One of the main “rites of passage” while traveling and living that backpacker life is staying in a hostel for the first time. It’s cheap, typically in a far better location than most hotels, and can be a place to make life-long friends, whether or not you intended to. As my travels have taken me to over twenty-one countries in the past few years, accommodations add up and hostels became a no-brainer. It was just a place to sleep after all, right?
Suffering from excruciating social anxiety for as long as I can remember, the thought of plunging myself into an unfamiliar place with complete strangers and having to -gasp- actually interact with them was my personal nightmare. At thirteen, teachers would actually yell at me for not talking in class. Because calling someone out who desperately wanted to use their voice but was terrified to, was definitely a great plan for getting them to talk more. I relied on meeting up with my small group of friends between classes as well as books to retreat into each day after school.
It wasn’t until high school when I saw some of those friends get pulled up into the popular crowd that I began to realize just how far I went out of my way to avoid social interaction. It felt almost like an instinct, one that would have me hovering by the food table at parties and making myself as small as possible in group circles. I’d feel my cheeks burn with embarrassment when yet another person asked my popular friends, “does she ever talk?” as if I wasn’t in the room, right next to them.
But I can’t blame them, not fully at least. I observed more than I spoke and avoided any situation where that balance would be upended. In contrast, my brother was a complete social butterfly and my dad possessed the ability to strike up a conversation with even the grumpiest of strangers. They could speak to people they barely knew with such an ease that I could never understand. I watched them each time, wondering if it really was that easy.
When I left for college I told myself I would re-invent who I was. I would no longer be a fly on the wall and instead, find a way to pretend to have my brother’s confidence. I would practice the effortless way my dad spoke to strangers, bringing that attitude into classrooms with my new peers. I’m still not completely sure how I was able to find that inner strength in order to have this complete overhaul, but I knew I was unhappy with where my silence had landed me. Cliche as hell, but I literally faked it until I made myself into a who I thought was a completely different person.
Yet the first time my friend suggested we try out a few hostels as we made our way around Iceland, I was brought back to that middle-school-mindset. I panicked. There were too many variables.
- Do I stay in a room with a bunch of strangers and force myself to interact?
- Do I go downstairs to work on my laptop in hopes someone will approach me?
- Am I supposed to approach them?
- What happens if they don’t want to hang out with me, and then I find out that they’re in the bunk next to me for the next three nights, and now I have to leave before they come back where I might as well just go start a new life in another country at this point, right?
Anxiety’s favorite trick is to create scenarios that will never, ever happen, allowing you to play out each and every one of them all while that anxiety convinces you those scenarios are 100% definitely going to happen (and probably all at once). Is the chance of someone reacting with complete and utter horror as I shakily ask if I can join their table truly realistic? Absolutely not, but there’s no convincing me otherwise when I get it stuck in my head that it is the only reaction that will occur.
Hostels can seem like the perfect kindling for this kind of anxiety. Especially if you are the type to desperately want to make those lifelong travel friends, but automatically turn on your heel the second you hear a burst of laughter coming from the common room you had finally worked up the courage to approach just moments before.
But, they can also be the best place to find yourself sitting down next to someone who is even more nervous and scared than you are, prompting you to make them feel at ease, knowing exactly how it feels. Hostels can provide a sense of community, something we all secretly are yearning for, where fellow travelers look out for one another and share their most sacred, where the locals go spots. As scary as it sounds, I promise you it can truly be worth taking another look at hostels when picking accommodations.
“Are there people actually worried about staying in a hostel for the first time?“
Listen. There are enough posts catered towards people who can confidently walk into a crowded room full of strangers, and far too few for the ones who cling to the corners of those rooms looking for places to pretend to casually lean up against a table, or stress about what to do with their hands.
If you are a part of the former, that is okay and I wish I could be like you. Maybe you’ve never felt the tightness in your chest when you look around a walking tour and see that everyone has found someone to talk to, except you. Despite all the leaps and bounds I’ve made, I still feel that immense fear, and I know I am not alone.
These were the type of words I wanted and needed to hear when I first started to explore options outside of private Airbnb’s and hotels. I didn’t need another person telling me how they rolled up to a new country and walked around until they found an available hostel. I wanted, for a change, to find a post that talked about knowing what it felt like to be an anxious traveler and despite that, something that could tell me what it’s like staying at a hostel with anxiety. So I created one, for you, for me, for anyone who wants to give hostels a shot.
So we begin.
What’s it like to stay in a hostel?
Some can be complete party hostels that loud and full of life, sometimes too much so. Other hostels are quiet, where the common rooms are deserted or even nonexistent. Most tend to be a mix of the two and offer cheap accommodation in trendy neighborhoods. The vibe at a hostel is usually full of travelers ranging in age looking to meet others. You can find boutique hostels, but generally, your searches will be filled with backpacker hostels where it’s more of a simple place to sleep and less of a luxurious experience.
If you have finally worked up the courage to book a hostel and it is just as your nightmares predicted, please don’t give up. Gather up a few hostel experiences before closing that chapter, they truly can change depending on the people staying and time of year. When you finally get that oh-my-god-I’m-making-friends moment in a hostel where you all decide to meet up the next day and it feels so effortless for the first time in your life, it’s worth any strange, communal bathroom moments before then.
How to find a hostel.
Some websites have these super-fun pop-ups that let you know the exact moment someone else has booked the hostel you’re looking at, which does absolutely nothing to encourage anxious travelers, especially if this is your first time staying in a hostel.
Hostelworld is my absolute go-to in terms of looking for honest reviews and clear pictures. I typically change the search results to show the hostels on the map, looking first at my desired neighborhood, then at the ratings of the hostels in the area.
If a one looks like your kind of place, but some of the ratings are less than stellar, read through a few of the reviews. Sometimes, a cheap hostel having faulty wi-fi is a massive deal-breaker to someone who relies on the internet for their remote business. Other times, it’s very legitimate concerns like a strong smell of mold in the bedrooms or filthy kitchen, that does a place in.
Deciding on your limits beforehand.
See what matters to you, and what you can also let slide, before deciding. Even some of the highest rated hostels I’ve looked at have some seemingly small caveat hardly mentioned in the reviews but is a far larger deal to me.
You don’t have to smash through all of your comfort zones and book a bed in a 30-bed, co-ed dorm if it’s making you want to dry-heave while entering your credit card information. Look through a few and figure out what you really need. For me, I get incredibly cranky/dramatic when trying to sleep in a place without air-conditioning, but have no issue with communal bathrooms. Take a look at your list of absolute hell no’s for staying at a hostel and if you haven’t already, begin to narrow your search.
An Example of my Hostel Hell-No’s:
- Rooms without air-conditioning in hot climates (this definitely eliminates several budget hostels for me, but I know myself at this point to splurge when it comes to this)
- Hostels without a luggage storage option for early check in’s or for leaving once you check out and want to explore
- Hostels located on top of bars (I learned this the hard way in Barcelona)
- More than one review mentioning bed bugs. This isn’t necessarily the hostel’s fault, but I’ve been there, done that and.. never again.
Granted, this may severely limit your options, but with time and experience of actually staying in a hostel, you’ll be able to modify that list to include more options.
Where to sleep.
As hostels are all different in their size, location, and atmosphere, so are their sleeping arrangements. Some are more catered towards fitting as many bodies in a room as humanly possible. Others try to recreate the experience of a boutique hotel with only a handful of rooms.
Once you’ve done so, see what rooms are currently available. Scroll through the photos. You can typically find the exact room you’ll be staying in depending on the number of beds you can see. This has always proven to relieve my anxiety by being able to see how a room is set up.
Hostel dorm types: Deciding between a 4-bed vs a 24-bed dorm room.
Hostels in larger cities with a ton of nightlife tend to have more options available for 4, 8, 12, or even 24 beds to a room. Some have odd numbers, where one bed won’t be stacked on top of the other, per usual hostel dorm rooms. Some hostels provide same-sex dorms, some only have mixed/co-ed rooms throughout.
Though there is a greater chance in a larger room of having some very drunk dorm-mates barging in at 3 a.m. belting out of tune lyrics, my anxiety seems to personally be worse in rooms with fewer people. It can sometimes be easier to have more opportunities to connect with more people with varying schedules instead of a best friend trio, in a 4 bunk dorm, who decide it’s lights off at 9 p.m. while you’re still in the bathroom showering.
This is also something that can vary from place to place, I’ve had incredible experiences with fewer people in a room, so, unfortunately, it’s always a bit of a toss-up. If anything, more beds mean a better chance of not being stuck in a room with people who don’t/won’t speak English (on the flip side, this can be a great opportunity to practice your language skills.) It can ironically provide more anonymity as well where there is less pressure to introduce yourself to a room with nine other people than there would be in a room with three others.
Private rooms are the shit.
To those who do not warm to the idea of sharing a room just yet, see if a private room in a hostel is in your budget. Some places can have beautiful private rooms that are still cheaper than any Airbnb or hotel room. Just make sure you read the details as some private rooms are labeled as a double, and you may need to buy both beds in the room in order to have it fully to yourself.
That being said, private rooms are my absolute favorite way of staying at a hostel. They allow me to feel more in control of my social interactions, especially if I’ve been walking around all day and need time to process everything. It can ease your anxiety about sleeping in later or staying awake longer. You control the scenario in which you allow others in. I can choose to quietly eat in my room if the eating area feels like too much and schlep my laptop down to the lobby when I’m ready to interact. Try out a few different types of rooms to see what feels most comfortable for you.
Want to do a mixture of both? I try to splurge on a private room for the first night or two when land in a new place. I usually haven’t slept at all on the plane, and the morning after can especially be a rough one as time zones can really do a number on my body, as well as mental health.
Female-only vs Mixed dorm hostel
Because of past traumas, I assumed I would only feel safe in female-only rooms, but I’ve had the luck of staying in some really great mixed dorm situations. One hasn’t proven to be better than the other in my experience. Female-only tends to be quieter and attracts more women traveling together in groups where I’ve noticed other travelers seem to be bizarrely comfortable leaving all of their belongings out and spread across the room. Mixed dorms seem to have less of this for whatever reason.
Go with your gut and gently remind yourself there will be plenty of opportunities to interact with others outside of your room. You are allowed to feel safe and at ease whatever style of room you choose.
- Readers who do not identify with their birth-assigned gender– I would love to hear from you and your experiences with choosing the type of room to stay in hostels. This is a section I’d rather pass the mic off to someone who can provide more useful information than my experience as a cis-gender woman allows me to.
Top or bottom? Hostel bunk beds.
Typically, bottom bunks are coveted, although more hostels have been taking to assigning bed numbers for each person to cut down on scrambling for your hostel bed at check-in. I find bottom bunks to be perfect for making a little safety nest. See that little lip on the top bunk’s bed or handrail? Sling your towel (obviously ask first if a person is in the bunk right above you) over that to create a little curtain to give yourself the illusion of privacy or to block out a bright overhead light. A clean towel would be always be preferred as the person on the top will most likely have their nose near it.
On the other hand, top bunks can be great to retreat further back into if they’re higher up, allowing you to survey the scene from above. It can also be easier to interact with people in your room as being a bit more elevated subconsciously tells your mind you are the one in power in that situation. Definitely pack an eye mask to cut down on sleep interruptions when someone flicks on all the lights.
Some final thoughts of staying in a hostel for the first time
It can be terrifying to make the leap, I get that. There are a ton of unknowns, more of which I’ll be getting into in later posts about keeping you and your stuff safe, what to actually expect from a hostel, and how to make friends while you’re there. Yet the best way to figure out some of those unknowns isn’t just in reading about them, it’s when you actually stay in a hostel for the first time you learn all the things I haven’t mentioned, or have yet to experience.
Hostels are great ways to feel less alone on a solo trip, a low-threat place to practice your conversational skills, and at the very least, contain a lot more people than a hotel or Airbnb would to can keep an eye out for you. Hostel common rooms can bring travelers close together in ways you may not always get in a hotel lobby or barely-there Airbnb host.
At the end of the day, everyone you’ll meet in a hostel is at a different point in their journey. For the most part, they’ll know and understand some of the more unpleasant, uncomfortable, and awkward moments of travel. They can sense someone who’s a little lost, or lonely, knowing how that felt for them in the last city they were just in. And for me, having someone pull up a chair at your table right as you were about to burst into tears from a particularly trying day, is worth having to later use my elbow to keep the button for water pressed for a shower.