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Hostels of the World: What to Expect and How to Survive

Few things are as enjoyable as hanging out, local brew in hand, on the roof of a semi-run down but really friendly and brightly painted hostel in the middle of a major foreign city.

You’re usually sharing laughs with like-minded travelers you met two hours before. And, often, somewhere within a block or two, you can see the brightly lit sign of a Hilton, Holiday Inn or other major hotel.
And whether that hotel has a roof deck or not, chances are it’s not filled with new friends buying each other rounds. And there’s no doubt, it’s 10 times as expensive as your friendly little hostel. To this day, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to stay there.
But there is, of course, a cost to staying in the middle of the Charles River in the heart of Prague for $20 bucks a night: The Hostel Dorm.
Yes, to get that cheap rate you have to sleep with anywhere from four to 40 people. And not in the fun way.
But with a little preparation and the right attitude, the benefits far outweigh the meager costs.
What to Expect
First, if you’ve never stayed in one, it’s essentially a college dorm writ large: Rows of three-high bunk beds, shared bathrooms and piles of backpacks, lots of shoes and the occasional short-term relationship. Good hostels also have lockers or lockable drawers to store your stuff.
Upsides and Hassles
The upside of staying in any hostel dorm is the cost. Usually it’s half the price of a hostel’s few private rooms and often a tenth or more of the cost of staying in a traditional nearby hotel.
The other upside is community. If there’s no hostel bar or community space, the dorm is where everyone hangs out. It’s where you hear about that local house party, the best club or the hike everyone is going on the next day. It’s better than a guidebook, the social cloud info is free and it’s a good time.
The downside of all that community is, actually, all that community. If you’ve been traveling for a while and this is your fifth or sixth hostel full of new friends, it can get a bit claustrophobic. Everyone needs a break from the madness eventually.  
Another is noise. Fact is people snore. And snore loudly. You might even be the snorer and not know it. But either way, someone is going to keep you awake all night after you have been raging or traveling for 24 hours straight.
Drunk dorm dwellers also often seem to forget that they are, in fact, dorm dwellers. This usually increases proportionally to alcohol intake. Which means they’ll come back to the dorm at 3 a.m. and immediately dive into a club-level volume recap of the night’s events. Often with lights on.
You can also be kept awake by the occasional dorm room tryst or the group that has to catch a 4 a.m. train and forgets to pack the night before.
How to Survive and Thrive
The over-abundance of community can begin to drive you nuts if you don’t take a break. But lots of hostels are beginning to recognize this and have started offering “chill” rooms. It’s just a dedicated space with hammocks, bean bags, couches, whatever. But the difference is there is no talking allowed. It’s a place for you to be in your own space. Alone (kind of) and quite.
Just ask when you book if they have one.
You’ll also need – and these are vital -- an eye mask and ear plugs. It’s a simple solution. But they really work. You can let the light and madness shine on, while you remain blissfully in dreamland. An eye mask and ear plugs are also the only way to catch an afternoon nap or sleep late in a busy dorm.
And if you are the snorer, bring some ear plugs to hand out. Seriously, I’ve been in dorms where this was done and everyone was really appreciative. The guy knew he snored but still wanted the dorm room deal, so he made sure he didn’t keep everyone else awake. And it worked.
You’ll also want to bring a standard size combo lock and a small luggage lock. Lots of hostels will give you a locker or drawer space but it’s up to you to lock it. The cheapest hostels, however, just have beds. So you’ll want to be able to lock your bag to the bed frame and to use a small luggage lock or two to secure a few of your bag’s zippered pockets. Most dorm dwellers are honest. But theft happens.
Probably the best tool you can bring to survive hostel dorm life, however, is a good attitude. People shout, have sex, turn the lights on, undress, snore, shake the bunk and generally live there life not on your schedule. It’s not your space. That’s just the way it is.
Private Rooms / Semi Dorms
The final way to survive hostel dorm life is to, well, avoid hostel dorm life. The best way to go about this is the semi-dorm. Lots of hostels also offer rooms with four to eight beds.
So if you’re traveling with others or meet friends along the way, invite them to share a smaller dorm room. You’re still sharing your space, but it’s still way cheaper than a hotel or private room. You’ll also likely be on the same schedule as your roommates and you’ll know who is sleeping in the bunk above you.
And, for the ultimate in comfort, there is always the hostel private room. They are much more expensive than dorm rooms, but still a fraction of the cost of a regular hotel. You also get to enjoy the friends, the community and spirit of hostel life. You’ll part of the cloud, but have your own space whenever you want it.
Make sure to book in advance, as private hostel rooms are few and far between and often occupied.
So despite the occasional restless night and bodily noises, dorm rooms are definitely the way to go for the budget traveler. And if someone is keeping you awake, you can always to go the roof-deck with a local pint in hand, stare at the Hilton sign two blocks away and count the money you’re saving.