I'm writing this to you from my aunt's apartment in Brussels, where I have a cozy bed stacked with blankets, a free washing machine, and an endless parade of sandwiches made and forced upon me. While I know that can sound pretty ideal, let me tell you about how I'm going slightly stir-crazy either spending evenings alone or holed up with three Slavic women and their Polish news channels.
Living alone is hard. Traveling alone is hard. You begin to miss friendly conversations over coffee or long dinners grabbed with friends or handsome strangers, and when you're holed up in an apartment or hotel room, it's easy to become lonely and homesick.
My solution for that, ladies and gents? Go the hostel route. Here's why:
1. There's A Fun, Communal Spirit
When you wrestle your backpack through the hostel doors, there's an understanding that you'll probably be staying in an eight person or 12-person dorm, meaning right from the get-go you're expecting more roommates than you've probably had in your whole adult life. So you walk in there having a communal spirit, ready to start mingling and talking before your scarf is fully unwound.
Not only will you have a mess of interesting people in your room, but you'll chat them up in the kitchen while cooking, the lounge while looking up bus tickets, the patio while enjoying a beer – you're all living together and sharing everything, and everyone wants to become buds with their roomies. A hostel is built out of a series of common rooms that encourage guests to mingle and chat, whether that's getting a cheep beer together at the bar or hanging out underneath the patio umbrellas outside.
2. It's Stacked With Interesting Travelers
The nice thing about being a traveler is that you automatically have an ice breaker with anyone else on the road: Where are you from, how long have you been traveling, where have you been? Seriously, it's a borderline script, but everyone is genuinely curious as to what everyone else has experienced and learned. And you'll come across all sorts of interesting stories that way – I've met a girl that's been wandering from country to country for over a year, with no real plan of going home; I've talked with a guy who packed up his dog and banjo and has been sampling different cities to start a new life in; a woman who sold her house in California and opened up a cafe in India...You'll be amazed how many interesting people are out there, just waiting for you to say hello. And you'll run across all of them at your hostel.
3. They're Located In The City Centers
You can either stay at the Hilton for 400x the price, or you can stay in a room for $10 smack dab in the middle of the city center. And that prime location is part of why it's so easy to make friends while coming down for breakfast: When you're that close to anything interesting, asking the random person that reached for the coffee pot the same time you did to go sightseeing doesn't seem like such a big commitment. It's just a matter of walking outside your front door. It makes making friends and inviting them out so much easier.
4. The Hostel Staff Has All The Insider Knowledge
Don't want to spend a touristy amount on dinner? Want to know where all the locals go to get their beers? Want to see some sights that are more neighborhood jewels than fannypack havens? The hostel staff is usually made up of twenty-something travelers that have been holed up in that city for a couple of months now, and they have all the insider knowledge of where to get the best bagel for breakfast, and which day trip is worth the train ticket. They understand the experience that a traveler is after, and they're always more than willing to help. It's like having a Lonely Planet that can talk to you!
5. Most Hostels Have Decked-Out Kitchens
Spending money day after day on lunch and dinner can really make your wallet want to wring its hands, but if you stay at a hostel they can help you with that problem. Most hostels have fully equipped kitchens, where you have a stove, pots, pans, and cutting boards at your disposal. Not only does it make your wallet take a sigh in relief, it also offers you the chance to get homey with new friends. Invite your roommates or the person you just got chummy with in the common room to help you make dinner, and split a bottle of wine once you have your plates and forks set.
6. Hostels Hold Special Events To Get You Out Of Your Room
Rather than coming back to your white-sheet-ed hotel room and spending the rest of the night with the TV, hostels try their best to get you out of your bunk bed and playing with the other guests. They host movie nights, have board games, put together pub crawls, trivia nights, free guided tours, drinking games – anything to get you talking after a day full of sightseeing and exploring. There's about zero chance of being lonely. And you don't have to spend an evening alone in the dark, just you and your backpack.
7. Hostel Staying Is A Big Part Of Your Journey
Often times when I look back on my trips and country-crossing adventures, I see that the hostels and the people I met there were a huge part of my trip. My room wasn't just a temporary place I kicked my feet up before I packed my bags for the next train, but it was an experience in itself. When staying at a hotel, you're just looking for somewhere to shower and sleep. When staying in a hostel, you already know you're going to make interesting new friends, see new sides of the city you wouldn't have on your own, and learn about all the unexpected, unique stories of strangers.
These are bona fide memories - I've had moments where I stayed up till four in the morning playing poker and laughing so hard I had to double over; where I cooked dinner with roommates as we split cheap grocery store wine and talked about how we'd meet in Barcelona in two months time; went out to local bars where you said "ahoy" instead of "hi" and fell in love with the people I was with as if we've known each other since grade school.
Staying at a hostel leaves an imprint on you, and it becomes just as much a memory of the city as its interesting winding roads and Gothic cathedrals. It's not just a place you nap — it's another place you connect with.