The difference between average and excellence is surprisingly slim
Our expectations of hostels is higher than ever before. If you agree that a hostel should be much more than merely a place where one goes to sleep for 10 bucks a night then you’re in good company.
The better hostels are invariably those where we can make new friends and travel-buddies in a buzzing atmosphere, where we can safely stow our belongings and go on epic adventures and day-trips, where we can cook, drink, smoke, read books, chill, update our social status, send emails, call family and friends, and party or converse with our new buddies until the wee hours of the morning.
Such hostels become truly memorable for the above experiences only if they can first and foremost address every traveller’s most fundamental needs of a comfortable, quiet, and safe place to sleep as well as clean, hot showers. Great hostels should basically feel like a home away from home where we can be ourselves, relax, and recharge our mental energies away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
To put it another way, you’ll know you’ve come across such a hostel if you feel amply comfortable and happy to spend several weeks there irrespective of its location.
But the reality is that hostels belonging to this exclusive, almost-mystical club are few and far in between. Many would argue that ticking all the boxes and pleasing every single traveller is a lofty, unachievable height – especially in the realm of the standard $10 USD or 10 Euro-per-night dormitory fare. Better facilities, staff, and location certainly come at a fixed and ongoing financial cost to the owners but there is also an opportunity cost inherent in the more expensive hostels. By having higher prices relative to competitors in a market segment which is quintessentially known for its low prices, most potential clientele simply find cheaper alternatives and as a result the place ends up offering low value* overall. This point depends somewhat on location but is usually around the $20 USD limit in my opinion.
Which brings me to examine what factors quantify a largely qualitative hostel experience. Nowadays with the rise in popularity of apps such as Air BNB and Couchsurfing, hostels today exist in a highly competitive and dynamic marketplace. So how do customers rate them and how does this data then aid prospective customers in choosing a specific hostel to stay at?
Hostel Decision (vs. Alternatives) > Yes > Which Hostel?
+ Would Recommend?
2. Very Good
+ Ranking (#X of Total)
*Value is a very subjective factor relative to the others
The two most popular and hostel-dedicated websites, Hostelworld and Hostelbookers, both present an equally-weighted average score (in a “%” and “out of 10” format, respectively) from the 7 different categories in the table above. Scores for a given hostel are input only by that hostel’s most recent customers and all such scores are averaged over the past 12 months. I included Tripadvisor in here to show how an aggregate site (with reviews for hotels, hostels, inns, motels, boutiques, etc.) runs its reviews. In short, we get very non-specific data upfront with Tripadvisor and as such need to read the comments to gain more insight into the place.
From my experience I have found that hostels rated with an overall score above 95% cut the mustard for a truly great and memorable experience. Want to know the interesting thing? Often times it was the basic things which prevented decent hostels in the 75% to 90% range from joining the 95% club.
My top 15 dislikes were the following:
- Towels are not free
- No hot water in showers
- Personal lockers unavailable, too small, or they can be cracked open by a 5 year-old child
- Dorm room does not have enough free space and feels over-crowded
- Quietness after “10 PM” is not enforced by staff or no efforts have been made to soundproof anything, whether dorm rooms or segregating the party area away from sleeping area
- Mattress is uncomfortable and too short or the bunks are flimsy and creaky
- Dorm room not locked and no key or pass card made available for each person
- No kitchen or kitchen is inadequately equipped
- Staff members had little to no personality or were not interested in chatting
- Drip coffee and drinking water are not free
- Breakfast is not free
- No information board with bus timetable, maps, points of interest, and cheap day-trip ideas
- Inadequate fun facilities in the common area or curfew after “midnight”
- Poor general maintenance and outdated facilities and furniture
- No snacks, drinks, or toiletries for sale and no bar
As a general rule of thumb I discovered that if less than 3 of the above 15 key cardinal dislikes were encountered then that hostel was just shy of a 95% score – keeping in mind that the 7 general categories were more or less fine of course. And while all of the above 15 points fall under one or more of the 7 general categories, they are nevertheless very specific and quantifiable things. What’s more is that many of the 15 dislikes are easily fixable or could be designed before construction. So it turns out that attention to details do actually matter even in the so-called “lacklustre” hostel industry.