Fact: there is something a little shady about hostel-shopping, a feeling that, for me, sprang from the very idea of sleeping in a dorm with complete strangers, which seemed to be entwined with an unlimited potential for horror-movie-esque situations. I wasn’t sure at first what my standards should be. The second time I planned a budget trip to the UK I knew what my priorities were and had learned to trust the reviews on the hostel booking websites. Like choosing a regular hotel, it’s just about knowing how to read the descriptions and what words to look for (even if you have to actually translate it them into English). One decision that must be made, for better or for worse, is whether a high security rating is important than a high cleanliness rating. If so, go ahead and decide exactly how low a cleanliness rating you are willing to deal with….For my part, I can stand less than pristine showers if I have a locker for my stuff and more than one door between the bedroom and the street. That said, I never risk a less than 75% guest approval rating, however cheap it is. Again with the potential for scary. 

Be prepared to be entertained when reading hostel reviews. These will range from the poetic: “Could do with better, less gloomy lighting. Especially now that rainy Autumn approaches” to the enigmatic: “Disliked: No hoter from chicken tap and mold dishes were everywhere in cabord” (Whatever. There were enough English words there to convince me not to try that place)…from the self-assured: “Disliked: had to fully dress if we wanted to go to the kitchen” to the gruesome:  “Rooms are filthy. BLOOD on the window sill in the bathroom very doubtful that the beds had been changed, mold growing on the curtains.” (WHAT)

Do read plenty of reviews to get a good idea about a place, though, because sometimes reviewers disagree: 1. “Disliked: The rooms smell like dog. The dog was nice though.” 2. “Disliked: The killer dog.” Another didn’t like that “The internet connection was crap and a Chinese girl used our shower.” One person left a 91% approval rating for a Glasgow hostel but complained, “There was no electric shock in my room.” (Like I said: priorities.) Then there are the hostel reviews that sound like witness statements on Law & Order: Abroad: “…The room smelled really bad due to some weird man who stayed in the room, and the light bulbs were stolen…There was commotion when the drunk Frenchmen staying in the same room returned from the bars which was slightly annoying.” LOLOLOL (hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com)

Yes, your standards have to be a little…different when staying in hostels but it is absolutely possible to find blood, mold, and killer-dog free hostels that are perfectly safe. On occasion, you might even get a comfortable bed and a reasonably temped shower, even a complementary bowl of cereal for breakfast. You will certainly meet some interesting people, like my Edinburgh roommate Rita, who was born in a small village in central Germany and is now is a law student in Berlin. We bonded over being klutzy and forgetful and, case in point, having recent burns to deal with while we traveled. We laughed about what the staffer who cleaned our room when we left would think about all the bandages and burn cream in the garbage. We found a lot to talk about: the joy of being mistaken for a local when visiting a foreign country, how embarrassing it is when you can’t understand someone’s accent, and the need to get away from home for a while. And who knew that it would ever be useful to me to know about the various scandals and paramours of the recent presidents of France? And then I found myself being asked and able to summarize the current Ukrainian rebellion for a European, which made me feel all kinds of smart.

I knew that Rita and I could be friends when she told me that every time she visits a foreign House of Parliament or government center she likes to buy a pen or pencil as a souvenir. That sounds completely like the kind of random, sentimental thing I would do. When I said I was from the US, the first thing she said was that she wanted to go there, especially, she paused to confirm the word, the “Fingerlakes Region?” She recommended both Berlin and Munich as places to visit if I ever go to Germany, but not during Oktoberfest, when there are just too many drunk guys to grab at you. She was fascinated and amused to hear that in one of the parts of America that I am from, Wisconsin, there is a proud German history and that they also celebrate Oktoberfest with gusto.

It doesn’t surprise me anymore but I’m always interested at how closely the rest of the world follows our American politics. It was a surreal moment when Rita from Germany, a great fan of Barack Obama, and I laughed about having seen the same “Mitt Romney, Gangham Style” video on YouTube in 2012. It made me remember a conversation I in Stratford-Upon-Avon with a couple of Australians, who had been glued to their televisions as much as I had in November 2012,  praying that the Democrats would prevail. Rita asked what it was like living in a place as conservative as Texas, and “Isn’t it really hot there?” I had fun explaining about Austin being different and, “Yes, it gets very, very hot there.”

I love travelling alone and I can be truly happy with my earbuds in all day. But I am so glad I stepped out of my introvert zone to get to know my roommate in Edinburgh! We traded email addresses in case we ever visit each other’s countries. Maybe someday we’ll have coffee in Berlin and catch up. Maybe not, but, either way, I feel lucky to get to add that three day friendship to my list of experiences.

“A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.” Charles Baudelaire