Top ten traits of an excellent hostel

I’ve spent nights in hostels that were probably just fronts for drug operations, and hostels that I wish I could live in. What makes a hostel good is fairly basic: cleanliness is the biggest issue, followed by orderliness and friendliness.

But a few traits separate the good from the excellent when it comes to hostels. Here’s what I’ve determined are the factors:

1. Good ventilation: It is so gross to open the door into a dorm and be hit with a wall of humid halitosis. It doesn’t matter how clean the room is; you just can’t cleanse the air of a dozen people sweating and breathing. A window (with a screen to keep the bugs out) and a fan work wonders.

2. Towels: Even threadbare ones are a nice break from the damp, mildewey clumps that backpackers are loathe to pull out of their packs and “dry off” with.

3. Separate male and female dorms: Boys are smelly. Girls can’t hang out in their underpants with boys around. And I appreciate being able to change in my room, rather than carry all my clothes down the hall to the bathroom, try to change without getting my feet or the bottoms of my pants wet, and then carry my jammies back (waking everyone else up in the process as I go in and out of the door).

4. Drinking rules: Don’t get me wrong – I like to party as much as the next 19- (or 33-) year-old. However, lax rules tend to lead to noisy late-night sessions, with giggly guests lounging around the common areas. At the least, drinking rules encourage folks to get out of the hostel and experience wherever they’re at. Even if it’s just the local pub.5. A big kitchen and a staff that cleans it daily: Unfortunately, you just can’t count on every guest to do their own dishes. And you definitely can’t count on them to wipe the counters and sweep the floors. A kitchen that gets a scrub down once or twice a day is a wonderful thing to behold.

6 Non-metal, non-creaky beds: Not everyone has the bladder capacity of a camel. Which means that not everyone is going to sleep through the night without creeping down the ladder to relieve themselves. And you’re gonna have folks who had a late night, or people who have an early flight to catch. It helps when the beds are a nice, quiet natural wood. And they don’t have plastic sheets on them, either.

7. Local knowledge and the ability to book tours: Three words: One-stop shopping.

8. Nightly activities: Canadiana Backpacker’s Inn in Toronto has at least one weekly activity a night, whether it’s karaoke Monday at a local bar, game night, or a Friday tour of a brewery. Some of the activities, like karaoke, are free, which encourages everyone to participate. It’s a great way to get out of the hostel and meet some other travelers.

9. A nightly/weekly limit: It’s been my experience that hostels without a stay limit attract folks who aren’t necessarily travelers, but rather are people in transition, trying to relocate to the city. That’s not exactly a bad thing, but it’s a different vibe than the regular traveler scene. And in one unnamed Alaska hostel, it meant a bunch of 50-year-old unemployed criminals men, selling cocaine and stealing cash from guests. True story.

10. A decent breakfast: It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but I’ll take a bagel and cream cheese over Wonderbread toast and jam any day. Decent coffee, brewed slightly strong, is a thousand times better than instant coffee. Put out a donation jar; I’ll gladly throw in a buck or two to feel full and awake for a couple of hours. HI Austin receives day-olds from a local bakery, which means that hostel guests can help themselves to almost-fresh doughnuts, french breads, and whatever else the baker made that day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Barnacles Hostels]