What Backpackers Look For in a Good Hostel
Often it's small things that make the difference between an unpopular hostel that backpackers avoid and a great hostel that they love. In the comments and reviews on Hostelz.com, we see the same issues over and over again. Many of these issues cost little or nothing for a hostel to fix. Often it's just that hostel owners are unaware of what they need to do to keep their guests happy—and their hostel full.
This document was produced thanks to the input of the Hostelz.com staff, our reviewers, and many many backpackers all over the world through their comments on Hostelz.com, with additional input thanks to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forums and the HostelManagement.com forums. We hope that over time more hostel owners will be aware of these points and it will help to improve the hostel experience for all backpackers, and the hosteling industry as a whole.
What all good hostels need...
Policies and Rules:
- No curfew. Guests should at least be given a door code or key if they want to stay out late without worrying about getting locked out of their hostel. Experiencing the nightlife of a culture can be as meaningful as daytime activities guests should be able to stay out late if they choose without worrying about getting back into their hostel.
- No lockout. There is no reason to kick out guests when cleaning the hostel (hostels all over the world manage to clean without forcing out their guests, it is possible to do). The only exception would be for very small hostels that have to close during the day because they can't afford have even one employee on duty during the day.
- Allow check-outs until at least 11:00, but 12:00 or later is better. Guests don't like being rushed to leave in the morning. It's ok to ask incoming guests to wait until later in the afternoon for their bed to be ready.
- Never wake up sleeping guests. Guests should never be woken up in the morning by playing music over speakers or by a staff person coming into the room to wake them up, especially guests who aren't checking-out that day.
- If possible, avoid large school groups, long-term guests, and an overwhelming number of families, older travelers, or other non-backpackers that tend to detract from the fun social atmosphere backpackers want from a hostel.
- After check-out, guests should always still have access to the common areas for the rest of the day.
- Guest chores should only be offered as an option in exchange for a discounted rate, but never required.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation (especially if it's just having some wine with dinner) should be allowed in the hostel if legal according to laws in the region. Drinking may need to be kept under control if excessive drinking and rowdy behavior is a problem.
Reception / Check-in:
- Friendly staff. Nothing matters more than having friendly, welcoming, informative, tolerant staff—even when dealing with difficult guests.
- Prompt communication. Answer emails and return phone messages within an hour during business hours.
- Be understanding about delays and travel problems, and offer at least a partial refund if a guest is legitimately unable to arrive for their reservation (and all nights past the first night should be refundable).
- Provide clear directions to your hostel. If some guests still have trouble finding it, improve your directions.
- Accept credit cards, or if not make sure guests are warned in advance that credit cards aren't accepted since the acceptance of credit cards is expected at hostels in most (but not all) parts of the world.
- Use the major booking websites and keep enough rooms/beds available.
- If the reception isn't 24 hours, make sure guests are told during what hours they can check-in (and provide alternative arrangements for a late arrival if necessary).
- Have maps, bus schedules, and travel information available.
- Have snacks, drinks, basic toiletries, padlocks (if needed for lockers), and earplugs available for sale (a vending machine is fine). Offering bicycle rental (hire) is also a great idea.
- Have a suggestion box for anonymous suggestions/complaints.
- Provide a fun, comfortable, social, inviting social space. Backpackers stay in a hostel because they want to meet other backpackers, so a social space that encourages interaction is crucial for any hostel.
- The common areas should be open 24 hours, and ideally should be separated from the sleeping areas so that noise isn't a problem.
- Provide books, board games, video games, etc. (but don't let video games become the focus of the social space).
- A TV is optional, but if there is one it shouldn't be the entire focus of the social space. If there is a TV, have movies available.
- Offer social events—movie night, club night, BBQs, free walking tours, group museum trips, etc. If the hostel is too small to have hostel staff guide a group, at least post a suggested daily activity and a meeting time for guests who are interested in going somewhere as part of a group.
- Never allow smoking inside the hostel. Most guests, even smokers, don't want to breathe dirty air.
- Interesting paint colors, a quirky decorating style, art, murals, and maybe even a theme help to make the environment more fun (anything is better than sterile white walls). A warm comfortable home-like atmosphere is also a good alternative option.
- Coed dorms (mixed-gender) dorms. It's not the 1950s any more. There isn't any reason to have separate male/female dorms. Mixed dorms allow for more social interaction and add to the fun of staying in a hostel. Some females may possibly prefer having a female-only room available as an option.
- Separate beds (not bunk beds) are greatly preferred, but may not be practical. If using bunk beds, sturdy wooden ones are best, not wobbly metal beds, preferably with the top bunk not connected to the bottom one (loft style beds) so that someone sleeping in one bunk doesn't get disturbed when the other person is moving around.
- Rooms should have a clock, and a dim nightlight to let people find their way around the room at night while people are sleeping without flipping on the overhead light. A dim reading light at each bunk is also a nice option, and having a small fan at each bunk is also a great idea.
- If possible, put the loud/late-night/partying guests in separate dorm rooms from the quiet/early-to-bed guests.
- While dorm rooms should be the primary room type, it's a plus if a hostel can also provide some private rooms as a secondary option.
- Having many small dorm rooms with fewer beds is preferred to having large dorm rooms with many beds.
- Free lockers (preferably in the room, but otherwise in the common area). Lockers big enough to fit a backpack are preferred, but small ones big enough to fit a laptop will due.
- Bedrooms, bathrooms, and the common space should have plenty of power points (outlets) for plugging in laptops and other items. Power points in or near lockers are especially useful for charging gadgets.
- Provide liquid hand soap and paper towels for hand washing.
- Showers with 24 hour hot water that put out a decent amount of water with temperature control, and a water control that stays on (not the push-button timer type), and a shower curtain or dividers that give a reasonable amount of privacy.
- Showers must have a soap dish or shelf for toiletries and a changing area with benches, a table, or at least some hooks... somewhere to put clothes where they won't get wet (it's amazing how many hostel shower areas have no place to put clothes while showering!).
- Shared bathrooms that are outside of dorm rooms rather than en suite are preferred because there is usually less waiting time if there are multiple shared bathrooms rather than just a single bathroom inside each room (and they're quieter for others who are sleeping in the room).
- Bathrooms should be cleaned regularly and kept free of mold, hair, etc.
- Sufficiently bright lighting at the mirror area and sinks with hot water (necessary for shaving).
- Hostels are generally expected to provide a kitchen for guest use, but if not, make sure guests are made aware in advance that a kitchen isn't available.
- Have tableware, pots, plates, bowels, cups, and supplies like basic condiments, cooking oil, etc., available.
- Provide plenty of refrigerator and pantry space, cleaned out regularly.
- Guests should be expected to wash their own dishes, but not all of them will, so the hostel should expect to have to clean up after those who don't.
- Kitchen should be open 24 hours—post a sign with "quiet hours" if noise is a problem.
- Offer recycling bins—backpackers tend to be environmentally conscience.
- Offer free or cheap breakfast with at least bread/toast, jam, cereal, coffee, and juice. Providing a jug of pancake mix for making pancakes is also a great option.
- For newly designed hostels, ideally the kitchen should be combined with the common room with the cooking areas on an island so that guests can interact while cooking.
Don't "Nickel and Dime" Your Guests
Nothing upsets guests more than getting charged for things that are normally expected to be free in most hostels. They know when a hostel owner is charging them for a service that costs little or nothing to provide. The bad vibes vastly outweigh the little bit of profit.
Things that should always provided at no charge to guests:
- Internet computers ideally should be free, or otherwise offered for a reasonable fee (don't charge more than the equivalent of US$1 / 1€ per half hour). It's unfortunate that some hostels charge their own guests more for internet access than the internet cafe down the street. An internet connection is now reasonably inexpensive in most developed parts of the world, so most hostels in most areas can be expected to provide internet access.
- Free wireless internet (never charge guests for Wi-Fi). If the hostel already has an internet connection, adding a wireless internet router costs almost nothing, so hostels with an internet connection should be expected to provide free Wi-Fi. It doesn't need to work from the rooms, just having it in the common area is fine.
- Provide a phone that allows free local / toll-free calls (assuming the phone company in your hostel's country offers unlimited free local calling).
- Lockers should always be free for guests (but it's ok to sell padlocks if needed for the lockers).
- Free luggage storage after check-out (lockers are best, but the luggage area should at least be in a supervised area).
- Bed sheets should be free or very cheap, and have towels available (either for free or a small charge). Not as many hostelers carry their own sleepsheets these days, so most of them will need sheets, and sheets are now typically included in the bed price.