It is long known that hostels are the best type of accommodation around to meet fellow travellers if you’re going solo. They’re inexpensive, located in the major backpacking spots in India, and you’re guaranteed a different experience in each location. Though not as cheap as guesthouses, the friendly atmosphere often created by social spaces and lounges, and probability of finding other solo travellers make it worth the extra rupee.
Enter Zostel: India’s first (and largest) chain of hostels. They’re run by travellers for travellers so you are assured from the beginning that you’ll interact with interesting, like-minded individuals, whether that’s in the form of the receptionist on duty, or a fellow backpacker from Chile.
I stayed in seven Zostels in total during my two months in the country. I am a bit apprehensive in calling myself a Zostel expert, but I can definitely call it my home in India.
Zostels: just like any two backpackers, no two Zostels are the same. Each contain different facilities, procedures and aesthetics, but all promote the same ideology: travelling and living for the present. United by their artistic flairs and nomadic staff, each Zostel provide a unique insight into the town’s offerings and the visions and stories of those behind the establishment.
Locations: (as of time of writing – July 2016) there are 16 Zostels around India. There are exciting launches coming shortly which is usually publicised first on their social media channels. They also often run competitions whereby a picture of their new location is posted and the winner is entitled to a free stay at their new branch. What’s not to love about that?
Cost: it varies for each location, but it is usually about 399 rupees upwards for a dormitory bed. HostelWorld is a reliable site to get their updated prices. Many also offer private rooms if you prefer.
Backpacker haven: it has the hostel environment so it is the perfect breeding ground for solo travellers. Do not think they are exclusively chosen by Western tourists only, however. I have met many solo Indian backpackers in Zostels too, many of whom I consider as good friends from my travels. Their tips and suggested itineraries have allowed me to explore parts of India I would not have ventured to, otherwise.
Dorm rooms: Bunk beds in dormitory rooms are a given if you stay in a hostel. Zostels offer mixed dormitories or female-only dormitories. They usually range from 6-bed to 12-bed dorms. Honestly, I do not see any difference in staying a smaller-sized dorm dorm, but perhaps that is because I travelled during low season.
Prices are usually the same for small and large dorm rooms, it only varies when there is the question of AC/non-AC. Sometimes, female-only dorms are charged at a higher rate, too.
It’s worth noting that most of the Zostels do offer twin or double rooms if you are looking for more privacy and security.
Shower/toilets: it varies from each Zostel, but the common scenario is that there is a shared bathroom contained within your dormitory room. The only case for which this is not true is at Zostel Jodhpur, where there is a communal bathroom and toilet area. The showering facilities are almost always very clean, but there were one or two places where it looked a little run-down (Pushkar, Jodhpur and Delhi).
TIPS: Toilet paper is gold when you’re backpacking so it was very handy to have a supply with me at all times. It may not seem an essential but incense sticks have been very useful. At times when the drain smells foul and seeps through your room, the inexpensive incense sticks they sell at every corner comes to the rescue! Drainage issues are common in many budget hostels/guesthouses – so expect it and be prepared.
Also, towels are usually available for hire for a very small fee.
Security : Many Zostels have lockers for all your valuables – either as stand-alone compartments or under-bed sliders. Locks are usually not provided with the basic rate, but at some places, you can buy or rent one. I brought two padlocks and their respective sets of keys with me as I knew this would be the case.
For entrance into the hostels, I have found that in many places in India, there is no security barrier as such. Security or reception staff are heavily relied on when scanning guests that enter in the evening, merely using their memory and judgement. This would send alarm bells to many people, but this was India. It was the norm. People were trust-worthy, and trust they eventually gained from me.
Most places had a security system put in place for the rooms, at least. Whether it be the form of a key card, a code or keys, it was assuring to know there was security in place for the dormitories.
Luggage storage is also possible in every Zostel. It’s either a locked room or just an open space by the reception area. Take precautions. The PacSafe backpack security lock was one of my greatest investments for this trip; an expensive purchase that would you would eventually thank for saving the higher price content of your ‘pack.
(Free) breakfast: unfortunately this was not available in every hostel. I believe only Jaipur and Varanasi included a free breakfast in their rates, though the Delhi branch offered a 150-rupee breakfast buffet. Jaipur’s breakfast offerings were the usual toast, fruit, egg and cereal affair, whilst Varanasi’s had an ever-changing menu of cooked food and cereals. Eggs were available made-to-order.
Most of the breakfasts were buffet-style gatherings. It was the best way to save some rupees: fill up on breakfast so lunch will no longer be required. The breakfasts on offer that aren’t free are usually not very cost-effective, so a better alternative would be if you dine out or prepare your own.
Kitchen facilities: preparing your own food relies on good hostel kitchen facilities, of course. It is with regret to say that not many of the Zostels I have stayed at have properly equipped kitchens. Those that do are: Jaipur, Jodhpur (very limited), and Khajuraho. I prepared measly meals such as fruit bowls, porridge or peanut butter on toast, but I can say that only in Jaipur and Khajuraho was I able to cook a substantial meal.
It’s given when you’re backpacking – particularly through Asia – that trying their cuisine is the go-to for many, and eating in restaurants becomes a regularity rather than a treat. Food is cheaper than back home, and cafes and restaurants provide the perfect setting for getting to know your new multicultural friends. But kitchens can provide that too – you bond over food and your travel stories thus far. Also, home-cooked meal provides comfort like no other, particularly if you’re in a foreign land. Well-equipped kitchens were definitely lacking in my whole backpacking trip – so it was worth savouring it once I had access.
Wi-fi/computers: wi-fi is good in many places. It can be spotty at times, particularly if the hostel was full. Computers were also present in some Zostels (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Varanasi), which was useful for uploading pictures and carrying out administration tasks.
Social spaces: the most social hostels did not necessarily have the largest spaces; it depended on the people around. I found Pushkar’s large living room area and separate library space to be slightly inclusive whilst Jaipur’s open-space chill-out zone paved way for the perfect combination of chilling and socialising.
They tend to be large spaces surrounded by the art created by artists and visitors, telling their stories or the story of the place they left behind. I always found how the art in each Zostel differed very fascinating; it reflected the clientele in each Zostel, but also reminded me of the creatives and dreamers that backpacked and floated around India before I came. It was inspiring.
Most Zostels had TV, a small library and comfortable cushions and beanies. Extras included instruments (Jaipur), a pool (Pushkar), a balcony (Jaisalmer), and board games.
Cafe/restaurant: most places had tea and coffee-making facilities whilst Pushkar and Jaisalmer were the only ones with a true cafe/restaurant attached. I believe that the Khajuraho branch had plans of opening one in the future.
Indian fare is served largely in these restaurants with a selection of Western-style food thrown in for good mixture. Whilst I was not keen on Pushkar’s beans on toast (toasted bread with cold beans sandwiched in-between), I particularly enjoyed the food I had in Jaisalmer. Granted it was pricey for local cuisine, but the new chef they brought in in April cooked the tastiest dhal and vegetable biryani! They also listened to my request of little oil and no butter.
Activities: from cooking classes, camel safari tours and sunset boat rides across the Ganges river, the Zostel team are keen on getting you involved with the range of events they have to offer. There are usually tours around the area they arrange for you or one which they are happy to help you with; the reception desk is usually brimming with plenty of information regarding the ‘must dos’ of the area.
My favourite had to be Zostel Varanasi’s in-depth brochure which featured a map of the city, the well-known ghats and the story behind their significance, and places to eat. It was the most useful piece of paper I have obtained from a hostel – one which I passed on to a friend.
Zostels for every traveller
If you’re a solo backpacker wanting to meet like-minded individuals, share conversations with the staff and swap tips with other travellers, then Zostels should be your go-to hostel in India. However, if you’re on an extremely tight budget, and not too bothered about socialising, then guesthouses may be your port of call.
Many people I have spoken to love the Zostel brand. Their reason? It’s reliable, clean, and you know exactly what you’re in for.
More importantly, the brand is very solo female traveller-friendly. The lowdown:
- You’re constantly surrounded by like-minded travellers
- I met many solo Indian travellers who have not left India, and vow to only leave once they have explored their country extensively: worth sparking a conversation or two for helpful tips and suggested itineraries
- The hostel staff are keen travellers themselves! They engage you with their travel stories about states you’ve not heard of, and the unexplored North and North-East Indian states.
- There are female-only dorms
- The hostels are highly-secured
- The staff are very helpful when it comes to any queries or dealing with issues you may have
- Zostel book your onward journeys for a small commission… just ask!
- Do not be shy in asking for the ‘local’ rates – they’re willing to share this with you.
- There’s art and inspiration in every wall.
If that’s not enough to convince you, check out this GoPro montage of the Holi Festival at Zostel Jaipur by one of the guys I met. Credits: Alex Campbell.
Come to Zostel and live it. Now.
Follow my travel adventures on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat (@julianduiza and my second Instagram at @kalemosscom).
I’d like to thank the Zostels I have stayed at and the teams behind all of them for their hospitality and offering me lovely dorm rooms to stay in. My India trip would not have been the same otherwise. As always, opinions are my own.