The first thing I notice about my new friend Marco is that he has very hairy legs. This isn’t usually something I notice in new people, but then again, I don’t usually wake up a metre away from them either. Marco is Hungarian but living in Berlin, I learn, and has a penchant for flowery boxers and exploring new cities. He is one of my roommates in my hostel in Copenhagen.
As a newbie when it comes to hostel-ing (or sharing close proximity with strangers in general) I wasn’t sure what to expect. Throwing myself in at the deep end, and staying in three different hostels in 10 days, I decided, would likely either make me or break me.
I think when most people (or at least, my mother) think of hostels, they picture a YMCA scenario: cooking and cleaning and paying your way. Maybe the odd sing song in the evening. This may have been the case 20 years ago, but, nowadays? It seems to be far more about cheap drinks deals and fast wifi. Not that I was complaining.
I booked my hostels via Hostelworld, which a) shows you recommendations, reviews and the top scoring locations and b) stops you getting ripped off. Although price comparison websites can work like a charm for booking hotels, they usually only show one option for hostels which I never found to be the cheapest. If nothing else, when staying in hostels you have to figure out your limit: room sizes usually vary from 4-30 people, but how many people can you realistically share with, without losing your sanity?
There are a few things no amount of prep reading will prepare you for though, when it comes to spending 24 hours a day with people you’ve only just met. Sure, you can read up on the sparkling clean bathrooms, the ‘pretty good but cheaper elsewhere’ beer or the comfiness of the beds online, but nothing will truly prepare you for unexpectedly jumping into an ice cold shower at 8am.
Hostels, I have realised, will force you to take a step back and take a deep breath. This deep breath will happen not only when you realise your shower is heated to approximately 5 degrees Celsius, but also when you get woken up for the third time at 6am.
Of course, there are positives too. For despite the cold shower, staying in hostels will enlighten you to a whole world of other people that you’d never have met staying in an Airbnb. For me, I found it a great way to make friends – and nothing sparks a true friendship quite like flashing your bra at your unsuspecting roommate who just popped back to pick up his ID.
You get used to a changing routine, to napping whenever you get the chance and to appreciating different cultures and languages. Whether this is through bonding over mutual jet lag, the extortionate price of a shot of tequila in Stockholm or the realisation that you live 20 minutes apart back home, it’s a sure fire way to open your eyes to a completely fresh perspective.
It’s also usually far cheaper than staying in a hotel or Airbnb. If you’re in a big group, Airbnb can work out better depending on your location, but hostels are almost guaranteed to beat the prices.
This isn’t to say that they’re always dirt cheap – my hostels ranged from £8 – £36 a night depending on whether it was a weekend and which country I was in. If you’re travelling around a few places, combat this by staying in the cheaper areas at the weekend, when prices go up.
Costs also vary depending on the size of the room, and the gender. More and more hostels are offering single sex rooms, but in some cases these are still ever so slightly more expensive than your standard mixed room. The amount of people in the room also cuts the cost: but be careful here, because, as previously mentioned, you’re also gambling your sleep away. A 30 bed hostel might be cheaper, but if you’ve got 10 loud snorers in your room you’ll be wishing you paid the extra tenner to stay in a smaller place. Rooms with 6-10 people are thought to be the best, in terms of being able to make friends but also to get a good night’s sleep.
As a first time hostel user there were a few things I wasn’t aware of. All hostels will require you to have a sheet on your bed, but some will charge you for it. However, it won’t be a lot, and if you’re keeping costs down by only travelling with hand luggage, it’s often a better deal just to pay to borrow the sheet when you get there rather than take up valuable space in your bag.
The same can also be said for towels: it may be cheaper to bring your own, but you’re not going to want to pack up your bags with a soaking wet towel between journeys. It can be worth emailing the hostel in advance and asking how much they charge, and weighing up which works out easier.
There’s only a handful of things you’re definitely going to need: a padlock, flip flops, and earplugs. You might be lucky, like I was, and not need the earplugs at all, but you’re definitely going to appreciate having them with you on the off chance your closest neighbour has a nasal problem. Aside this, make sure you’ve got your passport, EHIC if applicable, and a few changes of underwear, and you’re all set.
A handy side point here – most hostels have laundry facilities, and if you’re in a good one (shoutout to City Backpackers in Stockholm) it might even be free. This is a great way of saving space in your luggage, but definitely one thing to double check before you go off galavanting with only one change of clothes and no opportunity to wash them.
When it comes to making friends, alcohol is definitely a helping hand. We’re not necessarily talking liquid confidence, but more in the sense that the most sociable place in the hostel is the bar. Strike up a conversation with the people next to you, and next thing you know, you’ll be sharing doubles in a dingy club in Warsaw. A few days later, when you move on to your next destination, it’ll feel far more like you’ve known them weeks, rather than days. And that’s just one of the highlights, as well as being able to name drop your brand new, multinational BFFs, of course.