I'm pretty sure the majority of my friends fell over when I told them I was staying in hostels. Not only is it a stark contrast to my previous professional life of flying business class and staying in 5 star hotels around the world, but their perspective of hostels is exactly the view I shared before I set off on this journey.
The first time I ever stayed in anything close to a hostel was just three years ago. My friend Danielle and I went to Portugal for a week to a surf school in Peniche. It was more like a house share, where Dani and I had a bedroom and bathroom on the top floor and we shared the house with two German brothers who had a room and bathroom on the first floor. Given our days were so long at surf school, we didn't spend much time there and therefore it didn't feel much like shared space.
As we settled in, somehow it came up in conversation that I had never stayed in shared accommodations before. Dani was floored! In New Zealand and Australia, it is a rite of passage to do some overseas travel either before university ("gap year") or after ("OE/overseas experience"), and given the limited funds they have at that age, hostels are the primary option. The same is true for many European countries.
Knowing about the gap year, I had always viewed hostels as a place where 18-22 year olds rule. I imagined it to be like the cheap lawn seats at a Dave Matthews concert, where all the kids are falling over drunk, being all loud and obnoxious, making out and throwing up on each other. I outgrew that scene a long time ago and started paying more money for the good seats.
So without any gap year or long-term OE experience, I skipped right to paying more for my accommodations when I traveled, attempting to avoid the drunk kids and the inevitable noise and mess they would bring with them.
But when you are planning a trip around the world, want it to last 6 months, and no longer have a paycheck - you have to evaluate cheaper options. So while I started in an AirBnB in Buenos Aires, I knew that I would be moving onto hostels fairly quickly.
I started looking at reviews online and quickly could pick out the places that fed my perspective of them, and those that looked 'respectable'. TripAdvisor and HostelWorld have user reviews that tell you about the vibe, noise levels, cleanliness, location, etc. And you can decipher what type of crowd stays there by the reviews themselves and what the guests write about. ("Near all the night clubs bro!" "Sweeeeet rec room with beers and a ping pong table!" = NO)
Aside from one unpleasant experience in a stop-over city, my experiences at hostels have been incredibly positive. I've done both shared and private rooms. They have been clean and comfortable, social but tranquil. Some have even been nicer than hotels I've stayed in.
And the people? Well, they are not what I had pictured. They are not loud, obnoxious kids looking to get bombed. They are professionals, students, drifters and teachers of all kinds. They are people who don't want to wait until they are retired to travel. They don't want to wait until their friend is ready to go with them, or until they find a significant other. They took a few months off. They took a year off. They took two years off. They are tired of the rat race. They are looking for a change. They want to step outside their comfort zone. They want a break from their routine. They want to explore. They want to meet new people. They want to gain new perspective. They want to experience other cultures. They want to experience themselves in a new context. They want to savor Mother Nature's creations. They want to be inspired.
They are...just like me.
I have met some amazing people in the hostels I've stayed in that have led me to incredible adventures and great fun. My perspective has completely changed. And while I don't suggest a hostel is the best option for every type of journey - if you choose wisely, it could lead to some unexpected and memorable experiences.