Thankfully, the days of dirty, outdated, noisy hostels with a reputation for bedbugs and squeaky metal bunkbeds are – mostly – gone. Most hostels these days are clean, safe, well-equipped, and modern. Choosing to stay in these communal facilities versus an expensive hotel where guests keep to themselves can reap wonderful rewards like lifelong friendships (not to mention lots of saved funds!) The hostel culture makes travel a lot more fun, more connected, and in my experience, more memorable. Here are ten things you should know before staying in your first hostel:

1. Pack the right stuff

Remember, you’re not staying in a five-star hotel with room service and complimentary amenities. Bring your own soap, towel, and portable shower kit for lugging your toiletries down the hall — bathrooms are usually shared. I also strongly recommend flip-flops for those shower floors – I don’t care how clean a hostel is; they don’t clean the showers after every use. Bring a flashlight so you aren’t flipping on the overhead lighting to find something at 5am, and unless you’re the kind of person who can sleep through a hurricane, bring a pair of ear plugs. Or several.

2. You don’t HAVE to share a bedroom (or a bathroom)

Private rooms are usually available, but they’re usually meant for two people – and if you’re traveling alone you’ll have to pay for each space in the room to have it to yourself. (These rooms are more cost-efficient for couples traveling together.) And private rooms don’t always have private bathrooms – if they do you’ll likely pay a nominally higher rate for that added luxury. Still, if you really do want (or need) some personal space and a private toilet, a private hostel room is usually cheaper than a hotel.

3. Community events are a great way to meet people

Most hostels offer in-house community events like trivia nights or potlucks/community dinners – look for a schedule of events or ask about it at reception. They can also host off-site events like guided city walks or bar crawls, which can be a great way to get oriented with a new city.

4. They’re safer than you might think

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Theft in hostels is not nearly as bad as you might think. Room doors have locks, and there’s usually some sort of locker/storage facility either in the bedroom or in a community room near reception. They don’t usually provide locks though – so I’d bring your own TSA lock. And never, ever leave your passport or wallet in the room – no matter how safe you feel.

Related:  Safety For Solo Female Travelers

5. The staff are your friends

Well, not always – but hostel staff are generally locals, or expats who know and love the city, and you should use them as resources and city guides. They know where the best value grocery stores are, the best bars and restaurants, the unsafe neighborhoods, and other important know-how about the area.

6. Don’t be a hermit!

Hostels are communal, social places. You’ll have a much better time if you practice breaking the ice and getting comfortable with introducing yourself to your hostel-mates. Start with the basics: “Hi, I’m Becky. I’m from San Diego. Where are you from?” It’s a really easy way to get the conversation going if you’re usually shy and timid. Be prepared that some people are overly sociable, so if you do need some space, don’t expect to get it sitting at the common room tables. Likewise, if you are looking for some social time, walk into the kitchen or plop yourself down at the table or common room – you’ll likely be chatting it up in no time.

7. Free breakfast isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be

While I make it a point to book hostels that serve free breakfast, the caveat is they aren’t always stellar. In fact, most of the time it’s just corn flakes, juice, and toast. (Although, any free food is good food, amIright?) Sometimes you’ll get lucky and get hot eggs or meat and cheese, but typically, especially in Europe, it’s croissants and coffee. Just be prepared (and know the hours breakfast is served, so you don’t miss out!), and get your fill of what you can. Bonus: some hostels have free weekly dinners or deals with local restaurants too, so just be sure to ask and do your research.

8. Be courteous

Do your dishes and clean up after yourself in the kitchen. Don’t spread your things all over the bedroom; stick to your own bunk/bedspace. And for the love of backpackers everywhere, be QUIET if you have an early flight or come in late after a night of partying. Basically, don’t be a jerk and you’ll be fine.

9. Read up on membership options

There are some membership cards that will give you discounts not only at that chain of hostels, but also on attractions, local transportation, and sometimes even airfare. One of the most common is the Hostelling International (HI) card, which is valid at all YHA hostels worldwide. In countries where hostels are a mass market, you can often find a specific card: for example, New Zealand offers the Budget Backpacker Hostel (BBH) cards – similar to the HI card, but valid only in New Zealand.

10. Do your research

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For other notable information I haven’t mentioned here should be found on the booking site for your hostel. Just like you would when choosing a good hotel or B&B, research and read the reviews to take into account what others think of it – like how quiet it is (some hostels are just known for having major party atmospheres, while others are ideal for more quiet, low-key guests), where it’s located, what amenities are included, what they provide for you free of charge (or for an added cost), etc. I am a loyal member of HostelWorld – they have comprehensive information on each venue and a large community of people who provide valuable feedback. I take into account the reviews and ratings, but often take them with a grain of salt – they’re not all objective. Ultimately, you just have to decide what kind of experience you want, and make the best decision for yourself.

Related: More tips and tricks for traveling on a budget