What makes a good hostel?

Youth hostels are like little cities.  You have private space and public space.  There’s common infrastructure like kitchens and bathrooms.

If you don’t look after the common infrastructure, you get a hostel that’s like Calcutta.  And if you design the public spaces wrong, you end up with a hostel that’s a bit like Canberra.

The reason to stay in a hostel (other than saving a few bucks) is that it creates a place where you can meet some people.  The great thing about a shared room is that it forces interaction.  Then, when you move to the common area,  you can meet people from other rooms too.

But how to meet other people? It depends on ambience.

In Japan we stayed in one hostel that had a great public space with a few couches, an open fire and a beer vending machine. But the people who sat there barely spoke. The reason? A huge flat screen TV with hundreds of channels. Sitting there, you felt like you might be interrupting if you started talking.

If there must be a TV, it should be in a separate TV watching room. As this website says: “For some reason it is perfectly acceptable to go into a room and switch a TV on, but it is never acceptable to switch it off.”

Meeting people in a way that doesn’t look desperate is important. Long communal tables are better for breakfast than a series of tables for two or four. If someone is sitting in a common area that has a few magazines strewn around, its easy to take a seat, pick up some reading material, and allow a conversation to start. A bar is a good place to meet people.

A mix of different types of seating can be useful. Noone wants some desperate weirdo to sit down at their table, but if there is a couch near the bar, or an internet terminal near the seats near the fire, it allows interaction without forcing it in an awkward way.

The factors that cause satisfaction are different from the factors that cause dissatisfaction.  The cleanliness spectrum is never going to make people love your hostel.  Cleanliness can only affect dissatisfaction.  Same with safety and security, decent mattresses, heating/cooling, and bunks that don’t make too much noise when people roll over.  These are what Herzberg called hygiene factors.  They must be in place.

The factors that make people satisfied are price, location, services, and above all, ambience.  This is where the design of the hostel comes in. But it’s not just the physical space.

If they have breakfast included, that event throws you together with other travelers at a time when people are making plans. It allows you to possibly combine your agenda with someone elses in a way that is casual, and without seeming too desperate.

Maybe the hostel also offers cheap tours to local landmarks that are hard to reach. This throws you together with other tourists in a good way.

Most hostels recognise the importance of a central common area, but some take this too literally.  If all the bedrooms have doors onto the common area, then the hostel has to make a lot of rules about noise that a) mean late night partying in the hostel is out b) limit booze sales at the bar c) create a bad vibe from the staff that enforce the rules.

It’s also important that the hostel has staff that are available but not in your space.  One place in Japan, the manager was always sitting in the common area, and it made sitting round there shooting the breeze a bit uncomfortable.

Other thoughts:

  • Free internet, but not wifi, cause that makes people hermits.
  • Size?  Too big = bad.
  • No long-stay guests (>month), or the place starts to feel creepy.
  • Kitchen?  i’ve never really cooked in hostels.  I feel like I’ve met more people by being in the hostel around 7pm and finding people to go out to dinner with.  Local cuisine is a big part of travelling, and sometimes waiters are the local people you chat to the most.

Here’s (almost) every hostel I’ve ever stayed in:

In Beijing , ChinaFar East International Youth Hostel Number one with a bullet.  I love this place.

ShanghaiCaptain Youth Hostel I met some creepy old dudes who drank Bacardi breezers.

TokyoAsakusa Smile Good.

Hakuba, JapanSnowbeds Good.

Kyoto –  Ks House Kyoto Once voted the best hostel in Asia, and it’s easy to see why!  Sooo clean, nice bar, staff all appear to be on happy pills.

Prague, Czech RepublicTravellers Hostel Prague

Cesky Krumlov, Czech RepublicTravellers Hostel Cesky Best in-hostel bar I’ve ever had eleventeen drinks in.  I left a shirt here and when a mate visited this hostel about six months later, he picked it up for me.  Excellent service.

Jindabyne, Australia –  Snowy Mountains Backpackers

RomeOttavianoNear the Vatican.  Has bedbugs.

RomeYHA Rome Prejudiced me against YHAs for ever.  So unfriendly, so institutional, so far from town.

RomeSandy Hostel

RomeRoma Inn Stayed here after forgetting to prepay at Sandy hostel, and coming home to find someone sleeping in my bed.

RomeVictorias Hostel Stayed here after forgetting to prepay at Roma Inn, and coming home to find someone in my bed.  Not so much a hostel as a few bunkbeds in someone’s spare room.

Koper, Slovenia Koper Hostel

Ulaan BataarUB guesthouse Mr Kim, best hotel owner in Central Asia!

Paris MIJE Maubisson Meh

VancouverAmerican Backpackers Hostel Ten buck beds!  Pretty gross though.

Pompeii, ItalyOstello di Pompeii

AthensPagration I strongly recommend the cheese pastries from the bakery round the corner

Aquileia, ItalyDomus Augusta

San Francisco Union Square Backpackers Definitely the worst rated hostel in the universe…  Nevertheless, I thought it was ok.

Been to any great hostels?  Have any ideas on what makes a good hostel great?  Share them all below!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

4 thoughts on “What makes a good hostel?”

  1. agree about the TV, I stayed in a great hostel in Byron Bay. It has two little TV rooms for the anti-social and hungover. Definitely no TVs in the other common areas.


  2. Worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in was in The Can. And it was the layout, rather than the strange collection of backpckers who ignore good advice that from Sydney you should head to Cairns…


  3. Some of my recent favourites are:

    Fisherman’s Wharf YHA San Francisco – don’t let the name fool you, this one was actually part of Fort Mason and NOT adrift in the middle of tourist central. The view from the breakfast room was out to Alcatraz and spectacular each morning. Also offered a 3 hour walking tour (free) which turned out to be more like 7 hours as we kept going, had lunch together, and wound up making friends. Downsides included that it was a bit of a hike back to it each night, and the middle-aged woman in my room snored.


    City Hostel in Seattle, where they had hired local artists to paint each room. Mine involved really creepy graffiti art (a bat, some teeth, a screaming face) so we bonded over that. This was in an excellent location, and provided a great breakfast in a basement room – more bonding over creepiness ensued!


    I think that the one I was at in Paris was the FIAP Jean Monnet. With a great price on a double room there, my friend and I were a bit anti-social but really loved how clean and new the building was (seemed like a hoTel) and of course we appreciated fresh chocolate croissants for brekkie each day.


    Examples of too much togetherness (i.e. ‘Bad Hostels’)

    The GENERATOR in Berlin – doesn’t the name say it all? This eyesore of a building probably used to be a mental hospital. Now it is full of drunk 17 year olds, and the one really old man who slept in the bunk above me.


    The idea of an Eco hostel in Portland thrilled me until I arrived at the Hawthorn and realized that it was like sleeping in a giant share house – one where you’re not sure anyone ever cleans the toilets. Location-wise this was a great introduction to a part of the city I liked. Maybe I’m just too uptight to want to feel like I’m in someone’s home when I’m at a hostel.


    I used to really love staying at Jazz on the Park in NYC as starting every day with a walk through Central Park is a great way to explore. On my last trip however, this hostel lost points after a pair my earphones were stolen, the keycards continually malfunctioned (sending me up and down 10 flights of stairs), and it got more and more noisy. Pity.


    I will be doing some travel through New Zealand (South Island) and Australia (going to Adelaide, Alice, Darwin, Broome and Perth/Freemantle) so if anyone has any hostel favourites from those areas please let me know. I am a YHA member. laurelkg@gmail.com


  4. This is my first visit and I adore what I am discovering. Your blog site is so much fun to look over, extremely interesting as well as informative. We are planning to open our blog in a few weeks and I have already bookmarked some of your posts. Best wishes, Peter


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