What Is a Hostel?

Hostels are a budget-friendly way to travel and forge new global connections with your fellow guests.
Anya Kartashova
By Anya Kartashova 
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Traveling often involves spending a lot of money, especially if you’re a solo traveler. When you’re by yourself, you can’t split the cost of accommodation with a travel companion, and organized tours often require a single supplement to join.

Enter hostels, the budget-friendly answer to pricey hotels. Many travelers choose this type of lodging to save money and meet like-minded travelers. So, let’s answer the question, “What are hostels?” and discuss whether staying in one would fit your travel style.

What is a hostel?

A hostel is a type of accommodation that offers shared rooms. For example, you might pay for a bed in a room that has anywhere from four to 10 — or more — beds in one room (typically bunk beds).

These rooms, usually called dormitories or dorms, can accommodate travelers of one gender (male-only or female-only) or mixed gender. The number of beds and whether it’s a mixed dorm or a single-gender dorm is usually listed in the description when you book.

Because each dorm features multiple beds and there’s usually less privacy and fewer amenities, hostels cost less money than hotels. The more beds per room, the lower the cost.

Most hostels feature shared bathrooms, a communal kitchen and a common area where you can work, hang out and meet other travelers. Some hostels may also have a bar, a rooftop terrace or a pool. Others host activities that bring solo travelers and small groups of friends together.

Depending on the hostel, you could even book a private room with a private bathroom, but the price is usually higher than it would be for a bunk bed in a shared dorm.

Hostels started out as a concept in Europe and are now available in almost every part of the world, offering budget-conscious travelers and backpackers a place to rest and socialize.

How do hostels work?

Hostels work in a similar fashion as hotels, except you might have a few additional rules, such as no eating in the dorm and no making noise after a certain time. Some may even have curfews to observe to avoid being locked out at night.

Most hostels have Wi-Fi and even coworking spaces for digital nomads who combine work and travel, but don’t count on always having the fastest internet speeds.

Dorm beds are often equipped with a reading light, a small shelf and an electrical outlet. Some upscale hostels (sometimes called poshtels) might even provide a sleeping pod, and other small amenities for use during your stay. However, you typically have to bring your own toiletries and a towel.

What about your belongings? Well, many hostels provide lockers for you to store your stuff. You usually have to bring your own lock to keep your bags safe; however, you might find digital padlocks at some hostels.

If you’re concerned about laundry, this problem is usually solved as well. You can either use a shared washer or request a paid laundry service.

Even though hostel-type accommodations appeal mostly to young people, the majority of traditional hostels don’t have age limits. There can be exceptions for youth hostels, which might have an age cutoff.

Reasons to book a hostel

Now that you know the basics about hostels, here are a few reasons why you might want to consider staying at one.

You save money

Because you sacrifice privacy and amenities, the cost of a hostel dorm bed is usually less than that of a hotel room. If you’re traveling solo, it’s a perfect solution to avoiding single supplements. Depending on where you’re traveling, the cost will vary, but will still be on the cheaper end.

For example, in places like Cambodia or Nepal, the cost of a bed might start at just $3. In some popular European destinations, one night might cost you closer to $50. You can stretch your budget further and travel longer by staying at hostels rather than hotels.

You meet like-minded individuals

Many hostels have a strong social scene that makes it easy to meet other backpackers, especially if you’re traveling alone. Hostels allow you to meet other travel addicts from all over the world.

If you’re seeing the world as a couple or with a group of friends, hostels can still provide a lot of fun by organizing events like pub crawls, cooking classes and yoga sessions.

You’re close to the action

Depending on where you are, many hostels are located in the city center, just a stone’s throw away from the main attractions. This is usually where hotels are the most expensive, but a hostel can provide you with accommodations in a prime location without breaking the bank. It also means you’re close to public transportation, which can help you get around more cheaply, too.

Reasons not to book a hostel

While there are some very tempting reasons to book a hostel, they’re not for everyone. Before booking your bed, consider the following points to help you decide if a hostel is right for you.

Lack of privacy

Because dorms, common areas and bathrooms are shared, you’ll have a lot less privacy than you would at a hotel. It might be uncomfortable to unpack, change and sleep with other people in the room. Your bunk bed might have a curtain for privacy, but it’s still not the same as being completely alone in a room.


If you’re at a party hostel, there’s likely a bar slinging drinks into the late hours. And if you’re not a party animal (and a light sleeper to boot), you’re not going to get much sleep. Even if you’re at a quiet hostel, you can never rule out sharing a room with perpetual snorers. You can help mitigate this problem by packing a pair of earplugs.

Possible theft

In a perfect world, every traveler would be respectful of another person’s belongings. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, so you might encounter stealing. To prevent theft in a hostel, we recommend locking up all your valuables in a locker.

Not to scare you, but we recommend taking this approach and locking your bags even when staying at a hotel. You never know who’s going to take a liking to your things.

» Learn more: 5 hostel safety tips

How do I book a hostel?

Booking a hostel is similar to booking a hotel — you can search for one, reserve a bed and pay online. Hostels vary in their comfort levels, cleanliness and amenities, so you have to read a lot of reviews to book a good one.

You can filter reviews by what’s important to you. If you need a good Wi-Fi signal, read reviews mentioning the internet. If you want to know what breakfast is like, look for reviews that talk about breakfast. If you see a dealbreaker, move on to the next listing.

To begin your hostel search, we recommend checking out Hostelworld and Booking.com.


As the name suggests, Hosteworld lists mostly hostels on its platform. However, it does sometimes list other types of accommodations. To find one, go to hostelworld.com, type your destination into the search bar, and enter your travel dates and the number of travelers.

Below is an example of the results page for a hostel search in Mexico City.

Once the results appear, you can sort them by price (lowest or highest), star rating and distance from the city center. You also can add filters, such as a star rating, type of room (male, female, mixed or private) and select which facilities are important to you, such as free breakfast, luggage storage or free parking.

After you’ve made your selection, you can complete your booking. With Hostelworld, you’re often required to pay a deposit to confirm your reservation. However, it goes toward the final cost of the reservation, and you might be able to cancel as long as you’re within the free cancellation window.

In the example below, the deposit is about 15% of the final payment, and you can cancel your reservation for free up to three days before your scheduled arrival.


Booking.com has all kinds of accommodations, including hotels, apartments and guest houses. With Booking.com, an easy way to find hostels is to sort results by price (lowest first). The top results will be hostels because they’re usually cheaper than hotels.

Additionally, you can filter the property types and check the “Hostels” box to narrow down your search.

The website usually doesn’t make you pay a deposit, and it often offers free cancellation. If a booking is nonrefundable, it will be noted in your selection, like the first option in the screenshot below.

So, what’s a hostel?

A hostel isn’t just a way to save money on accommodation. It’s also a way to connect with travelers from all over the globe. It can help you get outside of your comfort zone and try something new.

So, the next time you plan a trip, consider this cost-effective accommodation style and book a hostel. You never know whom you’re going to meet or what adventures you might discover.

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