are there age restrictions in hostels?

Of course, there are. Dorm rooms are usually only available for guests between 18 and 39 years old. Some hostels even have a lower age limit (39 years). The over-40s can still stay in hostels but in a private room.

9. Do hostels have curfews?

The quick answer is sometimes there are, but more and more hostels are getting rid of this policy as competition increases. This varies a lot from country to country. For instance, nearly all hostels in Paris have a curfew time of 12 midnight. Some hostels in Germany will also have a curfew or a lockout period. My advice is to always read the hostel description and reviews before booking one.

10. Do hostels accept kids?

More and more hostels are now providing family rooms or apartments where kids can stay in a hostel but under the supervision of their parents. Obviously, party hostels are not suitable for kids.

Different Types of Hostels

The different types of hostel are:

  1. Youth hostels
  2. Backpacker hostels
  3. Flashpacker/Boutique Hostels
  4. Party Hostels
  5. Eco-Friendly Hostels
  6. Themed Hostels
  7. Activity Hostels
  8. Digital Nomad Hostels
  9. Cheap Hostels
  10. Family-Friendly Hostels

What facilities can you expect at a hostel?

1. Common Rooms

ClinkNOORD Hostel Amsterdam
Common Area @ ClinkNOORD Hostel Amsterdam

Almost all Backpacker hostels have common rooms or multiple common areas. However, some small boutique hostels tend not to have a common area.

Common areas are normally located close to the reception. Some common areas have a dining area or a bar. Some have free or paid activities such as Foosball or a pool table.

2. Events and activities

Many hostels organize events and activities such as city tours, pub crawls, cooking classes, etc. These are normally free and it gives you a chance to socialize with other travelers.

3. Laundry facilities

Hostel Ruthensteiner Vienna Washing Machine
Laundry Room @ Hostel Ruthensteiner Vienna

Most large hostels have on-site laundry facilities (washers and dryers). Normally the procedure is that you buy a token at the reception. This token is used to turn on the washing machine or dryer.

4. Guest Kitchen

What is a Hostel - Home Lisbon Hostel Kitchen
Guest Kitchen @ Home Lisbon Hostel

Nearly every hostel offers some kind of guest kitchen. These can be partially or fully equipped. Some hostels supply you with free essentials with pasta, spices, tea, and coffee.

5. Swimming pools

Sant Jordi Hostels Rock Palace Barcelona Pool
Swimming pool @ Sant Jordi Hostel Rock Palace

Swimming pools are very popular in Spanish cities and southern Mediterranean cities such as Rome or Athens. Instead, many hostels in Barcelona have rooftop pools. Plus Hostel in Prague has an outdoor open all year round and it is free to all guests.

6. Free Wi-Fi

Wombats City Hostel Vienna The Naschmarkt WiFi
Hostel guest all using Wi-Fi  @ Wombat's Vienna Naschmarkt

We all need Wi-Fi while we travel. Every hostel will have WiFi but some won't have it in the rooms, they just have it in common areas or vice versa.

7. Rooftop Terraces

Safestay Rooftop Bar is one of the Best Rooftop Bars in Madrid
Rooftop Bar @ Safestay Madrid

Some large or even small hostels in Europe have a rooftop terrace. Some of these rooftop terraces have a bar or swimming pool or both. These are particularly popular in countries with a warmer climate such as Spain.

8. Hostel Bars

What is a Hostel - Generator Hostel Dublin Bar
Hostel Bar @ Generator Hostel Dublin

Many hostels have an on-site bar. These are normally cheaper and more social than regular city bars. Most run daily happy hours and some hold events or activities such as a music gig or karaoke. Some hostel bars are for guests only and others are also open to the general public as well.

What types of rooms do hostels have?

1. Dorm Rooms

Mola Hostel Madrid Dorm
Dorm rooms @ Mola Hostel Madrid

Every hostel will offer a bed in a dorm room. A dorm room is a large room filled with beds (singles or bunks). These normally cost only a fraction of the price of a hotel room in the same city. Generally, there will be one or two large bathrooms per floor but more hostels now have en-suite bathrooms in the dorm rooms. Dorms can be mixed, male-only or female-only.

The general standard of dorm rooms has gotten far better over the last 10 years. Some are very stylish and a lot of beds in dorm rooms have their own reading lamp, power-point, and privacy curtain.

2. Private Rooms

What is a Hostel - Generator Paris Privates
Private Room @ Generator Hostel Paris

Many hostels now offer private rooms. Private rooms in hostels can be just as good as a hotel if not better. Obviously, they are more expensive than a bed in a dorm room but generally, they tend to be cheaper than hotels.

What is the best website to book a hostel?

Hostelworld is by far the biggest and the best website for booking hostels. They have a monopoly on the hostel market. They have the best availability and prices. The website is designed to include many filters to help find a hostel that best suits your needs.

Hostelworld Filters
This screenshot shows the room type filters on Hostelworld's website.

Reviews and ratings on this Hostelworld are very reliable because you have to have stayed in the hostel in order to leave a review. A general rule of thumb is that any hostel with a rating of over 7.0 will be fine. A hostel with a rating of between 8.0 and 8.6 is very good and any hostel that has a rating of over 9.0 is exceptional. My advice is to read recent reviews when choosing a hostel. The reviews can also be filtered by category and language.

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I'm Mike McGuinness, the guy behind the scenes of Hostel Vagabond. I've stayed in hundreds of hostels across Europe and the world. I created Hostel Vagabond so that I could share those experiences with you.