Are hostel showers gross? No! Or, at the very least, usually not. You can handle this.
I dare any traveler to come up with a better spa treatment than what I experienced in Italy. The country's polished marbles had nothing on my skin after a beautiful, yet breezy day at the beach in Finale Ligure. The salt spray, the repetitive layers of sunscreen and blown sand, finished with a hearty dose of sweat from climbing the 300 plus stairs up the hillside to my hostel made for the world's most powerful exfoliate. The hostel's showers may have been humble but my skin has never felt so good!
I get why the issue of bathrooms and showers is a sensitive one to so many travelers. It's not just about being hygienic. It's also about the ritual of refreshment and relaxation that helps start and conclude a day. It can wash away a horrible day or, like my case in Italy, make a good day even better. And it just feels darn nice.
And that's probably why so many of my readers who want to try staying in hostels or budget accommodations for the first time (or are interested in giving them another shot after a long hiatus) are sheepishly and nervously asking...."Um..... How do I shower in a hostel?"
Hostels ARE for everyone.
Before we go any further, let's quickly review the reason why HOSTELS ARE AWESOME! Yes, even for the slightly older, "aren't I too old for this" set. Private rooms in hostels (and occasionally dorms) are an affordable, value packed form of accommodation that connect travelers to a diverse, multicultural community - all while offering a ton of helpful amenities.
We love how they're often found in buildings with historic designations or environmental certificates and, in particular, how Hostelling International is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to their local and global communities, eager to welcome travelers of all ages. We don't stay in hostels all the time, but they're a key part of our value travel philosophy and we've never been disappointed with our choices.
Guess what? A lot of hostel bathrooms are nice. REALLY nice.
You can easily predict the layout of a hostel bathroom based on how old the building is. New properties often feature small en-suite bathrooms in their private rooms, while dorm guests can often expect pod style washrooms, where instead of a giant shower room there are dozens of individual three piece washrooms with a toilet, sink, and shower. This setup is great for showers as they offer excellent privacy and plenty of room to lay out your belongings. Hostelling International Boston even had a stack of fresh bath mats for each guest! In short - a good rule of thumb is that the newer the hostel, the better the showers.
Even older hostels can have decent bathrooms.
Most historic properties tend to feature larger communal (and gender segregated) washrooms which often feature several shower stalls. Because of the nature of vintage plumbing, your main shower room may not be on the same floor as your dorm (though there will likely be a toilet room nearby) and they might be irregularly shaped. At Hostelling InternationalFisherman's Wharf, the washroom featured gorgeous large windows - which were predictably very drafty, just as you'd expect from a historic property.
Properties that fall somewhere in the middle offer shower rooms that resemble a university dorm. You'll rarely wait long but you'll also not have much space. There's also the occasional property that offers a toilet and sink en-suite with a dorm and shower rooms down the hall, or even a proper three piece en-suite, but it's more likely to see a few 'double pods' - washrooms on the smaller side with a few toilet stalls and sinks and one or two shower stalls.
Flip flop, towels, and gear considerations.
If you have a private room with an en-suite three piece bath, there's not much to consider. You just lay out your toiletries like you would at any hotel and take advance of the free towels that are almost always included in these rooms. Whether or not you'd use flip flops in this situation all depends on your comfort level and the cleanliness of the property. I'd like to issue a blanket statement to always, always, always wear them but I have to confess there are a few hostels where I didn't and I've lived to tell the tale. For all other hostels, taking a shower requires a bit of foresight and planning.
Yes, you really, really should wear flip flops in all hostel showers. You'll also need some kind of towel system - either by bringing your own travel towel or renting regular towels from the front desk (always get two). If you're frugal and shameless and checking out that morning, you could even use the sheet you slept in, as it's going straight to the laundry pile anyway. (I swear, I have never done this).
A little etiquette goes a long way.
Hostels are communities and we all have to do our part to make our community happy.
If you're showering during peak times, keep it short and sweet. If someone is in the shower for a ridiculous amount of time, a courteous "How much longer will you be?" is an appropriate hint.
Clear away your trash and immediately report any yucky situations to the staff. Many hands make light work!
Pro tip - when you check in, ask the staff what times the bathrooms are busiest and what time they're shut down for cleaning. And then time your shower for right after they've been cleaned!
Finally, do not, under any circumstances, indulge in shower romance. You don't have to go THAT far to help keep your community smiling.
The questions you're afraid to ask.
Will there be hairdryers? Based on my experience, there's about a 75% chance a newer hostel will have hairdryers (or they can be borrowed/rented at the front desk). Slightly older properties will likely have hand dryers by the sink that a dexterous traveler might be able to manipulate into serving their needs. In a truly historic hostel, it's best to check first in case you blow a fuse!
What about soap? Even the most basic of hostels will sell standard hygiene items and many have a general purpose liquid soap dispenser in the showers. (Check out the photo - see, there's soap! Thank you to Cailin O'Neil for this photo at Hosteling International Seattle).
Will I have to pay? Almost certainly no. Once fairly common, the coin operated hot water tank system has almost vanished. I've only ever encountered them twice, both at North American campgrounds. And I actually loved it. Great for the environment, great for preserving the hot water supply. The good news is that if a hostel does have coin operated showers, this will stick out like a sore thumb and your guide book will definitely mention it.
Your secret hesitations.... reassured!
Plumbing is weird in foreign countries.
Darn right. Heck, I can barely operate taps in my own country. But you'll find strange faucets in hotels too. At least in a hostel you can just ask another traveler what the deal is with all the weird levers.
Really? All of this sounds like a lot just for a shower.
Then don't take one! If you're comfortable with showering every second day, skip taking a shower at a hostel if you're only there for a night and bathe in luxury once you check into your next hotel.
But I've heard horror stories about hostel bathrooms.
Yep. Because there are horrible hostels out there. But we don't stay at poorly reviewed hostels that cater to a party crowd and you probably shouldn't either. We select every hostel we visit with care and we haven't had a disaster yet.
Is this going to be awful?
Nope. Almost definitely not. And, if you've absolutely hated it, well, you can go to the spa with the money you saved. Even if you won't be able to replicate my Italian marble-esque skin from all those years ago, trust me. You can do this and it's definitely worth trying.
Alright - tell us! Would you be willing to brave a hostel shower?
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Hostel Review: Old Plovdiv
Hostel Review: Hostelling International Fisherman's Wharf
Hostel Review: The Rocks Hosteling International Sydney