I’ve just recently come back from a trip to California (see my Coachella post here) and since I was travelling alone for most of it, I opted to once again stay in hostels. Obviously, when I went backpacking in Europe I also stayed in hostels, as it is a much cheaper option but also more conducive to travelling alone. I have met some of the best people at hostels and had some of my favourite stories come out of those nights. My trips in the last few years have been with my boyfriend and so we’ve been staying in hotels or AirBNB’s since that is often cheaper than hostels for couples. As such, it’s been about 6 years since I have stayed in a hostel and now approaching my mid-thirties I wondered if I’d feel the same as I did in my 20’s. The verdict? It was just as I remembered it and just as memorable and fun. I also got some great stories out of it and a few new friends! Here are my tips to navigating hostels.
1. Do your research.
Don’t just pick any old hostel off of any old site. There are a few platforms that offer loads of reviews, photographs, ratings and pricing options. My favourite is Hostelworld as I find it the most user-friendly. Nowadays you can also book with the peace of mind knowing you can change or cancel your reservation with ease due to their improved cancellation policies. Some hostels include this in their prices and others charge a small fee for the service but it is a useful addition, especially if you aren’t sure of your dates. They also offer many details in the description of the hostels for getting to and from the airport, parking, lockers, public transportation, wifi and amenities. These sites are also useful for comparing hostels to see which might be the right fit for you. Finally, be aware of check-in and check-out times, especially if you are depending on changing in your room upon arrival. All hostels should store your luggage in a secure place if you’re not able to check-in or if you have time between check-out and your flight. But it can be annoying to change, organize your luggage and re-pack if you are just arriving and want to change before heading out. Being aware just allows you to pack accordingly and anticipate not being able to get into your room right away.
2. Choose your dorm wisely.
Yes, the cost is usually a factor in picking a hostel in the first place, so choosing the cheapest dorm might be the best option for you, but it’s not always. Depending on the hostel rooms can vary from 4 person dorms up to 16 persons or more. Obviously, with more people, it can be much noisier, so if you are a light sleeper this can be an issue. That said, it often depends just on who your roommates are and even 4 person dorms can be noisy if you get people that snore or just are inconsiderate. As a female travelling alone, I often choose female only dorms when given the opportunity because of safety concerns and overall comfort. My best tip for choosing your dorm is to look at the bathroom facilities, private on-suites seem like a good idea but upwards of 4 people can be very difficult for everyone to use when getting ready in the morning or for bed. It’s also more difficult if you have a nervous bladder or issues with IBS, etc. because of the close proximity. I actually prefer floor washrooms, as long as you choose a place that is clean and well maintained. I also prefer beds that have curtains to block light from your eyes when sleeping. Not everyone arrives during daylight hours or goes to bed early and lights can often be more disturbing than noise. If unavailable definitely get yourself a sleep mask!
3. Choose a hostel with a bar or restaurant.
Firstly, this is helpful for travelling alone if you don’t feel like eating out or making something. Often you can take-out something to your room or common area and just relax a bit while eating. Why I always try to choose a place that has a bar though is for the friend factor. It is the absolute easiest thing to simply ask your roommates “Hey, you want to go get a drink?”. Boom, instant ice-breaker! On top of that, if you’re like me and you don’t want to be out by yourself too late, then it also gives you a place to be social but close to your room, so you’re not trying to get home in a strange city all alone.
4. Make sure there are lockers and bring two locks.
Lockers are your best friend. This is where any personal belongings you want to keep safe are locked up. Obviously, passports and bank cards, etc. should not be left out of your possession, keep these things with you in a safe place. But things like, shoes, bags, jackets, jewellery can all go in the locker and be kept safer. Some hostels have large spacious lockers while others can be very tiny and only for essentials. Decide what’s important to you and try to plan accordingly. Some photos can be deceiving so if you need clarification, email the hostel and they should be very helpful at giving you dimensions or size comparisons. Make sure to bring 2 locks with you as your luggage will often not fit in the locker and need to be left out, so one luggage lock and one for the locker. If you forget or don’t have a second, the hostel will usually have some for sale at the reception desk.
5. Be open to the experience.
It’s not just for the broke backpackers. Hostels are the perfect place for solo travellers to meet new people and feel safer when alone in a new place. Be open to meeting people, ask them questions, make friends and go with the flow. Obviously, it is your trip and you should do all the things you want to do but some of my best times have been going to a tourist site with my new friends. Not everyone will be a lifelong friend and some people can be weird for sure (trust your gut on that), but it can be very worth it to talk to someone new and make connections. We are all different but have so many similarities and it’s in meeting new people from different cultures, that you really start to experience the joys of travelling.
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Tours are a great option for travellers looking to see something in particular, that might be either difficult to reach without a vehicle or if you want the detailed information a tour guide gives. I can honestly say none of the seven tours I took were a waste of time; they were all a great experience. My guides were all very knowledgeable, friendly and used the time well. As a single traveller, it was also a great way to meet people; I even keep in touch with a few of my new friends. The tour operator I used most was viator.com; they use local tour operators but it’s all booked and handled through Viator. In fact, for my next trip to Chile I plan on using them again for a side excursion. In Italy, walksofitaly.com (Walks of Italy) was my go to for tours of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel as well as Pompeii. Both operators gave me more information than I ever could have anticipated and made the experience even more enjoyable for a nerd like myself. I highly recommend tours for certain site seeing excursions, obviously if you are in a time crunch they might not be the best option, or contrary if you want to spend loads of time in one place or at one site. Do your research and see what works best for what you want out of your trip.
In England, I opted for a tour to visit Stonehenge for convenience; it included a trip to Bath and Windsor Castle also and a lunch in Lacock. We started at Windsor Castle which was very enjoyable for me as a bit of royal family lover. It was just so beautiful and steeped in history; really lovely experience. I purchased a tea cup for my mother here, which (somehow) magically made it through until I got home to Canada. Next, we travelled to Bath to visit the Roman baths. Our guide did point out other things to see if we didn’t want to do the baths, but I wanted to see them. It was a little rushed at this point because of the line up to enter the baths, but I got to see everything and sampled the famous spring water! It is very mineralized and strong tasting; some people didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t mind it in the least. Legend says the water (which comes out warm) actually makes you look younger are healthier the more you drink it so bottoms up! Truthfully, you could spend a lot more time in Bath, so maybe an additional side trip would be a better option, though for me it was sufficient. After Bath we stopped for a quick lunch at the George Inn in Lacock, where I had the best beef wellington in the whole world and a delicious pint of local Wadworth beer. We finished the long day of site seeing with the piece de résistance, Stonehenge. After a history lesson, we were allowed to just wander around by ourselves to take it all in, from every angle. It really does change as you move around and the change in the way the light hits the stones. It was almost surreal for me at this point and I was just so quiet, trying to take it all in. In the distance you can hear cars going by, and there are people talking around you; but somehow it feels like you are in a magic place, apart from the rest of the world. I definitely recommend a visit to Stonehenge if you go to England, well worth it.
It was a solid eleven hour day and while I was very tired at the end, it was beyond enjoyable! Note if you do take a tour from London, most leave from the Victoria coach station, so double check your gate prior to departure and know your tour number as it gets confusing when five different buses are all leaving from your gate.
August 26, 2013