I was dead tired. My last 24 hours had consisted of a cramped 4 hour ride on a packed commuter train, most of which I spent standing, a 7 hour international flight desperately trying to sleep while squeezed in to an economy seat next to a crying baby, a 2 hour layover in one of the world’s most hectic airports, a 2.5 hour flight followed by a 1 hour wait at customs, and lastly, a bumpy 30 minute tuk-tuk ride.
But as I pushed open the door, that all melted away. I stood in awe, staring at a beautiful, wooden lobby with a hand-carved railing and bannister.
And then, along came Sony. Beaming smile, cheerful voice, and carrying 4 cups of what would turn out to be some of the best liquid refreshments I’ve ever tasted (and still, unfortunately, can’t remember the name of).
“Greetings Travis and friends, and welcome to the Golden Mango Inn! I’m Sony, like the electronics company, and you are now at your home for the next few days. Please sit, rest, drink, and relax. We’ll put your bags in your room and bring you food right away.”
I was barely able to ask him how he knew my name when pancakes, eggs, and fresh fruit appeared. 30 minutes later, stuffed and slipping in to a food coma, and only after I had assured Sony many times that I didn’t need anything else, I drifted to sleep thinking “This is why I love hostels!”
Does this mean that I never stay at a chain hotel? No.
It also doesn’t mean that I don’t earn hotel points when given the chance, because I do. Last year, when I unexpectedly found myself driving in to Melbourne at midnight with no place to sleep for the night, I was super thankful for my stash Hilton points.
And of course, it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t appreciate staying at a world-class property like the Park Hyatt Vendome or the Marina Bay Sands Singapore, because I would. I don’t care what type of “big business” hotel it is…a 55 story high infinity pool is a 55 story infinity pool!
What it does mean is that most of the time, when given the choice between a chain hotel or locally-owned hostel or guesthouse, I’m choosing the latter.
While 20 years ago hostels were the domain of grungy backpackers and skeevy characters, that isn’t the case anymore. Sure, there are still some places you can stay and engage with that subset of society, but the imagery that the term hostel conjures up in most people’s mind simply isn’t accurate.
Nowadays, the world of hostels provides a great cross-section between a cheap place to lay your head and and a boutique hotel, with the term “luxury hostel” entering the lexicon, and for good reason.
With the growth of the hostel industry, the quality has improved dramatically. There are even the Hoscars, awards given out annually across multiple categories to help recognize the best hostels in the world.
And while hostels used to be dominated primarily by solo travelers, many have now begun to cater to groups, couples, and families as well by offering private rooms in addition to the standard dormitory bed room. Luckily, most hostels still use a per person pricing policy, which means they still remain very viable and popular option for the solo traveler.
The major benefit of hostels is the uniqueness they bring to the traveling experience. A Holiday Inn in Tokyo is going to look like a Holiday Inn in Des Moines. However, hostels have the benefit of not having to conform to a certain corporate standard, which leads to some amazingly innovative hostels.
Two of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever been in have been hostels; the Kanalian in Yokohama, Japan and K’s House Ito Onsen in Ito, Japan. The fact that both of these places were able to integrate every modern amenity you could ever want in incredibly old, traditional Japanese home while still staying true to the roots of the area and building itself is an awesome feat.
Another major reason I prefer hostels over hotels is that many of the hostels and guesthouses are locally owned and operated. Since the owners of the hostels and guesthouses are also usually the people who are responsible for your daily enjoyment as well, they have a much greater stake in making your stay as pleasant as possible. I’ve found that this not only leads to better service, but really, a better overall vibe and feel.
This is their place, their project, and their hostel, and there is a certain pride present that is not apparent at chain hotels, where the workers are the workers and the owners are fat cats living in some high rise apartment 10,000 miles away.
I’ve spent many nights staying up in to the wee hours having priceless conversations with hostel owners, many of whom I now consider friends. I’ve been given numerous incredible gifts and “freebies” that I’ll take every day over a pair of slippers or a complimentary toothbrush (although I’ve also been given a toothbrush from a hostel owner as well). This personal connection is not an experience you’ll get a hotel, where you are just one of the faceless masses.
And the personal connections that are made are not limited to owner and guest. Hostels and guesthouses are set up to provide a much more social environment than hotels. Generally, there are communal lobbies, kitchens, and bars. TV rooms and internet areas are shared by all, and the feeling is much more genial, friendly, and interactive than the antiseptic feel of a hotel. You’ll meet fellow travelers, share stories, and who knows, maybe even become fast friends. At the very least, your bound to get a beer bought for you or a meal cooked for you, and that is tough to argue with!
If you’ve never stayed at a hostel or guesthouse during your travels, I highly suggest you give it a try. Get away from the big name chain hotels, even if it is just for a few days. If you don’t like it, fine, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll find yourself having a more genuine and authentic experience.
How to Find a Hostel
The three best places to search for and book hostels or guesthouses are (in order of my preference):
There is some discrepancy between the three websites, with some hostels showing up on one site but not the other, which is why I’d recommend giving all three a look. I’ll always book with Hostelbookers if I can because the fee they charge the hostel owners is much less than Hostelworld. The more money I can keep in the owners pockets, the better.
Hostels and Guesthouses I Recommend
Additionally, here is a list of some of the best guesthouses and hostels that I’ve stayed at. If it made this list, it has my personal seal of approval!
Mountain Hostel, Gimmelwald- If you want to wake up to the best view of the Alps the world has to offer, stay here.
Balmer’s Herbage, Interlaken- This is no doubt a party hostel at night, so if you want that, there’s no better place to stay. However, it does offer private rooms on the other side of the building that are more quiet and also an amazing hammock room for chilling out during the day.
MD House, Chiang Mai- Centrally located and very clean, I’ve stayed here two different times. Not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that it also has a pool shaped like a human body part, but I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.
Leafhouse Bungalows, Koh Lanta- Stumbled across this little haven by accident. Right off the beach, super cheap, and with very unique rooms. The link takes you to a video walk-through I made when I stayed there.
Rainforest B&B, Kuala Lumpur- Located a stone’s throw from the heart of KL, Bukit Bintang, this cool place is tucked in to a side street that stays amazingly quiet for how close it is to all the hubbub.
Golden Mango Inn, Siem Reap- The pool is nice, the breakfast is free and delicious, and Sony is the man! Make sure you grab some of that awesome juice he serves and if you find out the name of it, let me know!
K’s House Ito Onsen, Ito- The neatest building I’ve ever stayed in, this place is a true gem. The natural hot spring baths are to die for, and the whole place is so tastefully done that you’ll never want to leave.
Kanalian, Yokohama- Completely renovated by hand by the owner Li and some of his friends, this place only has bunk beds but makes up for that by the incredible attention to detail that is everywhere. And even though you’ll only pay $20 a night, Li will hand you out enough free snacks and beer that he’s basically paying you to stay there (bad management skills, but an awesome guy!).
Madhuban, Jaipur- This guesthouse is in an old haveli (home for the rich) and has a super friendly staff, beautiful courtyard, and nice little pool.
Hotel Pearl Palace, Jaipur- The key to this place is that rooftoop restaurant, which is constantly packed with people, not only for its cheap food but its amazing view.
Hotel Taj Plaza, Agra- The rooms are just ok, which for Agra means nice, but the real reason to stay here is so you can sip a Kingfisher at night from the roof and gaze at the Taj Mahal and then wake up the next morning and do the same with a lassi.
The Tiger, Udaipur- I sound like a broken record with my India recommendations, but again, the main reason to stay at The Tiger is because the 360 degree rooftop view is tremendous; the Lake Palace, the City Palace, and the entire city of Udaipur is all laid out before you. The staff is also some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, and Cafe Edelweiss, which is across the street and owned by the same guy, provides a very nice break from curry and naan for breakfast each day.
Ok, I’ve said my piece, now its your turn. Have you stayed at a hostel before? If so, what did you like or dislike about it? Do you have any recommendations of places you’ve liked? And if you haven’t stayed at one, have I convinced you to try it?