The last time I stayed in a hostel was about 15 years ago. It was on Maui and we did not have kids. It was not an awesome experience, but it worked. As Chris and I began planning a trip to southern China, it became very clear that hotels were not an option. As a family of 7, most hotels require us to book 2-3 rooms. Even the cheapest hotels add up when you have to book multiple rooms. We started looking at Airbnbs and similar programs. As we searched those options, the idea of hostels popped up.
Hostels. As a family. Hmmmmm.
I began digging for information about the hostels in the areas we wanted to visit and – WOW! The views were incredible and the pricing was – well, super cheap. I also learned most hostels have mixed gender bunk rooms typically with 6 beds. The bunk room pricing is by far the cheapest option because naturally people want a private room. I began thinking if we could book a whole bunk room, we’d have the cheapest option and a private room. That is exactly what we did.
After 6 nights in 3 totally different hostels – I’m sold.
I wanted to share a few of our tips regarding staying in hostels as a family. I do feel like I need a giant disclaimer that hostelling is not for every family. Chris and I are pretty laid back, flexible and don’t expect much. After all the years of using state and national park bathrooms and showers, well, we aren’t exactly high maintenance. The numerous camping trips over the years have made our kids very adaptable too. That being said – don’t automatically write off the idea of staying in a hostel if you consider yourself a hotel person.
Not all hostels are the same.
It is important to research the hostels in the area you are planning to visit. We found the reviews on each hostel to be very accurate. We only stayed in hostels with the highest rankings, yet each of them were far different from each other. Don’t expect a high ranking to mean it is like a pristine hotel. Read the reviews so you know what to expect. Remember, hostels are typically for backpackers…not those who typically stay in fancy hotels.
Geared for budget travelers
From our experience in China, the rural areas had far better prices and hostel options. We stayed in a hotel in Beijing one night (thanks to a cancelled flight). Due to the size of our family, we had to book 2 hotels rooms. For the price of one night in a hotel, our family could have stayed 3.5 weeks at the Mountain Stream in Yangshuo. Hotels do not make any sense for a large family that is traveling on a budget. However, even if it was just Chris and I traveling – we’d pick a a nice hostel over a hotel. Hostels have bunk rooms, which we stayed in as a family, but they also have single bed and double bed room options. For $15.00 a night, Chris and I could stay in a clean, beautiful double-bed room overlooking the mountains and gardens of Yangshuo. You really can’t beat it if you are a budget conscious traveler.
I will note – in the big cities it was more affordable for us to use an Airbnb. In the larger cities, like Beijing, the hostel price goes up. Just something to consider.
Tips for Booking:
If you are a large group (AKA a family wanting a whole bunk room), I would book at least 2 weeks in advance. When searching hostels, look for one with a bunk room with all beds available. Once you book the room, you can contact the hostel to confirm you want all the beds in the same room. This was super easy and every hostel was more than happy to make sure this happened. The earlier you book, the better the room you usually get.
We used Hostelworld.com to book all of our hostels.
We checked out the other rooms in all the hostels we stayed at. The bunk rooms are definitely the bottom of the list – the private rooms in each hostel had the best views. For less than $20 a night you could get a private room with a double bed and private bath/shower overlooking the stunning Longsheng Rice terraces or the countryside of Yangshuo. Seriously, I didn’t see any hotels in the area with better views.
Hostels in large, popular cities are not always cheaper than an Airbnb or a cheap hotel.
Know the places you want to visit for chunks of time and book those hostels first. Part of the fun of hostels for many is just showing up and getting a room. However, when traveling with kids I think it is better to book early and know you have the rooms/beds you want. Consider the location in regards to subways, trains and bus stations. If you are using public transportation – you want a hostel with easy access.
Don’t assume anything
Double check to make sure the hostel has the things you need – sheets, towels, etc. Every hostel we stayed in had far more than we need, but it is always best to not assume and double check things. Most of what you need to know you can find on the hostel website or Hostelworld.com. We did pack sleeping bag liners (that we slid in the beds) and quick drying towels just in case. We stayed in 3 hostels – all in bunk rooms. Two of the bunk rooms included a private bathroom and shower. One did not. All had the same great rankings and we knew what to expect based on reading reviews.
Rooms usually have a locker for you to store your bag. If you are in a private room, you don’t need a lock. However, if you decided to book a bunk room and share it with strangers…you would want a lock for the locker.
Travel tips & coordination
Since they are designed for backpackers, hostels generally provide lots of tips for how to get around the area – tips for doing it yourself, not relying on expensive tour guides. Many hotels promote touring groups and options, while hostels show you how to explore on your own.
Basically, hostels are perfect for the DIY traveler!
In the rural areas, where the public transportation is not always as good, the travel tips are so helpful. All the hostels we visited had the best maps too. They were usually well illustrated and took us on the more remote paths/hikes.
Most hostels also have things you can rent to make exploring easier – bikes, mopeds, rock climbing gear, etc. Each of the hostels we stayed at offered free bike rental and the moped rental was SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper at the hostels than the rental spots in town. At one hostel, we rented 3 mopeds for $20 total for the entire day.
Most hostels have cheap meal options that include local and western food options. Familiar food can be such a treat after a day of exploring. Hostels also have community kitchens and access to refrigerators. Typically, we used the hostel kitchens for breakfast, heating water, and storing leftovers. We also found that each of the hostels we stayed at had drink options (water, pop, etc.) that were nearly the same prices we could find at small local stores. If it had just been Chris and I traveling, we probably would have ate some breakfasts prepared at the hostels, but when we times everything by 7…the price of things goes up fast! We made our own meals instead.
Hostels are designed around community. Guests are often backpackers that are stopping in for a night or two. In the commons areas, you will find travelers sharing stories of where they have been, where they are going and why they are traveling. We met people from all over the world. There were nights I wanted to just retreat to our room while Chris and a couple of our kids wanted more interaction with people (extroverts and introverts!). Since community is such a big part of hostels, there are often games, pool tables, etc. to encourage visitors to hang out and get to know each other. The dining tables are usually extra big for sharing. The extroverts in our crew took advantage of getting to hang out with others, while the introverts enjoyed the quiet rooms, balconies and rooftops.
Kids in hostels
I was a bit concerned how our kids would be received in an environment that typically does not see a lot of kids. EVERYONE we met was so kind and encouraging to our kids. They all seemed genuinely excited to see our kids in a hostel and were so engaging with our crew. It was such a different experience than staying in a hotel, where people tend to keep to themselves.
We chatted with countless 20-something backpackers that were shocked (and inspired) to see such a big family backpacking in southern China and staying in hostels. For many of them, they thought those kind of adventures were something they had to do before kids – I mean it is what most people say….“You better travel and go on lots of adventures before you have kids because once you have kids everything changes.” Wah Wah Wah.
The whole idea that you have to have to travel the world and go on your big adventures prior to kids is a bit sad to me. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, it is different with kids and there are unique challenges to traveling with kids, but for me bringing my kids along on adventures has only made them richer and more fulfilling. That being said, I do want to note we did wait for a trip like this until our kids were older and it could be more memorable for them and easier for us. We would not have attempted this when we had 4 toddlers in the house – it would not have worked!
The first time we took our oldest overseas was when he was 18 months old. That trip looked a lot different than this one, but it was still full of so many great moments. Traveling – with or without kids – isn’t for everyone, but for those that love to travel – you don’t have to give it up once you have kids.
One of the highlights of staying in hostels was having the chance to debunk the ‘travel before kids’ myth to so many young adventurers. I took every opportunity to tell them not to believe the negative Nellies that tell them to enjoy it all before kids.
Having kids – having a big family – does not mean your time of adventure is over. If you ask me, it means it is just really beginning.