In the past two weeks, I’ve stayed in three different hostels. City Backpackers in Stockholm, Sweden set a new high, a standard against which all future hostels will be judged. And Oops! Hostel and Young & Happy in Paris are fighting it out for the title of the worst hostel at which I’ve ever stayed.
It’s caused me to think about what I value as a budget traveler. Many of the luxuries of a hotel room are delightful, but unnecessary: I don’t really need a flat-screen TV and 300-count sheets. All I really need is a (reasonably comfortable) place to rest my head and a secure place to store my belongings—but there are other things that make quite the difference.
Free Wifi: Without a doubt, the most important factor in where I stay. Sure, some of it relates to C’est Christine and having the ability to upload photos and posts without calculating rates—as well as being able to use Skype and Facebook to keep in touch with home. Having reliable Internet access also makes many facets of traveling easier: checking museum times, researching train tickets, reading restaurant reviews.
City Backpackers offered free Wifi with an open network that you could access anywhere on the premises. Oops! had annoying codes that you had to reenter every few hours, and that only worked in the lobby. Young & Happy actually charges for Internet—and the worst part is that it used to be free.
In-room lockers: I travel with a good amount of technology: a laptop, iPhone, SLR camera, point-and-shoot camera. While most of it goes with me during the day, I’m hesitant to leave any of it unlocked in a mixed-dorm with I just met. In-room lockers immediately put my mind at ease, whether I’m out on the town or just taking a shower. Neither Oops! nor Young & Happy have in-room lockers, which is requiring me to put a lot of trust in people I just met and a cleaning staff I never see.
Shared kitchen: Just having a refrigerator and cutlery available is enough for me: I like having yogurt and fruit available for a snack or light dinner. However, having a fully-stocked kitchen not only saves money on eating out, but it also allows you to meet other travelers. The large work space and long tables at City Backpackers, as well as organized refrigerator system, created a convivial space for travelers to share stories and swap cooking tips. At Oops! and Young & Happy, I’m stuck splurging on Paris delicacies all the time (which my stomach isn’t exactly complaining about, but my wallet is).
Plugs: These days, everyone has something to charge: computers, cell phones, cameras. It’s tough to argue with people you just met over who has priority on a plug all night—and a breach of traveler etiquette to pull out someone’s charging device. City Backpackers had an Internet lounge: not only was there free Wifi and comfy seats, but there was a plug under every seat. One accessible plug in a six-room dorm in Young & Happy? I’m not thrilled.
Cleanliness: Hard to judge until you get there, but boy, can it make a difference. Oops! has a history of bedbugs, which totally freaked me out once I arrived and found out. The bathrooms in Young & Happy are certainly of the flipflop-absolutely-required genre—and are often out of toilet paper in the morning. However, City Backpackers was spotless, despite easily being one of the largest hostels I’ve stayed in and not having a daily lockout.
Sheets, towels and hair dryers: I’m wiling to pay a deposit or a nominal fee, but charging for sheets and towels is a bit ridiculous to me. Who has the space to carry sheets and a towel on the road?! Also, if I’m paying for sheets—they better be clean. The ones from Oops! and Young & Happy both had stains and hair on them, which completely grossed me out. Hair dryers are a must for female travelers, whether they’re in-room or something you have to borrow from reception. Young & Happy doesn’t have any.
Customer service: Friendly, helpful desk clerks can make or break the experience. The Swedish staff at City Backpackers spoke perfect English, and was extremely informative, smiling and willing to make changes. Typical French service at Oops! and Young & Happy has me underwhelmed, as well as little annoyed—they’ve got that Gallic shrug down pat.
Awesome extras: City Backpackers also offered free two-hour bike rental (just enough time to ride around Djurgarden), free afternoon sauna (the perfect way to warm up from the chilly Swedish weather), and free pasta (and who doesn’t LOVE free food?!). Codes, instead of keys, also make life a lot easier. While the standards they offer were enough to win me over, the freebies make me want to sing their praises from the rooftop. There are no such extras at Oops! or Young & Happy—other than a good location.
What’s the most important factor for you in choosing a hostel or hotel?