A hostel is a place where it's possible to spend a night without spending too much money. It's not at all unlike a hotel, only usually a bit cheaper, and mostly you will have to sleep in dormitories. Many would say that a hostel is a low-standard establishment. This will seldom be the truth, but because of its reputation as being the hangout of scruffy Backpackers and other ne'er-do-wells, it may be the reason why one tends to meet so many nice people staying there.
Amenities and Services
Hostels may differ a lot in standards, appearances and amenities, and will also differ according to their locations. One common feature of all hostels is the fact that they have dormitory rooms. While the following is no rule, some will also have a few single/double rooms for rent, most will have shared bathrooms and toilets, many will have a kitchen you may use, a TV room and a living room. Many hostels will also have a name with 'hostel' in it, although this is no rule either, and a few real flea-pits will try to disguise themselves as a 'hostel' by doing the same thing. You should also be a bit careful if the 'hostel' charge for beds by the hour. Then again, it's always up to you and your tastes. Different hostels may have a lot of things in common, but there will not necessary be too many set standards.
Most hostels will supply you with the basic stuff you need for your stay (including a towel). But to be on the safe side, it's advisable to bring your own sleeping bag and/or sheet, since some places will require you have one (or you will have to rent one for an extra fee). Bringing your own sleeping bag/sheet may get the price down in some places as well. Although some hostels say they have a fully equipped kitchen, this will very seldom be the truth, since a lot of things have a tendency to mysteriously disappear from the kitchen drawers. Most kitchens though, will almost always have enough equipment for you to prepare your dinners.
The usual people staying in hostels tend to be rather young but even if the hostels style themselves as 'youth hostels', there will very seldom be an age limit. Some hostels will charge you more if you're past a certain age (for instance, 26 or 30). You may meet people of all ages, from teenagers to people so old they can hardly get out of their beds without someone being there to help them. Most of the guests are travellers and backpackers, dropping in for a few days before heading on. Some of the people working at the hostel will be travellers too, who pay for their stay by working a few hours each day in the reception, or by cleaning, changing bedclothes an so on.
There are different hostel associations to which many hostels are affiliated. Among the best-known and biggest are the Hostelling International (HI), the Backpackers (originating in Australia), and also many different national Youth Hostel Associations (YHA). The National Youth Hostel Associations are often affiliated to the HI and will usually have a certain standard that may or may not be followed up. There are also a lot of independent/unaffiliated hostels; these are often the most exciting ones, but they will also be the ones that tend to vary most in quality. Some places will require that you be a member of their association to let you stay the night, but a membership will always be possible to organise on the spot and tends to be rather cheap. Memberships may also give discounted prices at affiliated hostels, and a few places an ISIC-card1 will do the same.
Finding a Hostel
Hostels are found in a lot of different locations, from huge cities to small villages and remote places and on all continents. Here is a short list of how to ask 'Where is the hostel (for young people)?' in some different languages, that may help you in locating a hostel in many different parts of the world:
Spanish: ¿Dónde est´ el albergue juvenil/albergue para jóvenes?
German: Wo ist die Jugendherberge?
Italian: Dov'e ostello per la gioventu/Dov'e ostello?
French: Où est l'auberge de jeunesse, s'il vous plaît?
Dutch: Waar is de jeugdherberg?
Croatian: Gdje je hostel?
There are also many lists of international hostels online, many with links to booking pages and rates - a good place to start.
Rules and curfews vary from each hostel, but for most people they won't be difficult to follow. Examples are 'Please clean up after yourself', and 'Do not butcher your roommates with a chainsaw', the last one will usually be among the unwritten rules, and will seldom or never appear in a hostel's regulations (if it happens to be in the regulations, you'd better clear out as soon as possible!). The fact that they, in general, don't need such rules written down is often taken as a proof that hostels are much more tolerant and sensible establishments than perhaps even society in general. Curfews vary as well, from the very worst (about 10pm, which is very rare) to the very best (none at all).
What's so Special about Hostelling Anyway?
There are some special aspects to hostelling, that will seem positive to some, but negative for others.
Firstly, hostels are a cheap option, with dorm beds where you will have to share a room with other people. The prices differ depending which part of the world you're in, and may be as cheap as US$1-2 at its lowest, to about US$15-20 at the very worst. The dorms vary a lot in size, but will not be less than four beds and seldom more than 50. Many hostels also give you the chance to make your own food in a common kitchen, which saves a lot on restaurant bills. Of course, sharing all these facilities with people you do not necessary know, will for many people sound rather nasty and uncomfortable. So people who don't like this sort of travelling would be best advised to stay clear of hostels.
There will usually be lots of other people hanging around a hostel as well, and it's an excellent place to meet new people! Many people staying there will be interested in starting new friendships too. Because of the familiarity generated by the informal style of sharing bedrooms, kitchens etc, it often feels easier for people to strike up conversations with total strangers in hostels than in many other places. If you like your privacy, though, this may seem a bit too much, and other places may be better suited for you. There's not a lot of privacy to be had in hostels.
New friends bring us onto another subject which have made hostels famous: parties! Alcohol has long been known to reduce the tension between people (or in some cases to raise it). Often it may be used with much success to break the ice between people. Sometimes you'll find it easier to get to know new people by inviting them out for a drink. Of course, you will probably not end up in a pub/bar/disco every night, but for many, this will certainly be one of the pastimes to indulge in while staying at a hostel. You'll also be able to pick up a lot of advice and rumours from other guests about nice places to go or nasty places to avoid, what to see, what to do and what not to do, and so on.