Let’s set the record straight: Yes, hostels are safe!
Still, when I tell my friends I’ll be staying in hostels on my next solo trip through Europe, they look at me like I have three heads — all of which will probably be decapitated when I’m inevitably kidnapped by a mysterious Dutch businessman and sent to a murder chamber. Thanks, Quentin Tarantino!
In real life, most hostels are safe, and their affordable rates have revolutionised travel for us broke millennials. And the chances of you being woken up with a chainsaw are as unlikely as you making it as an actor — even if you’re dying to get into the film biz.
Still, some hostels are safer than others — especially when it comes to slightly-more-realistic risks like bed bugs, bad neighborhoods, and creepy bunkmates. Here’s what you need to know about hostel safety.
What to Look for When Choosing a Hostel
To be clear: When I say hostels are generally safe, I don’t mean you should throw caution to the wind, sort your options by price, and pick the cheapest hostel near your destination.
When you’re booking a safe hostel, there are a few things you should look for:
- 24-hour reception
- Complementary linens
- Free Wi-Fi (in case you need to contact your retired-CIA-agent dad to get you out of a bind)
- Free breakfast (this isn’t a safety thing, but who doesn’t love free breakfast?!)
Here are a few important safety factors to consider when booking a hostel.
Ok, so I’m kinda guilty of checking the photos first and giving the hostel extra brownie points based on its aesthetic. (Sure, the last three reviewers contracted a flesh-eating virus there, but it has a kombucha bar!) But before you book, make sure to look through recent reviews on sites like Hostelworld, Tripadvisor, Hostelbookers, Hostels.com, and Booking.com. I personally prefer Hostelworld, because only previous guests can leave reviews, so they’re likely to be reliable and authentic.
When reading the reviews, try to get a feel for the safety and atmosphere. Is it a party hostel? A chill hostel? A family-friendly hostel? A scary murder hostel? Trust your gut and choose a hotel that suits you. Speaking from experience, you don’t want to end up at a hippie beach camp hostel in Vietnam where you’re the only person who’s not vegan and not wearing harem pants. (It was a nice place and the other guests were lovely, but I just wasn’t digging the vibe.)
And don’t ignore any recent reviews on bed bugs. Not even one. Unless you’re looking to take home some new pets.
2. Location, location, location
Safer hostels tend to be located in populated areas and not a 30km bus ride away from anything you might actually want to see. (You’ll also save money on transportation by choosing a centrally-located hostel.)
If you’re not familiar with your destination, pick an Instagram hotspot and see how far it is from your hostel.
But keep in mind the center of the action isn’t always the safest zone in town. So before you book a hostel in a dark alley in Amsterdam’s Red Light District (just 900 meters to the train station!) do some quick research. Search “best neighborhoods in _____” on Google and get a feel for which area seems like your speed. Then, when you’re searching for hostels, filter by neighborhood, or search by map view.
And above all, use your gut. If the neighborhood looks like a ghost town and you feel unsafe, don’t worry about the cancellation fees and switch hostels 👏 A 👏S 👏A 👏P.
3. Room type
Want to save a few extra bucks? Can you sleep through pretty much anything? Then a dorm room might be perfect. Dorm rooms sleep anywhere from four to 20 guests in bunk beds. The more people you share your space with, the cheaper it is.
If I’m traveling solo, I tend to choose female-only, four-bed dorms. I generally feel safer in smaller dorms, plus…no drunk dudes wandering in at 3am. YES! *fist pump*
However, if you think there’s a chance you might murder your snoring bunkmate after three consecutive nights with no sleep, consider a private room. (It’s for their safety. Everybody wins!) Private rooms allow you to experience all the benefits of staying in a hostel with the privacy (and sweet, sweet silence) of a hotel room.
4. Arrival time
Those cheap budget-airline flights that land in the middle of the night can be tempting, but do you know what else is tempting? If you’re a thief, the answer is me, lugging all my worldly possessions down a dark street at 4 am. If you have no choice but to arrive in the wee hours, definitely look for a hostel with 24-hour reception so you’re not stuck outside.
Arriving when you’re exhausted can also make you more likely to ignore red flags, because you just want to crawl under the covers and sleep off the jet lag. (After a certain hour, my “gut” goes out the window and I’m like a fat koala that will fall asleep anywhere.
Bottom line: Arriving during daylight hours allows you to get your bearings, speak to your roommates, and lock your personal belongings away so you don’t wake up with only one shoe.
5. Women’s hostels
If the idea of a female-only dorm sounds appealing, you might feel even safer in a women’s hostel (especially if you’re still not super-comfortable with the idea of hostels in general).
Here are a few to check out:
- Hostelle (Amsterdam)
- The Oasis at St. Christopher’s Inns (London)
- Olive Spring (Penang)
- Orsa Maggiore (Rome)
- Hostella (Rome)
- Pai Hostelle (Pai)
- Barefoot (Ottawa)
What to Bring to a Hostel
There are a few essentials you can pack to help improve your safety at any hostel.
- Padlock. Many hostels have raised their security game with electronic locker key cards, but it’s still a good idea to bring a padlock. Choose a combination lock (no key to lose!) and email the combination to yourself. Look for a thin lock — thicker locks won’t fit some hostel lockers.
- Flip flops. No need to splurge on Havaianas — a cheap pair is all you need to keep your toes away from whatever fungus might be lurking in the communal showers.
- Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. If you’re a light sleeper with a “20 beds or bust” travel budget, invest in earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out whatever weird sounds your bunkmates are making.
- Headlamp. No, really. Trying to get a drink of water in a crowded dorm is basically spelunking. Your phone’s flashlight will do the job, but there’s no better feeling than having both hands free when you’re trying to climb the ladder into your top bunk.
- Microfibre Travel Towel. Need to shower before you check out, but don’t want to put a wet towel in your suitcase? Microfibre towels dry super quickly. They’re a girl’s best friend.
- Hanging Toiletry Bag. If you choose your hostel carefully, the biggest safety issue you’ll face is dropping your Nars lip pencil on the damp bathroom floor. A hanging toiletry bag spares you the juggling act.
5 Hostel Red Flags to Watch Out For
Some hostels just suck, and all the packing and planning in the world won’t make your stay any safer or more enjoyable or less itchy. Here are a few warning signs to watch for:
- Any recent reviews or overheard conversations about bed bugs. Getting rid of bed bugs can cost £££! Spring the extra few pounds for a squeaky clean hostel.
- Shared storage room facilities with no lockers.
- A hostel with a different name or address than what’s listed on your booking.
- An unlocked main entrance with no door buzzer or key
- Bad vibes. If it feels deserted, unfriendly, unsafe, or just plain weird, get out of there and find a place with a better vibe.
Hostel Safety Tips
Last but not least, here are a few tips to help you stay safe at a hostel (or at any accommodation, really).
- Drink responsibly. Even if the lobby bar carries 27 different types of tequila.
- Avoid drinking alone. Like swimming, it’s always safer with a buddy. Plus, this isn’t a country song.
- Email a copy of your passport to yourself — you’ll need it if your passport gets stolen.
- Don’t open your accommodation door for strangers.
- Try to arrive at your hostel before dark.
- Make sure anything valuable is locked away before you sleep.
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