Traveling on a budget calls for some compromises. You can cut your trip shorter (no thanks), drive instead of fly (this cuts into travel time), or stay somewhere other than a luxury hotel. For me, the hotel is always the first thing to go. In fact, I often prefer to stay in a hostel! That's not to say some hostels aren't eerily reminiscent of a horror movie—they're out there. The key is to find a good one. Here's what I can tell you from my travels:
Pick an Experience
Hostels come in all shapes and sizes. I've stayed in hostels that were old houses, converted into a hostel, hostels that were built to be hostels, and hostels that were just someone's apartment with a bunch of bunk beds shoved in the spare rooms. I've stayed in hostels that were pretty calm and quiet, hostels in city centers above bars, and hostels with a reputation for partying. I've stayed in women-only four-person rooms as well as co-ed twelve-person rooms. If you want a quiet place to sleep and pick a party hostel, you're not going to have a good time. At all.
Read the Reviews
Look at the star rating, but don't just look at the star rating. Different people like different things. Sometimes, a four-star rating will be the factor that actually keeps me from booking a certain hostel because it cues me into a vibe that I'm not looking for. When I'm looking for a relaxing beach weekend and notice that the only high-star reviews are for the party atmosphere, or vice-versa, that lets me know to go ahead and pass. The same goes for the low-star reviews. If all of the one-star reviews are from two years ago and say that they were upset their budget hostel didn't serve breakfast, I'm not about to let that deter me.
Price Isn't Everything
It can be tempting to pick a hostel just because it's half the price of your top pick, but it's not always worth it. What do they each offer? For example, when I'm traveling alone, I'm more likely to pay more for a hostel that offers secure card-key locks. If I'm traveling with a friend, I might go ahead and take the cheaper, but slightly less secure, hostel. Does the more expensive hostel offer breakfast? If you're traveling in the U.S., that can save you $5-7 a day. Does the cheaper hostel have communal bathrooms instead of en-suite? Sometimes, that's a deal-breaker. Other extras or amenities to consider: towels, bed linens, laundry, Wi-Fi, and heating/air conditioning.
Plan Your Transportation
If you're using public transportation, this is very important. Lack of planning here caused me to miss a flight in Spain. I had picked a hostel based on price and neighborhood, but didn’t check to see how far away the Metro was. Turns out, it was quite a hike—especially with a huge wheeled suitcase on narrow, uneven, hilly sidewalks. For my overnight wait for another flight, I switched to a hostel close to the Metro that also offered a cheap airport shuttle. I wasn't about to miss a second flight! The second hostel wasn't as nice—it didn't have the in-room bathroom I'd have liked nor the small room sizes, but it would have been the better choice in this case.
If you're not using public transportation, you should research the parking. In D.C., I stayed at a hostel that had a deal with a local parking lot so they were able to provide parking in a relatively secure lot nearby, for free. In New York, I had to pay $20 a day to park my car in a garage because the hostel didn't have any arrangements.
Go Small or Go Home
Before committing to a place, look at how many beds they have. In my experience, there's definitely a sweet spot. Do they only have 15 beds? Make sure you're going to an actual hostel—not someone's sketchy, bunk bed-stuffed apartment. If they are too large, generally, more than 80 beds, you may end up staying in a hostel that has a commercial, impersonal atmosphere.
I usually do my best socially in a medium-sized hostel. The medium-sized hostels are large enough that they offer some amenities, but small enough that someone on staff might drink a cup of coffee with you while letting you in on the local secrets. I've met some really interesting people during my travels, including one friend from Germany who I'm still in touch with months later.
Picking the perfect hostel can be easier said than done, especially if you're traveling somewhere new. Take a cue from my mistakes (and successes), mix it around with a sense of adventure, and save some cash while having a blast.