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1. Wear ear plugs every night. 

This is by far my number one tip, and I’m shocked that not everyone does it already. Hostel rooms are loud. Someone will come in after you’ve gone to bed–perhaps turning on the light and rustling through his bag for his toothbrush. Someone will be waking up for a 7 AM bus with an alarm set for 6 AM. Lockers will be opened and slammed. Bags will zip. Plastic will rustle.

Wear earplugs, and you’ll sleep through the night. Don’t, and you won’t.

I buy Flent’s Ear Plugs in 100 packs from my local pharmacy. I specifically like their shape, and they reduce noise incredibly well. The key with ear plugs is that they go much deeper in your ear than you might think. You have to roll the ear plugs into a tiny, long tube and place it quickly into your ear before it expands to its normal size. It will expand in your ear and block out most sound. If you’ve done it correctly, the ear plugs will bear extend outside your ear. If you stick it in without rolling it, it will barely go in, stick out of your ear quite a bit, and block very little sound. You may find you have to pull your ear as you stick it in for maximum depth. I pull my ears up and away from my head as I insert my ear plugs.

I usually take two ear plug from my 100-pack for each four days of a trip. After about a week or so, an ear plug usually gets gross, and I toss it.

I don’t usually sleep with an eye mask, but it is a good way to stay asleep during morning sun or bus-packing. I call putting on ear plugs and an eye mask “entering a sensory deprivation chamber.”

2. Start a Conversation. 

Everyone in the hostel–except that Scandinavian couple attached at the hip–wants to meet someone new. Even pairs and groups of friends are a bit bored of each other and want a new activity or drinking partner.

But it’s unnatural for many people to start a conversation with a stranger. I’ve been in countless hostel common rooms where everyone is sitting watching TV, reading, or on their computer hoping someone will talk to them. Once you talk to someone–even someone who looks busy–the conversation will flow smoothly and other timid souls will join in.

Here’s my sure-fire #1 way to start a conversation in a non-awkward way even if talking to a stranger terrifies you.

If you’re in the common room or kitchen and you have some things scattered about, turn to a person near you and say, “Can you watch my things for a moment?”

Stranger: “Sure.”

You: “Thanks.”

When you get back from the bathroom or your room or a brief walk, say, “Thanks. Did you have to fight anyone off?”

They’ll usually say “no.”

“People were probably afraid of your German ninja skills.” Replace German with your best guess of where the person is from.

“Hahaha, why do you think I’m from Germany?”

Now you’re having the most common hostel conversation about where each of you is from. I segue quickly to how long they’ve been in the area because I want to know the fun stuff to do in the area.

I don’t actually do the preceding often because I don’t mind just saying, “Hey. What’s up?” to people. But the longer opening is guaranteed to start a conversation with anyone of any gender, and odds are excellent that person was hoping someone would start a conversation with him/her. Others will probably join in the conversation soon. Now you’ve got an activity group to roam the town, which makes traveling alone much more fun.

3. Cook. 

Most hostels have a kitchen. Cooking is a good way to save money, eat healthier, and meet the other people cooking. You can modify the conversation-starter from above with “Can you stir this for me while I go to my room for a second?”

If you’ve already met someone, it’s fun to cook together and cook each other a meal you often eat at home. Most Europeans have never had anything like my world-famous enchiladas.

4. Pick the right hostel. See yesterday’s post.

5. Ask what others have done in the area. 

Guide books are OK, but the info is always at least a year or two old. Your hostel’s front desk is OK, but they may not actually have done many of the activities.

Ask anyone you’re talking to what they’ve done that day, whether it was fun, and whether you should do it. This is the easiest way to get up-to-date info about activities, their prices, and whether they’re worth it.

6. Buy a Drink to Share.

Many hostels, but not all, let you bring in your own alcohol. This is a good way to save money on drinks and meet people. If you buy a big bottle or case of beer, and you don’t want all of it, offer some to someone else who is cooking or you are otherwise talking to. Instant best friend.

7. Bring Cards or Bananagrams.

(Bananagrams is a Srabble-like crossword game for 2+ players that takes under 10 minutes to play and takes up less space than a book in your bag.)

I usually go into a common room with my computer, a bottle of beer, and cards or Bananagrams. As I work, I might start up a conversation with someone. I’ll ask if they want to play Bananagrams later, and after I wrap up a post, we’ll start playing.

If you want to start a more raucous night, you may want to employ a deck of cards to start a drinking game. Ask a guy or a couple guys if they want to play Kings or your game of choice. If you start that game with a few people in a common room, you will quickly have everyone in the common room coming up asking if they can join.

If you see a game happening in a common area, ask if you can join even if you don’t know what it is or you think it’s a group of friends playing. People will be happy to let you in and teach you to play.

8. Stay a Few Nights.

I like to travel slowly, so I always try to stay 3+ nights everywhere. Also many hostels have check out times of 10 AM, so changing every night means getting up early every day. Staying a few nights means lots of sleeping in with one early morning.

9. Note the checkout time.

If you are a late riser, note the check out time listed online. Noon checkouts will be preferable to 10 AM.

10. What are the extras?

Hostels are fun partly because each is unique. Sometimes there are interesting or valuable extras like a free weekly barbecue the night you’ll be there, free bike rentals, a big book exchange, or something else that will make that hostel a better fit for you than other similar hostels.

Usually the extras are easy to find because they really are cool or valuable, the hostel advertises them heavily on their hostelworld page.


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Picking a hostel is a crucial part of my trips. Before I talk about how I pick one, let me give a quick advertisement for hostels.

Hostels are not just for young people.

Hostels are great for:

  • solo travelers of any age
  • budget travelers of any age
  • outgoing travelers of any age

My hostel in Queenstown had families with young children, a few solo travelers in their sixties, and everyone in between.

One common misconception is that hostels equal dorms. Most hostels house most guests in dorms, but there are usually private rooms too, often with private bathrooms. These rooms are more expensive and almost as much as getting a cheap hotel or motel room, but they might be preferable to cheap hotels.

If you are traveling alone, I recommend a hostel to meet new people. (Tips on that tomorrow.) Traveling alone is lonely if you don’t have activity partners, and hostels are the place to find them.

So even if you’ve got the money (or points!) for hotels, if you’re traveling alone–which I recommend for the experience of accomplishing something on your own and to sate a travel appetite bigger than that of your friends–I recommend staying at least part of the trip in hostels. Hotels are nicer. And having your own space to relax and unwind is something hard to come by at hostels. But meeting people at hotels is almost impossible.

You’re in. I’ve convinced you to stay at a hostel. How do you pick the right one?

This is easy. The best source is word-of-mouth.

If anyone you know has traveled where you’re going in the last year, ask for his hostel recommendation. Ask specific questions about the things important to you related to cleanliness, presence of a free kitchen, ease of meeting new people, whether there’s an attached bar, alcohol policy, or anything important to you.

You don’t just have to rely on people you know. My last hostel in Queenstown was recommended to me by a person I met at the airport bus stop. He said he’d been staying at a hostel for a few days, and it sounded pretty good, so I changed my plans and stayed there at his recommendation. Fresh, first-hand information got me into a great hostel.

The second best source is online reviews. I use hostelworld.com, which is the largest hostel site as far as I know. Here are the search results for one night in Sydney, quite an expensive city for hostels.

The first thing I do is change the dropdown to Overall Rating. Now we’ve got a look at the best-loved hostels according to hostelworld.com users.

Now the results look like this.

I pretty much ignore the exact rating percentages at this point. Everything near the top of the list is well-liked, so I have to find the right one for me. My own preference is for a packed hostel, a good location, free wifi, a late check-out, any cool extras, and in this case I have a one-night stay, so the first two listed are out because of their stay minimums.

I’ll open up the pages of several hostels on the list, and read the Facilities section of the Info page and the Reviews.

The facilities here note a kitchen and free wifi. Score! Breakfast is included, but I never take advantage of that.

Then I’ll check some of the reviews, which will give me clues about how fun it is and whether the location is good.

These reviews give a lot of pertinent info: no A/C, kitchen open until 10 PM, close to bars but not the city, can bring your own alcohol.

Usually searching a few well-rated hostels will result in my being undecided between several choices. In that case, I use my special tie breaker.

Remember the front page where the hostels were listed by which was top rated? There was an even more important detail to me there: the number of ratings.

The hostel with the most ratings is probably the biggest, and for my preferences bigger is better. At the biggest hostels, I have the best chance to meet cool people.

If you prefer quieter hostels, you should choose the hostel with the fewest ratings when in doubt between a few.

Guide Books

I think the worst reference for hostels is guide books. They are outdated when they are released, and they are path dependent. If the last edition reviewed a hostel, this one probably will too even if newer, cooler ones go unreviewed. Word of mouth and Hostel World beat guide books for hostel reviews.


Hostels are a great place to stay for travelers of all ages who want to meet new people and save money. The best place to get info on the right hostel for you is from someone else’s mouth. The second best place is hostelworld.com. The worst place is a guidebook.

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