Just as with hotels and B&Bs, hostels can vary in quality and price, and not necessarily in a predictable ratio. For example, San Francisco's "Union Square Backpackers," a private hostel on Derby Street — really, at the dead end of an alley — proved to be friendly but cramped and dirty.
Rates are $21 per night for a dorm bed, only $4 less than in the Hostelling International-Downtown, but for an exponentially inferior experience. A private double there is $49, probably the best price in the convention district, but for $67 to $75 up the street at the USA Hostel you get, comparatively speaking, the Ritz. Hostelers there enjoy a spacious sparkling kitchen, a library, Wi-Fi lounge (free, of course), double screen theater with free DVD check-out, group activities and tours. All this plus friendly, experienced staff. Why live like a rat?
Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to stick with a hostel that is part of a larger organization. USA Hostel has four hostels in the West, while HI-USA, the U.S. member of Hostelling International, offers 80 hostels across the country. Hostelling International pulls together the resources of 80 member countries to offer 4,000 hostels worldwide, and they enforce standards for their members to ensure consistent levels of traveler satisfaction.
There are, however, private hostels all over the world; the vast majority, say, in Prague or Cancun, are one-of-a-kinds and may offer wildly inconsistent experiences. This is where booking services come in. HostelBookers.com and HostelWorld.com provide listings as well as guest comments and ratings, so you can listen to your fellow travelers wax poetic or rant, or just choose a place above the 85 percent rating. Beautiful surprises await both stateside and in Europe. Why not stay in a convent in Verona, Italy? (As a fellow traveler put it, it isn't forever). You, too, can join the breakfast line where the sisters (of Caffeinated Mercy) still ladle out bowls of steaming cappuccino for breakfast.
Get to know the area the hostel is in before booking. Asking over the phone about security isn't likely to get you very far (what place is going to tell you they're in a dangerous neighborhood?), so again, pay attention to your fellow travelers' comments, get a guide book or two, and follow your instincts. You should have a Plan B.
If your roommate's snores raise the rafters, if her clothes reek, if you just don't feel safe — get out. Either have a list of alternative lodgings with you or get to an Internet cafe and search again. Most hostels reserve a certain number of rooms each day specifically for walk-ins, so you needn't feel stranded.
While travelers naturally have expectations, different hostels have different expectations of their guests. Some places enforce a daytime "lock out," chores or a curfew, while others have none. Some places will take chores as payment. Ask in advance. Most organizations have different rates for members and nonmembers (a few dollars, usually), but a formal membership isn't usually required or even advisable.
Most hostels provide linens and towels, and some specifically prohibit sleeping bags on their beds, so ask. Years ago it was common to pack a sheet sewn at one side (your bottom and top sheet in one) and to bring a pillowcase. It may still be a good idea outside of the United States. Bring soap and bring one or two padlocks with keys (or combinations) for lockers. Many hostels will sell you various necessities like camera batteries and toothpaste, but perhaps you shouldn't depend on it.
Last but not least, book as far ahead as possible. Popular destinations like New York City or Paris can be full a year ahead on peak dates. Be clear about the cancellation policies, and pack knowing a wonderful experience awaits.
Freelance writer Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times.