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6 Tips for Picking the Perfect Hostel Every Time

Feb. 18, 2019
7 min read
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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.

Staying at the right hostel can really make your experience in a destination. Often, when you ask a backpacker his or her impression of a city, a rave review will typically be followed by the hostel he or she stayed in: “I love Budapest! I stayed at this great hostel called Carpe Noctem.”

My personal favorite hostel experience was deep in the jungle of Guatemala. Zephyr Lodge featured an amazing infinity pool overlooking jungle-covered mountains. They ran tubing trips and tours to the natural pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey, and the common area and bar were shaded by a thatched roof. But it was an unconventional practice I haven't seen elsewhere that set Zephyr apart.

The infinity pool and view were beautiful, but that's not what made Zephyr Lodge unique.

When I checked in, I asked for the Wi-Fi password. The response? “Logoffandlookup.” I was also told that Wi-Fi was available only from 7am to 8pm. At the time, I didn't really understand the restriction. But then, at 8pm that evening, something magical happened. Everyone put down their phones, turned to each other and talked.

I've long said that the best hostels foster a sense of community among their patrons, and cutting off internet access did this better than any other method I've seen. It also helped that, deep in the jungle, there was no cell service.

Hostels and backpacking aren't for everyone, but for those of us that love it, experiences at hostels like these outweigh any annoyances that may come when you share accommodations with strangers. Knowing how to pick the right hostels can make the backpacking experience go from good to unforgettable.

Recommendations from other backpackers work great, but you won't get them for everywhere you want to go. To maximize your odds of having an unforgettable experience, here are a few tips for booking a stay at the perfect hostel every time.

1. Look for Reviews of Staff

This is arguably the most important factor when choosing the perfect hostel. People stay at hostels for the experience: for the community feel and friendships forged with other backpackers. While this may seem like a game of chance, it actually has plenty to do with who is operating the hostel. If the owners or staff are present and actively promote a sense of community (think: organizing walking tours and drinking games) you can expect to have a fun, welcoming stay and will probably make friends along the way.

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When you are researching hostels, some sites have a rating for staff alone. Be sure to read plenty of reviews. What are others saying about the owners and staff members? Most importantly, are the owners and staff members praised by name? If so, you know they're influential in the guest experience. After all, no one ever says, “That was my favorite hostel ever! It had the cleanest sheets.”

2. Stay in Family-Run Establishments

Similarly, if you stay at a hostel run by a local family, you can expect that your experience will be enhanced by their knowledge of the area. And, of course, who better to create an atmosphere of family than, well, a family?

Dubrovnik Backpackers is a great example. At this hostel, the mother's famous dinners are nothing short of feasts, and her favorite English word is “Eat!” ensuring that every guest leaves the dinner table uncomfortably full. One son handles bus station and airport pick-ups and another guides various full day tours. It didn't take long for us to start calling the mother “Mom” and to feel like a part of the family.

3. Determine Your “Type” of Hostel

These days, hostels can appeal to a wide range of travelers. There are party hostels which tend to have cheaper beds in bigger dorms with a photo gallery dominated by drinking pictures. They proudly advertise their hostel bar or bar crawls and naturally attract a younger crowd. Party hostels usually identify themselves as such to dissuade any grumpy buzzkills.

Hostels with smaller dorms and higher costs tend to attract slightly older travelers for whom partying is not the main priority. This doesn't mean the hostel isn't a good time — some people simply prefer to balance nightlife with an appreciation of the city during daylight hours, too.

And some hostels seemingly work for everyone. Hostels that have been around forever typically have the balance figured out. Seek out the legendary hostels, but check recent reviews to make sure the quality hasn't deteriorated.

Balmers Hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. Your aunt probably stayed here when she backpacked Europe.
Balmers Hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. Your aunt probably stayed here when she backpacked Europe.

4. Know Your Travel Style

Ratings on booking sites are usually an average of the categories they've decided are important. And occasionally, they are listed according to nontransparent pay-for-rank methods. However, every traveler has his or her own priorities. How much do you value a clean bathroom? Is being in the middle of a city more important than a roomy dorm? Don't automatically pick the first hostel listed. It's worth your time to dig a bit and evaluate the ratings based on the categories that matter most to you.

5. Follow Your New Friends

There are a number of interwoven backpacker trails crisscrossing Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia, among others. If you're on an extended backpacking trip, you'll likely meet and click with other backpackers heading in the same direction. You'll end up adjusting your schedule and path to maximize your time with your new friends.

When this happens, sticking with your crew is more important than online hostel ratings. It's the people that you meet along the way that make backpacking so special. If you've already found them, ride it out as long as you can.

6. Book Direct

If you've booked accommodations in advance, you may even want to change them so you can stay with your new friends in the same hostel. This is why it's often best to book directly with a hostel instead of using a third party site. The main hostel booking websites make you pay a nonrefundable deposit on your booking. This “deposit” is actually the commission the booking site takes. If you want more flexibility, email the hostel with the specifics of your booking request or book directly on their website. Often, you aren't forced to put down a deposit or provide a credit card number, so you can cancel without penalty if necessary. Some hostels even offer a discount if you book direct.

One exception? When a hostel is almost full. You may want to secure a guaranteed bed through a booking website rather than hoping an email gets read before someone else snatches the last spot. Either way, make sure your hostel stay goes on a credit card that will help you rack up points for general travel expenses, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to backpacker@thepointsguy.com!

All photos, including feature photo of Zephyr Lodge, courtesy of the author.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

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  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023