Surviving Your Hostel Experience

San Francisco was amazing, and all things considered, we really lucked out on accomodations. We got to stay in the trendy North Beach Neighborhood, which is a stone’s throw away from nearly everything you want to see and do while in town– Fisherman’s Wharf, the bay, Chinatown, Golden Gate park, boutique shops, great restaurants and bars, etc. But the only way we could afford it was to stay at a hostel. All in all, I would recommend it (provided you’re travelling without kids) and I would do it again. I didn’t necessarily feel that way at the time, but there are a couple of keys to make the most of your stay.

There are two primary ways you can stay in a hostel– a dorm room (with many bunks in a large room, with private foot lockers to store your stuff) or a private room that can be shared with 2-4 people, depending on what the hostel has available and what you book with them. Bathrooms will be shared. You likely aren’t going to have a pool or whirlpool on site, but there will be a common room and communal kitchen in most places, and at least a few computer terminals for internet access. Many hostels also have on-site laundry facilities and ours had a small sauna room as well as a vending machine for snacks, laundry soap, drinks, etc. So you can see how you can get by on the cheap by staying in one. For my friend and I to stay 5 days in a prime neighborhood in a private room we paid only $300– which is at least half what hotel rooms in the area would charge. So, more money for fun stuff!

Bedding, towels, shampoo and a bar soap were included for us, though bedding and towels are not changed during your stay unless you ask for it. And a lot of hostels don’t provide these toiletries for you– you should count on bringing your own. Our room was tiny– twin bunkbeds, a small sink with mirror and light, a luggage rack, two foot lockers under the bed, and a fan for the window. No air conditioning! Each bed had a reading light as well. Very spartan, but that works to your benefit– you’re not supposed to be holed up in your room watching tv while you’re on vacation. Our bare-bones room made sure we had no desire to do so. 🙂 A couple of things would’ve made it a little bit easier to keep our room organized though (as it can be difficult to live out of a foot locker for a whole week):

— 3M Removable Utility Hooks and a Coughlin Mini Gear Hammock:

3m-utility-hooks-4.jpg     coughlin-mini-gear-hammock-10.jpg

 We had no shelves, hooks (except for a lone nail in the wall), or tables to stow our stuff, and the sink was pedestal, so no counter space. Removeable wall hooks and a gear hammock will help you out– two packages of hooks (4 total) and 1 hammock should work. Use two hooks to secure the hammock to the wall– which can then hold your cell phone, glasses, book, etc. next to your bed or the sink. Two more hooks will allow you to hang your towel in between uses or hang up clothes. At the end of your stay, remove them from the wall, toss them in your pack, and you’re ready to go. The hooks cost $4 for a two-pack and the hammock is $10 (you can find the hammock at http://www.campmor.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?productId=7449&memberId=12500226). (You can also use the hammock in your tent for the same purpose the next time you go camping).

— Shower Shoes: don’t forget your basic $2 flip flops! You will be sharing a bathroom and shower with who knows how many other people and their various hygiene habits. Better safe than sorry. Plus you’ll get better traction on slippery tile floors so you don’t take a nasty fall and ruin your trip. Unfortunately, our floor-mates had less than steller cleaning habits, so the bathrooms were a little worse for wear after a round of morning showers. Remember– people are going to be using the bathroom after you, so pick up your empty toiletries from the shower stall, take your dirty towel with you and clean up all the excess water/shampoo/whatever that you just spilled everywhere! Your mother isn’t there to do it for you, and if she was there she’d say she taught you better than that!

— Travel Mug: I thought about bringing mine, but for some stupid reason I didn’t. Our hostel had a motley collection of dishes in the communal kitchen for morning coffee and tea, but I would’ve been happier with my own. Plus, I could’ve had tea to go. It doesn’t take up that much room in your carry on, so toss it in. Plus, if you feel the need to buy a fountain soda or get coffee out, fill up your cup and save a tree! This should really be common practice in our everyday lives now anyway.

— Small Laundry Bag: I ended up using a plastic store bag for my dirty stuff, but a reusable laundry bag would been way better. In close quarters (like your backpack or the foot locker) you definitely want to keep your clean stuff segregated from your dirty stuff.

— Backpack with Compression Sacks: My friend and I have very opposite travel styles, and really, either of them works and they both have their benefits and drawbacks. My friend chose to bring a large rolling suitcase (which she had to check at the airport) and tote as her carry on. I brought a large backpack and my purse, both of which I got to carry on. While my friend had room to bring a lot more stuff than me, she did have to check it (which meant we had to wait in baggage claim instead of just going about our business) and it was hell to carry up the five (yes FIVE!) flights of stairs at our hostel. Not to mention the stairs at the train stations. All in all, I’d recommend the backpack, and here’s why– portability. No stair debacles, no waiting at baggage claim, you know it’s with you and didn’t get on the wrong flight (one of my greatest travel fears), no worries about damage from baggage handlers and being thrown about outdoors while it gets loaded, etc. I could’ve comfortably brought twice as many clothes as I did (and next time I will, because I had just enough for each day with no variation– boring!). I put all of my clothes in a compression sack, which is basically a big tube that you stuff everything into, close the ends and then compress it as much as possible with nylon strapping. Then I had a lingerie bag for my underthings and non-liquid toiletries. Liquid toiletries were in a TSA-required quart-sized Ziploc bag (one bag per passenger, containers must be 1 ounce or less in size– which most travel toiletries are). I also brought a folding hair dryer (the hostel does not provide this– you have to bring it if you want one), a hair brush, a pair of nice sandals (which doubled as shower shoes since I was stupid and forget them) and an additional carry on bag packed in the bottom. Southwest is pretty diligent on the two items per person rule, so the extra bag I packed was slightly bigger than the purse I brought. It worked out great because on the return flight, I plunked my purse in the extra bag, and still had room for fragile items (like the matted map I purchased) and all of my souvenir and ephemera that I didn’t want to jam into my main pack and risk it getting crumpled and destroyed. My pack was pretty full on the return trip (how does that always happen?) but I still would’ve had room for an extra sack of clothes.

If you’re travelling with someone (or a few people) figure out who’s bringing what– for example, one set of guidebooks, one hair dryer, one laptop (if you really need to bring one…), etc. will work for everyone. No need to bring one per person for stuff like that. Everyone should have their own cell phone and camera though. My friend and I took a lot of different pictures, then we got back we traded– so you end up with twice the memories of your trip, and that’s never a bad thing. And on the few occassions we got seperated or did things apart, cell phones were important for checking in.

We ate out the whole time and didn’t do any cooking for ourselves at the hostel (although that was an option). I really wanted to experience the restaurants of San Francisco, but if your budget is extremely tight, you can and should shop the local farmer’s markets and independent stores and cook for yourself in the communal kitchen. And I’m not really a sit-down breakfast kind of person most of the time and the breakfast option at our hostel was bagels, bagels and more bagels. So next time I’m going to bring a box of my favorite granola bars. That and my travel mug, and breaksfast is made. Also, discover your local neighborhood bakery– croissants, toasts, doughnuts, etc. can be had on the cheap and are very good quality. I had a chocolate croissant one morning (yes, I stared my lactose-intolerance in the face on that day!) for about $1.60 at a fantastic neigborhood bakery tucked away on a side street that we never would’ve discovered if we hadn’t walked around so much (I think it was called the French Italian Bakery– try to find it if you go, it’s amazing).

Oh, and that’s another tip– spend your first day just walking around and checking out your new city. It’s home while you’re there, so get into it– you can’t do this in a rental car, taxi or train. Do it on foot. We walked around the entire first day– down past the Financial District near the Bay Bridge, then from there along the Embarcadero (the street running all along the waterfront) down to Fisherman’s Wharf. We saw and experienced so many great things, and learned the major cross-streets and landmarks so getting around pretty much made sense. And you only need one map– Compass Maps Pop-Out Maps. They’re tiny, portable, laminated, cheap and are the only travel map you need. They have them for all of the major cities, and you’ll thank me for getting it! They look like this:

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So, what are you waiting for? Travel beckons. I know I can’t wait to take my next trip, and explore. Here are few resources to get you started in your hostelling experience:

http://www.hostels.com/en/index.html

http://www.hostelworld.com/

http://www.hihostels.com/

http://www.greentortoise.com/san-francisco-hostel/index.php (This is where we stayed in San Francisco. They also have a location in Seattle, as well as do some pretty interesting travel tours).

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