What’s the Difference Between Hostels and Hotels?

There's only one letter's difference, but make no mistake—hotels and hostels are very different travel experiences!

There are so many things to consider when choosing a place to stay on your next vacation. It needs to be within your price range and a reasonable distance from your desired travel activities, plus you need to look out for these signs you’re staying at a bad hotel. You even have more than one option when it comes to types of hotels. With the growing popularity of hostels, you may have found yourself wondering if a hostel is the right choice for your next trip—and what exactly is the difference between a hostel and a hotel, anyway?

Origins

First and foremost, hotels have been around for a lot longer. Hotels, in the sense that we know them, came to be during the 16th century. The word comes from the French hôtel. The concept of the hostel is a much more recent one. The phrases “hostel” and “youth hostel” are often used interchangeably because hostels were first created with students in mind. A German elementary school teacher named Richard Shirrmann, living and teaching in the early 1900s thought that his students needed a designated place to stay during overnight field trips.

Environment

The origins of hostels as youth-oriented lodging carry through to today. The hostel scene is aimed especially at the younger demographic (though certainly not as young as elementary schoolers). Backpackers and college-age explorers make up a lot of their clientele. Hostels cater to them both with their prices—hostels are far more budget-friendly than most hotels—and their overall environments. Hostels often present themselves as very social places, where you can meet other travelers from all around the world. They usually have a very casual environment as well.

And this can be positive or negative, depending on your preferences. Hostels usually have a lounge where you can hang out with your fellow travelers. On the flip side, though, you probably won’t have your own room in a hostel, and you almost definitely won’t have your own bathroom. Hostels often have anywhere from four to a whopping 20 beds in a single room, usually arranged in bunk-bed style. You’ll also probably be washing up in a community bathroom in the hall, comparable to a college dorm living situation.

Hotels, on the other hand, are often more luxurious and far more private. You and your travel-mate or mates can have rooms all to yourselves, with a bathroom in the room, and you’re more likely to encounter guests of all ages (depending on the cost of the hotel and the atmosphere of the place you’re vacationing, of course).

TripSavvy also points out that hostels are often smaller businesses, with more down-to-earth staff and management. This can provide a stark contrast after staying in a lot of chain hotels. Though, admittedly, chain hotels often are some of the hotels with the best customer service.

Offerings

Walk into a hotel room and you’ll usually find toiletries waiting for you, as well as clean towels, a mini-refrigerator, and maybe a robe or hairdryer. As technology has evolved, too, you’ll also probably find a TV with a whole host of channels and possibly even Smart TV capabilities. Hostels, though, usually don’t provide “extras” like these (hence their cheaper costs). Their lounge area might have a TV, and potentially some table games. Hostels also usually have a kitchen in case you want to cook for yourself. The lack of amenities can be a good thing, though, because it means hostels pay less attention to “stuff” and more to the guests themselves.

One similarity between the two? Both hotels and hostels are usually located in, or very close to, travel destinations—as opposed to motels, which are often just along the side of the road, meant to be a one-night stop on a journey. Find out more about the differences between hotels and motels here. But while hotels try to make themselves part of your travel experience, with things like pools, bars, and shows, hostels often don’t have a ton to offer in terms of on-site recreation. But hostels might sponsor events, like parties or tours, in the destination city. And both will be stocked with helpful information about things to do in the area.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.