Should I Book a Hostel or Just Show Up?

Should I book a hostel or just show up? Whether to book ahead, or simply show up unannounced at a hostel is one of the main issues facing backpackers.

On one hand, prices may be cheaper online, and the cheapest beds may get booked out days before you arrive; but on the other, booking means inflexibility, and the risk of being charged a penalty fee if you can’t make it when you originally planned.

The booking of hostels is an art, and with this guide, I hope you can learn something.

Should I Book a Hostel or Just Show Up



There are a number of factors which you should take into account when deciding how far in advance you should book a hostel:

  • In major cities (London, Paris, Amsterdam, etc), the weekends will usually be booked out about a week in advance, weekdays usually have availability for a little longer (and usually hostels will have empty mid-week beds). This is because during the weekend, not only are there backpackers in hostels, but also every young person who lives too far away to taxi home after a party.
  • During major festivals, the cheapest or best hostels may be booked out months in advance. Some hostels even open only for these festivals, and be closed the rest of the year!
  • You also need to take into consideration your travelling style. If (like me) your plans change on an hourly basis, you probably shouldn’t book until the last minute.
  • As a rule of thumb, in the high season, you should always book a bed in popular cities; in the shoulder and low seasons, you can ofter get away without booking.


In cities with a lot of hostels, the prices quoted on booking engines are usually cheaper than you’d get if you just walked in. This is because the hostels need to compete with everyone else online, but once you’re standing in their reception, they don’t have to try as hard.

In smaller cities where there isn’t much tourism, or there is only one or two hostels, you will often get the best prices by showing up without a booking.

These hostels aren’t all that profitable, and so pass the commission they have to pay the booking engine (10% of the bed cost) to anyone who books online. It’s usually worth emailing or phoning ahead to let the hostel know you’ll be coming.


The fact is that bad reviews cost hostels business. They know this, you know this, it’s no secret. I’ve worked in many hostels, and it is common practice to put people who book online in to ‘better’ rooms, or treat them slightly differently to walk-ins. This is especially true in the low and shoulder seasons, when staff have more time to focus on guests individually.

Some hostels in hot climates have outdoor sleeping areas (i.e. on the terrace, in a hammock, or on the roof) that they do not advertise online. These areas are normally reserved as an option for when the hostel is full; they can be more comfortable than the dorms (especially if there’s no air con), and are almost always the cheapest option.

If you will be arriving in a city late at night, you should always book and email ahead to let them know – there’s nothing worse than turning up to a hostel at 1am to find that the staff have gone out partying with the guests, and there’s no one around to let you in.

If staying for more than a few nights in a hostel, be nice by not booking online. As I already mentioned, the hostels have to pay at least 10% of the cost to the booking engines, which can add up to a lot quite quickly (a phone call or email can do the same job).

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