What to Know When Staying in Hostels in New Zealand

Mount Cook, New Zealand | Photo by Robert Magnusson via Unsplash
Photo by Robert Magnusson

Staying in hostels: it’s not for everyone. But if you’re backpacking New Zealand on a budget (and you generally like being around other people), it might be for you.

Me, I had no idea what a hostel even was back when I first landed in Auckland in 2010. Eight years and approximately five million free cups of tea later, I’m still not all that sure how to describe them — because hostels in New Zealand come in all different shapes, sizes, and styles.

Dorm rooms can range from three beds to 24; private rooms might be singles, doubles, triples, or even private cabins. Bunk beds are very common, but not a given. Some hostels will feel like a student residence at university, and others will feel like hanging out at someone’s house. They’ll pretty much always have some kind of common area where the guests can hang out and meet one another, and a kitchen to store food and cook meals. Other than that, the variations are endless.

That being said: as someone who has stayed in more New Zealand hostels than she can count, there are some common truths that apply across the board (or across the country, as it were). Most of them you’ll probably pick up along the way — but maybe I can give you a bit of an edge.

So if you do choose this somewhat cheaper, usually more social, and yes, sometimes gross af type of accommodation in New Zealand, here are a few things you might want to keep in mind.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand | Photo by Cassie Matias via Unsplash
Franz Josef Glacier | Photo by Cassie Matias

Booking hostels and checking in

Be aware of the kind of hostel you’re choosing. Most do a pretty good job of advertising if they’re the “relax and take it easy” type or the “let’s all trash this joint and get weird” type, and a little awareness can go a long way if you’ve got a strong preference.

Hostels in the middle of the city are probably going to be noisy. This seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the amount of reviews I’ve read that complain about traffic, passersby, and other outside noises, as if the hostel has any kind of control over those things. If you want to stay in the middle of the action, you’re gonna have to listen to it.

But really, accept there is probably going to be noise, regardless of location. Hostels are always going to be about sharing limited space with a lot of people — and that means noise, any way you swing it.

If you book ahead and need to cancel, make sure you do so at least 24 hours before check-in, or you’ll probably have to pay for the first night. There are some exceptions (for instance, if they’re quite busy and can easily fill your spot, they might not charge you) but on the whole, consider this the standard rule.

Many hostels require a $20 key deposit (in cash) when you check in. You’ll get this back at check-out — so long as you return your key, of course.

If you’re trying to save a few bucks, consider working for accommodation. This is very common among backpackers in New Zealand. Almost everyone you see working in hostels, from the person who checks you in to the person who changes the sheets, is probably a fellow backpacker — which means they are constantly coming and going, sometimes on very short notice. It never hurts to ask if any work is available, or to call/visit a few different places to check before deciding where to stay.

Milford Sound, New Zealand
Little boat in a big Milford Sound

during your stay

If you’re staying in a dorm and departing early (say, before 10am), pack your things the night before. If you have roommates that are still sleeping, it’s very inconsiderate to make the kind of ruckus that invariably comes from packing (especially if it involves inexplicably wrapping up half of your belongings in plastic carrier bags).

When doing your washing without a dryer, make sure you have enough time to let your clothes dry completely. Not every hostel will have tumble dryers, and very few will have decent ones that actually dry your clothes. You’ll often have to hang your laundry instead, whether outside on a clothesline or inside your room, and they can take a solid day to dry properly (or more, depending on the weather). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have dirty clothes than ones packed up while damp.

Consider this when showering just before departure, as well — do you want to pack a wet towel? (Answer: no. You do not.)

Wash your most recently-worn underwear each time you shower. When you undress to shower, just take the underwear you had on (if applicable) in with you and give it a wash. It only takes a couple of extra minutes, and is a good way to ensure you always have at least one clean (albeit perhaps slightly wet) pair available.

Try to think up other first questions besides “so where are you from?” Look: I’m not trying to be a conversation snob, here. It’s not that serious, and easy “icebreaker” questions like this one are nice if you aren’t so great at talking to strangers. If that’s you, cool — no harm done.

But so often, people just say ask this because it seems like The Question You’re Supposed to Ask, not because they actually care, and it doesn’t lead to much actual conversation. (Anyway, you’re in New Zealand. They’re probably German.)

Many hostels don’t allow spontaneous overnight guests (unless they also book a spot). Those with 24-hour reception will simply prevent anyone from coming in without paying; some places without overnight reception might still discover you snuck an “outsider” in and kick you both out. Also, if you’re staying in a dorm, bringing people in for sex is really not okay, no matter what you may have heard.

Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, New Zealand | Photo by David Sutton
Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve | Photo by David Sutton

A few tips for storing your food in the communal refrigerator:
– Use some kind of reusable bag with a flat bottom (you can usually find these for a small price at any supermarket). Those plastic carrier bags are not only terrible for the environment, but they tear easily and make it really hard to keep all your things from falling all over the place.

– Label your bag clearly with your name and the date you’re checking out. (Some kitchens will provide pens and sticky labels for this purpose, but some won’t, so it’s best to be prepared yourself.) The fridge will (hopefully) be cleaned out regularly, and if your things aren’t properly labeled and dated, they might get thrown away.

– Try and only buy food items that can be resealed or that have proper lids. Your bag will get knocked over and pushed around by others, and anything not closed tightly will likely spill. (Also consider buying a couple of reusable containers for anything that can’t be resealed. These are especially useful if you’re cooking and eating solo, and need to save your leftovers.)

Wash any dishes you use as soon as you finish, and throw your trash away. Other people will not do these things. Don’t be like those people. It can be a real pain to try and find clean dishes to use in hostel kitchens, a #firstworldproblem you will almost certainly encounter yourself as some point. Do what you can to lessen that pain for others.

Be conscious of your belongings in a dorm. Remember that you are sharing that space with others, and try to keep your possessions from taking over the whole room.

Be aware that if you arrange activities or tours through your hostel, whoever helps you will typically receive a commission. If a staff member helps you choose what to do and you find their advice useful, definitely consider making the booking through them. It’s a nice way to say thanks.

Don’t be that douchebag who sits in the common area and loudly laments smart phones, the internet, and how nobody is ~social anymore. It can be nice to use social media and the internet to stay connected with people and news that you care about, especially while traveling, and no one should make others feel bad about it. Should you try to put your screen away once in awhile and talk to others? Sure, maybe — but when and where is your call, not anyone else’s.

Got any tips of your own or axes to grind about NZ hostels? Feel free to let it all out in the comments below.

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Any photos not credited otherwise are my own.

A collection of tips, tricks, suggestions, and reminders to get the most out of your stay in New Zealand hostels, from someone who has stayed in more than she can count. | #NewZealand | Photo by Robert Magnusson

A collection of tips, tricks, suggestions, and reminders to get the most out of your stay in New Zealand hostels, from someone who has stayed in more than she can count. | #NewZealand | Photo by Cassie Matias

A collection of tips, tricks, suggestions, and reminders to get the most out of your stay in New Zealand hostels, from someone who has stayed in more than she can count. | #NewZealand

Hostels: they're not for everyone; but if you're backpacking New Zealand on a budget, they might be for you. Here are tips and tricks to get the most out of your NZ hostel experience. | #NewZealand | Photo by David Sutton