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5 things to know before staying in your first hostel

Hostels are one of the cheapest options for accommodation while traveling. Staying in one for the first time, especially abroad, can be intimidating. These are the top five things you should know before your first stay.

1. Reviews, reviews, reviews!

I cannot stress this enough: always read the reviews. Before making your reservation, give the reviews of the place you're considering a thorough read-through. The more recent the comments, the better. If there aren't recent reviews, I would suggest finding another option if possible, just to be safe. Hostelworld is a great website to use to book your stay, and look through ratings.

One of the red flags to watch out for when scrolling through reviews are bed bugs. The last thing you want on your weekend getaway is a creepy-crawly takeover. With hundreds of travelers passing through, bed bugs can easily infest places like these. I know it sounds gross, but as long as the reviews are recent and make no mention of bed bugs, you shouldn't have to worry about it. (Regardless, I always recommend checking the mattress and sheets before getting too comfortable, just like you should in a hotel.)

Another topic to be on the lookout for is safety of the location. When you're traveling to a city you're not familiar with, you want to make sure you're staying somewhere you feel safe. It's important to pay attention to comments discussing what the surrounding area is like, and if that traveler felt at ease coming and going. Also, it doesn't hurt to do a quick Google search of the neighborhood or street to make sure nothing concerning comes up.

2. Sleeping with strangers

Yes, that's right, you'll be sleeping in a room with strangers. I know this sounds scary and it's likely what you're most apprehensive about, but there are a couple things you can do to ease your mind.

In most cases, you can choose what size room you'll be staying in. When booking, pay close attention to the room options. The number of beds per room can often range anywhere from as few as four to as many as 25. If you're an extrovert and love meeting fellow adventure-seekers, then you might opt for the larger room. On the other hand, if you're nervous about staying in a room with strangers, a room with less beds is definitely the way to go. Sometimes gender-specific rooms are also offered. Every hostel is different, so make sure to keep these preferences in mind when choosing your accommodation.

While it can be intimidating to rest surrounded by strangers, remember that they're probably there for the same reason as you: to save money while exploring a new place. In my experience everyone mostly keeps to themselves, but that doesn't mean that's always the case. If you'd rather do your own thing no one will be offended, but if you want to get to know your fellow travelers, you'll likely be able to find someone who shares that sentiment. The experience is really what you want to make of it!

3. The essentials

  1. A padlock - Many hostels provide bins or lockers to store your belongings in while you're out exploring, but most don't provide locks. That's why it's important to purchase one in advance, if possible. If you're in a bind, they sometimes have locks for sale at the main desk, but will likely charge you more than you would've paid at a store.

  2. Flip flops - Think about your college dorm days. Remember the showers you shared with the whole floor? Well this situation isn't much different. Depending on the place and the layout, you'll either have a bathroom in the bedroom itself, or one in the hallway. Regardless, you'll be using the same shower that everyone else in your room is using. Those showers aren't always the cleanest, so I'd highly recommend bringing an inexpensive pair of flip flops or sandals that you can put on to walk around your room and shower with.

  3. Earplugs- If you're a light sleeper like me then earplugs are a must. Not only do you have to worry about people in your room snoring, but if you're staying in a city center then it can get pretty noisy outside. They're a cheap, small thing to throw in your backpack just in case.

4. Hostel Breakfasts

It's great when you can book a place that offers breakfast. However, just because they offer breakfast doesn't mean it's included in the price of your stay. Oftentimes they will ask for the equivalent of a euro or two as a donation.

Regardless of whether or not the breakfast is included, don't expect a Hilton buffet. The breakfasts at European hostels are often very basic. Bread, spreads, cereal and a limited assortment of beverages is usually the extent of it. Most times I ended up just having a PB&J sandwich. It's nothing fancy, but if you're traveling on a budget then it's a good way to save money and still fill your stomach in the morning.

5. Booking with a buddy

This was something my friends and I learned the hard way. It might be common sense to some travelers, but it's worth mentioning. If you're traveling with a friend or group of friends and you're planning to stay in a hostel together, there are a couple things you need to do to ensure you'll be sleeping in the same room.

First, it's easiest if you book a room altogether, as in one person makes the reservation and pays for everyone up front instead of everyone making separate reservations. By doing it this way, you're pretty much guaranteed to be placed in the same room. However, I would still recommend sending an email to ensure that your group won't be split up.

The first time my friends and I traveled to Amsterdam, we made separate reservations at the same accommodation because we didn't want to worry about paying each other back. We assumed that since we chose the same size room, we'd all be together. That's where we made our mistake, and where you need to be aware when booking. Many hostels are large and offer multiple rooms of the same size. So when your group makes separate reservations, even though you're all choosing the same size room, that doesn't mean you'll be put in the same exact room. We were actually split up between different floors. If you're going to go that route to book your stay, make sure you send an email after making the reservation. Include the names of everyone you're traveling with, and explain that you're a group and would like to sleep in the same room. Be prepared though, because they may not always be able to honor your request.

Staying in a hostel for the first time can be nerve-racking, but hopefully these tips will help you to feel more prepared. Once you get used to them, these accommodations are a great option for meeting new, like-minded people and traveling on a budget!

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