Whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable in a new situation, such as picking a new laundromat when mine shuts down due to bed bugs (oh, New York City..) or attending a cultural event, I scour the internet for any sort of unspoken “rules” I’m to follow.  I like to know what’s expected of me, and what’s a massive “No” in terms of my words or actions. My life is essentially one giant match between trying to adhere to as many rules as possible while finding new ways to bend certain ones, sometimes with no rhyme or reason. 

When it came to staying in a hostel for the first time, there was an incredible amount of “important” questions I wanted to answer before I ever stepped foot inside one. Most hostels have a very lax set of rules, but it was important to me to be a good traveler, dorm-mate, and human being in general. Searching for answers to the minutest of how’s and why’s in regards to any sort of unspoken hostel etiquette eased my worries and allowed for me to approach this new, exciting situation a little more confidently. 

Are there really unspoken hostel etiquette “rules”?

Hostel hammock in Bangkok, Thailand

As an incredibly anxious human being, my mind often finds that it’s most important job is to focus on finding answers to the real, hard-pressing questions. Deciding on activities in a new destination takes far less importance in my mind versus, say, when does everyone normally get up/go to sleep in a hostel? Where am I supposed to sit during breakfast? What are all the hostel etiquette tips I -need- to know? You know, the questions most people have barely thought about, but keep people like me up at night.

Again, for people who feel at ease walking into a hostel without once wondering when quiet hours are or how long to spend in the communal shower, this may feel a bit strange. Hostels typically don’t have a ton of written rules, but there are plenty of unspoken ones you’ll encounter when you’ve been in enough of them. Here’s a rough outline of some hostel etiquette I’ve come across so far. 

If the light in the room is off in the evening and there are people in bed, keep the light off. 

It can definitely be frustrating, especially if it’s only 9 p.m. and you’ve just returned from a full day of exploring. Some places may actually have set quiet hours which will be printed out somewhere in the room where if you’re stumbling in during this time and flip the overhead lights on, someone’s going to be cranky.

The general guideline to stick to is if someone’s in bed and the lights are turned off in the room, you should try to do everything in your power to keep it off.  Everyone’s on a different schedule, and this person may very well be jet-lagged or preparing for a 4 a.m. flight. If you see they’re still awake, you can always try to ask if you can turn them on for a few minutes. Any sort of reading light provided in your bed is usually fine, but I try to aim it towards the wall to cut down on it shining in anyone’s faces as they can sometimes be a bit bright. 

Pack your stuff early in the day. 

This bit of hostel etiquette was an absolute game-changer for me. To avoid the anxiety of rustling through your bag at midnight and annoying the people around you, take out anything you may need when you first put your things in your room for the day. This can mean any shower stuff, pj’s, chargers, anything you use at night to cut down on your time spent fumbling with your iPhone light or the bed’s reading light. It can be tough to listen to someone rustling around their bag for a half hour seemingly opening every damn zipper. 

Have an early morning? Tuck your bundle of clothes you’ll want to change into by the foot of your bed. If all else fails and you need to do a deep dive for something, grab your suitcase and do it out in the hall. 

The 9 Unspoken "Rules" of Hostel Etiquette

Quiet hours

Even if they’re not posted, I’ve usually noticed people try to get to bed pretty early in the hostels I’ve been to (which, as a night owl, I’ve always been a bit disappointed by), where during the weekdays it seems to start around 10-11 pm and midnight on weekends. I was pretty surprised at how few people I’ve seen actually sleeping-in, especially in party-centric hostels. Around 8 am, it’s pretty much a free-for-all of packing, opening doors, turning on lights.

Keep your things contained to your section of the room. 

Yes, hostels usually operate on an honor-system based and you can usually feel safe keeping your stuff out. But it is plain bizarre when I’ve walked into a room where everyone’s stuff is just out and about, spewing in every direction. Makeup scattered by the floor-length mirror, underwear on the table and clothes covering half of the floor. Please don’t do this. It’s great you trust everyone to not be weird and take and/or rifle through your stuff, but when other people are also paying to stay in the same room as you, you need to remember this isn’t your college dorm room. 

If it’s not yours, don’t take it. 

This should go without saying, but that person spent their own money on that thing for them to use and enjoy, not for you to take. It’s cool and all that you’re out of shampoo or you’ve always wanted that particular bracelet, but most travelers in a backpacker hostel are strapped for cash and can oftentimes be in a worse financial situation than you. Some hostels have communal food & toiletry areas where travelers will leave things behind at the end of a trip you can absolutely use. But unless it’s in that specific area, leave it alone. It’s just shitty, gives hostels a bad rap, and the person is more than likely going to see you using it at some point. 

Clean whatever you use. 

If you make a meal in the hostel kitchen, use a water cup, grab some coffee in the morning, make sure to clean it. This isn’t your ma’s house, leaving it in the sink for someone else to clean up is just weird and rude. 

Improvising on a drying rack in our private room in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Don’t you dare put your wet socks on the heater.

Oh my god. I get it, you have to use the same ones again tomorrow so it’s tempting to just throw them onto the heater for a few hours while you’re out. As great as that might seem, absolutely do not put your wet clothes or shoes on or near the heaters to dry off. Just because you’re convinced they don’t stink or are used to your own smells doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same way. I’d imagine you’d wouldn’t want to be smelling a stranger’s moldy old shoes all night, right? It’s just a huge no and a pretty quick way to piss off the people in your room. Most hostels will post about this, but just in case yours doesn’t- don’t do it unless you’re in a private room. Spend the quarters on the dryer. 

Also, try to avoid hanging your drying laundry all over the bathroom, communal table, etc. when you’re sharing the room. Just use common sense. I’m sure you’d feel a bit weird if you had to move someone’s trying underwear to use the sink in your room you paid extra to not have to use the communal one in the hall. 

One person to a bed means, well, one person to a bed. 

Hostel dorm beds are standard twin size, meaning it is less than nine inches wider than a crib mattress. This is done on purpose. One person to a bed, and no, that towel I told you to hang up as a privacy barrier will absolutely not cut it if you’ve decided to invite another person behind it. It puts everyone in an uncomfortable position because the room is already dead silent so everyone can literally hear everything happening, whether or not they want to. 

Hostel parties don’t belong in the rooms.

You’re drunk and having a ton of fun with your new friends. Do you know who isn’t sharing in on the fun? The dude in your room who’s been up for over 48 hours with several flight delays and just fell asleep. We’ve all been ~that~ dude, please be mindful of that. Hostels usually have a bar, common room or rooftop for this. 

Final thoughts about hostel etiquette

At the end of the day, nothing above is absolutely mandatory to bring, nor do the hostel etiquette “rules” need to be followed, but it will make your life easier. If you forget to keep the party to the common room, apologizing the next day goes a long way. 

Outdoor common room in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Whether just starting out on a year-long backpacking trip, mid-way through a sabbatical, or just about to return home after a long, wild weekend abroad, you all ended up under the same roof, even if just for a night.

While here, most individuals are eager to share their travel plans, dreams, and goals, making it easy to form a sort of bond that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Everyone’s at a different point in their journeys, mentally as well as physically, and if you’re on the more nervous end, you aren’t alone. Some of us (me) are more anxious than we let on at times, so I just hope some of these things help you feel more confident walking into a hostel for the first (or fifth) time.

In the comments, tell me about your biggest pet peeves while staying in hostels. Do you have any other unspoken hostel etiquette rules you think should be mentioned? Let me know!

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