Now, let’s go over on how to find the cheapest place to stay. In general, I’ve created these 4 tiers of accommodation types, each with varying costs.
Tier 1 (free): Staying with friends and family – This should always be your first choice because it costs you nothing. Of course, you don’t want to take advantage of them. So, if you’re pursuing this option, just do some nice things for them when you get there.
Tier 2 ($): Hostels – This is my go-to every time I travel because hostels are simply so cheap compared to everything else. The USA doesn’t really have a big hostel presence, but you could find lots of hostels pretty much anywhere else in the world. Later on, we’ll talk about how to look for the right hostel.
Tier 3 ($$): Airbnb – Staying in an Airbnb is a nice balance between staying in a hotel and a hostel because these are usually people’s homes so they’re inherently nicer. I always try to book a place with at least some reviews (10+) because they’re *usually* accurate. Sometimes, staying in an Airbnb costs around the same as staying in a hostel. So, I always check both when I’m traveling somewhere.
Tier 4 ($$$): Hotels – I rarely stay in hotels when I travel because they’re usually the most expensive option and it doesn’t really make sense for me as a solo traveler. When you’re looking for a hotel, I just go to Google and search “hotels in (city)” which usually brings up Google’s built-in search function. You could also filter your search by a variety of factors and the interface is relatively clean. Then, I compare on hotels.com and the hotel’s actual website since sometimes the price varies.
Again, you’ll want to stick to booking directly with the hotel website when you can. However, sometimes the price differs so much that I’m willing to take on the risk of going through a third party like hotels.com. I’ve never ran into an issue, but I’m not very well-versed in booking hotels because it’s something I rarely do.
PART 3A: FINDING A HOSTEL TO STAY At
There’s a lot of factors you should look at when deciding on a hostel. This really depends on how much you “care”, as some people just book the cheapest thing while others are more meticulous in their research. You could do all the research in the world, but still might be disappointed once you get to the hostel. I don’t want to compare it to Russian Roulette, but sometimes it’s really a gamble on what your experience will be like.
So, what does this mean for you? Once you find a place that satisfies your criteria, just book it. Throughout all hostels, the quality doesn’t vary *too* much, especially if you’re basing it on price alone. You may value some traits over others, so it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for before you dive into researching.
The best way to look for hostels is to go on Hostelworld. This is the only instance where I break my rule of “only booking direct” because Hostelworld has a pretty good flexible cancellation policy. You only pay a little extra (depends on how long your booking is) and you could cancel anytime up to 1 day before your stay. You could also use Google to look up hostels. But there are generally more reviews on Hostelworld, which I think is helpful.
While searching, you’ll want to take a careful look at what amenities are provided. Usually, I keep a careful eye on these particular things:
Some of these points are more important than others, but the points I personally care about the most are the underlined ones. I would also include free breakfast as something that could save you money. But if you’re a huge foodie, you might not care because you want to try the local cuisine instead of a simple breakfast of toast and jam. The amenities a hostel provides could potentially save you lots of money and/or luggage space, so it’s important to take a good look!
You should also definitely look at the hostel reviews. Reviews are accurate *most* of the time, but you should take them with a grain of salt. Personally, I ignore all of the overwhelming positive and negative reviews (which are usually the 1 or 5 star reviews) and look for what people have mentioned repeatedly. You’ll want to filter it by “Most Recent” and then start reading.
After reading around 15-30 reviews, you could get a general sense of what the hostel is like. I would also read reviews of the hostel on TripAdvisor. The key thing here is that something negative that’s only mentioned once or twice is likely an anomaly. However, if you see the same concern multiple times, then it’s most likely an issue.
PART 3B: THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR WHEN PICKING A HOSTEL
Now, I’ll share some things you should look for when reading reviews and just in general.
Safety – Is the area around the hostel “sketchy” or known to be unsafe? Generally, you could be fine in an “unsafe” area if you’re careful. However, it’s usually not worth it because you could always find another hostel that costs around the same amount. All I’m trying to say here is that you want to think twice before booking a hostel in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. In terms of being safe in the hostel, we’ll talk more about that later.
Cleanliness – This is another big factor because things could get messy very quickly with so many people in one place. Usually, hostel cleanliness is at least “acceptable”, but if it’s not clean you’ll most likely read about it in the reviews. There is always a risk of you encountering a very messy person, which is more related to bad luck than the hostel’s cleaning patterns.
Location – Staying in a good location could save you money, time, and sanity. An easy example is you have Hostel A and Hostel B. Hostel A is cheaper than Hostel B, but it’s around an hour’s subway ride to the city center. On the other hand, Hostel B is within walking distance to all the places you want to see. To me, Hostel B wins every single time (assuming the cost difference is low). The last thing you want happening is being out for the whole day and then spending an hour on the subway to get back to the hostel.
I personally like to book hostels that are near subway stops and/or bus stops so getting back is convenient. However, if the price is right, I wouldn’t mind booking a place outside the city center if it’s close to a transit stop. But then, you’ll have to do some cost/benefit analysis: would staying somewhere further away still be cheaper than if I chose to stay at a place in the city? Many cities use a zone-based fare system, which means the further you travel, the more expensive it is. These are all things to consider when you’re looking at the location.
Social scene – This part comes down to what you’re looking for – do you want to meet a lot of people and experience the nightlife, or do you only want a place to sleep?
If you’re looking for a hostel with a “lit” scene, you’ll most likely know by how they market themselves. Hostels that host nightly activities, have a bar inside the hostel, advertise happy hour specials, or say that they are the “most social hostel in city x” usually have “rowdier” people.
If you only want a place to sleep, you’ll want to look at the reviews and look for anything that mentions these points or some variation of this:
However, you’ll sometimes stay in a hostel with a whole mix of people which is usually just good or bad luck. It just depends on the situation. Therefore, I recommend you always bring good earplugs and an eye mask just in case you encounter some loud people.
Price – Last but not least, we want to look at price pretty closely because your accommodation will most likely be your second biggest expense. A common thing you’ll run into is that you’ll see a hostel with a cheap nightly rate but there aren’t many reviews. The rest of the hostels have a good amount of reviews (500+) but the rate goes up from there.
This comes down to how risk-averse you are, because hostels with a lot of reviews are more likely to be established with set processes in place to provide you a good experience. I’m incredibly risk-averse, so I’ll pay a little more for a place that has lots of decent reviews vs. a cheaper place with <50 5-star reviews. A good rule of thumb to is to choose the cheapest place you’ll be comfortable in instead of the most expensive place you can afford.
Part 3A: Finding a Hostel to Stay At
Part 3B: Things to Keep an Eye Out for When Picking a Hostel
Next: Part 4