Do you need a reservation to stay at a hostel? Not necessarily, but it's usually a good idea. The more popular hostels are usually full during the busy season (which in most areas means summer), but they may also be full other times of the year, particularly on holidays and weekends. If you do book online, the reservation systems usually require that you book at least two or three days ahead of time. If it's sooner than that, you need to try to contact the hostel directly, or you could chance it and try just showing up. For busy hostels, it's best to book as far in advance as possible. But if it's more than a couple months before your arrival day and you aren't finding any available beds, don't panic because that usually just means the hostel owner hasn't put available beds in the online system yet.
When you book a bed or room you usually have to pay a deposit (typically 10% of the total cost of your stay) plus a booking fee of a dollar or two. Then when you show up at the hostel you pay only the remaining percent of your stay. Oh, but make sure you really do only pay the remaining percent... hostel staff sometimes have a tendency to forget to subtract out the deposit you already paid, but they'll always do it if you remind them.
* Recommended * Hostelz.com (rating: 9/10) - Hostelz.com isn't perfect, but it does have a lot of advantages over the other hostels sites (despite the somewhat cheesy sounding name). They have by far the most complete database of hostels, and it's one of the only sites that gives you contact information for hostels (their website, phone #s, etc.). They're best known as the place to read real reviews of hostels since they don't censor negative out comments like websites run by the booking companies (and some of the comments are really really negative!). But that's also a downfall, since you don't always know which comments to believe (some hostels have both very positive and very negative comments). For many hostels they have full "hostel reviews" from actual paid reviewers, and those are great (but of course they haven't yet reviewed a lot of them). For reservations they use multiple reservations systems and combine data from all of them (including all the big ones, so it has all the hostel data and booking availability of HostelWorld, combined with Hostelbookers, Gomio, HostelsClub, and probably others)... so you have a good chance of finding available beds at a wide selection of hostels (with no added price mark-up). They also list cheap hotels and guesthouses, but their information on hostels seems to be more thorough and complete than their hotel info.
EuropeFamousHostels.com (rating: 7/10) - This is a small site, but if you're going to Europe it's worth checking it out. This is kind of a "best-of" list of about 15 hostels around Europe. They really are some of the most popular hostels in Europe and if you're looking for fun party hostels, you can't go wrong with any of the ones they list. The website is run by the owner of one of the hostels on the list (I can't recall which one it was).
HostelWorld (rating: 6/10) - HostelWorld is the most used hostels site... not because it's the best site, but because HostelWorld spends a ton of money advertising the site all over the place. It was started by a business developer who admits he's never actually stayed in a hostel. Prices tend to be higher on Hostelworld than other sites, and in additional they charge an extra $2 fee, which no other websites do. They only list hostels that are in their reservation system (which means many of the best hostels aren't listed), and they don't give you any kind of contact info for hostels at all. They offer a rating system and customer comments... but it's actually a sham because they let the hostel owners delete any comments that they don't like! There are other hostels websites that have every hostel HostelWorld has, plus a lot more.
Hostels.com (rating: 6/10) - Years ago this site was run by a hostel owner in San Francisco and it used to be a useful site that provided phone numbers, email, and website links for hostels. But then guess what... HostelWorld's parent corporation (Web Reservations International) bought the site and deleted most of the contact info for hostels and made it into just another site to book HostelWorld hostels :-(. Despite the claim on their front page, it's no longer the largest hostel database on the web, and reportedly it isn't being kept up to date (...except for hostels in the HostelWorld booking system of course).
BugEurope.com (rating: 7/10) - This site has a lot of useful info, including partial hostel listings for Europe. It doesn't have all the hostels listed and some of the info is out of date (and they don't have any pictures), but it's worth checking out for some comments and reviews of some of the better known hostels.
Hostels.net, HostelPlanet.com, HostelsWeb.com, EuropeanHostels.com, HostelsAmericas.com, HostelsEurope.com, cheapest-hostels.com, TravelPunk.com ...and a zillion others (rating: 4/10) - They all are "affiliates" of HostelWorld! They use HostelWorld's data and HostelWorld's booking engine and they don't provide any more useful information that you find on HostelWorld (actually even less).
HostelsClub, HostelBookers, HostelTraveler, HostelTimes, HostelMania, Gomio, and others (rating: 5/10) - There are a lot of these sites popping up lately that have their own independent booking systems and they're basically trying to do exactly what HostelWorld has been doing (to various degrees of success). There aren't really any major differences among them, except that in a few cities some may offer reservations at hostels that HostelWorld doesn't, but most of them don't have very many hostels in their systems yet.
Are HI hostels better than independent hostels? Not necessarily. HI hostels can vary from clean and modern to run-down and poorly maintained (especially in Italy). In many cities the best hostels are the independent ones. Your best bet is to consult a hostels site that has reviews of hostels. Although there are exceptions, HI hostels are typically clean, but perhaps a little too sanitized with an institutional feel. They're more likely than independent hostels to impose rules and to have curfews [a time at night you have to be back by or else you get locked out] and daytime lockouts [a period of time during the day when the hostel is closed for cleaning]. HI hostels are also less likely to offer mixed dorm rooms. But like I said, there are exceptions.
Should you buy a membership card? Technically to stay in an HI hostel you have to be an HI member. You join by ordering a membership card from the HI organization in your home country before your trip. But there's a backup option. If you show up at an HI hostel without a membership card, you can pay a little extra for each night you stay. What's nice is you get a temporary membership card and a stamp on it for each night you stay, and after you've paid roughly about as much extra as a membership costs, then you're a member. The catch is not all hostels let you do that (but most do), and even the ones that do sometimes run out of stamps. So if you're doing any substantial traveling and you plan on staying in HI hostels, you're best off just buying a membership ahead of time. Of course you don't need any kind of membership to stay at independent hostels.
Random fact: Hostelling International used to claim that only HI hostels could even be called "hostels" since they had trademarked the term in several countries, but after losing some court cases over the matter, they've mostly backed off on that claim.
Mixed dorms are also a good option for couples who are traveling together who still want to sleep in a dorm room. Speaking of, what about sex? Well, couples (and people who have found a new hook-up buddy) would probably be best off getting a private room (many hostels now offer private rooms). But that's not to say shenanigans don't happen under covers in the dorm rooms from time to time, especially in some of the crazier party hostels. But that's pretty rare at most hostels, and usually the coed dorms are used just for sleeping.
Coed dorms are most common in independent hostels, and are sometimes are to find in conservative countries (such as the US).
But not all hostels are fit for families and kids. There are plenty of fun social "party" hostels full of nothing but young travelers who are there to have fun. These sort of hostels may not necessarily have age limits, but older folks and families would definitely feel out of place. These hostels are great for young travelers who are interested in getting to know their fellow backpackers. They're especially good for solo travelers. It's pretty easy to hang out in the common areas and start up a conversation with whoever is around. Before you know it you'll have new friends to explore the city with. Meeting new people is one of the best parts of the traveling experience, and social hostels are the best places to meet them. You may find yourself exploring Paris with a group of Aussies and Kiwis one day, and then experiencing Amsterdam with a bunch of Swedes and Spaniards the next day. That's what traveling is all about.
Many of the social hostels have their own full bars right inside the hostel, particularly in parts of Europe.
You can usually find out which hostels are the fun social hostels by reading their descriptions and reviews. But one thing you should know, typically hostels are either nice and clean, or fun and social, but only rarely are they both. Many of the top party hostels aren't spic-n-span clean, and some of them can be noisy until late at night, so keep in mind there might be a trade-off, so think about what you're really looking for before you choose a hostel.
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