The Hierarchy of Bunk Beds – What I Want in a Hostel

I think I could be a hostel consultant. At this point in my trip, I’ve stayed in close to 20 different hostels and budget hotels. During this time, I’ve built a solid understanding of what makes a good experience and accommodation, both in terms of my personal preferences and things that are likely more universal.

So, if you’re a hostel owner, this is an open letter and a free sample of my consultant services. I have a good eye for detail, a very organized problem-solving style, and I can use my robust marketing skills to get you better reviews and more bookings. Will trade for accommodation.

If you’re not a hostel owner (possibly a not a single hostel owner will ever read this), this is just my life on the road and my suggestions for what to look for when you’re booking budget accommodations on your own adventures.

How I Choose a Hostel

Because I’m trying to travel for a very long time without income, hostel dorms are my go-to accommodation. They’re very inexpensive. Right now I’m in Colombia, where it’s common to find a night in a dorm for under $10 USD. I use apps like and Hostelworld to search for availability in my upcoming destinations, and compare prices.

My top priority is to find a good balance of cost efficiency and quality. I base my quality judgments on the ratings and reviews from other guests, as well as photos, location, and facilities. The other thing that’s really important to me is the vibe. It’s a little harder to determine from just reading a listing, but reviews help. Personally, I’m not interested in staying anywhere that’s advertising itself as a party hostel. I’m 31. At this point in my life, I “party” maybe thrice annually. In my accommodations I like peace and sleep.

Dorm Life

I always try to book a dorm with as few beds as possible. All other things being relatively equal, I’ll always choose the hostel offering a 4-bed dorm over one with a 8-bed dorm. There’s just a lower likelihood of loud snorers, party animals, pre-dawn risers, or anyone else I don’t want to share a room with. Once in a while, I get super lucky book a dorm room and find that nobody else has booked it, so I get a private room for a dorm price.

All this room just for meeeee? This was the very first hostel I stayed in, and after 6 months, still some of the best bunk beds I’ve seen. Somos Hostal, Antigua, Guatemala.

Regardless, my dorm sleeping MO is earplugs and an eye mask. I sleep best if it’s dark and quiet, and those things are never guaranteed in a hostel. Because I’m traveling pretty light, instead of a regular eye mask, I use a black gaiter, which I fold up. It has the added benefits of being more comfortable to wear, covering my ears for more sound muffling, and being useful in other situations besides sleeping.

Sometimes it is an eye mask.
Sometimes it is a warm headband.

Dorm Room Bonus

If you’re lucky, dorms can also be a good place to meet new friends. Some of my favorite travel connections have been roommates from hostel dorms.

Depending on where you go, you can sometimes find AirBnb private rooms for not a whole lot more per night than a hostel. Personally, I’m trying to be as frugal as possible. The price breakdown is different if you’re traveling with a partner or friends, but for a solo traveler, dorms are the cheapest thing you’re going to find. And while I do sometimes spend a little more for that sweet, sweet privacy, I also just really like meeting people. I’ve realized that I’m an ambivert. I’m not always in the mood to be social, but when I am, I like that to be easily accessible.

Hostel dorm friends! A pair of awesome chicas from California who I met in our massive dorm room in San Marcos, Guatemala.
More hostel dorm friends! A super cool couple from Israel who I met in our tiny dorm room in Medellín, Colombia.

The Hierarchy of Bunk Beds

Usually hostel dorms are furnished with bunk beds, and there’s a really wide range of quality. A nice bunk bed is one of my top factors that can really make a hostel experience comfortable.

My least favorite bunk beds have been rickety metal frames. They creak and rattle when someone climbs up, which is not ideal when you have bunk mates who go to bed at different times. I’ve also slept in a lot of beds where you can feel the whole thing shake if your bunk mate turns over in their sleep, especially if you’re sleeping on top. If you’re sleeping on the bottom, it’s particularly annoying when you can’t sit up in bed without hunching or hitting your head. I’m not even that tall, but I’ve slept in bunks that felt very cramped.

These beds weren’t great, but I give this dorm bonus points for spaciousness.

The best bunk beds I’ve encountered have been built-in, with ladders or stairs that are easy to climb and don’t shake the whole structure. Truly elite bunks also come equipped with privacy curtains, a personal electrical outlet and light. The icing on the cake is a little personal shelf or cubby.

Interior view of my bunk at Somos Hostal in Antigua, Guatemala.

There have also been a couple of hostel dorms equipped with non-bunk beds. Definitely preferable if space allows! And speaking of space, I have been in a few dorm rooms where I could’ve held hands with the person in the bunk bed next to mine. I get that it’s important to maximize profits, but it is just stressful to be packed in like sardines.

A 3-person dorm room with full-sized beds at Casa De Las Flores in Jardín, Colombia.

A comfortable, bed-bug-free mattress and pillow also should go without saying. But because it probably needs to be said, it is always a good idea to inspect a mattress for bed bugs. Pull up the fitted sheet and check the mattress seams for pinhead-sized dark brown blood stains. That’s bed bug poo. If you see it, get out now.

I’m A Reasonable Lady

I get that a built-in bed with its own wiring is probably out of a lot of hostel owners’ budgets. Not everybody is designing their space from scratch. Likewise, the hostels that boast fancier facilities are often outside my budget. But after a long time on the road, trying to be sensible with my funds, I’ve found that creature comforts can be hard to come by. So if a hostel manages to add some nice touches here and there, we of the backpacker budget are very grateful.

Love Me Some Lockers

I’m of the opinion that hostels should all have lockers available for guest use. They’re a common, but not universal feature. Most hostels see a lot of traffic and a lot of turnover, and when you’re sleeping in a dorm room with a bunch of strangers, it’s really nice to be able to lock up your valuables. Some people are comfortable leaving their stuff all over the place, but after a couple of learning experiences, I’m more guarded.

If there’s no locker available, I just lock my backpacks shut with my mini combination locks, and leave them in the dorm room. I’m assuming that nobody is going to run off with the whole thing. I do also have a thin, rubber-sheafed steel cable that I can use to lock the bags together and to some other solid item, but I rarely use it.

Simple, Inexpensive Game Changers

Another small thing that can make a big difference in a dorm is a little bit of other furniture. Throw a shelf in there or a small table or some other place where people can put stuff that isn’t the floor or the bed. It’s not an expensive upgrade, but honestly it feels so luxurious sometimes. If there’s no other furniture, but there is an extra locker, I sometimes use it as a shelf for stuff like toiletries.

The best low-hanging-fruit suggestion I have for every single hostel: Invest in more hooks! Put them in the dorms. Put them in the bathrooms. More hooks than guests. More than you think you need. More than you think is reasonable. I promise, we will use them. They can literally be the cheapest ones you can find. We do not care.

When you’re living out of a backpack, sharing a bathroom of dubious cleanliness, wearing everything more than once, and sometimes needing to dry things, a few hooks are incredibly useful. When I take a shower, I want a place to put my dirty clothes, clean clothes, and towel. Someplace besides the floor or the toilet.

I am so serious, it does not have to be fancy. This little setup was amazing. Tres Leones in Salento, Colombia.

Cleanliness is King

Besides a well-appointed dorm room, I cannot say enough about the value of a really clean environment. The places in which I have felt the most comfortable staying have had dedicated cleaning staff and schedules. I’ve realized that if it’s not on somebody’s job responsibility checklist, it’s not going to happen.

There was one hostel I stayed at in Santiago, Chile, that literally had large mushrooms growing out of the wooden window sill in the shower stall. I wish I had taken a photo. That is solid evidence that no staff had been in there recently. And if they’re not removing mushrooms from the windows, they’re probably not disinfecting the shower or toilet that often either.

Also, let’s face it. Travelers can be kind of gross. Humans are just gross, period. And even if you have a very nice sign in English and Spanish and German and French and Hebrew telling people to clean up after themselves in the kitchen, some people are not going to do that. I love a hostel with a kitchen, but I’ve encountered some kitchens where I felt gross just being in the room.

On the other hand, a wonderful hostel I stayed at in Jardín, Colombia, had someone on staff cleaning the kitchen during every shift. And the whole place got swept and mopped daily. I deeply appreciated that. Walking around barefoot without revulsion is a luxury I didn’t realize I’d missed so much.

Finding Balance

As I travel light and cheap, I’m setting a lot of new baselines for what I want, need, and expect. Some standards are becoming more relaxed (after a month of farm life, I now only consider an article of clothing dirty if it stinks or has visible food or mud on it). But other standards are becoming more important and more stringent (I’m not lingering more than a few days in massive cities). It’s all just part of the process of getting to know myself better. I’m paying attention to stuff that I like and dislike, and adjusting my plans accordingly. I’m doing it with hostels, I’m doing it with destinations, I’m doing it with people. In the end, I’m probably not going to start a hostel consultant business, but I’m going to know exactly what Sachi needs to have a nice time, and I’m going to get it every day.

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