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Never backpacked before and feeling a little overwhelmed by the huge number of hostels on booking sites? This guide is here to help you get to grips with what you should be looking for in a hostel in South America (but it’s applicable to other regions too!). Hopefully you’ll make fewer hostel bookings out of poor judgement than we have.
We find the best listing site to be Booking.com, because unlike Hostelworld you normally don’t have to put any deposit down, and the cancellation policies are excellent. The more you use Booking.com, the more discounts, closer cancellation windows and more abilities to request things like late check-out you get, and by the end of a month or two of travels you’d expect to become a Genius member, with even more offers. If you make any reservation over £30 using the window that this link opens, you’ll get £15 cashback once you’ve completed your stay (even if you’re not a first-time user of Booking.com!).
1. Always filter by rating
While 7.8 may sound fairly decent on a normal scale, be aware that reviewers only really rate down when they’re truly unhappy with something. If everything was average, but not incredible, people still tend to give a thumbs up/happy face to most review questions, because it feels harsh otherwise if the accommodation wasn’t terrible (and the lowest score you can give on the 4-point scale is 2.5, anyway).
So if you find anything with an average score below 8, we’ve come to find that it’s normally pretty shabby, and has suffered some big blows somewhere down the line to bring it down. Luckily, Booking.com has a filter feature, so click 8+.
Do remember though that these reviews are relative to people’s expectations for the type and price of hostel they’ve reserved. We met one couple in Chile who were complaining that the 9.0 they were staying in for £12 a night was worse than the 8.5 they had stayed in previously for £30 a night, and they couldn’t understand why. Lols.
2. Scope the location
Are you going to be arriving late at night? How many times are you realistically going to want to go to the centre? Is this a fleeting visit between buses? Is there a good metro/cheap taxis? There are lots of things to consider with location. Plenty of times we’ve gone for the cheaper accommodation, slightly outside the centre, only to spend the difference on taxis into the centre anyway.
Other times, we’ve ended up right in the centre or the touristic strip, and been annoyed by the endless techno music and expensive restaurants nearby. And sometimes, the street your hostel is on is just downright sketchy:
Decide what you’re there for, what vibe you want, and whether getting taxis or public transport is going to be a deal-breaker for your stress levels (remember that Uber works across most major cities in Latin America).
The centre isn’t always better (in Santiago, for example, the centre is mostly offices and government buildings with much less to do than the outer areas). We normally research the barrios before we start looking, and then do a map search on Booking.com using their rating and price filters.
3. Check out the bedroom sitch
Whether you’re getting a private double or a dorm, you should be able to roughly tell how comfy your night’s stay will be from the listing’s images with a few key indicators in mind:
How thick do the mattresses and pillows look?
South: are there extra blankets?
North: is there air con or a personal fan on each bed? Is there a mosquito net?
Can you see any power outlets near the beds?
Do you get a curtain or blind turning your bunk into a pod? (If yes, BOOK)
Is there enough floor space for everyone to put down their big backpacks?
Are there lockers for valuables? (This is a must!)
While some of these may seem a little trivial, they can be life-savers when you’ve spent months moving from hostel to hostel.
4. Get picky about kitchen facilities
This is only really important in the more expensive countries, such as Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. Further north, we found it was no more expensive (or in some cases, cheaper) for us to eat out than it was to cook our travel fave of tinned veg in rice at a hostel.
We got ourselves into a pricey pickle when we booked a week-long stay in our most expensive city yet, Buenos Aires, and discovered there was no kitchen, so we had to eat out for every meal. Boy, did we pay for that one!
Other than being cost-effective, kitchens are a great place to strike up conversation with other travellers. You can also make sure you’re actually getting some vitamins in, as vegetable sides aren’t always a widespread concept out here.
5. Try and suss the vibe
To party or not to party? While they’re perhaps not as prevalent here as in South East Asia or Australia, you can usually still find a party hostel in most major cities in LatAm.
Choose carefully with these – sometimes, the unrelenting carnage is a Jaeger-fuelled version of heaven; other times, it’s complete and utter hell when you just want to sleep.
Most hostels will state their vibe on their website or Booking.com description. If not, check out whether they have a bar, and whether their photos show people drinking or just relaxing.
On the other end of the scale, some hostels are laid-back to the point of, well, boring, and you may find it harder to make new friends when everyone has their head in a guide book.
6. Look out for ‘conducive’ communal areas
If there are no communal areas at all, we see this as a big no-no, because the only place you have to relax is your bed, and there’s nowhere to get chatting to other guests.
However, not all communal areas are made equal, so we’ve got to seeking out areas conducive to conversation.
We’re talking lots of space, but also lots of comfy furniture covering the space and facing in so you’re not too siphoned off in groups, plus good décor that entices you to sit down and chill. It may sound ridiculous, but it can change the entire vibe of a hostel.
7. Bag a few freebies (especially breakfast!)
To seal the deal, many hostels throw in freebies. Not all freebies are something that’s of interest to you, but at the very least an included breakfast should be. Even if the food is rubbish, this is a key money-saver for long-term travellers, so stock up on that butter-less bread for lunch too, if you can. Other hostels go the extra mile to give their guests a greater opportunity to experience their city.
For example, Kokopelli offered a free all-day Lima tour with their bar manager, Lui, who gave us by far the best tour of our lives; Yuluka in El Zaino offered free shuttle transfers to the entrance of Tayrona Park every morning; but it’s Masaya Quito that wins all prizes for free Spanish lessons, free salsa lessons, free yoga classes, free chocolate tasting and more.
8. Take advantage of chain discounts
If you’ve stayed in a chain hostel before, most of them will give you a 10-20% discount on your stay at another location if you book directly with them. Some chains, such as Wild Rover in Peru/Bolivia, will give you a free drink on your second stay, and a free t-shirt on your third. Check their website to see what they can offer you before going through Booking.com.
Hope these help in your next hostel search! To make it even easier for you, we’ve compiled a list of stand-out hostels and AirBnBs across South America here.