Hostel Etiquette – Sleep In Your Own Damn Bed

There is a pandemic raging through hostel culture…and no, it isn’t bed bugs.  In a sleepy dorm room somewhere nearby a tired individual has made the grand trek up four flights of stairs, down a long zig-zag hallway all while fighting the never ending battle that comes with magnetic keycards. You know the battle i’m talking about; the first attempt never works, then you try it again … slower … no luck.  Confused, you then rotate the card and try the other end … but, no, that’s not it … then on the fourth, fifth, sixth, or sixteenth try you get the timing and pressure just right and the door makes that loud grinding noise causing the hairs on your arm stand on end in a mixture of discomfort and relief.

With every bit of Elven deftness you ease into the room and carefully navigate to your bed praying you don’t trip over a backpack or pair of carelessly tossed shoes. You may be returning from a night out on the town or be freshly arrived.  Either way; eager to kick off your shoes, slide into bed, and rest…you notice a lump and mess of disheveled sheets in the bunk you’ve been assigned.  Careful not to bathe the whole room in light, you use your cell phone to check the bunk number and the number on your card. Then the annoyed conundrum strikes. You’ve been the victim of a bed thief. What to do? Do you dump your water bottle on the person? Storm to the door and turn the light on making a scene and waking up the rest of the room? Head back to reception?  Is there another bed available? Is it a bed you want?

Do I Really Need Flip Flops for Hostels – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Wednesdays

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Jane who asks,

Q. “Alex, I have a big hostel trip coming up and am trying to pack light. Do I really need to pack an extra set of sandals for the showers? Why?”

A. – Yep! Further, I suggest you stick to a cheap pair of plastic sandals/flip flops/thongs. I’ve seen a lot of people opt for a pair of leather sandals which they use as general shoes and also use for the hostel showers as well. I’d advise against this as it is both disgusting (the leather gets wet and soaks up nastiness) and rude (you’re tracking street germs into communal showers). If you opt for sandals instead of shoes on a day-to-day basis it is still worth packing a second pairs of sandals. One thing every hostel/backpacker should have is a set pair of dedicated hostel/shower sandals.

But why? Well simply put hostel showers are semi-communal in nature. They seldom see sunlight (which can kill a lot of bacteria) and are not always the cleanest in the world. Your average hostel dorm bathroom services at least 4 people and sometimes 10-20 times that. These are people from a variety of backgrounds traveling in a wide assortment of ways and with vastly different hygienic standards. While the average hostel goes out of their way to keep their showers clean, and all showers are cleaned on a daily basis, they still got a lot of use. You also never know if the person who just finished showering before you is freshly arrived from an undeveloped nation where they decided to walk around barefoot. So, while your chances of actually catching some sort of bacteria or nastiness from a hostel shower is relatively small…it is still a healthy enough risk that it’s well worth avoiding.

Also, at the risk of being overly graphic keep in mind the wide assortment of things that people do in the shower and consider that hostel bathrooms and showers are often one of the few areas in the hostel which A) have a lock on the door and B) are not under video surveillance. Ask yourself, is that really a place where you want to walk around barefoot?


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Best Website To Start A Travel Blog – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Wednesdays

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Linda who asks,

Q. “Alex, I’m going to study abroad this summer and I want to start my own little travel blog. Nothing fancy just something free and easy. What do you recommend?”

A. – I highly recommend everyone who finds themselves gearing up for an important trip take the time to start up a small blog. Even if you have little/no intention of continuing the project after the trip ends it is a great way to record the experience and to share it with friends and family. It’s also exciting and surprisingly informative to read back through old blog posts. A blog well written can bring back memories that would otherwise be lost. It always amazes me how some of these otherwise forgotten memories can be grand stories which in the moment seem completely unforgettable. When I started VirtualWayfarer these considerations were about the extent of what I had planned, so, you never know when the blog intended for one small trip may turn into something very different given time and opportunity.

Hands down the best, most universal, and widely used platform to blog on is WordPress. WordPress comes in two forms; a .com and a .org version. is free and provides free hosting with a somewhat reduced set of control options. Your website URL will be something like and your chances of building effective search engine optimization and a large readership are usually more limited – though not impossible. However, it is perfect if you want an incredibly easy to learn, free to use platform that is good for some limited random discovery, and sharing with your friends and social network. The added benefit is that allows for a seamless export of all of your posts and data which can then be imported into if you decide to transition at a later date. is also free, however unlike it does not provide hosting and instead is a free copy of the wordpress software. This means that you’ll have to subscribe and pay for premium webhosting – vendors like Host Gator and Blue Host are popular – and then install the software. You’ll also need your own domain name (eg: This option is good if you plan to do something more with your blog or want to use it long term. However, if all you want is a free solution that will sit there without need for maintenance between trips or a re-occurring annual cost this probably isn’t ideal for you. How popular is it?  Well, you’ll find that about 95% of all major travel blogs are using WordPress.

If you’re not a fan of WordPress then consider Tumblr or Blogger. Tumblr tends to be far more popular for sharing images, while Blogger has been making large strides to improve the appearance of their blog interface and the themes they’ve made available. Both of these are similar in format, form and function to the .com version of WordPress.

There are also a mixture of websites designed specifically to serve in a similar hosting capacity to  However, unlike which is general these are tailored to novice travel bloggers.  These sites offer a certain level of increased exposure to the local community, but also provide less control and autonomy than the general blogging services mentioned above.

More specific questions about how to set up your own blog?  Let me know!  I’m happy to help.


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Effective Ways To Research A Solo Trip – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Wednesdays

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Zhu who asks,

Q. “Hey Alex, what do you think might be an EFFECTIVE way of collecting info for a solo traveller? I mean, every time when doing my homework for my next destination I feel that the information is overloaded even messy: so many resources, from lonely planet to personal tips… How to get useful useful info and save time at the same time?

A. – Ultimately it all comes down to time, and how well prepared you want to be.  I’m a pretty laid back traveler.  I’ll do basic research on where I want to visit before hand, then leave most of the specifics up in the air.  About 40% of my planning/research comes from word of mouth and social media (I love and rely heavily on my network).  Another 20% is pulled from general blogs research and reading.  The final 40% usually comes from a mixture of resource sites, news articles, photo sites, and wikis.  It may seem odd but the resource I use most often is actually Wikipedia.  I use it to research a city, or a region and to look at what a lot of the main attractions are. Then I use it to research each individual attraction to see if they’re something I’m interested in.  There’s also WikiTravel which is similar but exclusively travel focused. I’ll spot check it for additional information, though I usually find it significantly more limited than Wikipedia. Another favorite is the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. I always review the UNESCO list when planning a trip, as these are typically great indicators of what you should make sure you see.

As you mentioned, there are also great resources like Boots n’ All and Lonely Planet which have a lot of online resources (and great discussion forums).  However, I have to admit that I haven’t bought or traveled with a guide book since 2007.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t reference them from time to time, but it’s usually only in passing or when someone shows me a “must see” from the guide book while in a hostel.

I spend a lot more time than most people reading about travel and the world.  As a photo addict, photos of places tend to help me decide where I want to go next.  For example, a few years ago I saw a photo of Preikestolen in Norway and decided it was somewhere I needed to visit.  The same happened more recently with my trip to Cappadocia in Turkey after seeing a series of shots of the region’s strange rock formations and amazing underground cities.  If you’re interested in selecting your next destination you can do searches for image blog posts like my 30 favorite photos post. You’ll find similar ones on a lot of blogs and even in major news papers and magazines – National Geographic and the Atlantic’s In Focus photo blogs are great starting points!  If you want to do “word of mouth” research before you take to the road indie travel blogs are a great starting point.  Keep in mind that the longer a travel blogger has been on the road, or blogging the more likely you’ll be able to run a basic search on their site for great info about the places you’re considering.

At the end of the day it depends on what type of experience you want.  Do you want a very organized one?  A food-centric one?  Urban?  Natural beauty?  These factors will all play an important role in shaping which resources you need to look at.    Personally, I prefer a middle of the road approach.  I do enough research to get a feel for the big things I want to see, then I do some quick research to help me plan out generally how much flexible time I will work into my schedule while leaving the rest up in the air.  Once the trip starts and I can talk to people in the country, or who have already been – I seek suggestions from them and do a lot of my research that way.  I find that last minute invitations or suggestions are often the most difficult to force ourselves to say “yes” to, but are also often the most rewarding.   I hope that helps!

Also, don’t forget to look at my Travel Resource List for a useful bookmark list of great travel resources!


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The Dirtiest Hostel I’ve Visited – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Wednesdays

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Elijah who asks,

Q. “Where was the dirtiest hostel you’ve ever been to?

A. – Ahh, time for a hostel horror story, ehh?  While the vast majority of the hostels I’ve stayed in have been pretty good, there have definitely been a few that were memorable for all of the wrong reasons. Typically, I manage to do most of my research ahead of time using Hostelworld or HostelBookers. The reviews on these sites really help with the booking process, especially because they both have cleanliness ratings. However, sometimes you just don’t get the chance to research ahead of time or have to try a hostel which isn’t listed. That’s what happened to me in Greece.

It was December 2007 and I was traveling through Greece with a good friend.  It was off season and most of the hostels and hotels had closed for the winter.  Luckily those that were still open were willing to negotiate price.  As a result we were able to stay in private hotel rooms for the same price or less than we would have paid for a hostel.  That all changed when we arrived in Chania in Crete. We found a hostel, and checked in eager for the opportunity to socialize.  Unfortunately, the hostel wasn’t listed on most of the main resource sites (with good reason), was a European HI Hostel (which always makes me nervous) and as a result we ended up checking in blind.

The entrance and reception area was spartan and boring, but that’s the way of it sometimes.  The hostel was largely dead, which was a bit of a let down as we were hoping for a social atmosphere, but again, that happens. Especially in off season. The rooms, however, and more specifically the beds were where the hostel really failed and failed miserably. Now, usually in most modern hostels they provide you with clean sheets and freshly washed blankets, or at least a blanket cover. Some of the less hygienic just opt for a clean top sheet and bottom sheet while periodically washing the quilt/blanket. Many  modern hostels also have a plastic under sheet over the mattress for added sanitation and stain prevention. Unfortunately, the hostel we found couldn’t be bothered with any of that.  They offered us one sheet to go with the shaggy brown blanket already on the bed.  The status of the mattresses was…let’s just say, suspect at best.  Lumps were the least of my concerns as I very carefully spread my flat sheet out and did my best to avoid touching anything.  Then, there was the blanket.  It was still somewhat warm in the hostel, but December in Greece is still December even if you are all the way down in Crete.  I looked at the blanket, which boasted more than a few questionable spots and cigarette burns and decided to throw it on the ground.  It seemed much healthier to sleep wearing every warm piece of clothing I could scrounge up.  I suppose theoretically the stains could have been permanent, and that perhaps they washed the blankets after every visitor.  Given the general state of hygiene around the rest of the hostel though, I highly doubt it.

Unfortunately, the rest of the place was equally disgusting.  The bathrooms were grungy and the showers did little to leave you feeling clean and refreshed.  I think the hostel serves mostly as a drunken crash pad during the summer months for beach goers and drugged out party animals. It likely takes a lot of abuse as a result, and the management seemed to have just given up bothering  with the maintenance side of things.

I was also fearful we’d pick up bedbugs as it was that type of place.  Luckily we escaped with only a few mosquito bites and a strong desire to take a shower and a long nap at the next place we stayed.

Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the hostel.  Though I also can’t imagine it’s still there, or in business.

That was the worst one that comes to mind from a sanitary/dirty perspective.  I’ve stayed in half-finished buildings, in the middle of floors under renovation,  with slobs, braved group showers and of course had a naked old man towel off in the middle of the room…but when it comes to unnecessary filth.  That hostel is the one that stands out.

Still, even despite the occasional hostel disaster I find that I love them and will take them over a hotel stay in most situations!   If you’ve got a filthy hostel story of your own feel free to share it in a comment!

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How Many Countries For A Two Week Itinerary? – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Susanna who asks,

Q. “What pace do you suggest setting for a two week trip in Europe. what I mean is, how long in each city/country?

A. – Traveling abroad is usually a somewhat expensive and challenging undertaking. For many, your first trip can seem on-par with other major purchases you’ve made: moving into a new apartment, a down-payment on a car, etc. So, it’s only logical that most people want to cram in as many countries and stops as possible. When friends share their itineraries with me it’s not uncommon for them to schedule 7 countries (or more) for a 2 week trip.

Which makes sense. They’re taking a big trip and they want to see as much as humanly possible in the time they have available.  Which, I actually support – to a certain degree.   In general the advice tends to fall on one side of this issue or the other.  “Spend a lot of time in a few locations” vs. “See as much as you can as fast as you can”.  Which is inevitably followed by a debate over what counts as “seeing” a destination.  If you spent 6 hours in Paris and only saw the Eiffel tower did you “see Paris?” what about 2 days? 2 full weeks?   While there is some validity to these types of debates and they can be insightful, I think they neglect a far more important question which needs to be addressed on a case-by-case/personal basis. What is YOUR goal with the trip?  Contrary to what many veteran travelers might expect, I actually recommend my friends press forward with their whirlwind tours of Europe in about half the cases.  Blasphemy, I know!  This is because in talking to them, they’re interested in sampling a lot of different places and then following up with future trips that strive to revisit favorite locations while exploring them greater depth.  I look at these trips in the same way I look at ordering a beer sampler during your first visit to a new brewery or a wine tasting.  As long as you keep in mind that you’re just sampling a quick taste of each vintage and not familiarizing yourself with its complete history, richness and flavor then you’re in great shape. In fact, it can be a great approach!

On the other hand, I give very different advice to the other half of the group.  These are typically friends who are taking a rare trip, one which they don’t plan to follow up on any time soon (though I always hope the trip changes their future plans…radically). These are the friends who have saved up time off over several years and are taking their big trip abroad to Europe or Asia for the first time before going back to their more traditional cruises, or destination/all inclusive beach getaways closer to home.  For these friends, it’s very important that they get a rich experience in the places they do visit and I often advise them to aim for potency over diversity.  In these cases it’s often good to spend at least 4 days in a city.  I also suggest visiting at least one secondary city to go with the inevitable capital they’ve selected.  So, if they plan on Italy – I recommend spending a few days in Rome, and then exploring a smaller city like Florence or the Cinque Terra.

Regardless of which approach is right for you, I always suggest you spend at least 1 full day in a city and that you don’t count travel days as city time.  Travel eats up energy, it eats up time, and it will detract from the richness of your experience.  It’s easy to want to add as many new countries to your passport as possible, but at the end of the day remember that it’s far more important to relish and experience the moment while there, than it is to collect that extra stamp.

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Most Beautiful Country – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Sam who asks,

Q. “What is the most beautiful country (overall) you’ve been to?

A. – Oh boy, this question always gives me a heck of a hard time. I’m going to assume that you’re talking natural beauty and not about the native population? So far I’ve spent time in some capacity in 38 countries (this excludes Asia and Africa which are on my to-see list). Some of those visits have been little more than brief glimpses while others have been more in-depth and immersive. I feel as though I’ve still missed a lot, even in the countries I’ve visited multiple times and spent extended periods of time in. So, I encourage you to take these answers with a grain of salt. I also can’t give just one, so I’m going to give you my top three.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

1. Argentina

In 21 days in the country I was exposed to two of the country’s three incredible climates. These were the cold, mountainous and rugged southern regions of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia in the south and the hot, lush, jungle regions to the north around Iguazu Falls. Due to the country’s massive size, proximity to the Andes and Antarctica it has a lot to offer. While you hear a lot about Argentina’s rich tango culture and incredible meat, its real gem is its natural landscapes. I think it’s one of the most overlooked countries out there for natural beauty and also, thus far, ranks as the all around most beautiful country I’ve visited.

A Dog Resting Atop Sharkstooth

2. The United States

As an American, I find my home country often gets overlooked – perhaps because a lot of English-centric travel bloggers are original from or based out of the US. The truth of it is though that as with Argentina, the United States is amazing and offers some of the most incredible landscapes and environments you’ll find in the world. The rivers and streams of the Colorado Rockies and San Juans are some of my favorite countryside in world. Places like the Grand Canyon, Sonoran Desert, White Sands, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Florida Everglades are beautiful, captivating locales that everyone should aspire to see in their lifetime.


3. Scotland

During my first visit to Scotland I developed a crush on the country. After my 2nd I fell in love with it completely. There’s something enchanting about the collision between history and natural beauty. While the central highlands and Isle of Skye are beautiful, and areas I highly recommend to everyone, I also strongly suggest the north western coastline and the Orkney Islands. Both are regions that I find myself with an insatiable hunger for.

There are so many amazing places out there, it really is hard to pick a favorite.  I invite you all to share your own favorite destinations.  Which 1 (or 3) have you fallen in love with?

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Solo Travel and The Risk of Rape – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Emily who asks,

Q. “I want to try to travel solo as a woman, but am worried about my safety. Especially the risk of rape. Is this justified?

A. – That’s a rough topic, but a concern I hear regularly from a lot of young female travelers – especially in the US. Let me start by saying that as I try to tackle this issue I can only speak from general observation and conversations with female friends that have traveled extensively. As a 6’4″ 200 pound male the risk of getting raped is a rare issue and usually fairly low on my list of potential threats.

To the question – is there a rape risk as a solo female traveler? The answer is yes, but only because you are always at risk. However, I believe the nature of the actual risk is quite low, especially if you keep in mind several key factors when traveling. To start, let’s put it into context. For the sake of convenient illustration I’m going to pull statistics from this wikipedia article. The first thing to look at is the % break down for who the attacker is. Contrary to what most of us probably assume only 26% of rapists were complete strangers. While another 38% were friends or acquaintances. While 26% is still a significant percentage, it means that the vast majority of rape cases are occurring in situations where the victim knows and/or is familiar with their attacker. That’s pretty staggering. To me, this also suggests that in some way your exposure to situations that might lead to rape may in fact be lower while on the road where your guard is up, and most of your interactions are with strangers and very casual acquaintances.

Additional statistics about rapes in the US show that “over two thirds of all rapes occur in someone’s home. 30.9% occur in the perpetrators’ homes, 26.6% in the victims’ homes and 10.1% in homes shared by the victim and perpetrator. 7.2% occur at parties, 7.2% in vehicles, 3.6% outdoors and 2.2% in bars”. As a solo female traveler you will likely spend the majority of your time in hostels, or hotels. Again, this means that the time spent in “rape prone” situations may actually be significantly lower than your day-to-day activities at home.

Then there is the prevalence of rape in the United States which is an unspoken tragedy and huge issue. Statistics indicate that anywhere between one in four to one in six women in the United States have been raped. Putting aside the fact that this statistic is absolutely vomit inducing, it serves as a strong indicator to me that the view that the United States is somehow “safer” than spending time traveling abroad is likely little more than a misleading illusion.

With all of that said there are aspects of travel, especially solo travel which can lead to dangerous situations which you might not otherwise find yourself in when not traveling. One key consideration for women traveling is the need to be mindful of different social norms and rules. Unfortunately, women’s rights (especially sexual rights) are vastly different from country to country. While you may not need to (or necessarily want to) conform completely with the regional gender role norms in the places you visit, you should always invest some effort and time to research them and to keep in mind that you will be subject to them regardless of what you “want” or what is “right”. The same goes for a culture’s dating behavior. Sheer ignorance of how the dating/male-female dynamic in a country works can lead to potentially dangerous miss-communication and negative situations.

Another key area to be especially careful about while traveling as a solo-female is the danger of alcohol and drugs. A huge part of the social culture surrounding many youth backpacking trips and hostel experiences is the social/party scene. The rape article mentioned above notes that, “In the United States the use of drugs, especially alcohol, frequently plays a part in rape. In 47% of rapes, both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking. In 17%, only the perpetrator had been. 7% of the time, only the victim had been drinking. Rapes where neither the victim nor the perpetrator had been drinking account for 29% of all rapes”. Which isn’t to say that you should not drink or enjoy yourself. It just means that you have to be particularly careful and take a more responsible approach to looking after yourself. If you’re the type that needs a full time babysitter to look after you, get you home, and make decisions for you when you’re drinking – then it’s either time for you to grow up, not drink while traveling, or find someone willing to babysit you for the duration of your travels.

As a footnote to this conversation also keep in mind that most male hostel-goers/extended travelers are pretty decent people. I know for my part I’ll make the extra effort to keep an eye on the female travelers that I meet through the hostel and go out to the bars with.   I know that a lot of the other guys tend to do the same. Perhaps it’s a bit old fashioned of us, but I think many of us view it as common decency to do our best to look out for each other with a little added consideration for female travelers.

At the end of the day travel (including solo travel) is much safer than many people believe. There are tens of thousands of women traveling solo on both short stay and extended duration trips every day. The experiences you’ll have and the lessons you’ll learn about how to carry and protect yourself will make you safer in all other areas of your life. At the end of the day, the risk of rape is a terrible thing that all women have to worry about. The nature of that risk, however, changes very little between time spent at home, and time spent on the road. Be smart, be careful and above all – don’t let overblown fears or Hollywood horror stories keep you from doing something amazing.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

I would also love to hear insights from female readers to have or are currently traveling solo.  Please feel free to post your advice, suggestions, experiences, or general comments.

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