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What is a Hostel? An Overview and Tips for International Travelers

Nick Callos
Written By
By Nick Callos

If you’re planning on volunteering, teaching, interning, or studying abroad, or even just traveling internationally for fun, you’ll want to think about the type of accommodations that best suit your needs. There are tons of housing types to choose from, but one popular option is to stay in hostels during your travels – particularly if you’re with a group or if you’re on a tight budget.

SPECIAL CALL-OUT: If you’re looking for an affordable way to travel overseas and make impact, then check out International Volunteer HQ (trusted by 130,000 participants), where you can volunteer abroad with full room & board for only $20 per day. 

But just what is a hostel? And how do hostels work? Let’s take a look at what you can expect from staying in a hostel, and whether it’s the right option for you.

What Is A Hostel?

A hostel is a lower-priced inn of sorts that offers basic, shared accommodations. Typically, a hostel features a large room with separate beds, a shared bathroom, and a communal kitchen. Some hostels have private rooms, but the lower-cost ones generally offer bunk beds. Hostels originated in Europe, but they’ve grown in popularity and you can find them all over the world.

How Do Hostels Work?

Hostels work sort of like hotels, but with a few differences. Just like with a hotel, it’s best to make a reservation beforehand, though many hostels keep a few beds open each night for drop-ins. Unlike hotels, many hostels have curfews; if you arrive after curfew, you will be locked out for the night. This is done as a common courtesy to other guests and to the staff. Hostels keep prices low by using a shared room instead of individual, private ones, and only providing the most basic amenities.

Hostel Vs. Hotel: What’s The Difference?

Hostel vs hotel: The biggest difference between a hostel and a hotel is that in a hotel, you’re guaranteed a private room and your own bathroom. As mentioned above, a hostel differs here because spaces are shared. The communal bathroom has shower stalls, for example, and the kitchen is available for travelers to cook their own meals (rather than having the option of ordering meals like you’d find in a hotel). And hostels by nature are more social, while hotels offer more privacy.

What Are The Advantages Of Staying In A Hostel?

Hostels are an excellent option for a number of reasons. Say you’re volunteering abroad with an organization such as International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) as part of a large group and want to hang out together – you can opt for a large bunk room for an extremely affordable price. Or, if you want to meet loads of amazing new people, a hostel is a wonderful way to meet fellow travelers. Here are a few more reasons to stay in a hostel:


Depending on where you go and the room type you choose, you can book a hostel for as little as $10 per night. Whether you’re volunteering abroad or aiming for budget travel, a hostel will give you a place to sleep for a fraction of the price of a hotel. By the way, if you’re researching hostels because you’re looking for an affordable way to travel, check out our travel guide on cheap volunteer programs, where you can food and accommodations for as low as $8 per day by volunteering overseas.

Social Activities

If you love meeting new people, a hostel is right up your alley. Hostels are known for their social life, as the shared rooms naturally break down barriers. You can meet all kinds of interesting people, from backpackers to world travelers. People from all different countries stay in hostels – strike up a conversation and make new friends!


Great for Big Groups

Booking several hotel rooms for large groups can be pricey – but renting one large bunk room in a hostel can be much more convenient, affordable, and fun.


Some hostels are off the beaten path, but still close to major city centers. Others are in even more exotic locales. One hostel in Panama, for example, is located right on the ocean and even features a slide that spits you right out into the water!


While you generally know what to expect with one chain hotel to the next, each hostel is unique. Some have cool rooftop hangout areas and others host exotic bars. If you’re looking for a local, fun experience that’s different from a hotel, consider staying at a hostel.


Most hostels include free wifi when you check in – that said, the connection can be spotty if you’re in a remote area or if lots of travelers are connected at once. While you can check your social networks and browse the web, you may have trouble streaming movies and TV shows.


Most hostels serve a complimentary breakfast, though it may be on the lighter side. This is an excellent bonus if you’re traveling on a tight budget!

What Are The Disadvantages Of A Hostel?

Understandably, when sharing a room with several other travelers, there are bound to be some drawbacks. Here are a few things to consider before jumping in:


If you end up in communal sleeping quarters with a snorer or sleeptalker, you’re out of luck. Make sure to bring earplugs just in case you share a room with a noisy neighbor.


When lots of people sleep in the same room, it can get smelly. And since hostels are cheaper and may be in more remote areas, people may not stick to the personal hygiene routine they keep at home. Lots of backpackers and long-term travelers stay in hostels, and can be ripe after spending time in nature or on the road without a shower!

Lack of Privacy

Since you can expect to sleep in a room with a number of different people, you won’t enjoy the same privacy you have in a hotel.

Lack of Personal Amenities

Hostels are cheaper than hotels because they run a more lean operation. That means they typically have fewer staff members and offer fewer amenities.


A lot of hostels impose a curfew for safety and to make sure travelers aren’t interrupting others’ sleep by coming and going at all hours. If you’re planning to stay out late and want access to your room at any time of the night, a hostel probably isn’t for you.

Are Hostels Safe?

In general, hostels are safe—official hostels, especially. You’ll find a good sense of community in a hostel, and if you’re worried about your valuables being stolen, consider renting a locker (if it’s not already provided by the hostel with your room).


How Much Money Does It Cost To Stay In A Hostel?

While prices can vary widely, you can generally expect for hostels to cost between $10 to $40 per night. Hostels can vary in the number of amenities, perks, comfort levels, and location, so be sure to take this into consideration when choosing your housing. In general though, you can book a night at a hostel for a fraction of the money you’d pay for a hotel.

Tips For Staying In A Hostel

If you’re a first-time traveler, or new to staying in shared housing, here are a few tips to know before you go:

Get to Know People

There are so many amazing travelers you can meet in a hostel, and the accommodations invite mingling and creating new friendships. Take time to talk to others and really enjoy the social opportunities you get by relaxing with fellow travelers.

Take Flip Flops

This is especially important for using communal showers, but flip flops also are a great choice for hanging out in the common rooms and the local area.

Know What’s Offered

Hostels usually provide bedding and some toiletries, they’re not guaranteed. Wifi and breakfast may not be included in the booking fee either, so be sure you know what’s provided and what you need to cover before you arrive!

Be Wary of Independent Hostels

While many hostels are members of Hostelling International, some are independently owned and operated. Independent hostels may be more affordable, but they may not be as strictly regulated when it comes to cleanliness and other factors – while this isn’t always the case, your best bet may be to check through sites like Hostelling International, or read reviews from other travelers who’ve stayed at the location you’re interested in.

You can also participate with trusted and organized volunteer programs with great organizations such as International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), GoEcoMaximo Nivel,  or Volunteering Solutions, which offer opportunities for affordable travel in a safe and structured environment.

Wrapping It Put: General Takeaways About Hostels

Hostels are a cost-effective place to crash whether you travel, volunteer, or study abroad. They’re a wonderful option for budget travel, but also a great environment to meet new people and form new friendships. And if you already have a group you’re traveling or volunteering with, you can feel more immersed in the community by staying in a place that encourages interaction and socialization!

If you want flexibility, privacy, and luxurious accommodations, most hostels aren’t for you – but with some knowledge about how hostels work, you’ll be ready to have an amazing experience abroad!