The good and bad of hostels

Prague's Pension Unitas, a former prison where the rooms are actual jail cells; this one once belonged to political dissident--and future president--Vaclav Havel

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To the left is a hostel that sums up a bit of everything about hostels: they can be dull and chic, institutional and funky, historic and blandly modern—often all at the same time.

For example, this hostel—Prague's Pension Unitas (—comes with modern metal bunks but also comes with a serious dollop of history—and its no mistake that this room looks a bit like a jail cell. It is; or rather, it was. This is P6, the very cell in which electrician-turned-dissident Václav Havel was imprisoned during the communist era.

Name ring a bell? After the local Velvet Revolution threw of the Iron Curtain, Havel became the first president of a free and democratic Czech Republic. You can now sleep in his old digs at the former secret police prison for $18 a night (and in these warm and fuzzier days, they actually give you a key to the cell door, so you can come and go as you please). See? Funky and chic, institutional and bland, and undeniably cool.

Some hostels are better than others and there are benefits and drawbacks to the entire system. Here are some of the main points:


The single greatest factor hostels have going for them is that they provide solo travelers with reliable cheap beds going for as little as €10 ($15) per night—though €18–€22 is more common. The majority of hostels offer an array of facilities to make traveling easier, including cheap or free internet access, a laundry room charging the same or less than local laudromats, and a communal kitchen where you can save money by cooking some meals in rather than eating out at restaurants all the time.

While older, more traditional hostels are often on the outskirts of town, the newer, smaller, private hostels—ones not affiliated with Hostelling International— have begun sprouting up in city centers, tending to congregate near the rail stations alongside cheap hotels.

Hostels usually offer a comradely atmosphere of backpackers and other friendly cheapskate travelers who enjoy gathering in the hostel lounge to swap travel tips, gang up to cook a common feast in the communal kitchen, stay up late into the night drinking and sharing their adventures, or making fast friends with like-minded travelers and crafting plans to continue their travels together.

By the same token, a hostel can often verge on one big frat party—not terribly conducive to sleeping. My advice: if that sort of atmosphere doesn't appeal, try to avoid any hostels with an in-house bar or disco. This will at least improve your odds of landing in a calmer sort of hostel.


The main drawback to a hostel are the rules, which can be downright draconian. Traditional hostels impose evening curfews (usually somewhere between 10pm and midnight). This can be particularly irksome in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece where the dinner hour starts as late as 7 or 8pm—not to mention Spain, where 10pm is considered a bit early to sit down to dinner.

What's more, many hostels impose midday lockout periods, meaning you can't get in your room—sometimes not even into the building—between, say, 10am and 5pm. There are also often limits on how long you can stay, often no more than three nights.

A few years ago (OK, perhaps more like 10 or 15 years ago) when hostels ran about $10 a night, these rules were well worth the savings. This is not so true anymore thanks to Euroflation. Though still at the cheap end of the lodging scale, hostels have grown steadily more expensive in recent years—both in real terms and due to the drop in value of the U.S. dollar. Most hostels in major tourist desitnationa and cities now tend to charge around €20 ($30) per bed. This makes them far less of a great deal, and two or three people traveling together can often do better in a cheap hotel.

Traditionally, hostels tend to be far from the center of town, occasionally on the city outskirts. What's more, you may only be able to reserve a day in advance, or not at all, so show up early.

Now, it needs to be said that most of the above drawbacks—the endless rules, curfews, crummy locations, and reservation restrictions—apply mainly to official HI hostels and some of those associated with the church and other institutions. The rise of independent hostels means that you often don't have to put up with those drawbacks anymore. Indepedent hostels tend to do away with (or be more lenient about) most if not all of those rules, are often located bang in the historic center of town, and are delighted to take reservations. The ever-increasing price-tag, however, remains the same—as does the tendancy toward a party-hearty atmosphere.

Plus just imagine sleeping in a room with 30 other people and all the noises that can emanate from that many snoring (and remarkably flatulent) bodies tossing and turning on squeaky cots.

Also, if you truly came to see the local country and meet its people, that ain't gonna happen if you always hang out with groups of Americans studying abroad, Australians on a gap year before college, and party-hearty German twenty-somethings. Hostels have a tendency to draw even the most concientiously culturally curious traveler into the seductively safe and comfortable world of spending more time palling around with fellow tourists than out experiencing the destination you came all this way to see.


This article was last updated in March 2008. All information was accurate at the time. | | |
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