“What does a hostel dorm room look like?” my mother asked me over lunch one day.
Gesturing with my turkey sandwich, I described a poorly ventilated room with water spots blooming like Rorschach tests on the ceiling; dubious gunk from ambiguous orifices on the walls; a chewable musk not unlike that of a hamster nesting in a galosh; and five or six sets of squeaking, teetering bunkbeds without ladders. I spoke of crunchy pillows and stained mattresses with sharp springs attempting to boing from their clothed chrysalides. I did my best David Attenborough impression when introducing common fauna: bedbugs that bounce amidst the sheets and cockroaches that refuse to scatter in the light, twitching their antennas impudently before meandering off with somebody’s wallet.
Mom picked up a wayward chunk of cold turkey that had slopped onto the tabletop. “Sounds like prison.”
Looking back, I suspect I gave her the wrong impression. First of all, it is admittedly unfair to paint every hostel dorm room with the same brush (metaphorically at least—literally the majority of dorms I’ve encountered ache for a sprucing up). Some are clean, bright, airy spaces with murals on the walls and bleach on the floor. It needn’t be said that these are generally pricier, yet still far more economical than AirBnB and certainly worth it for those whose peace of mind is easily disturbed by things that go scurry in the night.
Secondly, I can’t help but think my mother asked the wrong question. Had she instead inquired what a hostel dorm room feels like, I would have described an atmosphere that fizz-pops like cream soda. The air bubbles sweetly with warmth and inclusion; under no other circumstances have I encountered strangers so eager to be my friends. Conversation flows due to obvious openers—“Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “What have you done so far on your trip?”—and the fact that individuals from every nook of the world with a shared passion for adventure, travel and the host region are suddenly bottled together. Backpackers are keen to exchange stories, ideas and tips with one another with hopes of meeting somebody going their way. After all, friendships honed on the road are truly special.
In short, hostels are unique places. Here are seven tips on how to make the most of your experience
If there is one fundamental law that hostel life is based upon, this is it. Understand that everybody has a right to be there regardless of whether they meet the “typical” backpacker profile. My dad has traveled with me on numerous occasions and while the sight of a 68-year-old dozing on a top bunk may have at first startled some of our dormmates (especially when he’s wheezing like Darth Vader beneath his CPAP mask), their open-mindedness and amicability resulted in the formation of many unlikely yet rewarding friendships.
Be respectful of people’s sleeping habits
Just because you think your dormmates silly to twerk all night and snore through a majestic sunrise doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to do so—hey, it’s their vacation, too. Switch off your alarm as swiftly as possible (no hitting that snooze button!) and slip away as discreetly as the fading night. Ensure you’ve packed your day-bag the evening before as it’s indescribably exasperating to hear somebody rustling through their stuff during the shy hours of the morning—I still remember silently hexing that insufferable canker blossom of a dormmate who, at 5 a.m. in a Parisian hostel, spent 35 agonizing minutes wrapping and unwrapping each of her belongings in a separate plastic bag—and have your headlamp handy so you don’t need to turn on the light. If you’re the nocturnal clubber, make certain the party ceases at the doorstep and slink into bed as discreetly as you can. Likewise, remember that ill or jetlagged individuals may be snoozing at any hour so always perform a quick scan when entering your room. (And as there will inevitably be those who do not adhere to this rule of decorum, always travel with earplugs and an eye-mask.)
Be respectful of others’ possessions and space
Many hostels do away with bunkbed ladders, forcing those on top to perform spontaneous acrobatic feats when (dis)mounting their beds. There is henceforth nothing more frustrating for these upper bunkers than to find themselves marooned on their island because the person below scattered their belongings onto every inch of space, leaving no room for what would be an awkward landing anyway. Besides, it is to your benefit to keep your possessions in your backpack as they are less likely to vanish into one of those starving vortexes that seem to mysteriously appear in dorm rooms when nobody’s looking.
Clean up after yourself
Those local folks who mop the bathroom floors and change the blown lightbulbs are not your personal Jeeveses (Jeevesi?). Make their lives easier by stripping your own bed when you check out and leaving the common room in the same state you found it before you and buddies began playing Ring of Fire. See that plunger next to the toilet? Don’t be afraid to make its acquaintance if necessary. Of course, it needn’t be said that if your hostel has a kitchen, be sure to clean up once you’ve finished cooking—and remember that, for once, boiling enough pasta to share with 75 of your closest friends is not a bad thing.
Don’t put your bag on your bed
It sucks when your only clean pair of underwear wedges itself into the deepest recesses of your backpack like sunken treasure in Marianas Trench. But it sucks even more when, after flinging all of your stuff onto your mattress and then heading out for an afternoon of exploration, you return to discover everything you own is infested with bedbugs. These unwanted companions only tag along via your clothes, not your skin, so even if you wake up covered in swollen bites like itchy Braille you’ll probably be all right as long as your backpack wasn’t touching your bed, and you can always wash your jammies in hot water in the sink if you’re worried. If you do catch bedbugs, immediately launder everything you own including your sleeping bag and toss your backpack into the dryer (keeping an eye out for spontaneous combustion) or leave it in a plastic garbage bag in the sun.
If you’re special friend is spending the night with you…
…just keep it down, okay?
Like I said, I have never been in a situation as conducive to meeting new people as a hostel. If you are generally a wallflower at home, then this is your opportunity to blossom. As mentioned in Six Habits of Successful Solo Travelers, becoming friends with individuals you would never encounter under normal circumstances is one of backpacking’s most rewarding facets.
Once you accept that, yes, you will from time to time wake up to somebody snoring like a wood chipper and, yes, your intoxicated dormmates might occasionally wet the bed (one reason why the top bunk isn’t always such a bad deal), it’s easy to be swooned by communal living as it perfectly encapsulates how comradery and adventure are much more enjoyable and memorable than simply a nice room.