Hostels are magnificent places where anything can happen. Will you fall in love? Make a lifelong friend? Pass out on the common room floor and wake up with a moustache drawn on your face with a permanent marker?
Hostels are places of endless possibilities. They’re also places of a lot of dickery.
Most places have a laundry list of their own hostel house rules – no visitors in dorms, quiet hours at midnight, no snorting cocaine in the bathrooms (only in the assigned cocaine rooms). If you don’t follow them, you risk getting kicked out. It depends on the hostel, though, and how much they actually enforce their rules.
Hostels also have some crucial unwritten rules: the hostel etiquette. These are enforced by the law of the jungle. In other words, by the other backpackers, who will mercilessly snicker and gossip if you dare leave your smelly socks on the wrong bedpost.
The unwritten hostel etiquette is pretty simple. If it’s your first time in a hostel, though, it’s an unknown frontier. Let this little list be your guide to acting well in hostels and becoming the dream guest that any hostel would love to have!
Hostel Etiquette – The Golden Rules of Staying in a Hostel
I’ve been in the hostel scene for a while. It’s been 84 years…
Well, not quite, but I’ve probably stayed at well over a hundred hostels and also ended up working at a good few. I’ve heard it all: from falling off top bunks to shitting in sinks and smuggling small dogs into shared dorms.
Here is my best advice on how to stay in hostels and be the star guest that both staff and other travellers adore.
1. Sleep is Sacred
Hostels are many things (from meeting points to party clubs to charity brothels) but a key purpose for their existence is a cheap bed. No matter how good the party is, always respect the quiet hours – or face the rage of a sleep-deprived traveller. One thing you should always include in your hostel packing list is good manners!
Many hostels have specific quiet times for both the dorm and their common spaces to make sure that people who want to sleep CAN actually sleep. And in the hostels that don’t have these policies… Well, the unofficial hostel dorm etiquette states that objects that are sleeping at night time shall remain asleep if they so wish.
Barging into the dorm at 2 a.m. like the British were coming and slamming all the lights on? This is what we on the industry call a dick move.
I don’t mind if I get woken up by someone as long as they’re TRYING to be quiet. I’m talking phone torches, headphones, tippy-toeing around. No talking – not even whispers. It’s louder than you think, and now I know all your secrets.
If you know you’re leaving early, pack your bags the night before. No one enjoys the sound of plastic bags singing the song of their people at 6 a.m. Try to replace noisy (and unsustainable!) plastic bags with some excellent packing cubes.
And do remember that the golden rule of sleep is only valid for the night time. If you’re a noon napper, expecting the courtesy of silence from others during the day is actually rude on your part.
What About Snorers?
Ah yes, the age-old debate of whether chronic snorers should stay in hostel dorms at all. After all, snoring is the bane of all backpackers’ existence. It can make any zen-minded wayfarer go from zero to murder real quick.
If you’re known for snoring, you can try sleeping on your side or stomach to prevent it. Heavy drinking can also make the problem worse.
Some snorers are worse than others. Once you share a dorm with a man with a snore so mighty it literally shakes the opposite bed, you gain a lot of perspective on the debate. In the end, it might be more merciful for everyone if snorers book private rooms – both for other guests and the snorer, who won’t get suffocated with a pillow in the middle of the night.
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2. Respect Thy Elders – That Is, the Hostel Staff
The most integral part of any hostel family is the staff. They are the ones working hardest to make sure you’re safe, clean, and having the blast of a lifetime. Working in hostels is awesome – no wonder it is one of the best travel jobs for financially impaired backpackers.
Hostel staff is also the first line of defense when angry visitors march off to war.
They’re doing their best to help you have the best possible stay, but they’re mere mortal beings. The staff doesn’t have much control over the behaviour of the other guests. If you have any problems with other people in the hostel, definitely bring it up to the staff – especially if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable – but please be friendly about it when you do.
Sometimes the staff has to change your rooms mid-stay. They’re also not always able to book you in the same dorm with your pal or guarantee a bottom bunk. (Sidenote: Race for the bottom bunk, it is FAR superior.) You can ask nicely but don’t expect it.
You have to remember that hostel staff is often made up of other travellers that are just working a few hours to cover their stay. In general, hostel workers tend to be young and pretty inexperienced when it comes to dealing with people. They might not know all the answers to your questions because they’re not from the city, and they might fumble with the payment system because they’ve never been on shift alone before.
Please don’t get mad at us for things that are out of our control (because it’s nice, and also because if you yell at me, I might cry).
And for GOD’S SAKE, respect check-out times. Staff usually only has a VERY small window to clean rooms between check-outs and new check-ins.
3. Keep Clean or Perish
Whatever you do, don’t you dare leave a mess. This is such a commonly accepted tenet that it’s usually scribed in the official hostel rules, too.
It’s okay to leave your pans in the kitchen sink for ten minutes while you eat but any longer than that should be considered reckless abandonment and I’m calling the dishware police. On top of the list of hostel kitchen rules is doing your own dishes.
Same goes for bathrooms. When the jokey sign on the bathroom door tells you not to flush down tampons, trash, your dreams, or your ex, listen to it and avoid a shitty surprise.
Oh, and don’t even get me STARTED on the people who leave their stuff lying all over the dorm. Unless your backpack has encountered a tragic bomb attack, I have no patience for your socks and souvenirs all up in my space. Learn how to pack your backpack like an old pro and tame your mess.
Actually, you know what? Just make sure you’re doing your part to keep all common spaces clean.
The hostel staff does their best to keep things neat and tidy but a big part of the cleanliness of the hostel lies on the broad shoulders of the good ol’ hostel goers.
4. DON’T FUCKING STEAL.
What is a hostel? A place where we SHOULD feel comfortable leaving our stuff unguarded.
The reason that us travellers can share our space with a bunch of strangers is the expected trust between travellers. And most of the time you can. We’re all in the same boat: far from home and just trying to have a good time before our money runs out.
In general, hostels are safe places to be, but a lot of that safety depends on your fellow backpackers being decent humans. Every backpacker is slumming it with the minimum amount of money and possessions on the road. When you have very little, the few bits and pieces you carry become very valuable.
Don’t steal. Don’t even think about it. Not even if they’ve left their wallet on the bed while they go take a whizz. Don’t even nick a banana with their name on it.
(Sending curses towards that Norwegian backpacker that stole my money belt in Rio and almost took my passport with it. Luckily there was no cash in it, and the pouch was later found in a bathroom, but dude, WTF. You’re from Norway! Ya’ll got oil money! Leave my measly dollars alone.)
And why would you steal? Hostels have a lot of dope stuff to offer completely free! Hostel kitchens usually have a free box of stuff left behind with treasures a’ plenty (think full bottles of wine, Belgian chocolates and the best of all, instant noodles).
On top of that, many hostels have donation boxes for you to leave behind an old fit and pick out a new dapper suit. And even though less people these days travel with physical books, book exchanges are still very much a thing. Just don’t abuse the niceness: if you take one, leave one.
Unfortunately, some people are just wired to ruin other people’s days. I usually travel with a laptop so I never stay anywhere that doesn’t have safety lockers. Bring your own padlock, and make sure to get a great travel insurance that covers lost valuables.
Psst! Heading to a hostel? Don’t forget to pack a padlock! It’s well worth having one so you can secure your locker and protect your stuff!
5. Sex Is Only Fun for the People Having It
Having sex in the same room with 12 other people is only cool if you’re a part of a consensual orgy. Otherwise it’s just awkward for everyone.
Listen, I get it. The hostel pub crawl is nearing the end and that Spanish hottie has been giving you the eye all night… And I mean, you can’t exactly go home, because you currently don’t have one. We’ve all been there.
Oh, we haven’t?
Uh, I mean, me neither.
Most backpackers are likely to condemn dorm sex in company even if most (?) have committed that sin themselves. And we really shouldn’t judge: Hostel sex creates great stories.
It still doesn’t take away from the fact that most people are pretty grossed out about people banging in the same room as them. Even you’re probably not enjoying yourself if you’re working harder at keeping quiet than keeping pace and failing miserably. Private rooms are usually not that expensive… and anyway, there are always dark, unmapped corners where young horndogs in love can bang one out in peace.
Sometimes, though, you’ll end up in some cozy, dingy place where the vibe in general is love and let love. In places like that, others might not mind if they get cradled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the bunk below them… Just be prepared to be made mercilessly fun of in the morning.
Oh, and a friendly reminder that if you have a partner at home, you have a partner on the road as well. Don’t pick up chicks/dicks just because your bae is a thousand miles away.
6. Purity is Optional – Clothing is Not
Are you someone who loves their body and is extremely comfortable with it? Great! Go, you! However, that doesn’t mean that everyone else is as comfortable with your skin.
A considerate hostel visitor stays (mostly) dressed. This means no walking around in just a towel after a shower, changing clothes in the bathrooms and definitely NOT sleeping naked.
Hear me? If you’re wondering what to wear to sleep in a hostel, the only fixed rule is “something, PLEASE, something”.
Hostels are accepting places that draw in mostly open-minded travellers. Most people won’t mind a bit of skin showing. You have to be mindful, though, especially if you’re in mixed dorms. Personally, I’ve never felt unsafe bunking with a bunch of strange boys… But it definitely makes me feel even safer knowing that they’re staying mostly clothed. A teeny bit of nudity is expected but not explicitly encouraged.
What happens in a hostel, stays in a hostel. Except for trauma. Trauma will follow you. And spying someone’s pasty buttocks first thing in the morning is surely going to traumatise your fellow hosteliers.
7. Flexibility Is a Virtue
The first lesson you learn on the road is that shit goes down. A LOT. And if you’re not ready to be chill about it, you’re going to have a really bad time.
The best thing you can do in the face of trouble and turmoil is to stay calm and flexible. In hostels, being COOL is golden. Even the best hostels in the world cannot grant your every wish.
Sometimes you can’t get a bottom bunk even if you ask. Sometimes even the hostel staff doesn’t want to battle the giant cockroach in the kitchen. Sometimes some drunk English lad goes Exorcist all over the dorm (and all over your belongings), and there’s not much else to do than look up the closest laundromat.
Don’t complain about things you should have known beforehand. If you’re staying at a party hostel, you can’t get mad at the kids playing Ring of Fire in the common room till the wee hours of the night. Hostel descriptions and reviews are pretty good at telling you exactly what to expect.
(My “favourite” are people who complain that the free breakfast was “basic”. Dude, free toast! You’re welcome to buy your own Nutella, Mr Fancypants.)
You have the power to pick where you stay. Despite their reputation, only a handful of backpacker hostels party hard! If you crave zen and silence, book into a quiet hostel, a private room or a mid-range hotel instead of a party central.
8. Bring Your Best Smile, You Beautiful Beast
Hostels are a place of live and let live.
Backpackers, in general, are a really chill and open-minded bunch, and hostels reflect this. They’re inclusive places for anyone with a hunger for exploring, regardless of race, sexuality, age or their favourite Pokémon (Pikachu, in case you were wondering). Hostels welcome everybody.
And if they don’t, they’re probably not a very good hostel.
Good hostel etiquette states that judging your fellow backpackers is very much uncool. There are weird superiority complexes even amongst travellers. As if you couldn’t be a hardened explorer if you traverse with a suitcase instead of a backpack, or if you’ve “only” been to three countries instead of 60. Don’t judge your fellow travelers – unless they eat your food or steal your passport.
Hostels are built for beautiful connections between both inexperienced excursionists and more weathered wanderers. But the crucial point of connection is your pretty self. Hostels might be the only place in the world where talking to strangers is this easy – and fully encouraged! So get out there and strike up a conversation with anything that moves.
Come as you are. Unless you’re a dickhead – then don’t come at all.
Hostels Rule If You Follow the Hostel Rules
Backpacker hostels are wondrous places where loveable vagrants come together for shared shenanigans before parting ways into different sunsets again. Allowing travel to teach and define our values is part of The Broke Backpacker Manifesto. Some of my best memories from travelling come from backpacker hostels (and some lacking memories, too – those welcome shots get me every time).
You learn to get along with the trouble and strife – in fact, they become stories you tell along the way, ones that other backpackers can surely relate to.
One piece of wisdom I want to leave you with as this article is nearing its end: being an idiot has consequences even on the road.
The backpacker life might be transient and temporary, but this doesn’t mean that you won’t have to face the doomsday music for bad behaviour. If you punch through the common room TV in a drunken rage and flee into the night, you have NOT just committed the perfect crime. Most hostels have cameras so they’ll know it was you (they can see you dry-humping in the pool, too). Usually, the hostel will also have your credit card on record, and they can just directly charge the damages from you.
You can’t run from a rascal reputation when you’re traipsing an established backpacker trail. Most of the people you meet are on the same route, and they’re not afraid to gossip. In the worst case, you might get pre-banned from future hostels.
But this is rare; you’d have to be a grade-A ass to reach that status. There are many (better!!) ways to become a hostel legend.
Like being the guy who brings everyone candy from their homeland. Just an idea. But also… If you give me sweets, I will automatically become your friend.
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