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Contrary to popular belief, hostels are not as bad as they seem. If you've never stayed in one before, I can completely empathize with your fear going into the situation wondering if hostels are safe. Just know that I came out alive, happy, and am here to share the info that I learned through my experiences to hopefully help you if you're considering staying in a hostel on your vacation to Europe.
What are the benefits of staying in a hostel? The most obvious one is to save money while on vacation, however, they also provide the opportunity to stay in great, central neighborhoods as well. Another benefit of hostels is that it's an easy way to meet fellow travelers and backpackers, especially for those traveling alone. The key to this though, is that you really have to be open to meeting new people. Don't be shy! Of course always go with your gut when it comes to safety and make smart choices, but something to remember is that most people in hostels are in the same boat you are, and it's a much easier environment to make friends as a solo traveler since you are literally sharing a living space with others than it would be at an Airbnb or hotel.
Obviously hostels have their drawbacks and it's something to consider when looking to stay in them. Most hostels have several options available when it comes to the type of room you want to book. From personal experience, having stayed in various types of dorm situations in hostels ranging from 4-person all-female to 16-person male and female, it's really not as uncomfortable as you'd think. Most people are actually quite friendly and sometimes others just keep to themselves, but it's usually pretty relaxed. The only exception being the 8 year old French boy running around the hallways of my London hostel. There are of course bathrooms available to change in for privacy, which seems to be what everybody does.
Anytime you sleep in the same room with other people, there is always the possibility of a snorer disturbing your precious sleep time. I'm very sensitive to snoring, so it can sometimes be a problem trying to fall asleep when the person below you sounds like they are a cruise-liner coming into port in the middle of the night. It doesn't happen all the time necessarily, but it can occur from time to time, or maybe not at all if you're lucky. And if you don't experience any snorers during your trip, then you are super lucky and I'd like to take you Vegas sometime later this year.
Another drawback to consider is a lack of secured storage space. This varies from hostel to hostel and when researching them, make sure to look in to whether or not they provide lockers in the dorms. Most lockers won't fit everything but you are able to at least put your valuables inside. Now, living in LA, I'm unfortunately more jaded than most, so I'm more of the mindset of making sure things like my passport, money, phone, etc. are locked up or with me at all times. However other items like toiletries and clothes are totally safe. I really can't imagine someone having much of an incentive to steal my $5 t-shirt from Target. The thing is though, it is still a shared space and it's probably best to avoid bringing unnecessary expensive items with you that you don't really need.
What should you bring and what you don't need to bring when staying in a hostel. Let's start with hostel must haves. Make sure to bring good earplugs; this will greatly help you when it comes to not only the snorers but general noise in the building and outside. You should also bring a lock and key, or combination lock, to lock up your belongings in the lockers available. While many hostels provide lockers, they do not provide, or may charge for, a lock. Make sure that the lock meets flight-travel standards; basic ones used in locker rooms are OK. Since hostels are a public place with multiple people using the same showers and bathrooms, absolutely make sure to bring flip flops. Even if you are traveling to a colder climate, flip flops are a must to use for the showers.
Now onto what not to bring. You do not need a towel. Most hostels will provide towels for a very small deposit, which is returned to you when you check out. Towels take up a lot of unnecessary space and may not be dry yet when you have to relocate to your next destination. You can also avoid bringing any linen and/or pillows. This is all provided by the hostel. Sometimes they may require a deposit, but like towels, it is returned to you upon check out.
A good rule of thumb regarding each hostel you stay at is to thoroughly research what each one provides, as they can all be different. Most provide laundry facilities but you will have to pay a small fee to use them as you would at an apartment building, as well as pay for detergent if you do not have your own.
My hostel recommendation for Scotland is the Budget Backpackers Hostel located in Old Town Edinburgh. This hostel is right in the middle of town and is walking distance to everything, including a short 15 minute walk (20 minutes for my short legs) to the Waverly Train Station. The hostel is safe and the location is incredible. They even provide meal and drink coupons to use at their hostel.
If traveling to London, I recommend the YHA Youth Hostel Oxford St. located near London's West End. It is a secured building located in a safe neighborhood. It is a short 10 minute walk to the Oxford Circus subway station or just a block behind London's busy Oxford St. where you can catch buses as well. The hostel is clean and well-maintained. Do not let the title fool you; you do not have to be under 30 to stay here. I actually saw quite a few families staying there during my trip.
For Paris I suggest the Young and Happy Hostel. The location was incredible. It was on a street called Rue Mouffetard, not to be confused with 'Dotard'. Rue Mouffetard is a local market street in the Paris' Latin Quarter. It is close to both bus stop and subway stations and is central enough to even walk over to Notre Dame and around central Paris. The biggest drawback though to this hostel was that it was the only one that did not provide in-room lockers. The only lockers provided were very small ones in the lobby area. Though my stuff remained fine, I made sure to have my valuables with me when heading out around town.
These 3 hostels worked well for me during my trip, but as always I suggest that you research different ones to see what's important to you when it comes to what they provide and the location. Always be sure the location is safe. For example in Paris, I learned that it's best to stay within the first 10 neighborhoods. Their system is a little different and they have numbered neighborhoods from the center of Paris heading outward. The more central, the better.
My upcoming post will focus on the gorgeous Scotland and my recommendations for what to see and do while you are there.
Jill Zwarensteyn is a television producer, writer, and comedian who has been featured on Amazon, truTV, The New York Times, Matador Network, BUST Magazine, Tiplr, ARTRPRNR Magazine, YourTango, Thought Catalog, GoMad Nomad, Mashable, The Daily Mail UK, the Cannes Film Festival, LaughFest, Women's Lifestyle Magazine, and the Funny Women Festival LA. For more info visit: http://www.jillzwarensteyn.weebly.com