The first ever time I stayed in a hostel, I could not sleep for love nor money.
I was ten. I was in York on a school trip. It was a ridiculously hot night and I was sharing the room with four other excitable ten year olds. There were noisy drunk people downstairs. We had to help make breakfast in the mornings and mop the bathrooms (remember those days?! Somehow the boys got out of this. Sexist much, YHA?), which at ten I simply didn’t understand. I’m paying you. Surely you make my breakfast?
I was also on a top bunk without bars. Sleeping entirely still is a technique you eventually develop after staying in hostels for a while, but at ten it was the equivalent of the world’s biggest rollercoaster on the fear-factor.
Have I ever mentioned how much I hate rollercoasters?
Needless to say, I didn’t leave with a particularly good impression of hostels.
The next time was in Marrakech, and if you’ve been reading for a while then you’ll know how well that turned out. If not – a couple of gossipy Europeans and a broken air con system eventually led to the worst travel experience of my life so far.
I was a little bit apprehensive, then, when I booked myself into a London hostel last year. I was staying there because I had an all-day interview for my dream job the next morning, but it was a long way from home and I couldn’t afford a proper hotel room, so you can imagine how worried I was about sleeping properly.
Let’s be honest here – I have no photos of hostels. I’m just throwing in a picture of London so you don’t get too bored.
At first, my roommates weren’t particularly noisy, but the sounds of them moving, coughing, even breathing drove me up the wall. It was a little awkward as I had come in at 6pm and they were already asleep with the lights off, meaning I had to sit around doing nothing for a good few hours before I could even try and sleep, which clearly didn’t help.
And then the others arrived.
It was maybe three or four in the morning and I had just got to sleep.
When they first barrelled in, they whacked the lights on, loudly realised there were people sleeping and then apologised, even more loudly. Now, I appreciate the gesture, but here’s a quick friendly tip if you ever feel like apologising to a sleeping person – you do not actually have to shake me to make me open my eyes and verbally confirm with you that I have heard your apology. No, really.
I thought that would be the end of it, but no – the light stayed on. I lost count of how many times they came in and out, slamming the door, talking at full volume. I kept my eyes closed through all of this, so it was a while before I realised they were actually having a 4am underwear party in the middle of my room.
I left London exhausted and convinced that there must be some kind of secret formula for sleeping on hostels. Some people do it for months on end; there just had to be a way. I can normally sleep anywhere – on the bus, on my desk, standing up, even in the shower once – but hostels? I just couldn’t figure it out, and with a three week European interrailing trip looming, I knew I had to get it sorted. I Googled and Googled, but came up with absolutely nothing concrete.
And you know why that is?
It’s because there is no magic formula (unless of course you count sleeping pills as a magic formula…).
Despite that, I have picked up a few habits and learnt a few lessons over the last few months that might help those of you who, like me, often spend the wee hours of your hostel-based mornings plotting ways to murder snorers.
1). Firstly, you need to make yourself really, really tired. Not through a lack of sleep before you go, but physically tired because you’ve run around and seen so much during the day. If you’re away sightseeing, this shouldn’t be too hard.
2). Then get to bed at a sensible time, say 10 or 11. It hopefully means you can be totally zonked out by the time the nighttime revellers come tumbling in.
3). Alternatively, become a night time reveller – get so drunk that you’ll sleep like a baby and not care about the room’s resident snorer because it’ll be you. Just don’t host any underwear parties. Please.
4). Bear in mind that the first night will be the worst. This is just one of the many, many reasons why it’s a good idea to always have at least one full day and two nights in each place you visit. Even two nights is enough to set up a tiny bit of a routine and help you sleep better – and by night two or three, you’ll be well used to sound of eight other people moving around in their sleep and it shouldn’t bother you so much. In other words: hang on in there.
5). Take headphones. Not earplugs – I’m yet to find a pair that work that don’t cost half my weekly wages. You can easily pop some soothing music on your iPod and the sound will drown out other’s voices in a way cheapo earplugs simply cannot manage.
6). My worry with headphones is that I’ll sleep through my alarm the next morning – but no-one else will, and I’ll wake up an hour later in a room full of pissed off Europeans hunting for my phone. If you can, set an alarm on your phone instead of a clock (does anyone actually travel with alarm clocks these days?) and keep it under your pillow, set to vibrate. It’s less disturbing for everyone else, you’ll still know it’s going off and you can still wear your headphones/earplugs to drown out the sound of ten other people breathing.
7). Invest in an eyemask. And when I say invest, I mean it (although I am a student, so for me, ‘invest’ means £5 or above) – don’t just buy the first eyemask you see. Try it on. Make sure there are no gaps above or below your nose where light will seep in. Make sure it’s comfortable, not sweaty, and has a firm-looking strap that won’t break after two nights away. I got mine from good old Marks & Spencer for just over £5 and it’s honestly the best travel-related product I have ever bought. Even on nights when everyone in the room was snoring or partying, I could still drop off as long as I didn’t see that blinding light flick on and off.
8). Ladies – if you can, get yourself in a girls’ only dorm. I hate to say it, but it’s true – girls are far less likely to snore (or, if they do, it won’t be quite so loud). Bear in mind though that in girls’ only dorms, there tends to be stuff EVERYWHERE, and I mean everywhere.
9). If you can, get to know everyone in your room before you go to bed, even if that just means saying hello to them. I don’t know about you, but I feel much more secure sharing a room with someone once I’ve seen their face, especially if I’m travelling alone.
10). Take natural calming tablets (my mum swears by Dr Bach’s, but there are a million brands out there). If, like me, being trapped in a room with a noisy snorer literally makes you tear your hair out, pound on your pillow in frustration and invent new ways of smothering a person to death, then you’re never going to get to sleep. Even if it just works as a placebo, taking something to calm you down – or even just calming yourself down, if you’re less angry than me! – is going to bring you a whole lot closer to sleep.
So there you have it! Remember these few basic tips and hopefully next time you go to a hostel, you’ll just about manage to cram in a few hours of sleep – even if you do meet those underwear-party-holding over-apologisers I had the misfortune of staying with in London…