Budget Travel: Why and how to hostel

Call me crazy, but if I were ever given the option between staying in an expensive hotel, a mediocre one for half the price, or a hostel for one-tenth of the price, unless I were bedding down in a really hot guy, I would take the hostel any night of the week. The reason: hostels are the most affordable option, allowing you to spend more on what really matters – the experience of traveling and exploring the world.

Let’s face it: with the economy as it is and our wallets thinning as they are, it’s easy to see the advantages of staying in a hostel, but it might be harder to actually follow through. As a single, independent young woman, I have no problem sleeping in a dorm – or even a cheap room of my own so long as I save myself the dough to spend on other travel expenditures. However, if you’re attached or have a family, there is little to no appeal to stay at a hostel, right?
Wrong. I’ve traveled long and far across the globe and pretty much only stayed in hostels, and I have met the most committed couples and families in these places who have made it work. They too understand the end value of cheaply bedding down for a night or two. Depending where you are in the world, you can save between $10-100 per night per person if you opt to stay in a hostel. You may be sacrificing 50% of comfort during the 8 hours you stay there, but imagine what you could do with the money you saved! My cousins often stay in dingy places and then dine in the best restaurants on the same vacation. Their philosophy: who cares where they put their heads at night so long as it’s in a (preferably safe and quiet enough) room? They’re still getting the same experience when the sun is up.

So hopefully I’ve tackled the “why” (why stay in a hostel) sufficiently. Let’s move on to “how.” There are so many different options available to travelers nowadays, so how do you find the best hostel for your needs wherever you are in the globe? In some parts of the world, searching for a hostel is as simple as a Google search. It’s the 21st century, the world is flat, and even if you’re traveling to the middle of nowhere, a good hostel will have some sort of information available to you somewhere on the world wide web. If you’re looking in a hostel in an urban center, if a hostel doesn’t have a website, it’s not savvy enough and it’s not worth your time. Opt for a place where you can see some photos and seasonal (if not specific) rates. Some hostel website even allow to reserve a room (for a minimal 10-20% processing fee) through the internet.

As for searching for hostels in certain parts of the world, like Latin America, it’s even easier with hostel networks like Hostel Trail, which provides photos and unbiased but honest reviews of hundreds of hostels scattered about Mexico, Central and South America, as well as some of the Caribbean. Hostelling International, Hostels.com, Hostel World, and Hostel Bookers are the best worldwide hostel networks, and are perfectly good places to start your search if you’re at a loss.

Perhaps the best way to find a great hostel in your travel destination is by word of mouth – gathering information from people who have recently traveled to where you are going. Some of my best experiences came straight from a friend who had just been to where I was going. If you get a good tip, ask for as many specifics as you can – even ask for names of people who work there or for worthwhile excursions.

In fact, many of the best hostels have a guestbook where travelers offer helpful tips for where to stay in nearby cities or where to eat or what to see in the town you’re in. The greatest thing about hostel living, is just how personalized travel can be. There are, of course, some pretty bad places, but others can really make your trip a memorable experience.

Unless you’re traveling during prime tourist times or in a big group, you will usually find a bed/room available for you. If there’s a contact number or email, feel free to use it. In third world countries hostels range between $5-10 a night (sometimes less!), while in first world countries you should expect to pay between $12-30 per night. Dorms are not half so bad either, just bring some earplugs, as your bunkmate may have a serious case of sleep apnea. Otherwise, have fun, and let me know if I missed any important tips!

Hostel Trail: Latin America’s hostel network

I think long and hard about what kind of cool, helpful knowledge I might be able to share with Gadling readers, and sometimes the most obvious material escapes me. But it only took me a few months to realize I’ve been keeping my best tips to myself because I don’t see them as suggestions, but rather as experiences.

I stepped foot in the Hostel Trail guesthouse in Popayán, Colombia by default. I hadn’t even intended to pass through the “white city” (it’s known as this because all of the buildings in the historical center of the city are a beautiful, uniform, stark white color). In fact, I only planned on being in Colombia for five weeks — not twice that long, as my stay there turned out to be. My five days in Popayán were so comfortable because Hostel Trail is one of the cleanest and most reasonably-priced guesthouses I’ve stayed in all my travels around Latin America (and, believe me, I’ve seen some pretty decripit places).
Tony and Kim, the Irish owners of Hostel Trail, realized the fantastic potential of Popayán as a travel destination (it was recently named of the gastronomical centers in Latin America — and rightly so!). They quickly made this place (at the edge of the old city) their home and have been sharing it with backpackers for about two years. Using their technological savvy, as well as their connections in Colombia and Latin America, they decided to utilize their innovative web domain as a homepage for not only their hostel but all of the cool hostels in Latin America. Tony and Kim continue to spend long hours networking with other hostels in South and Central America. Once part of the network, a hostel is given a whole page dedicated to information about their lodging. Ultimately, HostelTrail.com is truly the most viable lodging resource for backpackers in Latin America.

There are now hundreds of hostels in the Hostel Trail network, making it that much easier to travel from city to city because you know what to expect when you get to your next hostel. What’s even cooler about Hostel Trail is if you’re on a tight budget and have a way with words and a camera, you can actually write for Hostel Trail and get free lodging wherever it is you stay — so long as it is not a place that is already covered on the site, and you provide a comprehensive overview of the hostel, along with photos of the place for other travelers to see.

How have I waited this long to reveal one of my best kept Latin American secrets? I guess it’s been nearly a year since I stepped foot in Latin America, so I kept my memories tightly locked in the recesses of my mind so as to avoid the painful nostalgia I feel for this part of the world. Regardless, the Hostel Trail guesthouse in Popayán, its hostel network, and the travel writing opportunity with the site makes HostelTrail.com one of the best resources for travel not only in Colombia, but all over Latin America. If you do make it to Popayán, please tell Tony, Kim, and their cute little black dog I say “aloha!”
[Yes, that’s me in the photo, enjoying Poker beer and a ride on a Chiva, taking in the Popayán nightlife!]