Making hostel reservations is what this question is about.
October 19, 2008 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to Europe in December/January. How do I make hostel reservations? I'll be traveling with one friend for about a week, and then by myself for another week and a half. My ideal hostel is warm, safe, and my stuff won't get stolen. We're not too afraid of roughing it, but we're going in the winter. So how (much) should we plan?

  1. When should we book? My dad says that hostels might get filled now, but we'd like to wait until we're on the road (for the sake of flexibility).
  2. For the backpacking MeFites, how did you plan your trip? What do you wish you had done differently?
  3. What are some good forums or websites with hostel reviews and travel tips? I've already read the threads regarding travel guides.
  4. What are some alternatives to hostels and hotels?
Answers need not be specific to Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, but that's where I'll be going. Thanks!
posted by theiconoclast31 to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I travelled through Greece and the middle east and I never reserved a hostel. I just showed up. Occaisonally there wouldn't be room and I'd go somewhere else.

Most decent guide books (most people like Lonely Planet or that other brand everyone had who's name escapes me) will list which hostels are good, or where the really cheap hotels are. In europe you might not find that much in the way of cheap hotels but all over the middle east there are very cheap hotels. There were some pretty reasonable ones in greece also though. Many foreign countries have a concept I'd love to adopt here - tiny tiny hotel rooms with basically just a bed. I don't want a TV, I don't need a bathroom for the most part, a dresser, an iron, a closet, etc, etc. I just need a single bed for the night...

I really only "planned" the first week of my (several month) trip, and only loosely at that. From there I never planned more than a day in advance. You should try to be aware of limitations for travel (like, maybe only half the busses run on sunday or something)

I never had any bad experiences with hostels, like getting stuff stolen but I suppose it happens.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:13 PM on October 19, 2008

I've been really happy with what I've found on and, which have honest user reviews of places ordered by date. Booking through individual sites might be harder than just shooting a hostel an e-mail or using their site's booking form.

I've never paid the full balance of a night's stay until I actually arrived and paid for the room - some places ask you to reconfirm, others ask for a percentage-of-cost deposit (though in the case of hostels, this is just a few euros, usually). Usually hostels are good on e-mail, too, so if you can't verify availability via an online inventory-checker, just shoot them a message inquiring about certain dates and the number of beds you want and you'll probably get a response within a few hours.

Your dad may well be right that hostels might be full over Christmas holidays; while you need not book now, if your itinerary is set, why not? Because you aren't paying for everything up front, you need not worry if your plans change and you have to cancel.

Heating isn't usually much of a problem, but crime might be, so toss your gym-locker combo lock in your bag (no key to lose, you already know the number) and keep your stuff safe in lockers, which many (if not the vast majority of) hostels have.

Alternatives to normal places to stay can be found in a few places, but one reliable catch-all category is the "specialty lodging" category on the TripAdvisor page for a city. Here's Amsterdam: houseboats, apartments, campsites, and hostels.
posted by mdonley at 2:20 PM on October 19, 2008

I traveled with my boyfriend and my sister to Greece and Turkey this summer, without making any plans in particular, and had no problem securing accommodation and transportation. However, when we decided to spend New Year's in Amsterdam last year on a whim (we ended up buying tickets a day before the flight), it was impossible to find a spot for two people in any hostel, and we ended up staying at a hotel instead. Our friend who was traveling with us was able to get a single bed in a large dorm for a couple of nights, but ended up crashing in our room closer to New Year's Eve since absolutely everything was booked. So, if you plan to spend New Year's in Amsterdam's Dam Square (highly recommended--you have to do it at least once in a lifetime), try to make reservations ASAP.
posted by halogen at 2:24 PM on October 19, 2008

My general advice is not to be too afraid of "just showing up." As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of Europe and the convenience of the trains is to be freewheeling.

If you ever get to a town without reservations and don't feel like looking for a place yourself, there is often a municipal tourist bureau near the train station that will charge you a couple bucks to call hotels for you. You can book and pay through them. But this tends to be limited to hotels in some countries, excluding hostels.

A good alternative to hostels and hotels is a short sublet found on Craigslist. My brother has done this numerous times, even sending money in advance, and hasn't ever gotten fleeced. Anyway, if you're fairly outgoing (i.e. don't mind hanging out with a local who's renting you a room in his/her apartment), you're very likely to pay substantially less for substantially better digs.

(You didn't say you were going there, but I'm pretty sure that everybody in Berlin is renting their place out to travellers. I guess that's what happens when you've got beautiful low-rent apartments and a high unemployment rate.)
posted by Beardman at 2:55 PM on October 19, 2008

Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree message board can be hit or miss, but I think it tends to have more people who travel with a backpacker kind of sensibility. WHat TT is best for is getting real-time updates that aren't in the book. People can tell you that X hostel is gone or Y hostel is really run down or owned by someone else now but there is also Z brand new place that is awesome but doesn't get enough traffic because it's not in LP.

I have travelled by myself quite a bit and there are times I am fine with winging it but there are other times that I arrange ahead because as a woman on my own I don't necessarily want to get into a strange city at night and not have something booked ahead of time. I know other people may feel differently, but my personal sense of security is assuaged by doing this small thing. I'll book ahead for one night, and if I don't like the place, then I can get up in the morning and go somewhere else.

In the winter you can most likely just show up. However, if you are going somewhere where there isn't a lot of choices (e.g. a small town with only one hostel), or you're getting in late, I would book ahead as you go along - there's no need to do it months in advance. Years ago when there was no internet it was a lot harder, and I would find myself in Small Town In Germany With Only One Hostel And Expensive Alternatives with the closest option being two hours the way I had come. If you're uncertain, and you sound a tiny bit uncertain, then just duck into a net cafe the day before you go somewhere and make your reservation and get on with your life. It still allows you to be plenty flexible while still maintaining common sense. If you ever get really desperate duck into a nice looking cafe, something family run, and ask, "Hotel?" I had to do that in Italy once when the train took hours longer than originally scheduled and I missed my connecting bus to the town with the hostel.

In terms of stuff getting stolen, just put it all in your locker EVERY TIME. EVERY TIME. doesn't matter if it's late, if you're tired, if you're drunk or stoned. EVERY TIME. don't fall asleep with your ipod if you can't lock it up. I know people will come on and say that it's a horrid way to live, be trusting, blah blah blah, but the fact of the matter is that even at the nicest hostels you will still find people who stay in hostels for the purpose of ripping off careless travelers. Wear a money belt or pouch, and don't be careless.

In terms of staying warm, I advise wool socks and long underwear. I get miserable when my feet are wet or cold. Wool insulates even when it's wet. For two weeks it's not worth lugging a sleeping bag unless you own one of those expensive and impossibly tiny ones. A wool shawl can be a nice acquisition and would tide you over if you are cold.
posted by micawber at 3:14 PM on October 19, 2008

I booked almost all of my accommodation ahead of time for a three week trip to Europe, and booked nothing in advance for the 6 month trip (in Asia this time) I took after that. I don't think you'll have too much difficulty finding places to stay if you just show up. You could get a skype account and call ahead a day or two before you arrive somewhere if need be, but you're travelling in non-peak season, so barring things like New Years or other city-specific events you should be fine. If you're arriving somewhere at night, I'd book ahead, too.

When I did book ahead, I did it almost exclusively by e-mail, and never had any issues.


1) Since your trip is fairly limited, time wise, it might not hurt to book ahead as much as possible, so you're not wasting time in internet cafe's figuring out where to stay in the next town, or worse still, lugging a heavy bag around while looking for an ideal room. That said, it might be just as wise to simply have a list of "preferred" hostels (plus contact info) printed out and in your bag, and just keep the schedule sort of up in the air - that way you're not hunting for a place to stay when you arrive, and you've already got a list of places to look for rooms.

2) It's impossible to get everywhere, and for two and a bit weeks, you're probably better off limiting the amount of places you do go. Overnight trains can be quite handy (you don't have to pay for a room, and you wake up in a new city). There's also a lot of budget airlines that you can look into. Rick Steves' website and books have a lot of info on planning. There's train schedule information which might be handy as well. The only thing I wish I did differently was have more time, so I could be more flexible with my schedule and stay in certain places for longer/shorter periods of time. I'm not a fan of tours, but you might want to look at Contiki and other European tours, just to get an idea of the routes they follow for their two-three week tours.

3) I liked the community at Guide For Europe when I was researching - not sure what it's like now.

4) Alternatives would be bed and breakfasts, couchsurfing, guesthouses and that sort of thing. All the hostels I stayed in were quite nice, and most included a small breakfast (bread and jam, plus coffee/tea). When there are two of you, you might find it's not much more to get a private room - but meeting people is a lot easier when you're in a dorm room, and one of the best things about travelling.

Have fun!
posted by backwards guitar at 3:43 PM on October 19, 2008

In winter, you'll probably be ok just showing up in most places. However, there are some exceptions, especially near Christmas and New Year or almost any time near ski resorts.

I'd suggest looking on and, both of which I've used with no problems. Both have listings of hostels and cheap hotels with the usual photos and maps. More importantly, they also have reviews from people who've stayed there recently, although I can't remember how the sites define "recent". There's a lot of overlap, but I find that sometimes one site has a hostel that the other has missed.

If you book through one of those sites you'll need to pay a small deposit, so maybe book hostels at some destinations (definately first and last... no fun to fly in with jetlag and tramp around searching for somewhere to sleep!) and rely on luck to allow for changing plans at others? If nothing else, I suggest checking on those sites to see how many other people have booked before deciding whether you need to too!

Also, booking through either of those sites incurs a booking fee -- usually around 3 Euros in my experience -- so it's slightly cheaper to book through the hostel's own website or just turn up.

If you're looking for guidebooks, LonelyPlanet and Rough Guide are both very popular and give good coverage around Europe. I prefer Rough Guides' writing style, but the two brands will have pretty much the same information, so it doesn't really matter which one you pick. WikiTravel will probably be a good place to look too.
posted by metaBugs at 3:44 PM on October 19, 2008

If you do plan on booking ahead, check whether the hostel has their own way of reserving. If they do, it usually works much more like a hotel reservation, where you pay no deposit, but if you don't cancel, you pay for a night anyways. Contrast to something like, where you pay a percentage of the total stay upfront, but you can walk away without getting charged more.

Each way has its advantages. For the first night in a city, where I don't know the hostels, I like to use and book one night in a place or two. That way I definitely have a room, but I don't lose much by walking away if I don't like the look of it. OTOH, if I know where I'm staying, I'll book the full stay directly. Then if I'm certain to have the place I want, but if plans change, I can cancel and I'm not out 5% of the entire bill.
posted by smackfu at 4:14 PM on October 19, 2008

In my travels in Europe in the winter I've usually had no problem just showing up, although there have been occasional exceptions. If you're going to smaller towns it's worth checking to make sure that the places you're thinking of staying will actually be open and not on winter break (one January in Colmar both the hostel and the two budget hotels listed in my guidebook were all closed). I would also recommend booking ahead if you go to Amsterdam--it may just be my experience, but I once got there early in the day in November and found all the hostels in town completely full.
posted by komilnefopa at 7:04 PM on October 19, 2008

You've picked some god awful expensive countries but hostels there will be warm, fairly clean, and have safes. You should bring your own pad lock since some hostel lockers require one.

You need not worry too much about booking in advance before going, but remember that booking ahead saves you valuable time if you're likely to follow the schedule. So partially book ahead but save all the names, addresses, and phone numbers of multiple hostels, allowing for changes of plans.

But you should use :
(1) for booking hostels because every other site will hide the hostel's contact info until you reserve, which makes cancelation harder, possibly leaving you stranded if you don't plan ahead, and prevents you from checking on crucial details.
(2) for booking airfare within europe because nobody else even comes close. Of course, trains are always better than planes if the travel time is sane, night trains even more so.

You should also consider getting a local sim card if your phone is GSM.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:21 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll reiterate that you want, not some other booking site. Just avoid sites like that won't give you the hostel's website & phone number up front.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:29 PM on October 19, 2008

I did a roadtrip through Europe during that period. Drove from Milan to Bristol. We used and I think. What we did was to drive around random residential neighbourhoods and look for a free wi-fi connection, and then use that to book accomodation at our next destination. This allowed us to have a much more flexible travel schedule, and we didn't really have any problems finding vacant, decent hostels to put up at. But finding a free wi-fi connection could be a bitch sometimes.
posted by nihraguk at 10:48 PM on October 19, 2008

Not sure what you want for answers to number 2, but you will thank yourself iimmensely if you buy the absolute smallest backpack you can find. Don't get one with huge pads everywhere (waist, back, shoulders). Do get one that has a few different compartments with separate entry points. The reason being that you will likely spend little time actually wearing the backpack. Most of your relationship with the bag will be when you're trying to shove it into a compartment above your head or beneath a seat or into a tiny, tiny (sometimes very narrow) locker in a hostel. Figure out what the smallest amount of stuff you want to bring, and then buy a bag that'll only fit 3/4 or half of that.

Also, be aware that some hostels are known for the loud and drunken debauchery that happens there every night in the attached bar. You think you can escape it, but there's always a couple of people who come crashing into the room, yelling at the top of their lungs about some "hottie" in the middle of the night. Not every hostel is this way, but if it's not what you're into, look for one that isn't known for parties.
posted by msbrauer at 2:13 AM on October 20, 2008

1. Even in the height of the Summer, booking a few days in advance is enough.

2. Plan enough, but not too much. You want to find the middle ground between having a rough plan of where you want to go and what you want to see, but leave it open enough to be able to change those plans at the drop of a hat. If you don't plan enough, you'll find yoursself in a city and not sure where to go next. This sounds promising, but it's not -- trust me. You want to have at lease some idea of where you want to go and why. Create a logical plan for your trip, marking off cities that are interesting to you, so that you have a rough concept of your impending trip. But don't be afraid to break out of that mold when you're actually traveling.

3. Use HostelWorld for reviews, but try to book through the hostel directly as HW charges a fee that the hostel has to eat. But the best place to find out where you should stay is from other travelers in the hostel you're currently staying at. There's a strong chance plenty of other people have just came from where you are going and can give you good recommendations. As for forums go, I prefer BootsnAll over the rest.

4. I'm sure someone has mentioned it above, but Couch Surfing isn't really a viable alternative to staying in hostels or hotels. It might work for your first stop in Europe, but couch surfing requires some degree of pre-planning. Often times you won't get responses to couch requests until a few days later, and usually you don't have a few days to figure out where you'll be sleeping the next night. It works sometimes, sure, but don't rely on this as your only option.
posted by nitsuj at 6:16 AM on October 20, 2008

Response by poster: Returned from my trip about a week ago, and I did all my booking on the same morning, with the exception of New Year's Eve. If I did this trip again, I would have purchased a HI card. I stayed at HI hostels for more than one week in all, and the HI card discount (3 euros/night, but it might vary) would have been worth it.

You were right when you said Couchsurfing wasn't a good alternative to hostels. It was also difficult to plan because I lost my cellphone shortly after the trip began.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 8:54 AM on January 20, 2009

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