Creaky bunk beds, busy showers and an impressive variety of noises at 3am – no one said hostel living would easy. Fortunately there are many simple hacks to make life easier, and having a well-organised bag is a great place to start, especially when limited space and shared facilities are thrown into the mix.

Learn to pack like a pro with these tips and you’ll have more time and energy to enjoy the happier side of hostelling – making lifelong friends, lasting memories and having extra budget for that second round of beers with your new travel companions.

A woman wearing an orange backpack explores Ta Phrom Temple in Cambodia
Having the right pack can make or break a trip © swissmediavision / Getty Images

Choosing your luggage

Your bag will be your life source so choose it well. Top-loading packs mean you’ll have to go digging – or even unpack entirely – to find that last pair of clean socks. You might not be perturbed by this fuss, but your roommates may not feel so blasé about your belongings slowly spreading across the room or your rustling down the rabbit hole of your bag in the middle of the night.

Bear in mind hostels can sometimes be tucked away in less accessible spots, down cobbled backstreets or up several flights of stairs in a building with no elevator, so a clunky case could be a hindrance.

Hostel hack: For easy access, a front-loading pack is your best choice. Backpacks offer more flexibility than wheelie suitcases, and hardshell cases can sometimes be a nuisance – sure, some hostels offer palatial locker space but chances are you’ll have to squish your pack into some tight spots now and again, so it helps to have a little give. Make sure your pack is durable. This is your remote home while you’re on the road and since you’ve saved money on accommodation, treat yourself to a good quality pack.

A messy hostel dorm room with suitcases and backpacks on the floor
When space and privacy are limited a properly organised pack can help make hostel life smooth sailing © Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock

Up your organisational ante

You’ve been on the road for weeks or even months now and the contents of your luggage has devolved into a soup of loose socks, chargers and suncream (which, incidentally, has burst all over the only clean outfit you had left). Getting ready in the morning has gone from a slick 20-minute operation to an hour-and-a-half ordeal of hunting out your essentials. Sound familiar?

Hostel hack: Packing cubes are a great idea to keep items organised by function. Avoid the cardinal sin of hostel packing: plastic bags. Fire alarms, ‘heavy petting’ and breaking glass are all far more pleasant sounds to be woken up by than the crackling of plastic bags. If you’re staying in hostel dorms only part of the time, repack your bag with all your essentials on top before you leave your cushy private room.

A front pocket or top compartment is a great place for your toiletries bag, allowing easy access to everything you need to get ready in the morning. Since most of your liquids are in your toiletries, this should also make reorganising your hand luggage for airport security checks a breeze. When not in airport baggies, keep your liquids in waterproof bags to avoid nasty spills and leaks. It can also be a good idea to keep one change of clothes in a waterproof bag in case of emergencies.

A group of people socialising in a hostel dorm room
Friends can quickly become foes if you haven't packed the essentials to ensure a good night's sleep © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

Make room for the essentials

Hostels are where you’ll make some of the most meaningful friendships and long-lasting memories, but it’s also where you’ll endure the most testing trials. Even the nicest of roomies can be guilty of infuriating nocturnal noisiness and getting trigger-happy with the lightswitch at 3am.

You then wake up the next day only to step in some unidentified ick in the shower, realise the hostel has run out of clean towels to hire and oh, great, your phone battery has died due to a lack of plug sockets close to your bed.

Hostel hack: Packing earplugs and a sleeping mask is a must. Some hostels supply towels, others hire them out and others don’t offer them at all, so it’s best to pack a lightweight travel towel plus a sarong that can double as a bathrobe, beach cover-up, sheet, sun shade and more. A pair of flip-flops is great for the beach but also for protecting yourself from potential shower grossness.

Charging gadgets out in the open can be stressful, especially if you bought a fancy new phone for your trip. Instead, charge a portable power bank. This is worth much less and contains no personal information, so if it gets stolen it’s not the end of the world.

A women relaxes on a beach listen to music on her tablet
Noise-cancelling headphones can transport you into your own serene world... an epic beach view also helps © Day2505 / Shutterstock

Enjoy a few little luxuries

Hostels have really stepped up their game in recent years with better amenities and levels of comfort. OK, you’re probably not going to get the spacious private bathrooms, marshmallow-soft, king-size beds and closet space that a hotel affords, but there’s nothing like having a few personal luxuries to boost your budget break.

Hostel hack: Pack a travel pillow in case the hostel’s is hard and lumpy, or simply for extra comfort. A sleep sack (silk is nice) can be used as a barrier for questionable or scratchy sheets and can also double as a curtain for privacy.

For chill-out time, noise-cancelling headphones can transport you from a noisy room to your own little world where you can get computer work done, message on social media or listen to music.

A street food vendor in South Korea excepts money from a customer
Once safety is assured stash some cash at the hostel so you can explore without worrying about losing your hard-earned holiday money © Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

Better safe than sorry

The bond of budget travel means most hostel-goers are in the same boat when it comes to the security of their personal effects. In cases where there are no lockers, it’s universally understood that the valuables in each bag essentially amount to crinkled clothes, a few travel guides and some errant sand – so as long as you keep your wallet, phone and money on your person you should be fine tucking your bag in a convenient spot.

However, your bag is your lifeline and many would rather forgo the unspoken rules for guaranteed safety. Plus it can be more dangerous carrying all your precious holiday cash around than leaving some stashed in a safe place back at your digs.

Hostel hack: A TSA-compatible lock works to protect your bag when you’re travelling and lock up your stuff at the hostels when you’re not – it can help to collect a few different sized locks as some hostel lockers won’t fit particularly large padlocks.

A short bike cable or cord can be used with your handy padlock to attach your bag to your bed for extra security or even use as a hanger to keep it off the floor (which can deter bed bugs among other things).

A vendor packages up some spices at a local bazaar in India
Turn hostel meals from drag to dazzling with local dry ingredients that can easily be transported in plastic freezer bags © Curioso / Shutterstock

Dinners on a dime

Cooking your meals in the hostel and preparing lunches for your days out is a surefire way to save some pennies, but it’s day 24 of your trip and you’re starting to get sick of the classic pasta-pesto combo and your makeshift lunchbox of some napkins and a plastic bag can’t cope with your action-packed activities. By midday, the contents of your bag are covered in breadcrumbs and somehow slices of ham have delicately wrapped themselves around your e-reader.

Hostel hack: Use plastic food containers to organise your luggage in transit, which can then be taken out and used as a lunchbox or to store leftovers at the hostel. Plastic food or freezer bags are great for transporting dry ingredients like spices, tea bags and coffee without taking up too much extra room. A good tip is to scope out local menus, then hit the markets and see if you can recreate anything you saw – ensure you check out the facilities at the hostel before you go making a Michelin-starred meal with only a microwave.

Still not sure what to pack? Read out ultimate guide to packing like a pro before you go as well!

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories

Woman using mobile phone app while walking down the street in Québec City, Canada

Budget Travel

How to visit Québec City on a budget: 9 top tips

Feb 21, 2024 • 5 min read