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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.

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

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