What comes to mind when you hear the world “hostel?” A gaggle of 20-somethings on a weeklong bender? Smelly hippie-types barefoot hiking around the world? A movie series that managed to combine enough torture and grunge to scar a generation?

What if I told you that for the majority of the last five years I’ve traveled all over the world, and in that time stayed at some of the most incredible places … that just happened to be hostels? That I’ve met dear friends and adventurous companions, all while paying a fraction of what a hotel would charge? Hostels aren’t what you think, at least, not anymore. While every hostel is different, I’ve stayed in over 100 across six continents and feel comfortable offering some general observations.

What you’ll find in today’s hostels

In the most general terms, a hostel is just like a hotel, except you usually have to share a bathroom. For the lowest room rates, you’ll also share a room. Additionally, most hostels have a kitchen and a lounge. The most common dorm, or shared room, has 4 beds, usually in the form of two bunk beds. Most hostels will have rooms with more beds that are cheaper per night, and rooms with fewer beds for slightly more money per night. Only hostels in the most touristy areas will have rooms with a dozen beds or more.

The more people in a room, the lower the rates, but it’s just by a few dollars a night. Unless your budget is very tight, a smaller room will generally be quieter and worth the small premium. Most hostels also have private rooms, which are their most expensive rooms, but still usually cheaper than a hotel. These can be good for couples, families, or even just an individual looking for a quiet night’s sleep. In addition to the bed, sheets and a pillow, you’ll nearly always have a locker to hold your bags or valuables. Just like a hotel, almost every hostel locks their doors at night, and has keys, cards or codes required to access both the hostel and your room.

Some hostels have “en-suite” rooms, as in there’s a bathroom attached to the room, like you’d find in a hotel, just shared with the people staying in that room. Personally, I’m not a big fan. Usually that means you’re all fighting for that one bathroom all at the same time. Plus, if someone creates an odorous mess (I’m talking about a deluge of Axe body spray, obviously), then the whole room will smell like that too.

Very, very rarely is there an upper age limit at a hostel. At 40 I’m almost never the oldest, although the average age is younger. Almost all, however, have a lower age limit. Travelers under 18 usually can’t say in dorm rooms. Nearly every hostel will have women-only dorms available, though the majority of rooms are coed.

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