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story.lead_photo.caption Hostels are a great way to travel cheaply — and meet new friends — all over the world. Illustration by Lars Leetaru via The New York Times

What comes to mind when you hear the world "hostel?" A gaggle of 20-somethings on a weeklong bender? Smelly hippie-types barefoot hiking around the world? A movie series that managed to combine enough torture and grunge to scar a generation?

What if I told you that for the majority of the last five years I have traveled all over the world, and in that time stayed at some of the most incredible places ... that just happened to be hostels?

What you'll find in today's hostels

In the most general terms, a hostel is just like a hotel, except you usually have to share a bathroom. For the lowest room rates, you will also share a room. Additionally, most hostels have a kitchen and a lounge. The most common dorm, or shared room, has four beds, usually in the form of two bunk beds. Most hostels will have rooms with more beds that are cheaper per night, and rooms with fewer beds for slightly more money per night. Only hostels in the most touristy areas will have rooms with a dozen beds or more.

Most hostels also have private rooms, which are their most expensive rooms, but still usually cheaper than a hotel. In addition to the bed, sheets and a pillow, you will nearly always have a locker to hold your bags or valuables. Just like a hotel, almost every hostel locks its doors at night, and has keys, cards or codes required to access the hostel and your room.

Some hostels have "en-suite" rooms, as in there is a bathroom attached to the room, like you would find in a hotel, just shared with the people staying in that room.

Very, very rarely is there an upper age limit at a hostel. At 40 I'm almost never the oldest, although the average age is younger. Almost all, however, have a lower age limit. Travelers under 18 usually can't stay in dorm rooms. Nearly every hostel will have women-only dorms available, though the majority of rooms are coed.

How to find and book a good hostel

Just like hotels, hostels have review and booking websites to help you find where to stay. Hostelworld and Hostelz are two of the big ones. These feature reviews from recent travelers, lists of amenities, and most importantly, pictures.

The pictures tell a story, directly and indirectly. Is every photo a bunch of people drinking? Party hostel. Are there lots of photos of people reading or playing board games? Probably chilled and relaxed. These sometimes go beyond the description and inform you what staying there will be like.

Since you will likely be sharing the space, be extra aware of your person and your belongings. For example, don't eat chips at 1 a.m. Don't leave your durian or Limburger or lutefisk sandwich on your bed.

But my biggest advice? Say hello and introduce yourself. Most people in hostels are traveling alone. Break the tension with a smile and a handshake. After all, you will be living with these people for a night or more. Who knows, you might even make a new friend. I sure have. As an inveterate introvert and part-time misanthrope, no one was more surprised than I to find that most travelers are good people. Many are amazing and well worth meeting.

I have stayed in bad hotels and bad hostels, and the latter is far easier to take when it costs a fraction of what a cheap hotel costs.

Oh, and the Wi-Fi is almost always free. Can't say that about hotels.

Travel on 05/12/2019

Print Headline: Cut costs by staying in hostels

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