There’s nothing as exciting as grabbing your pack and heading into the world. Freedom. And while many travelers are suckers for this romanticized vagabond lifestyle, their modern sensibilities are often rattled by reality. An obsession with hand sanitizers and disposable gloves doesn’t make for the best hitchhikers, for instance. Like most things—sex, driving, drinking, wearing stilettos—the first time is a little rough, and just might make you throw up … or at least break a heel.
For hopeful vagabonds, staying a hostel is no different. You never know what you’ll walk into. However, it’s a great way to travel … as long as you know what to expect.
Even if the entire floor smells like bleach and pine-sol, wear shoes. Most hostels are lightly staffed and sanitation isn’t always a high priority. Unless foot fungus is your thing, it’s highly beneficial to don sandals or combat boots. Foldflops is a boutique retailer that offers water-resistant, foldable flip-flops that are perfect for your excursion.
Sleep Fully Clothed
This is non-negotiable. Hostels are not renowned for sanitized sheets and there’s a wonderful little thing called scabies … something like lice but under your skin. These little devils burrow and procreate like rabbits on ExtenZe. They create an itch in your armpits, leg pits, behind your ears (all the important spots) and you’ll beg for a whole-body chemical peel. Luckily there’s a cure: Neem oil, coconut oil and hot baths. All together these ingredients repel the critters and create a glorious quartet of eco-friendly, mite-killing relief. Discover Neem has additional info.
Don’t Showcase your Belongings
Some hostels, such as Sweet Pea Hostel in Asheville, North Carolina, offer individual lockers where you can safely store belongings. There’s also the option of paying more for a single room, but it’s pricier. It’s tempting to think that there will be a myriad of Jack Kerouacs and Nellie Blys hanging out on the windowsills, smoking cigarettes and telling tales, but it’s also a probability that your roommates will be semi-homeless twenty-somethings running from the halfway-house, or addicts looking for a cheap place to showcase their “product.” Don’t be obvious about what’s in your pack. And don’t carry nice bags—utilize that nineties Jansport with the juice box stains. Also, pack a small bungee chord that you can lace onto your ankle. If anyone tries to grab your bag, they’ll have to wake you up first.
Don’t Carry Important Documents
If you must have them for one or two nights, make sure you sleep with them close to you—under your shirt or in your pants. Make potential thieves work for it. If you must take important documents for a purpose, mail them to the next place you’re heading or back to a friend for safekeeping.
Meet Your Roommates
One of the benefits of a hostel is that there are communal areas where you can get to know other folks and get travel advice and tips. Glenwood Springs Hostel is notorious, by word of mouth, for having a ton of foreign visitors. It’s like an orated version of Around the World in 80 Days. Added bonus? You can walk around the neighborhood together and have a guaranteed person, or two, to watch your back if trouble ensues.
Apart from the potential scabies, stolen goods and possible murders, hostels are still a unique and incredibly rewarding way to experience a city. They provide a prime spot to meet locals, cook and survive on the cheap. Even if you do catch a mystery rash, have an awkward encounter with a subpar bandit, or the ghost of Nellie Bly yells at you for walking in on her in her petticoat, at least you’ll have one hell of an experience. And isn’t that the whole point of traveling?
For a list of available hostels in the U.S. and around the globe, visit Hostelling International.
Joe’l Glover is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.