When I announced to my friends and family that I would be taking a solo interrailing trip which would involve staying in backpacker hostels, I was met with a number of raised eyebrows (and not just because I had chosen to go solo).
My family and close friends will testify to the fact that I can be a bit of a clean freak, (hair in the bath tub causes my blood pressure to rise) so they (and I) were concerned with how I would cope sharing a dorm room and bathroom with strangers. However, I knew I would not be able to afford the trip if opted to stay in hotels the entire time. I also wanted to challenge myself and have the opportunity to meet other travelers so I booked myself into an eight-bed mixed dorm room in my first destination – Prague.
My favourite thing about staying in hostels has been the opportunity to meet other travelers. I remember the exact moment that I caught the travel bug. I was sitting in the dorm room in Prague chatting to two lovely girls from Slovenia and they were telling me all about the natural beauty of their home country. I instantly added it to my ever growing wanderlust wish-list and starting planning how and when I would visit Slovenia.
In Ko Lanta in Thailand, I ended up being in the same dorm room as a lovely lady from Belgium. We had both decided to go to Phuket the next day and so we decided to travel together. In Phuket, we stayed at the same hostel and went on a tour which included a visit to Maya Bay (where ‘The Beach’ was filmed). In Vienna, I stayed in a hostel that even had musical instruments available for guests to play!
There have been many occasions where I have had the opportunity to meet and hang out with other travelers but sometimes it is the staff that make my stay at a hostel memorable. In Bangkok, one of the staff members hung out with the guests every evening and took us to parts of the city that we would never have discovered by accident; including the awesome Bangkok train market with all of its vintage trinkets. In Ko Lanta, the staff were so friendly and welcoming and they went above and beyond the call of duty. When my camera and phone drowned in my bag after a bottle of water leaked, they drove me to a repair shop. In Barcelona, a staff member carried my bag up the stairs after seeing how exhausted I was after the crazy journey from Nice. In Chiang Mai, one of the staff members even bargained with the tuk tuk/ songethaew drivers on my behalf!
Due to the fact that I am quite selective when it comes to choosing hostels, I haven’t had too many bad experiences but I have stayed in at least three places where hygiene levels were rather low.
The first dirty hostel I stayed in was in Lyon, France. I had a couple of days to kill before heading to Nice so I decided to visit Lyon. The city itself was great and I hopped around on the underground to all the must-see sites in just one day. The hostel on the other hand was a different story. There were only two hostels in the city – one had glowing ratings and the other didn’t. So of course I found that the clean hostel was full when I made my last minute decision to visit the city.
I arrived to find staff that were indifferent at best if not downright rude – along with very poor quality internet, broken wooden lockers, a dirty kitchen, a smelly run down bathroom and a stairwell that stank of urine. The whole place was in desperate need of cleaning and renovation. .The luggage storage area was basically a jumble of suitcases and backpacks and when I returned to retrieve my backpack, I had to climb through the mound of luggage because it had ended up all the way at the back. The hostel’s only redeeming feature was the balcony from which you could see a spectacular view of the city.
That hostel had a rating of around 75% so I knew it wouldn’t be great but I would expect a hostel with a rating of 90% or above to be pretty decent. However, when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I discovered that this is not always the case.
I arrived early after travelling on a sleeper train and was told that I would have to come back later because it was too early to check in unless I wanted to sleep on a top bunk. I decided to wait for a bottom bunk but when I came back all the bottom bunks were already gone!
I followed the staff member upstairs and was greeted with carpets that looked like they hadn’t seen a vacuum cleaner for several months. There were tents in the hallway and on the roof and the first time I climbed onto my bed I cut my finger on a small sharp piece of metal that was poking out. Every time I or the person on the bottom bunk moved the entire bunk bed shook! There was only one plug socket in a room of eight people and most of the bunk beds were on the verge of falling apart. There were no blankets on the beds and I found out from another guest that we had to retrieve them ourselves from the washing line on the roof!
But the bathrooms…they were the worst.
The first time I took a shower there was a cockroach was crawling around. It drowned but was left dead in the drain for several days. The drains were so clogged that after a shower the water didn’t drain out and I would be left standing in at least 10cm of water whilst getting dressed. The shower was over the toilet and the whole bathroom looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for at least for at least a month. There was no door on the room containing urinals so there was a strong whiff of urine every time I walked past.
If I hadn’t booked for 4 nights I would have left straight away. I woke up on my last day to find that they had FINALLY cleaned the bathrooms. The only good thing about this hostel was one of the members of staff who was friendly and helpful.
I wanted to extend my time in Chiang Mai but I couldn’t stand that hostel any longer so I left to check into another one.
After Chiang Mai, I took a short trip to Pai. All of the hostels had ratings of around 60-80% so I wasn’t expecting them to be super clean but what I wasn’t prepared for was the nighttime temperatures. The hostel was situated in the mountains and all of the rooms (single huts and dorm rooms) were made of bamboo. The beds were also made of bamboo. From the early evening onwards, the cold wind from the mountains caused the temperatures to plummet to single figures and by night time, I was wearing most of the contents of my backpack in order to stay warm underneath the TWO blankets I had obtained from the hostel. Going out in the evenings involved committing serious fashion crimes (socks with sandals)!
Thankfully that is the extent of my hostel horror stories but others have spoken of worse experiences such as their belongings being stolen and bunk beds actually falling apart.
I’ve learnt what type of traveler I am
My experience with hostels has generally been positive and the ‘not so great’ experiences have definitely been outweighed by the opportunities to meet travelers from all over the world.
However, staying in a particularly bad hostel (such as the first hostel in Chiang Mai) tended put a slight dampener on that part of my trip. I enjoyed Chiang Mai so much more after moving to a new hostel.
Through these experiences, I have learned that I am not a ‘hardcore’ backpacker who can just stay anywhere regardless of the standard of hygiene. I have also learnt to really pay attention to the reviews and only book a hostel for one or two nights at a time and extend if necessary. That way, if I’m not happy I can move.
But overall, I absolutely love staying in hostels and will continue to do so as long as I continue travelling.