How Hostels Work and How You Can Be a Good Guest

Are you planning to travel the world on a budget, but you aren’t sure how hostels work?

If you have never stayed in a hostel before you probably have no idea what to expect from this type of accommodation.

The cheaper price might appeal to you, but you have some questions about how it all works – is it totally weird to share a room with strangers? When I have talked to people who have never stayed in hostels before they usually have confused ideas and misconceptions about what these accommodations are like. As someone who has stayed in a hostel in Bratislava, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the movie “Hostel” might suggest.

In this guide I will take you on a tour of a typical hostel, explaining how hostels work and what you can expect. Of course, every hostel around the world will be slightly different and will have its own atmosphere and quirks. Some hostels are much better than others.

Also, I will also give you tips on how to be a good considerate hostel guest. When you are sharing spaces with other people there are a few etiquette guides to follow that will make the experience a lot better for everyone.

**Updated February 2018**

How Hostels Work

how hostels work
Hostel reception – Miri, Malaysian Borneo

What is a Hostel?

In North America hostels are not very common as travel accommodation and therefore they are sometimes pictured as places where people sleep when they are down on their luck. In the rest of the world this is not how hostels work – they are a style of budget accommodation that offers an alternative to a hotel.

how hostels work
A hostel in Mendoza, Argentina.

Many good hostels are clean and modern and offer all of the comforts of a hotel – they are just set up in a slightly different format in which guests share kitchen and bathroom facilities and shared rooms with bunk beds are available as well as private rooms. Young people, especially in Europe and South America, will usually use this type of accommodation on their travels.

Pros and Cons of Staying in Hostels


  • Usually cheaper than a hotel room, especially for a solo traveller. A bunk in a dorm is usually less than half the price of a private room, sometimes even cheaper.
  • Having a kitchen will allow you to cook your own food and save a lot of money that you would have spent eating in restaurants.
  • The social atmosphere of a hostel is wonderful- you get to make friends with people from all over the world and there is always someone around to go exploring or have a beer with.
  • Talking to other travellers can also be a great source of information about the next destination you are heading to.
  • Many hostels will have activities going on that are a lot of fun, such as barbeque nights, movie nights, quiz nights, cooking classes and group tours.
  • If you are looking to work while you travel, hostels often employ travellers in exchange for accommodation.


  • While other guests are usually considerate, you can’t control who you share a room with and they might be obnoxious.
  • It can be sometimes noisy (or very noisy). This could be an advantage if you love to party, but sometimes party hostels can be unpleasant environments.
  • It is not as secure as a hotel. You will have a locker to keep your valuables safe, but you still need to keep an eye on your belongings.
  • There is no guarantee that you will get a good night’s sleep in a dorm, between people coming in late, people who snore and other disruptions that happen when you share a room with 10 people.


how hostels work
Hostels that have kittens are the best kind of hostels. – Bocas del Toro, Panama

The Dorm Room

Sleeping in a dorm room with strangers is one of the most intimidating aspects of hostels for those who have not stayed in them before. However, as soon as you spend a few nights at your first hostel it will be no big deal – especially since your dorm mates don’t stay strangers for long.

how hostels work
A hostel dorm bed in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Most hostel dorm rooms have bunk beds and usually sleep between 4 and 12 people, although there are sometimes bigger dorms that hold more than that. As a general rule, the more people in the dorm the cheaper the price – that’s usually how hostels work. If you are a light sleeper you might want to pack earplugs.

When you check in you will be allocated a bunk and a locker. The locker might not be able to hold your entire backpack, so simply place your valuables such as your smart phone, wallet, computer, passport, etc. into the locker and keep the rest of your backpack tucked away under your bed. The bed might be already made, or you might be given your sheets so that you can make it yourself.

Sometimes dorm rooms are divided by gender, so if you would like an all-female room consider looking into this option.

If you have the choice, always opt for the bottom bunk – it’s so much less awkward and annoying if you don’t have to climb in and out of bed every night! However, if you are travelling with someone else it is a little bit rude to take two bottom bunks – as this means that another couple will have to take two top bunks. Instead, take a top and bottom of one bunk bed.

How to Be a Good Guest in the Dorm Room

  • If you are going out drinking, prepare your bed so that it is ready to sleep in and place your toothbrush on your pillow. That way when you return at 3am you will be able to silently sneak in, brush your teeth and then slip into bed without having to turn on the light or rustle around in your bag.
  • If you have to leave in the early morning, pack your bags the night before so that you are not banging around and disturbing people at 6am.
  • I know you can’t help it, but if you know that you snore try to fall asleep on your side.
  • Never ever try to have sex in a hostel dorm room. No matter how quiet you think you are, everyone else knows exactly what you are doing and they don’t want to hear your squishing noises and muffed moans. Get a private room – you’ll enjoy yourselves a lot more and you won’t be disturbing anyone’s sleep!
  • Keep your stuff as neatly contained close to your bed as possible, don’t let your possessions sprawl out across the floor.

The Bathrooms

When you stay in a hostel dorm you will share a bathroom with everyone else. The way that the showers and toilets are set out depends on the style of the hostel, sometimes they are in individual rooms and sometimes they are in a row of stalls like a public changing room at the gym or swimming pool.

how hostels work

Sometimes you will be supplied with towels, sometimes you will be expected to bring your own. Don’t expect cute little bottles of shampoo and conditioner like in a hotel, it’s your responsibility to bring your own toiletries. Generally, bringing your own stuff is how hostels work (although some of the luxury hostels will supply towels and toiletries.) When it comes time to have a shower it helps to have a small bag that you can use to carry your stuff back and forth to the bathroom.

How to Be a Good Guest in the Bathroom

  • Don’t take forever in the shower during the peak hours when everyone is getting ready – especially if there are not very many showers compared to the amount of people. If you want to have a longer shower so that you can shave, scrub, condition, etc. you can have it later in the day when the bathrooms are less crowded.
  • In many developing countries the plumbing is not able to handle toilet paper, so instead of flushing it you should place it in the little trash can next to the toilet.

The Common Room

The common room is the living room of the hostel – the shared chill-out space that all guests are welcome to enjoy together. Depending on the hostel it could be a small room with a few couches, or an enormous terrace with a barbeque and hammocks. Sometimes it is outdoors, indoors or a little bit of both – depending on the climate. Some hostels might have more than one common room, such as a dining room for eating and a TV room for hanging out.

how hostels work
Having fun in the hostel common room in Quito, Ecuador

Large or small, it’s where you will find people congregating to watch movies, eat, chat, play games, Skype home or plan the next leg of their trip.  You are welcome to use this room at any time during your stay, although some hostels might shut down parts of their common areas at night so that things don’t get too noisy.

This shared social space is one of the things that makes staying in a hostel so great – it’s a great opportunity to strike up a conversation with other travellers and make new friends. Instead of going out to an expensive bar you can buy some beer at supermarket prices and spend the evening socialising in the hostel. It’s one of the wonderful things about how hostels work.

Some of the best nights I have had while backpacking have been spent in the common room of a hostel, drinking and laughing with interesting people from all over the world.

how hostels work
Drinking wine in a hostel in Vienna, Austria

How to Be a Good Guest in the Common Room

  • Always clean up after yourself when you leave the room, so that other people can use the space.
  • If you are part of a group of people who are drinking late at night, but you are not the last person to go to bed, make sure that you still clear up as many beer bottles and dishes as possible as you leave. Sometimes the last person to go to sleep gets stuck with everyone else’s mess to clean up.
  • Check to see if anyone minds before you switch over the TV channel. Sometimes the TV is just on in the background but someone might be actively watching something.
  • If you are playing a game or having a drink with your friends, be inclusive and let others feel welcome to join you.

The Kitchen

Most hostels will have a kitchen, which is a huge advantage to the budget backpacker. Instead of having to eat out in restaurants every night, you will be able to save money by cooking your own simple meals.

how hostels work
Lee in a hostel kitchen in Lima, Peru

Unfortunately, if a hostel advertises that it has a kitchen you never really know what you are going to get. Sometimes that means it will have an oven, microwave, blender and a great selection of pots, pans, plates, cups and other supplies. However, sometimes you will be faced with a poorly equipped kitchen that has little more than a few dull bread knives, a melted spatula and an ancient frying pan. Reading the reviews of the hostel online before you make your booking will help you to determine the quality of the kitchen. If you have a chance to write a review after your stay it will really help other travellers when they are making their decision.

When you arrive at your hostel, it’s a good idea to check out the kitchen first to see what it has before you go shopping for groceries. It’s no use planning to make toast in the morning if the kitchen isn’t equipped with a toaster. Sometimes in really bad hostel kitchens you have to be creative about what you can cook with the meagre tools supplied to you.

Also, before you hit the supermarket you can check out the “Free Food” shelf. Almost every hostel will have a small collection of free food on a shelf or in a bin, mostly leftover condiments and spices from other travellers. This food is available for everyone to share, so there is no need to buy a new container of oregano if there is already one in the free food shelf.

Yeah right, like any backpacker would leave a beer behind!
Yeah right, like any backpacker would leave a beer behind!

Once you have purchased your groceries, wrap them up in a plastic bag and keep them together in the fridge. There will often be some labels and a pen so that you can write your name on the bag. Yes, there are sometimes other guests in the hostel who will steal food from other people – it’s happened to me many times and it’s so frustrating! There’s not much you can do, but keeping your food wrapped up together in a bag with your name clearly written on it seems to make it less likely to be opportunistically eaten by some hungry and selfish jerk. This also helps the staff to identify whose food it is so that it doesn’t get thrown out if the staff are cleaning the fridge, which they will do periodically to clear out any food left behind by travellers.

Sometimes the kitchen will close at a certain point in the night to discourage noise, so if you have any food in the fridge you were planning to have for a late night snack make sure that you don’t leave it in there!

How to Be a Good Guest in the Kitchen

  • If you have to move other people’s food out of the way to make room for yours, be respectful and do it carefully so that you don’t spill or break anything.
  • If others are using the kitchen at the same time as you, don’t take up every surface area with your food preparation.
  • Wash your dishes as soon as possible, so that others can use them. You can leave them in the sink and eat your food while it is warm, but don’t leave them for hours! Oh, and don’t forget to wipe down the splatters of sauce all over the stove too…
  • If it’s 6pm and the kitchen is jam-packed with people cooking dinner, consider doing something else for an hour and coming back to cook later so that you don’t add to the chaos.
  • If you have made a large quantity of food, offer some out to others! It’s a great way to start a conversation and facilitate the welcoming social hostel spirit.
Cooking traditional Colombian food with new friends in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador
Cooking traditional Colombian food with new friends in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador

Now You Know How Hostels Work!

Ultimately, staying in a hostel is a great way to travel cheaply and see more of the world – so don’t be afraid to give it a try! The most important thing is to know what to expect and to appreciate a hostel for what it is. If you are expecting a cotton duvet, room service and complete quiet and serenity you will be happier at a hotel. However, if you are open to sharing, being social and getting to know people in a comfortable, laid back and fun atmosphere you will love the hostel experience.

If you have any other questions about staying in hostels or about how hostels work in general, please ask us in the comments below and we will answer them!

Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

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