I have a confession to make.
Before this trip, I never stayed in a hostel.
And to be honest, one of my biggest fears before starting this trip was how the whole hostel thing would go. Ever since I can remember, I have pictured hostels as loud, crazy places where drunken 18 to 21 year olds pass out (or hook up!) as they traipse through Europe. When I started traveling at age 25, I thought I was too old for a hostel. I mean, they were called “youth hostels” for a reason, right?
As I stepped off the airport bus in Helsinki, an older woman followed me off the bus and as we gathered our luggage, she asked if I was headed to the hostel. Even though I had heard from plenty of other that people of all ages now stay in hostels, I was still surprised and somewhat relieved to see that a woman my mother’s age would be joining me in the Hostel Stadion.
As it turned out, a lot of things surprised me in my first hostel stay.
My roommates were not crazy partiers, nor were they all younger than me. I was in an 8-bed dorm, with 6-7 of the beds full on any given night. Although I don’t recall the hostel website offering the choice of a female-only dorm, we did indeed have only women in our room the entire time I was there. It also seemed we were all traveling solo, which eased another of my fears: being assigned a bed in a dorm with a group traveling together and feeling like a third or fifth wheel.
My dorm-mates also went to bed much earlier than I expected (lights were usually out before midnight and the hostel enforced quiet hours 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) and awoke earlier than I expected. I usually got up around 8 or 8:30 a.m. (which is sleeping in for me!) and I was never the first one to rise.
I liked that the hostel offered free wi-fi in the dining room and lobby.
I liked that they had lockers in the dorm rooms.
I liked that each bed had 2 outlets and a light above it. Great for charging phones, cameras, etc. while you sleep.
I also liked that they provided sheets, towels and a freakin’ hair dryer free of charge.
Of course, there were things I didn’t like as well.
I didn’t care so much for feeling less independent because I couldn’t operate 100% on my desired schedule and because I felt like the others in my dorm were watching my every move (although I’m sure they really weren’t).
I also didn’t care so much for the semi-communal showers (each stall had 2 shower heads, a bit too close together for my taste). Seriously, I don’t need to see other women as they shower and they don’t need to see me. Sorry if that makes me a bit prudish, but so what? Luckily, I managed to time my showering so I had a stall to myself.
And I didn’t care for the fact that someone stole my watch while I showered on my last morning there. Granted, I let my guard down a bit and stuck my watch in the pocket of my jeans which were sitting on a bench just outside the shower stall, but still. It was quite a downer to my first hostel experience, but a good lesson to learn.
Then I moved on to Tallinn and stayed at a second hostel, Gidic Backpackers, which was about as different from the first as it could be.
While the Hostel Stadion was large and sterile (after all, it was part of the Olympic Stadium!), Gidic was small and cozy, a restored house built in 1881. When I arrived at the first, they gave me a key card, my bedding and the number of my room, and sent me on my way. When I arrived in Tallinn, the owner sat down with me for 15 minutes pointing out everything to see and do in the city, gave me a tour of the whole place and then, finally, showed me to my room.
Which brings me to the biggest thing I’ve realized so far: it’s impossible to make assumptions about hostels because no two will ever be exactly alike.
Do you stay at hostels when you travel? Love ’em? Hate ’em?