What is a Hostel? A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on: 26/02/2024 by Mike

A hostel is a budget-friendly type of accommodation that primarily caters to travelers looking for an affordable place to stay, often with shared rooms and common areas. It's a popular choice among backpackers, students, and those traveling solo or in groups who are seeking economical lodging options.

The History of Hostels

The concept of hostels dates back over a century, evolving from a simple idea to provide affordable accommodations for young people and travelers to the diverse and globally recognized option it is today. Here's a brief overview of the history of hostels:

1. Origin of Hostels

  • Early 20th Century: The hostel movement is generally traced back to 1909 in Germany, when Richard Schirrmann, a teacher, came up with the idea after a hiking trip with his students. Caught in a storm, they sought refuge in a school, where the experience of communal sleeping arrangements sparked the idea of a network of accommodations for young people to explore the countryside affordably.
  • 1912: Schirrmann established the first permanent Jugendherberge (youth hostel) in Altena Castle, Germany. This hostel was the prototype for what would become a worldwide movement, emphasizing affordability, communal living, and the promotion of social interaction among travelers.

2. International Expansion

  • 1932: The idea spread quickly across Europe and beyond, leading to the formation of the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF), now known as Hostelling International (HI), which coordinated efforts and set standards for hostels worldwide.
  • Post-World War II: The post-war era saw a boom in travel and cultural exchange, further propelling the growth of hostels. The ethos of peace and international understanding through travel was a cornerstone of the hostel movement, aligning with the global desire for rebuilding and unity.

3. Evolution and Diversification

  • Late 20th Century: Hostels began diversifying beyond their original youth-focused model to accommodate all types of travelers, including families, groups, and solo travelers of all ages. The accommodations also started to offer more amenities, such as private rooms, en-suite bathrooms, and internet access.
  • 21st Century: The digital age transformed how hostels operate and are perceived. Online booking platforms, social media, and review sites have made hostels more accessible and transparent, allowing travelers to share experiences and connect even before arriving.

4. Modern Hostels

  • Today: Modern hostels blend the traditional aspects of communal living and affordability with newer trends like boutique designs, thematic decor, and a focus on unique experiences. They are no longer seen merely as budget accommodations but as social hubs where travelers can experience local culture, participate in events, and meet like-minded individuals.

The history of hostels is a testament to the enduring appeal of affordable, communal accommodation for travelers. From their humble beginnings in early 20th-century Germany to their present status as integral parts of the global travel industry, hostels have continuously evolved to meet the changing needs and preferences of travelers. They remain a popular choice for those seeking a sense of community and connection on their journeys, embodying the spirit of adventure and the joy of discovery.

What is a Hostel? Many Definitions

The term "hostel" has evolved over time and can encompass a variety of definitions, reflecting the diversity of the accommodation and the experiences it offers. Here are several definitions that capture the multifaceted nature of hostels:

1. Traditional Definition

  • Youth Hostel: Originally, a hostel was defined as a budget-friendly accommodation primarily aimed at young travelers, offering basic shared rooms and communal facilities to encourage social interaction and cultural exchange among guests.

2. Modern Interpretation

  • Budget Accommodation for All Ages: Today, hostels are no longer restricted to young travelers but welcome guests of all ages, including solo travelers, families, and groups, offering a range of room types from shared dormitories to private rooms.

3. Social Hub

  • Community and Social Interaction: A hostel is often seen as a social hub where travelers from different backgrounds meet, share stories, and create connections, facilitated by communal spaces like kitchens, lounges, and activity rooms.

4. Cultural Experience

  • Gateway to Local Experiences: Many hostels provide more than just a place to sleep; they offer a cultural experience, with staff organizing events, tours, and activities that immerse guests in the local culture and foster a community atmosphere.

5. Traveler’s Resource

  • Information and Support for Travelers: Hostels serve as valuable resources for travelers, offering local insights, travel advice, and logistical support, such as maps, rental services, and transportation information.

6. Eco-friendly and Sustainable Lodging

  • Sustainability and Eco-conscious Travel: With a growing emphasis on sustainability, some hostels focus on eco-friendly practices, including recycling, energy conservation, and supporting local communities, appealing to environmentally conscious travelers.

7. Boutique Hostels

  • Boutique or Design Hostels: This concept combines the affordability and social atmosphere of traditional hostels with the design elements and amenities of boutique hotels, targeting travelers looking for unique and stylish accommodations on a budget.

8. Adventure Basecamp

  • Adventure and Activity-Oriented Accommodation: For travelers seeking outdoor adventures or specific activities (like surfing, hiking, or skiing), some hostels specialize in providing easy access to activities, equipment rentals, and like-minded communities.

9. Digital Nomad Haven

  • Work and Travel Accommodations: Catering to the needs of remote workers and digital nomads, certain hostels offer facilities like coworking spaces, fast Wi-Fi, and quiet areas, combining work with travel in a communal setting.

The concept of a hostel has broadened significantly, reflecting changes in travel trends, guest expectations, and the hospitality industry. While the core principles of affordability and community remain central, the modern hostel experience can vary widely, offering something for nearly every type of traveler. This diversity in definitions and offerings is what makes hostels a unique and enduring part of the global travel landscape.

General Facts About Hostels

Here's a comprehensive guide to understanding what hostels are and what to expect when staying in one:

1. Accommodation Types

Hostels in Lisbon -
Beautiful Dorm rooms @ Yes! Lisbon Hostel
  • Shared Dormitory Rooms: The most common and affordable option, where guests stay in bunk beds in a shared room. These can be mixed-gender or single-gender rooms.
  • Private Rooms: Some hostels offer private rooms for individuals, couples, or small groups who prefer more privacy. These rooms can vary in price and amenities.
  • Family Rooms: Designed for families traveling with children, offering multiple beds in a more private setting than dormitories.

3. Social and Cultural Experience

ClinkNOORD Hostel Amsterdam
Common Area @ ClinkNOORD Hostel Amsterdam
  • Community Atmosphere: Hostels are known for their vibrant, social environments, making them a great place to meet fellow travelers from around the world.
  • Events and Activities: Many hostels organize events such as city tours, pub crawls, and communal dinners to encourage guest interaction.

4. Cost and Budget

Affordability: Hostel prices are significantly lower than hotels, making them an attractive option. Hostels are characterized by their communal atmosphere, where guests can meet and interact with fellow travelers from around the world. Here's a comprehensive guide to understanding what hostels offer:

5. Facilities and Amenities

What is a Hostel - Home Lisbon Hostel Kitchen
Guest Kitchen @ Home Lisbon Hostel
  • Common Areas: Hostels typically have communal living spaces such as lounges, kitchens, and dining areas. These spaces encourage social interaction and are often the heart of the hostel experience.
  • Bathrooms: Facilities may be shared or en suite for private rooms. Shared bathrooms are usually separated by gender.
  • Kitchen: Many hostels provide a communal kitchen where guests can cook their own meals, helping to save on food costs.
  • Wi-Fi: Free internet access is standard in most hostels, allowing guests to stay connected.
  • Lockers: For the safety of personal belongings, lockers are usually available, though guests might need to provide their own padlocks.

6. The Main Benefits of Staying at a Hostel

  • Affordability: Hostels are among the most budget-friendly accommodation options, especially in expensive cities.
  • Social Environment: The communal nature of hostels makes it easy to meet people and make new friends from around the globe.
  • Local Insight: Hostel staff and fellow travelers can provide valuable recommendations for exploring the area like a local.

7. A Few You Should Consider Before Staying at a Hostel

What is a Hostel - The RoadHouse Prague Locker
Under-bed Locker @ The RoadHouse Hostel Prague
  • Privacy: The trade-off for low costs is less privacy, particularly in dormitory settings.
  • Noise: With the social atmosphere comes the potential for noise, which can be a concern for light sleepers.
  • Security: While most hostels are safe, staying in shared accommodations requires being mindful of personal security and belongings.

8. How to Choose the Right Hostel?

Why Hostelworld is the Best Website to Book a Hostel

  • Read Reviews: Websites like Hostelworld offer reviews and ratings from previous guests.
  • Location: Consider the hostel's proximity to public transportation, attractions, and the areas you plan to visit.
  • Amenities: Make sure the hostel offers the amenities that are important to you, whether it's free breakfast, laundry facilities, or 24-hour reception.


Hostels are a unique accommodation option that provides not only a place to sleep but also a chance to connect with fellow travelers. They offer a range of options from shared dormitories to private rooms, catering to different preferences and budgets. Whether you're a solo traveler or in a group, staying in a hostel can be an enriching experience that adds to the adventure of exploring new places.

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I'm Hostel Vagabond aka Mike McGuinness. I've stayed in countless across the world. I set up Hostel Vagabond to share these experiences with you.

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