Long-term backpacking is a great way to guarantee a truly immersive travel experience. Done properly, it carries the promise of friends from around the globe, as well as a true familiarity with a destination, and its people. However, with accommodation, food, travel, and entertainment to budget for, it does not always come cheap. So, what if I told you that you could do all of these things for a fraction of the price? For those with a tight budget, a workstay or staying and working in a hostel is a great option to consider. In exchange for a few hours of volunteer work a week, hostel-owners on websites such as Worldpackers and WorkAway offer free accommodation, and often other benefits, to the extroverted traveller. However, while this can be a social and finance-friendly way to experience beautiful destinations, working in a backpacker’s hostel is a far stretch from a day in the office, and you can expect a very unique work environment. 

This was something I was to discover in the summer of 2019, when I travelled to Uvita, in Costa Rica, to spend a month working as a receptionist in a small eco-hostel; an experience which while extremely rewarding, wasn’t without its tests. Based on my time away, I’ve compiled a list of essential pointers to help you navigate the thrills, and challenges, of this opportunity. 

Also Read: My experiences with communal living when I travelled across Canada

5 Essential Tips To Get the Most Out Of Working In A Hostel 

Outside the hostel where I worked
Outside the hostel where I worked. Image courtesy: Maria Lennard

1. Do Your Research 

The world of hostels has never been so diverse, with a wealth of different styles and atmospheres all over the globe. Bohemian yoga hostels, all-night party hostels, adventurous surfing hostels; you name it, it probably exists. Luckily, with a myriad of websites advertising hostels seeking volunteers, it’s easy to find your perfect match—almost like a Tinder for backpackers. These websites also offer a range of jobs, from reception work and general maintenance, to skill-based tasks such as video making and social media. 

Unfortunately, I was unable to research potential hosts before travelling to Costa Rica and, arriving at my location, found that it was a quiet hostel in the middle of a tiny town: certainly not what I was expecting when I packed my party clothes! While it ended up being a valuable experience, I realised that I would be much better suited to a busier, more vibrant area. To avoid making the same mistake, make sure you match the vibe of your chosen hostel before you commit. After all, this will be not only your workplace but also your home. 

Top tip: Research and SAVE maps and directions before setting off for your destination. This was something I failed to do and found myself desperately looking for road signs on a very dark coach journey across Costa Rica. 

2. Be Positive And Open-Minded

Hostels welcome people from all walks of life. There’s no workplace more social, attracting an array of characters from around the world, all looking for adventure and companionship. Anything is acceptable in a hostel, so don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and spend time with the clients in your free time. My favourite shift was an evening at the bar, where those looking for friendship would flock to talk late into the night.  

There’s also something about the free-spiritedness of these clients, often on a path of self-discovery, which can bring out your inner daredevil. Working in a hostel, you can be anyone you want. So, take hold of every opportunity, whether it be a pint with the new client or that daredevil activity you never thought you would do. 

Working in a hostel
Hostel bedroom bunk beds. Image courtesy: Maria Lennard

3. But…Don’t Be Afraid To Take Some Time To Yourself

While it is good to make the most of the social scene, living in a hostel can also be quite overwhelming. With a constant influx of new people to host, the line between work time and downtime can become slightly blurred…especially if you’re living with your boss. You may also feel a pressure to make the most of every second, or attend every party, leading to a very long-term hangover. 

However, there’s no shame in taking a little time to yourself. In Uvita, I found myself sharing a very small room with three other volunteers (and a large party of insects). To reclaim my privacy, I would occasionally take a solo walk to a nearby waterfall, where I would read a book and take a well-earned breath. 

Hammocks where I was working in a hostel
Hostel hammocks. Image courtesy: Maria Lennard

4. Get Out Of The Hostel 

It’s easy to get too comfortable working in a hostel—let’s face it, you’re probably working in paradise. However, make sure you tear yourself away from the hostel’s hammocks, or (if you’re lucky) communal swimming pool, to explore the surrounding area. My favourite part of my stay in Costa Rica was the week after my workstay, when I travelled two hours north to the buzzing tourist city of Manuel Antonio. Ask your boss if you can have the weekend off to travel to a nearby area, and spend time being the guest rather than the host. 

Large hostel when exploring Manuel Antonio
Large hostel when exploring Manuel Antonio. Image courtesy: Maria Lennard

5. Prepare For Inconsistency

You’ll soon learn that nothing lasts long in a hostel. No sooner have you met your supposed soulmate, or a group of crazy new best friends, when you’ll have to say goodbye. I made sure to get to know the long-term residents, the only constant among an ever-shifting social circle. 

A More Sustainable Means of Travel 

Hostel-work can offer a more sustainable means of travelling, with many hostels maintaining an eco-friendly focus. While working in a hostel is not for everyone, if you’ve stayed in a hostel before and enjoyed it, a workstay is a great way to carry on the party. 

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