5 Annoying Experiences You Might Have at a Hostel and What to Do About Them
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
It's 3am. My alarm won't go off for two hours, and I really wish I was getting those two additional hours of sleep before my long flight in the morning. But instead, I'm sitting here writing in the communal lounge at a hostel, because I cannot sleep. And the culprit — perhaps the most feared type of hostel patron — is a snorer in the dormitory.
I'm normally a pretty deep sleeper, but there are just some snores you can't ignore. Sometimes, you can drown out the rhythmic breathing of light snore, but these snores varied from squeaky door hinge to the rumble of a stampede. Just when I could feel myself drift back to sleep, I'd be hit with the low grumble of an approaching wildebeest. I'd jerk awake, instinctively seeking higher ground. There were also fits of coughing and unintelligible murmurings, so I gave up on sleep.
While I do love staying in hostels, there are some annoyances that are unique to shared accommodations. But they're also mostly preventable — whether you're the offender and the offended. Here's what you can do about these not uncommon irritations, so you don't find yourself venting your frustrations in the middle of the night when you should be fast asleep.
The Snoring Dormmate
To start, I understand that snoring is or can be part of a medical condition. And because of this, it's largely tolerated by others in the dorm. But this problem can be mitigated, assuring a better sleep for everyone.
The Offender: If you know you are a snorer — and you do — consider getting a private room. Although you may not be able to control the snoring, booking a single room is a thoughtful way to ensure other guests get a good night's sleep.
The Offended: Always pack ear plugs, which are your first line of defense, though they won't always do the trick. Another option is to sleep with headphones while using a white noise app. Even with an alarm set on the same phone, the white noise will turn off when the alarm sounds.
The Night Owl and Early Bird
Some people have early mornings. Others have late nights. Not everyone in a dorm will be on the same schedule. The coming and going is expected and inevitable, but the use of the overhead light, loud conversations and other noises should be minimized when others in the dorm are sleeping.
The Offender: Headlamps aren't just for miners anymore, and every backpacker should travel with one. If people are sleeping, use a headlamp instead of any other light in the room. Unlike a flashlight, you'll have both hands free for digging through your bag or holding a book. Always keep your headlamp in an easily accessible location, so if you enter a dark room, you'll know where it is. Keep any necessary talking to a whisper and move any conversations to a common room. If you know you'll be departing early, pack the previous night, before anyone is asleep.
The Offended: Use an eye mask and, once again, ear plugs. (You may want to use them even if there are no immediate issues with light or sound because you can't predict interruptions in a hostel.) And a white noise app works well again in this case. If the light is left on for longer than necessary or people are louder than they should be, a polite request to turn off the light or keep the volume down solves the vast majority of the problems.
The Space Case
Dorms are shared spaces, not “whomever claims it first” spaces. Beds and lockers are obviously allocated, but some dorms don't have clearly designated spaces for your packs or personal belongings. Some people will claim every inch of real estate to store their bags or hooks to dry their clothes, but just because a space is empty doesn't mean it won't be needed by a dormmate that has yet to check in. No one wants to show up at a dorm and feel like they, er, literally won't fit in.
The Offender: Some very basic division is all you need to abide by traditional dorm etiquette. If there are six beds in a dorm, be sure to only take up one-sixth of the available space. If you're washing clothes by hand, ask the staff where people typically hang clothes to dry. Usually, it's not in the room. Also remember that an empty bed could be filled at any time, so don't leave your items on other bunks.
The Offended: If someone has decided the ladder rung six inches from your pillow is a good place to dry their socks, you have every right to move them. Same goes for belongings put on your bed. If you arrive to a dorm and the other occupants have taken up every inch of space and no one is around to make room for you, condense the belongings of the worst offender and carve out your own area. In reality, this rarely happens. People in the dorm tend to proactively accommodate new arrivals. There is one blurred line with personal space, though. If the person on the top bunk needs a seat to put on shoes or a surface to place something items while reorganizing, the use of the bottom bunk for these short periods of time is fine.
The Food Thief
Maybe you've been out enjoying the Amsterdam café scene, and returned to the hostel kitchen where another backpacker has left a half-eaten bag of Doritos in their marked food bin. It's OK to take just a few chips, right? Definitely not. Chances are, that backpacker was at a café across the street and will very soon be looking for every single one of the Doritos. Snack theft, no matter how small, is never acceptable.
The Offender: Even if you're cooking a meal and you only need a splash of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt or a few dashes of vinegar, it's not OK to borrow those ingredients from someone else's food bin without asking. Backpackers are rarely lugging around an array of spices or oils they don't plan on using. Of course, if you see the owner, they will very likely let you use some. Just get permission first.
The Offended: Once those Doritos are gone, they're gone. You could try to trace the culprit by rummaging through trash bins and announcing the crime to everyone within earshot, but no one likes a buzzkill. If you really have food or beverages that you don't want taken, keep them secured in your pack or locker, just as long as they won't stink up the room. (Read: no in-room anchovies.)
The Pest Porter
This is by far the worst annoyance a backpacker can encounter, and I've already discussed in depth how to handle them in an earlier column.
The Offender: If you've been exposed to a bed bug infestation, you have hopefully taken the necessary precautions to make sure you don't pick up any stowaways and moved on to a new property. However, it's best to be open and straightforward with your new hostel. Let them know when and where you encountered bed bugs and what you did to make sure you're not a unwitting porter. They may have additional safeguards to help you make sure you're not bringing bugs with you. Of course, you do run the risk of being treated like a leper, but generally everyone in the backpacker community understands that the battle is humans versus bed bugs, and silence helps the bed bugs win.
The Offended: Review the steps outlined in my column. Pack up, make sure you're not a carrier and get the heck out. The evening following my sleepless night (you know, the one when I dormed next to a foghorn and started writing this column), I found myself in a new country, wanting nothing more than sleep. I was awoken by the guy in the bunk below me asking the question you never, ever want to hear in a dorm: “Do you know what bed bugs look like?”
I did have two sleepless nights in a row, and while this is a low point in backpacking, I survived. If you haven't stayed in hostels before, you shouldn't judge them by this article focused only on annoyances. That's like trying to get a feel for a new city by reading the police blotter.
Occasionally, however — even rarely — some of these issues do arise. When they do, they can be mitigated and addressed fairly easily, and everyone can go on living the backpacker life.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !