Hosteling for the first time: Lessons learned

Bullhead Lake, Glacier National Park

Staying in a hostel made my Glacier N.P. dream a reality.

The clerk at Brownies’ Bakery and Hostel handed me a padlock key from across the counter, and pointed toward a set of worn, painted stairs to the second story of the log building. Upstairs, I found my way through the dim living room, decorated in style that can only be described as early-American-garage-sale, to my room down the hall. It was a simple room with a queen-size bed, nightstand and built-in shelf. The walls were quarter-inch wood paneling, with pieces of scrap nailed over the knotholes for privacy, and my window looked out over a dog pen. Colorful, soft, miss-matched sheets waited in a stack on the bed. This was my first experience staying in a hostel. The fact that it was located on top of a bakery was a good start.

I had attempted to stay in a hostel just two months before, but pitched my tent out back after seeing the place. It had one large, grungy, coed dorm, and the big dude under my assigned bunk was pounding bean burritos. I could only imagine how it would smell at 3:00 a.m. Vaguely, I sense movement in the shadows — perhaps just my imagination. Several of the guests were already drunk, and it just didn’t feel right. Traveling solo, I’ve learned to trust my instincts.

I vowed to try hosteling again, but with better planning. The prices were attractive, and that would allow me to travel farther and stay longer at my destination. Fortunately, my next hostel experience went far better thanks to some good advice, which I’ll share with you.

Read the Reviews

Had I done a little research, I would have known the first hostel had a poor reputation and was best known for its mice and roaches. Perhaps that was the movement I sensed in the shadows.

Once you locate a hostel, spend the time to read the online reviews before booking. Bad news spreads fast online; if travelers are unhappy they spread the word. Websites such as,, and are a good start, but also Google the hostel name once you find one to pick up other reviews you would otherwise miss.

Know What to Bring

When I called to book my spot at Brownies, the owner told me to pack earplugs. “The walls are paper thin,” she explained. My expectations were set before I arrived. During my four-night stay, I heard a lot. A surgeon gave a phone consult in the next room — and I listened in — riveted to every detail. Another traveler became ill, and well, I had to hear him heave all night long. I should have packed those earplugs. Lesson learned.

Some hostels require guests to provide or rent their linens. A suggestion is to travel with a sleep sack, a sheet-thin sleeping bag, so you are prepared either way. Don’t forget to pack soap, shampoo and shower shoes.

Bring your own padlock. Most hostels provide a secure place for your valuables, such as a locker, but not the lock. Keep one with you just in case.

Be Social and Share

The kitchen at Brownies wrapped around a large, Formica-topped dining table. The open shelves along the wall held each guest’s pantry items, marked with their name and departure date. The two refrigerators were organized using the same system. On the walls, little plaques with sayings reminded of my grandmother’s kitchen. The bakery’s kitchen was located directly below and the smell of bread, muffins and cake wafted up through the floor.

Saving money by cooking meals in the community kitchen along with fellow travelers has some added benefits. We shared tips about what to see, which roads to avoid and hikes not to miss. We pulled out maps and pictures, and compared notes. The information alone was worth a lot, but what really surprised me was the diversity of guests. There were the expected young singles, but also elderly couples and families.

If your hostel doesn’t have a kitchen, at least hang-out long enough to meet a few people and get some recommendations. Remember, that it is a two-way-street; be prepared to share your recommendations also.

Room or Dorm?

I felt lucky to reserve one of the few private rooms at Brownies; even with the thin walls, it was private, secure and cozy. At opposite ends of the hall were the male and female dorms.

Co-ed dorms, like at the first hostel I tried, are also common. Consider your comfort level and confirm the options before booking. As a solo female, I’m more comfortable in single-sex dorms or a private room. Couples may prefer a room or coed dorm so that they can stay together.


Thanks to good advice, my hostel stay was a pleasure and won’t be my last. I didn’t mind making my own bed, and the noise wasn’t bad. The biggest problem I had was my concern over not disturbing others. When I woke at 5:00 a.m. to photograph in the morning light, everyone else was still sleeping and I was conscious of every sound I made. And sadly, the bakery didn’t open until 7:00 — I never did get to take advantage of the sweet smelling yumminess downstairs.

Comments 8

  1. I am glad you had a … umm.. Nice time? It does sound like you ultimately enjoyed the unique experience that a hostel has to offer and I am happy to hear you will give it another try!

    1. I’m completely sold on hostels now. It was an adjustment with my off schedule, but it was clean, cozy and I wouldn’t trade the interaction with the other guests for anything. Reading your book inspired me to give hostels a try, and now they are my first pick!

  2. Great insights. I tried a hostel once and it was far out and the different hours and one woman rolling and unrolling every plastic bag she had just made me realize I could find single accommodations for not much more in Europe, and have a more pleasant experience. The railroad stations were excellent in finding things in safe areas in a price range I loved most of their recommendations.

  3. Erika, I had very poor experience once staying in a hostel, so I never tried another. Maybe will try another. I have suggested some great ones in budget travel articles and when I get back to Berlin I may try one of the cool ones I found there.

  4. Another tip would be sticking with a chain. For example. HI Hostelling chain is like McDonald’s- you know what you will get in each place because they have some standards to keep to. Also a word of advice to check if they have any loyalty cards (HI Hostelling does) that gives you 10 % off your total. I only stay in female dorms because I value comfort and security.

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