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A column on the art of traveling well
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Hostel Smart
Paul Otteson

Read Suzanne Demitrio's Response to "Hostel Smart"—There's more than one view on this issue!
I often get email from travelers describing their hostel experiences. Many send rave reviews of the trip of a lifetime. A few are angry about a troubles they had with a particular hostel. Rarely, I'll hear from somebody who had such a bad time that they'll never stay in a hostel again. It's a pity. Some hostels certainly deserve a little criticism. Often, though, problems are a matter of a bad match—the hosteller wants something that isn't a feature of the hostel they've chosen.

What do you look for in a hostelling experience? The lone and lonely wanderer might focus on finding company and friendship. A tired backpacker may need a good night's sleep above all else. Some travelers seek security, others demand cleanliness, and still others want nothing more than a decent party scene. If hostels were all the same, you might find all of the above in all locations, but it just isn't so. No matter how good you are at searching out a hostel that has everything you want, you will be disappointed sometimes.

What can you do to make sure you find what you are looking for in a hostel?

First of all, keep these two points in mind:

YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT (the Stones had it right)—You may be hoping for a hostel with a pub, only to find yourself booked in a spartan bunkhouse that caters to school groups—or vice versa. The examples are many.

HUMANS ARE INVOLVED—From night to night, bunkroom to bunkroom, on-duty staffperson to on-duty staffperson, hostels change.

If you want to have the best possible hostelling experience as often as possible, follow the following advice:

1) RESEARCH—Check out possible hostels ahead of time. Remember, though, that there are errors in every type of source you might use to find information on a hostel. Guidebook data may dated, web coverage inadequate, hostel-provided descriptions misleading, and word-of-mouth biased. To construct the most accurate picture possible, find the freshest information, consult more than one source, and don't take extreme comments too seriously, both positive and negative.

2) COMMUNICATE—Email or call the hostel you have in mind: "Hi. What's your policy on smoking?" "Greetings. Do you have secure storage for valuables?" "Hello. I like to party. Are you close to the bars?" "Yo, what's your lights out time?" If you get a nice response, you can get more personal with your communications: "The problem is, I'm a very light sleeper, and I always do better in a small dorm room in a quiet corner of the hostel. Is it possible to reserve such a spot?"

3) ASK—Continue your communications after you arrive: "If possible, could you put me in the bunkroom with the fewest Americans so I have a better chance of meeting people form other countries?" "Hey buddy, could you give me the floor with the most hot water?" "Sorry, but my pillow stinks. Could I have another?"

4) INSIST—"I'm sorry, but I don't feel safe in that room. I need to be moved." "Seriously, there are bugs in my quilt. I must have a clean one." "Look, here's the printout of my reservation confirmation. It says 15 Euros, not 20."

5) DON'T BE AN IDIOT!—Picture this: You're on the trip you've been working towards for a long time. All is going well, but then comes your night in the hostel-from-hell. The management refuses your requests and demands, it costs more than you were told, people wander in and out of your overcrowded dorm all night, it's loud and smoky, the bathrooms are filthy, there's no hot water, the mattress is lumpy and hard, and your pillow smells.

What do you do? Will you let this little dose of ugliness poison your trip? Will you lay awake all night, nursing your bitterness until it consumes you? Will you make a scene and get thrown out? Don't be an idiot! Get rid of the idea that you are entitled to have it your way.

"Ha!" should be your response. Smile and thank the cretin behind the counter. Inhale the aroma of grime like you would an alpine fir grove. Park your butt on a toilet that would kill your grandmother and relieve yourself. And as you do all of these, observe and compose. Prepare tales that will earn the laughter of fellow travelers down the line while warning them to avoid the place. Do your time with grace and make a plan for finding a better bed as soon as possible. You have no control over that hostel-from-hell, but you have complete command of your expectations and responses. Use that control to make sure that your trip-of-a-lifetime is as full of wonder as it ought to be.

6) CARPE DIEM!—Seize the day! Researching, communicating, and rolling with the punches are only half of it. Hostels concentrate fascinating humans who are the launch points of amazing adventures. Meet people! Forget about checking your email and writing postcards. Instead, check out the planet and write the script of your life! Find new friends, hit the streets, and travel well.


Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com