Will backpacking ever be the same again? That’s been the question on my mind throughout the entirety of this ongoing pandemic. As a budget solo traveler, hostels have been a godsend for me. I’ve traveled full-time for the last four years. Even as I’ve grown as a travel blogger and influencer, I’ve never once thought of abandoning hostels for a swanky resort or the like. I’m a backpacker through and through. Hostels have always delivered the social atmosphere and budget-friendliness that I’ve prioritized while traveling.
I told myself that no matter what happens, I won’t forget my roots as a backpacker. A captain always goes down with his ship, after all. Not saying that I’m the captain of backpacking or anything, but I’m definitely one of the last few pure backpacker bloggers out there. But I’ll be honest, I did not foresee the impact that a pandemic would have on the backpacker scene and hostel industry. My livelihood, passion, and spirit are so intertwined with backpacking and the social aspect of travel. One can imagine just how devastating a blow this pandemic has dealt to me, my fellow backpackers, and hostels.
The Future of Hostels and Backpacker Travel
It may seem like there’s no space for hostels in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And sadly, it’s at least a little bit true. Many of my favorite hostels have shut down, including those that seemed to be successful and thriving. I still question if backpacker travel will ever be the same again. Even if a vaccine were to be discovered in the near future, it’s highly unlikely that people will all of a sudden flock back to shared hostel dorms.
Despite the pandemic, a few hostels are chugging along during this trying time. On my latest road trip through the United States, I stayed at a handful of hostels. I camped for the majority of the trip, but in between stints in the great outdoors, my adventures took me to two hostels in Denver, one in Moab, and one in Las Vegas. Each experience was different, with some taking painstaking care to ensure cleanliness and others going about business as usual.
Is It Still Safe To Stay At Hostels During A Pandemic?
The number one question on backpackers’ minds right now has to be, “is it safe to stay at a hostel?” Backpacking is such a unique style of travel, and hostels and backpacking go pretty much hand in hand. There’s no easy answer to that question, as each hostel operates differently. With hostels still being the cheapest option for budget travelers, there are quite a few travelers still willing to risk catching COVID to save money on accommodation.
I stayed and volunteered temporarily at Ember Hostel in Denver, one of the most posh hostels I’ve ever been to. With a price tag of around $50 a night for a shared dormitory, you can come to expect nothing less. I worked a few night shifts, and the attention to detail and cleanliness was incredible. Being a cleaning ninja really taught me to appreciate the extra effort some hostels and hotels have put into combating the virus. Given the circumstances, it made sense, but two grueling midnight til 8 AM cleaning shifts were enough for me.
On the other hand, the hostel I stayed at in Las Vegas felt like it could have been a meth lab. They were operating at half-capacity, required masks in common areas, and wiped things down occasionally. For some, that heightened dedication to cleanliness and extra precaution might be enough. Frankly, it was enough for me at the time, but this was before I spent time over at Ember.
However, backpackers typically don’t opt to stay at a hostel because of how clean it is.
Hostels are open, but one major thing is missing.
Outside of the extra attention to cleanliness, hostels still lack a major factor. One of the biggest reasons why I love hostels is the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends from all walks of life. The most unforgettable hostels I’ve stayed at have all relied on a fantastic social scene. Unfortunately, a lively social scene doesn’t go too well with the need for social distancing.
Sadly, the social aspect of hostels has mostly disappeared in most cases. Hostel employees and volunteers often foster the social vibe by hosting events and introducing travelers to one another. While they can’t really stop guests from socializing with one another, the hostels I’ve stayed at made it pretty clear that socializing wasn’t encouraged.
And that’s more than fair. Hostels tend to be hotbeds for drunken socializing and one night stands. It sucks staying at a hostel where everyone mostly keeps to themselves, but that’s just the way things have to be for now. If you want hostels to be a safe place to stay and to remain open, then it’s necessary to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing. I’ve heard of situations where a guest would catch COVID and the entire hostel would be forced to quarantine for two weeks. Imagine being stuck in a hostel for two weeks straight. Better not to risk it, I’d say.
So is it safe to stay at a hostel during the COVID-19 pandemic? It really depends. If you are worried, it’s best to reach out to the hostel beforehand to find out what precautions they’re taking. Most hostels are operating at half-capacity, but even staying in a dorm with three strangers instead of seven can be a big risk. With everyone exploring during the day, it becomes an even bigger risk. You have no idea where everyone’s going or if they’re taking the pandemic as seriously as you are.
Most hostels I’ve stayed at have required masks in the common areas. However, I’ve noticed most hostels have been understaffed during the pandemic. It’s been hard to enforce. In the rooms, masks are generally not required. Suddenly, the snoring guy isn’t just an inconvenience but a potential health hazard.
At the end of the day, no one knows you or your style of travel better than you do. I felt okay with staying at hostels because I was camping the majority of my trip. I was socially distanced and outdoors most of the time. Staying at a hostel for a night or two would give me a chance to catch up on work and cozy up under a roof. Since I’d usually be working, I wouldn’t have much time to socialize. Outside of the people in my dorm room, I’d have minimal human interaction anyway.
On the other hand, if you’re staying in hostels and socializing and partying as usual, that’s when it becomes a problem. The attitude of many young people seems to be “if I get Corona, I get Corona.” Unfortunately, the thing about pandemics that some people can’t seem to grasp is that the sickness is contagious. It’s not just about you, you, you. By putting yourself at risk, you eventually put others at risk.
Living life as usual, including traveling and staying at hostels, is dangerous. If you fall into the category of the latter, just don’t even travel at all. However, I don’t see a problem with staying at a hostel if you adhere to all the safety guidelines and travel responsibly. There will always be the risk of catching it, and in some cases, staying at a hostel is no more dangerous than walking down the street or going out to eat.
Have you stayed at a hostel since the pandemic began? What was your experience like, and would you recommend it?