After eight years of hostel-crawling and inspired by "intelligent" conversations over beer with my beloved Kuala Lampur travel buddy, Julia, I decided to propose some guidelines for a perfect hostel. I hope sharing these invaluable nuggets of wisdom would makes the life of backpackers easier, if anyone would listen of course. Copyright notice: if you opt to follow this cunning plan and succeed in establishing a sucessful hostel, you should thank me by distributing free condoms with "Puj supports your pleasure" tags on them. That's all. I don't wanna get greedy. And if you follow these guidelines and fail, you have definitely done something stupid or didn't have sufficient faith in me, and I shall therefore take no responsibilites. I learned this lesson from God.
a cosy common room is the inextricable part of every hostel. If you don't have it, you are at the best a cheap motel. Hostel is a temple for backpackers not only to sleep and chill, but also to make new friends, set up joint travel plans and hit on the opposite sex. All these can only be achieved by means of a promising common room. A simple common room consists merely of a couple of chairs and a coach. A perfect common room includes coaches, pillows, a large TV screen, music and DVD player, a number of good movies on DVD or CD, a bookshelf, a beverage machine (containing at least beer and water) and various game gadgets including table tennis, backgammon and foosball table. Music intruments like a guitar or flute are also recommended if some decide to gay around and impress dumb teenager chicks (mostly from USA).
The best common rooms I have seen belong to Equity Point in Lisbon, X Hostel in Alicante, and Big Pineapple in Bali (Sanur). The last one has a swimming pool right behind the open common room, where you can watch movies on the big-ass screen on the wall from within the pool. How cool is that!
Backpackers are usually not picky due to their limited travel budget. Having that said, a clean and comfortable bed with a close-by powerplug and an individual light for reading are not really too expensive to set up.
By far, the most fascinating bed-construct I saw was in Reggae Mansion hostel in Kuala Lumpur. Not only the beds were spacious (120cm wide) and equipped with a light and a powerplug, but also they had a curtain in case a packpacker (or most likely two) needs privacy. It is true that if you decide to make sweet love others might hear you, but at least they don't have a direct view over your activities. The feeling of being under surveilance and assessment of others can have devastating effects on one's sexual capabilities. Trust me on this one.
Size DOES matter when it comes to a hostel. If you are not a bubble fish and have an acceptable short-term memory, you can remember the first mentioned point: the common room. Over-sized hostels usually cannot offer a cosy common room and at the very best, they provide a restaurant or terrace for people to hang out. This is, however, not a good replacement for a common room because closed groups hang out together at separate tables and it is hard for lonely packpackers or smaller groups to mingle with others. I guess the maximum number of beds in a hostel should not exceed 70-80. Czeck Inn is a good example of a relatively well-equipped hostel that fails to provide a propoer common room. Although, it is very close to a hidden weed bar for those who are interested in smoking pot in Prague. Not me, of course. I just happened to know a friend who knew a friend whose neighbor was a co-worker of someone who was interested. That's all.
Backpackers, like most of other live species, need food and beverage to survive. Poor ones (90% of them) cannot afford to go to restaurants and cafes every day. A kitchen with cooking facilities is therefore a must have. A perfect hostel should provide free tea and coffee on a 24/7 basis accompanied by a big refrigerator, cooking utilities (e.g. Frying pans, pots, basic ingridients, plate, etc.) cooktop and a microwave. Using the kitchen as common room should be refrained from. Remember, common rooms are sacred temples to chill and socialize, not a place to constantly smell the stinky food of others. And don't make a fool of yourself by prohibiting eating and drinking in the rooms. Every limiting rule should make sense in the eyes of backapckers, and prohibiting the consumption of anything simply does not make sense. Pay some extra cash to your cleaning staff and let your guests feel at home.
X Hostel Alicante is one of the good ones on this matter. It's fully equipped and spacious kitchen with various ingredients, cooking material and a big table is a haven for each and every starving fellow traveller. Art Hole hostel in Prague tops even X Hostel for the same features plus free tee and coffee.
A good bar with friendly and understanding bar tender is certainly a big bonus for every hostel. If you cannot offer a bar, don't forget the beverage machine filled at least with sufficient beer (to get drunk) and water (to sober up and ease the next-day inevitable hang-over). And keep in mind, the prices on your bar's menu should be less than a normal bar/restaurant. Don't try to materialize poor backpacker's need of a drink to increase your profit. Offering drink and/or food is a value-added feature to increase your customer's satisfaction, not an opportunity to make some extra cash.
Circus hostel in Berlin and Flying Pig in Amsterdam have exemplary bars so far. Worth mentioning is the boot-beer you can get at the bar at Circus hostel. Don't forget to rotate it when it reaches the heel and you have to put the empty boot upside-down on your head when you finish it. It is a moment every backpacker should experience at least once.
A filling and tasty breakfast can make your guests very happy in the morning. Breakfasts at hostels should be available at least until 11:00. Keep in mind that this is not a student dormitory where people usually wake up early. You are dealing with drinking party animals who usually don't go into bed before 4am. Another important point is that no breakfast at all is better than crappy breakfast. Do not insult the tasting intelligence of backpackers. If you don't want or can't afford to offer a breakfast with an acceptible quality, don't. Nobody shoots you in the head if breakfast is not included. But when you do, have the decency to provide something more than a piece of toast and cereals. Remember, on a large scale you might have to add only 50 cent per person to the costs to be able to enhance the quality of your breakfasts by offering various fruits, different kinds of bread and ham and sausages. The satisfaction you see in backpackers' eyes is priceless, and even economically seen, helps you with advertisement by a compassionate mouth-to-mouth propaganda of your happily filled guests.
The best breakfast I had was in the Goodbye Lenin hostel in Krakow. It was excuisite, versatile, and was offered from 7:00am to 11:00am. We had this fantastic breakfast at 7:00 when we came back from partying. See the extraordinary impact it had? I am still promoting it after four years.
Friendly and young staff make backpackers feel at home. It is a huge bummer to have polite but old and serious staff at your hostel. Let me repeat the obvious one more time: your goal is to make young travellers feel comfortable and relaxed. Staff with a stick up their asses do not help you with achieving that goal.
The friendliest staff I have encountered were at X Hostel Alicante, Art Hole in Prague and Flying Pig in Amsterdam. Especially X Hostel is a pioneer here by practicing the concept of hiring backpackers for a couple of months as its staff. Backpackers are the best hosts as they know the needs and concerns of other fellow backpackers.
Security and safety are important issues everywhere around the globe. You cannot have a good sleep if you are constantly afraid of losing your valueables. A locker for each bed is an obvious must-have. If you cannot afford it, have a safe box at the reception where your guests can conveniently leave their valuables. Don't be an ass by hanging a sign saying "we are not responsible for your shit" without offering any security measures. It is just not right.
It should be noted here that you shall not sacrifice the comfort of your guests for the sake of security. And have one key per person for each room for God's sake. The worst thing that can happen when a group of travellers share a key is that one of them gets lucky at a club and has to get back to get laid, and the others have to wake these love birds or other dormmates up in order to get back in. This is a crime against humanity and should be avoided at all costs.
The best hostel regarding security was the Circus hostel in Berlin. The desciplined German operators of that hostel have installed a sophisticated card-key system (like most hotels) and the same card is used to open your locker. Pretty awesome!
Free access to WiFi in every corner of the building is a must-have. Flawless, ubiquitous and fast access to the Internet is not anymore a luxury in the second decade of the tweny first century, its a necessary commodity like toilet and electricity. If you charge your guests for providing WiFi, it is very much like installing a coin-machine at the toilets to make profits of people taking a dump or letting out a fart. Even more retarded are those hostels (or hotels) that have an hour-based Internet with different username and passwords everytime. They don't recognize that the cost of administering the whole thing is more than the money they are receving and the reputation they are losing. If you cannot understand this simple fact, forget about running a hostel and go open up a shop in the Grand Bazaar of Turkey. Seriously.
Rules and Services
Map and recommendation
Many backpackers rely on you to give them good advice for sightseeing locations, good yet affordable food and party places. The smartest move is to design and have your own map to point out these locations. Czeck Inn in Prague and Flying Pig in Amsterdam both have impressive maps with drawings and descrptions and everything. Follow their lead and you will not regret it. And beware, do not sign contracts with mediocre restaurants to get a commission by sending your trusting guests there. Test the food or other services first before you recommend it. Backpackers are like camels. They do not forget, and they do not forgive such sins. A hint of such dishonest action on TripAdvisor or Hostelbooker, and you should start kissing everything that remotely resembles a backpacker's ass for the rest of your professional career as hostel owner.
Organized social activities
Backpackers are mostly lonely troopers who need guidance and cherishing to maximize their amount of fun while travelling. You can be a part of that by organizing activities for every day of the week. Weekends are easy since there are usually enough participants to organize a pub crawls. Other days can be filled by cooking, game or movie nights.
Adventurer Hostel in Los Angeles and Mad Hostel in Madrid are good party organizers. But by far the best hostel on deeply caring about backpackers is X Hostel in Alicante. They have other hostels in Europe as well, but I have only been to the one in Alicante and I was so pleased that I sometimes go to Alicante just to enjoy my time at this Hostel. They have plans for every day of the week, and they do it all by their super-friendly staff. I hereby salute Alfie for his management!
Check-out and luggage room
Check-out at a hostel shall not be earlier than 12:00. Your guests are not early Muslem prayers who wake up at dawn to be better persons. They need sleep and their flights are sometimes at night. They should be welcome to stay at the hostel after checking out and leave their bags if they want to go for a walk. Reggae Mansion in Kuala Lumpur provides mind-blowingl sleep facility (mentioned before), a nice terrace, reliable and omnipresent WiFi and organized parties on the roof top. They, however, fail to be on the top of my top-three hostels because of three major weaknesses: helpful but uptight and serious staff, lack of a cosy common room, bad tour recommendations, and finally: charging you for leaving your stuff in their luggage room. I am sure if they new the huge negative impact of their financial smart-assness, they would not have done it. Alas they don't.
Sex is a vital part of every backpacker's life. Except the naiive ones who are in a relationship with some left-behind person back home, the rest are eager to mate. How many chances do you get to sleep with a guy from Fiji as a European or bang a chick from Israel as an Arab? Travelling provides this opportunity and one shall grasp it whenever and wherever and however he or she can. This brings us to an important note: Do not under any circumstances try to make an ass of your self and deprive them of this basic yet essential need. They will end up having sex on beds or under the shower whether you like it or not. So the best strategy would be to swim with the current: Be a cool motherfucker and put up a sign: "sexual activities are allowed under shower!" or "If you end up having sex in dorms, good for you! Just keep it as quiet as possible please!". That smile on your guests' faces when they read it is worth 1000 ads on TripAdvisor or Hostelwhatever dot com. And don't forget puting a condom machine in the toilets. It gives them a peace of mind. I haven't seen any apparent sex-friendly hostel yet, so why not be the first and make a reputation? If you decide to go down this road, send me a picture of this sign in your hostel and I promise to update this paragraph accordingly!
And last and least: Money-related issues
there is of course no perfect price for a bed, since it depends heavily on how rich the hosting country or city is. There is a rule of thumb for pricing though: The price of a bed per person per night in a dorm shall not be more than half the price one can pay for a single bed room in a three star hotel. Remember your goal is to provide an appealing environment for backpackers and not making money. The moment you set the your priorities otherwise, you are doomed to fail. Even if you don't, backpackers will curse you and God will punish you by other measures including but not limited to deseases, slutty daughter(s), cheating wife, back-stabbing friends, impotence, unexptected pregnancy, STDs, constipation, and other divine punishments. Remember, money will come if you genuinly care for your customers. As Indian say, "just move your feet, and your body will follow".
Based on these criteria, the best hostels I have been to so far are:
#1 X Hostel Alicante,
#2 Equity Point Lisboa and
#3 Flying Pig in Amsterdam (Downtown).