What Working in a Hostel is Actually Like + 10 Tips for You!
It's time for an honest post. One that isn't trying to sell you on a particular place or guide your travels through a new city. This post is for those who are interested in volunteering or working in a hostel.
I wrote a post a while back about how to get free accommodation while traveling and the #1 way to do that is to volunteer at a hostel. Europe, luckily, is packed full of hostels - even in the most remote areas, you will find a hostel.
To my mom, the word 'hostel' had a negative connotation because of the horror movie entitled 'Hostel' that was made in 2005. If you haven't seen it, you might want to check it out but don't let it scare you because it really has nothing to do with the hostels you will stay in.
Some of the hostels I've stayed in throughout my travels were nicer than some hotels I've stayed in. Often you get this picture in your head of what a hostel is supposed to look like and sometimes they will surprise you and be amazing.
Don't get me wrong, I've had my fair share of bad hostel experiences but the good far outweighed the bad.
So, you want to work in a hostel while you travel?
1. Have no expectations
The best thing you can do for yourself, before you start working at a hostel, is to have no expectations of what the experience will be like because it's different for everyone. Each hostel has it's own description of what volunteers do and what kind of work they have to accomplish in exchange for a free bed.
When I started working at Fort William Backpackers in the Scottish Highlands - it is a very small hostel with about 2 people on staff and 2-4 volunteers. We only accommodated 38 beds and it was an old victorian house that had been repurposed as a hostel.
Fort William isn't booming with hostels, it more often has BnB's and hotels, but there was another hostel in the area that was further away from the city center.
This leads me to my next point...
2. Do your research on where the hostel is located
If you do nothing else that I recommend, do this. It could honestly make or break your entire experience.
Why do I think this is most important? Let me give you an example: In Fort William, there were two hostels (that I knew about) one was located in the town center and the other was located about a mile or two outside the city center. While there were city busses that ran, they were quite infrequent and there was also no stores outside of the town center. That means, you either stock up when you do come into town or you figure out the bus schedule and make it work.
This also, also depends on the type of experience it is you are looking for. If you want an isolated, nature loving, middle of nowhere experience - then pick the hostel that is a little further from town and kind of in the middle of nowhere but has gorgeous views.
If, however, you want to meet a lot of people, spend your evenings at the pub with the locals, be able to grocery shop daily or a few times a week and ALSO enjoy nature - then choose the one that's in the town center.
This applies to most hostel situations. You have a few that are in the middle of nowhere or way outside the town/city center and then you have the popular/more visited hostels who are right where you want to be!
*Just a side note story example of a hostel experience that was way outside the town center: when I visited Cinque Terre in May with a friend, we booked through airbnb but it had a hostel vibe so I'm calling it a hostel for this posts sake. The major city that was near Cinque Terre was called La Spezia and little did we know that La Spezia was basically an entire province and spanned way to many miles away. So, we hopped on the train and realized that our "hostel" was about 45 minutes away from La Spezia CITY and was also an UPHILL walk. Like far. Not super quick just one hill. It was winding roads of hills and just a lot, a lot of walking. Once we got to the hostel, it was absolutely beautiful but that was just the beginning. The place we were at was so isolated that there was one restaurant that closed so early and then the trains stopped running at a certain time. We had to catch the trains at the proper time or we wouldn't be able to get to Cinque Terre, Manarola when we wanted. We also had to ride all the way back to La Spezia to rent our scooters.
LOOK, long story short - do your research, know where your hostel is located VIA a map in relation to close cities/amenities and make sure it's an experience that you want and that you're looking for!
3. This isn't luxurious living
I don't want you to think, for even a second, that this will be anything close to luxurious. When I first got to my hostel, I didn't know where we'd be saying but once I saw the room - I was in for a rude awakening.
It was a tiny room with two bunkbeds, enough for four people, and barely any storage. Most of us kept our baggage/stuff down in the laundry/staff room. When I say staff room, it just means that only staff was allowed in there. It had our washer/dryer as well as all the linens for the entire hostel.
I remember when the first day I arrived, I called my mom and told her I was coming home. I was like I can't do this, this isn't my thing, I don't know what I was thinking, I'm literally insane and on and on.
My boss was from France with a heavy accent and the secretary was from the Basque country (in between Spain & France) and was not my favorite human being. There was a volunteer there from Italy who was amazing and for the first few days her and I were the only volunteers.
I was signed on to be a night porter - which basically cleans the hostel (minus beds/rooms) at night and ensures that the place is running smoothly and there are no disruptions. I also did late check-ins when people were still driving there and knew they would arrive late.
Back to luxurious living though...We had three small fridges/freezers in the kitchen and not only were the guest allowed to use them but we also had to use them. So we labeled everything with our names and put them in there amongst all the other stuff. We also were able to have a basket to put our dry foods in (something the guest didn't get so that was nice) but we had to share bathrooms with the guests as well. I got into a routine of taking my showers after my shifts late at night because I knew no one was up and the bathroom I used I only shared with two other rooms (who were already asleep).
It's an adjustment, okay? It's a lifestyle that you will get used to (depending on how long you stay for) and it's one that challenges you on a daily basis.
4. Minimalism is key
If you aren't a minimalist before you work in a hostel, you'll be one after.
Before I moved up to Scotland for six weeks to work in this hostel, I was moving out of my flat in London because I had just finished school. This means that I had more luggage than the regular traveler because I was moving out of somewhere. However, I did my best to eliminate stuff that was unnecessary for me to drag country to country.
I ended up riding a bus up to Glasgow (and another up to Fort William) with two backpacks and one HUGE rolling suitcase. Not only was this suitcase huge but it was also suuuuuper heavy. It made the entire trip miserable and I just couldn't get excited about moving up to Scotland yet because I was dealing with this crap.
It made me think, once I got there, that I wanted to really minimize how much stuff I carry around and live with. I had already purged quite a bit but I felt like more was necessary. I also didn't have very much room at the hostel so it made me even more anxious and willing to get rid of a bunch of stuff I didn't need.
When I left Scotland, I had one backpack and one, less heavy suitcase. I still have just one backpack and one suitcase to my name.
So when I tell you to live minimally, I mean travel LIGHT. If you are backpacking Europe or planning on volunteering in a hostel - travel with a backpack or just one rolling suitcase. There are other people who are doing the same thing as you that probably are carrying just that. So, you don't want to be the one who's taking up so much space and overflowing with STUFF.
I also had a push to get rid of some stuff because I had to carry alllllllll that luggage up a hill to the hostel - so I told myself it has to go. I cannot be carrying around that much weight because it was miserable.
So, travel light and keep your stuff all in one place and not strewn about throughout the room!
5. Learn to adapt
With any new situation you put yourself in, you're going to want to learn how to adapt and be open to change or new personalities.
Throughout this past year, I've worked with people from Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Romania and more. What I've learned is that you aren't going to like or necessarily get on with everyone. However, how you respond to certain situations or conversations says more about you than it does the person you're talking to or situation you are in.
I was in some very heated discussions with a co-worker at the hostel and while he's not my favorite human being on the planet, I respected him and our differences.
There are also things that you are used to at your place of living that might change when you live with other people. You might hear snoring, farting, shifting of movement above or below you, late night partiers, etc. The things that happen in a hostel will surprise (or not) you and just learning to adapt to these situations and personalities is the best thing you can do for yourself.
This will allow YOUR experience and YOUR time in the hostel to be a positive one. Find a friend or get with a traveler just passing through and explore the town or cities around you. Be open to new people and new adventures and learn to adapt to your situation.
6. Enjoy the experience
I'll get really real here...while you may be tested at times, have heated discussions, have a nervous breakdown, question all of your life's decisions, go through a hard time, or anything else - this will be one of the greatest experiences of your life. I promise you.
The amount of people I was able to interact with, learn their stories/backgrounds and share insight on places I've visited and vise versa still amazes me. In the short six weeks that I worked at the hostel, I met probably over 300 people? Give or take a few.
I worked with the loveliest volunteers, some of which became my adventure buddies (one in particular for sure whom I mention later in this post) and we had the best of times. I pushed myself to do things that I may or may not have wanted to do. I spent the evenings by the fireplace reading or writing about all that was going on and listening to other peoples stories.
That is one thing that I miss about working in a hostel: all of the people, all of the stories and all of the experiences.
Hostel life isn't for the faint of heart and it isn't for someone who doesn't know how to rough it, essentially. Hostel life can be tough, challenging but also one of the most rewarding experiences. If I could, I would go back and do it all over again and this time for LONGER! That's another thing...
7. Do it for as long as you can
If you are backpacking Europe, hop hostels and help out in exchange for accommodation i.e. cut those costs! But, if you really want to localize yourself and explore one country for a bit - volunteer/work at a hostel for as long as you can.
It's a lot easier for people within Europe to get an actual paying job at hostels versus just volunteering. For example, my boss at the hostel I worked at in Scotland was from France and the secretary was from the Bask country and had been traveling for a year. For Americans, it's a little more work to find hostels to work in or volunteer at and getting there, etc. The best way to do so is look up some hostels in the country and city you are wanting to live/work in and email the hostels directly. Narrow it down to a few that fit your criteria and just email and let them know you want to volunteer!
My point is, you can do it for as long as you want to...hop around to different hostels, make roots in one, do whatever suits you and works in your schedule!
8. It is work, so don't forget that
While volunteering at a hostel is great because it gives you a place to sleep & eat, it is work. When I worked in the highlands, I had to work six days a week (at night of course) and I had my days to explore. However, for my friend Julia, who's from Germany, she had to work during the day as a cleaner and only had her afternoons/nights free. We each got one day off a week and we took full advantage of those to explore the surrounding cities/areas.
Of course, if I wanted, I could have worked at any of our sister properties in exchange for a night's sleep or two but I never did that. A few of the volunteers we had worked at the hostel on the Isle of Skye for a weekend in order to explore but I just didn't have the time to really do that.
So, make sure that you know you're there to work and help out but they also want you to see and explore as much as you can as well. And, as always, each hostel's volunteer guidelines are different. Mine was so intense because there wasn't a whole lot of volunteers and we had a huge turnover each night so we had lots to do each day.
9. Learn a new skill
Something you may or may not know about me is that cooking is not my strong suite. If I had all the money in the world, I would just eat salads every day from various places but that's often not the case. Luckily, for the time that I was abroad, I was surrounded by people who were amazing cooks. Especially when I moved up to Scotland for six weeks. We had several staff dinners a week where one person, or two, would take turns cooking. We had the most amazing woman from Italy cook for us several times while she was volunteering there and I couldn't have thanked her enough. She truly was amazing.
So below is a picture of us learning to make Gnocchi with her. My style is obviously pre-made meals but she made a lot of things from scratch - so she let us help her! We took mashed potatoes and flower and made the dough balls that would eventually be cooked in pasta sauce! Something that my friend Julia and I contributed was this massive bowl of veggies - something we learned to make very well while we were there.
My point in showing you this is because while you work in a hostel you may pick up on some new skills or learn new ways of doing things. I'm not a very good cook but I did take away quite a few lessons in cooking while I was in Scotland - so be open to that! Be open to learning new things and gaining a new skill - whoever said we had to have a limited number of skills anyways?
10. You will create lasting relationships
People are going to come and go out of your life - that's just the natural rhythm of things but working in a hostel often changes things. You put yourself in a new environment, you don't know anyone, you are working with different nationalities and personalities and sometimes along the way you find someone really great who becomes a great friend & adventure buddy.
I couldn't have asked for a better friend while I was in Scotland. We met and I think our personalities instantly clicked (minus a few moments we had) and we set out on a mission to explore what we could of the Scottish highlands and make the most of our time there.
She taught me quite a few things while I was there - to always look on the positive side, don't have a bad attitude towards situations you can't really control, always live adventurously and look for beauty in the ordinary. She was and is so special and we still keep in contact via texting & old school letters!
I think it's important to create relationships with people all over the globe - it broadens your horizons and deepens your cultural understandings. I've picked up on so many habits or ways of life from other people because I spent time getting to know them and their lifestyle. You will go through some hard times on the road and while traveling - so always make sure to make friends and make memories.
You never know what you're going to go through while you are traveling. I went through a breakup when I was living in Scotland and I didn't tell her right away but the fact that we continued to do adventures and explore the city we were living in kept my mind occupied and kept me happy.
I can imagine that working in a hostel can be pretty lonely if you don't communicate or create relationships with the people you are living and working with. Make the most of the situation, adapt to new personalities, ACCEPT different personalities and live adventurously!
The picture to the left is of us on the railroad that I shared previously on my Instagram...we almost died but it's a memory I'll have forever and always laugh about when I think of it. Do things like this with people you meet and make the most of your volunteer time!
If there is anything you take from this post, I would hope that you take the idea of being adventurous and open to new things. Don't let fear hold you back. When I moved up to Scotland by myself I didn't know what I was doing - but it ended up being one of the best six weeks of my life. So do it, if it's something you've always wanted to do and get in touch with me if you want more information or would like to work at the one in Fort William - maybe I can hook you up!