What Do I Need To Know About Hostels in San Francisco?
October 7, 2016 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be in San Francisco 10/30-11/2(ish. may stay a day or two more). I am attending a conference at Westin St. Francis. To save money, I want to stay in a hostel. There seems to be plenty in the immediate area. But I've never stayed in a hostel and I just don't know the area. What should I be looking for and what should I expect?

I've never stayed in a hostel, but I did look into them in Los Angeles (I ended up couch surfing with friends instead). I have a general idea of what hostels are, but am not sure what I should be looking for. Are they generally clean? Or do they vary quite a bit? Can I trust public transportation or Uber if I get one more than a couple blocks away? Anything else I should know about hostels, San Francisco, and this part of San Francisco? I think it would be the downtown area, at least that's what I've been able to discern, but someone please correct me if wrong.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would check out TripAdvisor for recent reviews, as a place to start. I tried to save money on a trip to SF (a while ago - um...15 years), and spent one night in the *worst* hostel I've ever set foot it - but it was cheap! In general, the ones closest to the Tenderloin district (much-improved, but still seedy around the edges) should be avoided.
IMO, public transportation is pretty good in SF, the buses run frequently on major streets - enough so that you can generally catch one going the direction you need, and if you're not going very far, will get you there. Also, there's a 'tourist pass' that covers buses, Muni (the SF rail, not BART), and cable cars. The latter on a couple of the less-touristed runs are a handy way to get up/down hills, if the schedule works for you.
posted by dbmcd at 3:00 PM on October 7, 2016

Hostelworld.com and Hostelbookers.com are your two best resources for hostels (this is anywhere, not just in SF).

I have never stayed in a hostel in San Francisco, but I have stayed in hostels all over the world, including Los Angeles. I also can't really speak to San Francisco travel and logistics in general.

Hostels vary in cleanliness, standards, and amenities quite a lot. This is why I love the hostel websites. They make it very easy to compare apples to apples, and most reviews are written by frequent hostel travelers who will be honest about the quality of a given place as compared to other hostels they have stayed in, rather than "had to share a room ew ew ew" or something. I usually choose a hostel with good ratings as compared to others in the same city, and I definitely take to heart reviews that mention huge red flags like bed bugs or poor security.

What you can expect from the general hostel experience:

- You will almost certainly be sharing a large room with several other people. This means that you have very little privacy and also don't really have control of things like when the lights are turned out at night (always possible that someone will tromp in and flip them on at 2AM), noise, or the cleanliness standards of your dorm-mates. (For example people leaving their crap all over the place, etc.)

- Bathroom facilities in hostels can be, uhhhhhhhh, variable. Expect shower stalls. Some hostels pride themselves on being very clean. Others are complete shitholes. This is also an area where you're depending on your fellow travelers and what their standards are like, because bathrooms are typically only cleaned once a day.

- You should never under any circumstances stay in a hostel where there aren't specific locking storage areas for your things. Hostels are rife with petty thieves. Similarly, if you'll be packing a garment bag with suits, keep in mind that most hostels are geared toward leisure travelers living out of backpacks and don't have closets for hanging clothes up. There also probably aren't irons, hair dryers, or any of the conveniences you'd expect in a hotel geared towards business travelers.

- Most American hostels I've stayed in have provided a free breakfast. That said, they are mostly very minimal, even moreso than a hotel's complimentary continental breakfast. If you're not dead broke you might want to skip this. (That said, if you are dead broke keep in mind that you can usually score bad coffee and toast or cereal or something free from the hostel.)

- A lot of hostels have private rooms you can book which are cheaper than a room in a regular hotel (and definitely cheaper than a major hotel brand). This might be more up your alley if you're not keen to sleep in a bunk bed with 10 rowdy college kids the night before a big business meeting. Most of these don't have ensuite bathrooms, though.

- Not sure if this is pertinent to the kind of trip you're taking, but the one hostel I stayed at in Los Angeles organized a lot of tours to surrounding tourist spots. This might be an amenity to look for if you have some downtime and were hoping to play tourist a bit.
posted by Sara C. at 3:15 PM on October 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Oh, one more thing I forgot: double check in advance that they include a towel. Some hostels either don't provide them or require you to pay separately to rent them.

(FWIW per the above, I would adamantly NOT use Tripadvisor as your first step in researching a good hostel. Go to Hostelworld or Hostelbookers first.)
posted by Sara C. at 3:18 PM on October 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Bay Area native here. The problem with the hostels/cheap hotels near the Westin is that they are all in the Tenderloin. I'm a woman, and I have stayed overnight in hostels before in various North American and European cities, but I would not be comfortable staying overnight in a hostel by myself in that area. Perhaps with a friend. There's a lot of Very Ritzy right next to Very Sketchy in that immediate area, even though overall it's improved since I was a kid.

Particularly if this is a business conference, I'd say fork the money over for the Westin or at least a hotel within a couple of blocks; adding a commute of any length to a conference you're going to be spending 12-15 hours a day on your feet at is a recipe for unhappiness.

If you do go the hostel route, seconding Hostelworld as a good place to start; TripAdvisor reviews have always seemed to me to be groomed for the Standard American Tourist experience, and not so much for people venturing outside those confines. [Hotels and motels, yes; hostels, no.]
posted by Pandora Kouti at 3:44 PM on October 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

If you end up in a dorm situation, bring earplugs, eyemask, and shower flipflops. Also a towel (I like camp towels since they are small and dry fast).
posted by just.good.enough at 4:13 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Green Tortoise Hostel has private rooms in their annex, which are likely quieter. Ask about that when you call, it's been a long time since I stayed there. (I notice that they are advertising themselves as "San Francisco's number 1 party hostel" on the website. Sounds like a warning to me!) If you are thinking of a private room in a hostel, you may as well also check out the San Remo hotel, which has all private rooms and (surprisingly cute -- with stained glass and little disposable bathmats) shared bathrooms. It's about the same price as private rooms in a hostel, but is run as a hotel so probably less community feeling but also less flakiness. The Green tortoise is a mile and the San Remo a mile and a half from your meeting, so may or may not be what you'd consider a reasonable distance.
posted by SandiBeech at 4:55 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I stayed at the hostel in Fort Mason for a few nights in 2010, in a shared room. It's not a particularly convenient location (I had a car and I think parking was easier there than other hostels.) I also wasn't a tourist, I was just staying for a few nights before my sublet started for the month.) but it was an ok experience, reasonably clean and I felt safe. Since I kept my possessions locked in my car, I can't remember if they have lockers or not.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:25 PM on October 7, 2016

The hostel closest to the Westin is firmly in Union Square, not a dangerous area, just full of grossly overpriced, bad food.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:30 PM on October 7, 2016

Not specific to SF, but take note that your stay includes Halloween, a perfectly rowdy drinking holiday for The Young On Vacation. If you end up in a shared room, be aware that drinking is more-likely-than-not on 10/31.
posted by samthemander at 6:35 PM on October 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm going to be going to an educational event (An Event Apart, web ), so I'm not exceptionally concerned about needing to dress in suits or the like, but that is all good thoughts. Can you bring your own hair dryer and use in the shared bathrooms, or is that generally just not something that is done?

Also, I did not consider the fact that it's going to be halloween. :/ Thanks for the thought. I also like the tip of possibly staying in a private room in a hostel.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:51 PM on October 7, 2016

You can bring your own, but it's a crapshoot that there will be anywhere good to plug it in, or that said conveniently located plug won't be already used by someone's charging phone.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Green Tortoise Hostel has private rooms in their annex, which are likely quieter. Ask about that when you call, it's been a long time since I stayed there. (I notice that they are advertising themselves as "San Francisco's number 1 party hostel" on the website. Sounds like a warning to me!)

The Green Tortoise is loud. I've stayed there nights when they had multiple kegs hauled in for the residents and huge after hours parties in the common rooms. It's a lot of fun but it's not quiet. It's also only available to non-locals, and at one point I think you had to even be from overseas. I used to get around that by bringing my EU passport and it was the launchpad for many a wild night in the city. Now it may have changed but I'm guessing it hasn't.
posted by fshgrl at 8:28 PM on October 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I searched my email to answer this question: I stayed at Hostelling International - San Francisco City Center Hostel, which is pretty close to the Westin. This was in the heart of the tenderloin, mid-January 2015, and I paid around $30. I remember it having good common areas -- comfortable, clean, utilized, good books -- and a decent continental breakfast that you could add eggs to for a small fee. The breakfast was not as good as the 10 USD hostel breakfast in Bergen (I think they had smoked salmon, and soft-boiled eggs with egg cups), but a perfectly adequate pre-breakfast until you get to nicer free food at your conference or whatever.

I stayed in a shared room with 3 other women; they were quiet and had no trouble sleeping, so I didn't either. (Ah, those youthful days of being able to sleep in new places; nowadays I would probably need a private room at least.) I don't remember the towel situation (sometimes towels are not free; also, bring your own shampoo / body wash), but I did probably bring my own lock and maybe saved $5. I can't remember if this hostel made it possible to charge your devices inside the locker, but look for that feature, as it does add convenience / peace of mind.

I did take an Uber home one night when I probably could have walked, pure-distance-wise, but it was also 3 AM and I was tired.

If your performance at this conference is really important, maybe don't risk it by staying at a hostel for the first time; on the other hand, if you have room for error / adventure, I think the hostel I found would be fine.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:42 PM on October 7, 2016

For not much more than the HI Hostel in Union Square, you can stay at the Grant Hotel. We were there for a week in 2014 after seeing it recommended on Ask.Me and really liked it. It's low- to no-frills, but very clean and run by a super-sweet couple, and it's a 4-minute walk to the Westin.
posted by Coffeemate at 10:07 AM on October 8, 2016

I've had good experiences staying at the Green Tortoise hostel, but as others have said it's definitely not the quietest. Generally they cater towards a backpacker crowd. Also as long as you have an out of town ID you can stay there (no need for an overseas passport). I've also had a few pleasant stays at HI City Center, but it is right on the edge of the tenderloin and even with all the rapid gentrification it can still feel very sketchy in that area.

That said, HI has a hostel in Fisherman's Wharf/Fort Mason. It's a little out of the way, but you could either catch the bus or walk over to the main part of Fisherman's Wharf and catch the historic F streetcar. Reviews on hostelworld.com seem pretty solid.
posted by timelord at 1:32 PM on October 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions everyone! I chose Hostelling International - San Francisco City Center Hostel. I just booked now because I do everything last minute, so I only had dorm options, so chose a woman only dorm. Had I actually booked earlier, I would have chosen a room but also I think this will be an interesting experience. Will report back how it goes and I'm going to pack earplugs just in case. I love that it's a 3 minute walk from the Westin and the reviews on Hostel World were generally positive.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:59 PM on October 26, 2016

Response by poster: Correction - I'm staying at the HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel. And yes, I totally did book the wrong one, realized my error, and rebooked this one. Now I have to cancel the the other. Note to self, don't book your stay in a coffee shop with lots of noise when you've got other things on your mind.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:09 PM on October 26, 2016

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