From Harvard to Hostels- How I Survived

By Marcia Weldon

I don’t want to come across as high maintenance, but the last time I visited Barcelona for more than a day, I stayed in a room at the Ritz Carlton hotel on the water. Some friends visited the city for New Year’s Eve, and luckily, I tagged along at the last minute and shared a room for free. As with most luxury resorts, I received five-star service, pampering, and outstanding food. When I worked in corporate America and traveled to overseas destinations, I typically didn’t stay at the Ritz, but I enjoyed very comfortable surroundings in hotels geared to business and well-off leisure travelers. When I traveled on my own, I didn’t splurge because I came out of college and law school with a six-figure debt. Even so, I never thought I would ever stay in a hostel.

View from the balcony at El Paraiso hostel in Barcelona

Fast forward a few years, and I’ve now spent my first night El Paraíso hostel in Barcelona because James wants me to learn to rough it as we prepare for a frugal retirement in a few years. Prior to this stay, I thought of hostels as shabby, dirty places for college students on spring break, poor people who have no choice, teenagers doing a gap year, backpackers, hippies, and anyone else who didn’t care where they slept, whether they got bedbugs, or whether they had their own bathroom.

James loves hostels because he’s a “people person.” To him, there are no strangers. There are only friends he hasn’t met yet. He has no problem sleeping in a room of snoring strangers or sharing a bathroom, common area, or kitchen with people he may never see again. He has stayed in hostels all over the world and says he’s never seen a roach in any them.

Hostels don’t immediately come to mind for most U.S. adults as the first choice for vacation accommodations. In the U.S., most people only get a few weeks vacation-not always paid- and consider the accommodations as part of the vacation. People who stay in hostels tend to look at them as a place to lay their heads at night and store their belongings safely while they spend their time and money exploring their surroundings, often based on recommendations from the strangers they met in a hostel.

The outside of El Paraiso hostel

I had very low expectations when I went to the El Paraiso, and those expectations plummeted when I walked in the very dark entrance of the building, saw a workman replastering what looked like crumbling walls (in the darkness) and then entered a pre-war era, creaky elevator. I almost turned around when I learned at check in on the second floor that the “room” cost only 10 euros a night per person. I put “room” in quotes because our room included four bunk beds. Yes, my first hostel experience involved me sleeping in a room with my husband and two polite, nontalkative men I did not know. I did have some comfort in seeing the staff constantly cleaning linens and common areas. But, understandably, I still had some trepidation.

As in most hostels, we each received a locker (I had brought my own lock). I stored my carryon bag in a storage closet room at the front desk because it wouldn’t fit in the locker. I could access my carryon whenever I needed to, but I noticed that the front desk attendant didn’t come with me to the room, so technically I had access to everyone else’s luggage too. I learned to keep everything I cared about and needed in my locker or with me. If you plan to stay in a hostel, you pack lightly and take only the essentials.

We could have cooked in the kitchen, which El Paraiso kept clean, but we chose not to. After our day exploring Barcelona, we relaxed in the common area complete with vending machines, a television, and a lovely balcony overlooking the street.

The terrace outside our room closed at 10:00 pm so that revelers would not disturb the peace of the neighbors or the guests. This serene area served as another social gathering place for people to strike up conversations with strangers.

Eventually, I had to take a shower, but this did not worry me. I had already scoped out the several bathrooms and found them all more than satisfactory. In fact, they were cleaner than some of the hotels I had visited in the past. Even so, I followed the advice of hostel experts and wore shower shoes, just as I would at a gym shower. This hostel provided towels, but I had also brought my own fast-drying camping towel. I felt comfortable using their towels because my room abutted the laundry area, and I personally witnessed staff washing linens. In fact, you had to bring your used linens to the front desk when checking out.

Shower at El Paraiso hostel in Barcelona

Finally, the moment I dreaded most-going to sleep in a room of strangers. First, I made sure to get into my top bunk before the others got to the room so that I could organize my space and have everything ready for when I woke up. I’m paranoid and had everything of value in bed next to me, which meant that at any moment of fitful sleep I could have knocked some electronic device out of bed. I also had my phone with its light in my hand in case I needed to get up in the middle of the night. Experienced folks always use a flashlight or cell phone so that they don’t turn the lights on at night to disturb their bunkmates. 

My sleeping quarters at El Paraiso hostel

After 9 hours of flying into Madrid, another flight into Barcelona, and hours of walking around the city, I fell asleep relatively quickly with my headphones listening to an audiobook. If you plan to stay in a hostel, I recommend that you get earphones, preferably made of gel to block noise. James actually did most of the snoring, but no one else minded but me.

My organization the night before made getting ready the next morning much easier. After a shower, I ate a mango on the terrace with the breeze blowing. In the common area, we met another couple from Indianapolis who was also traveling on our cruise the same day. They were younger and had also shared a room but with only one other person. Lucky them.

My verdict on my first hostel experience- I’m glad it was at El Paraiso. I could have done without the bunkmates, but otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised. I want to thank the great blog the hostel girl for helping to prepare me for my first adventure. Check out her December 2016 post for newbies.

Would I do it again? I don’t have a choice. I have a feeling I’ll be staying in a lot more as we downsize for retirement and save the money for experiences and not lodging. Stay tuned for more reviews. If you have tips on staying in hostels, feel free to comment below.

11 thoughts on “From Harvard to Hostels- How I Survived

  • Avatar
    December 24, 2018 at 3:41 am
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    I totally agree, hostels are the great way to meet new people and make friends.This hostel looks really decent and It was nice to read about your experience in a hostel for the first time.I have never stayed in a hostel but this is something i would love to do

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    December 22, 2018 at 2:06 am
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    Even initially I felt the same that hostels maybe for real budget travelers, shabby, messy but I was proved wrong when I started staying in hostels while traveling. I have stayed in many from LiveItUp hostel in Thailand to The Barn Hostel in Iceland – all of them were about comfy beds, clean bathrooms, and great place to meet fellow travelers.

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  • Avatar
    December 21, 2018 at 11:45 pm
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    A great read and one which has got me thinking again. I have never stayed in a hostel on a vacation and must say it could be a way of seeing more of them world bu spending less on accommodation. I want to try this way if travel and your post has just made me think again. The rooms look clean and the 10 euro a night a sure winner. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Avatar
    December 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm
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    I also had a misconception about hostels before and had similar concerns as yours including our safety. I changed my mind when we tried a hostel in Iceland but I haven’t tried sharing a room with other people though. Thanks for the tip about the shower shoes, I haven’t thought about that and I only use my usual slippers. I think your first hostel experience was a success! You handled it like a pro! 😉

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  • Avatar
    December 21, 2018 at 3:49 am
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    Wow what a transition! Fortunately, there are a lot of decent hostels out there and they always help to save money for your travels. I have stayed in plenty of them during my trips too but it’s a bit different for me as a I usually travel solo.

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  • Avatar
    December 20, 2018 at 3:40 pm
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    What a change! This must have been a shock. However, the hostel looks decent, as most of the hostels I have been for cheap. Hostels are great way to meet people, that’s the spirit.

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  • Avatar
    December 20, 2018 at 10:44 am
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    I’ve always wondered what it was like to stay in a hostel. It’s sounds like you found a really nice one! I really like your suggestion to bring headphones to block out the night noises.

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  • Avatar
    December 20, 2018 at 4:36 am
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    I’ve seen some pretty good hostels last time I traveled to Sweden. I believe hostels are moving up these days, becoming more like 2 star hotels. The one we checked (didn’t stay there, but I was curious) looks exceptionally clean and had rooms with two beds only. I don’t think I’d be able to fall asleep in a room with people I don’t know. It must have been quite an experience for you.

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  • Avatar
    December 19, 2018 at 11:47 pm
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    Loved reading your candid experience of first night in a hostel. I appreciate how you explained why Americans see vacations as a luxury and accommodation as a part of the experience. This brings out the difference between Europe and US, also why Europe is indeed a backpacker’s paradise. I personally am not comfortable with the idea of sharing room with strangers, so I went for IBIS budget hotels on my trip to Europe. We spent the same amount but had to stay slightly away from the tourist zones.

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  • Avatar
    December 19, 2018 at 5:34 pm
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    Great article! I have never done the hostel thing either and funnily enough my partner is also a “people person”. He can talk to anyone and in fact he loves it. All ages and all walks of life. He can chat all day and night so hostels would actually suit him best. Well if you don’t intend on giving up travelling I guess you don’t have a choice however I think you’ll become very adept at learning how to find the best hostels to suit you. Just remind yourself of all the adventures you can now go on with your partner. That far outweighs the hostel situation I reckon! Happy retirement!

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  • Avatar
    June 11, 2018 at 12:52 pm
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    I can only imagine it must have been quite a shock! Many people ask us how we are married and still stay in hostels. If it fuels your travel then it is absolutely worth it!

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