While traveling on a budget, balancing the fine line between affordable accommodation and keeping your sanity in a bunkroom with 13 other people is something best pondered before you're actually bunking with those 13 people. This is something I know and know well, but seemingly often forget once the clamor -- and smells! -- emanating from all corners of my hostel have faded in the fresh air, bright light and hope that often accompanies new travel plans. Hello, new hostel: perhaps you'll be different. Only certain elements usually aren't.
Last week, I endeavored into world of hostels once again. I was visiting Reykjavik, an expensive city by most standards, and decided to save money by night so that I could spend it by day sampling the city's many hybrid coffee houses/bars/cafes, and generally just trying to discover how Icelanders remain so effortlessly chic -- still no clue. When booking a bunk in a 14-bed mixed room, I ran through my list of justifications: No matter how I slept or what transpired after I turned in for bed, I was saving money. I wouldn't be spending so much time there, anyway, right? My roommates wouldn't be too loud.
Let me stop here, dear readers, and say that if hostels were "The Hunger Games," the odds would never be in your favor. In this case of hostel Russian roulette in Reykjavik, they certainly weren't in mine. It's math, really, and the odds only increase with your number of bunkmates. Think of 13 people you know and ask yourself if any of them snore loudly, need to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, like to stay out late, or have trouble reading social cues and know what's generally acceptable and what isn't. Yes, yes, yes and yes. We all do, because some of these things are genetic and others can't be helped. Others can, and those are the kinds that can often make staying at a hostel a trying experience. But that's not really the point.
The long and short of the point at hand is that hostels are a wonderful beast. Unlike the flip-of-the-coin luck with bunkmates and bathrooms, there are certain things that are most often true: Hostels are a foolproof way to meet fellow travelers and allies, and, in many cases including my own, lifelong friends. As a cultural institution, they have enabled generations of travelers to travel affordably, freely and comfortably all around the world. They're becoming safer, more common and even more affordable.
As I grow older and continue to travel by way of hostel, I've found that the adage of getting what you pay for only extends its truth so far. Yes, you'll most likely sleep worse at a hostel than you will in your own home, and sharing a bathroom and kitchen with strangers has its own level of precariousness. But by setting your expectations low and understanding that the atmosphere is, in an odd way, part of the experience, you might be pleasantly surprised by the intangibles. At the very least, you'll have some stories.
Just don't forget your earplugs.