Traveller experiences - What's it really like to work in a backpacker hostel?

Working overseas can be a great way of making your money and time go further. But does the work get in the way of your fun? And what does it take to work in a hostel? Is it all parties and long exhausting hours? A Girls' Guide to Travelling Alone contributor Jules Sanderson shares her experience of working in Hawaii.

SEE ALSO: What's it really like on a surf and yoga retreat?

How did you get the job?
I sent out emails to every hostel I could find contact information for! I had no particular criteria for location (it just had to be in North America to fit with my visa) so it was easy for me to cast my net wide. I received a few responses back, then narrowed the options down from there by doing research online and comparing details such as start dates, hourly pay, staff accommodation etc.

Why did you choose to work in a hostel?
The previous year I had been on an eight week backpacking trip where I stayed in hostels almost exclusively. As a solo traveller I loved the sense of community and the like-minded people I met in hostels, so I thought why not make a hostel my base rather than just a stop-gap!

Tell us about a typical day
I’d wake up early (around 6am) in the room I shared with another staff member. It was a private room but connected to the female dorm, so I’d try to be as quiet as possible as I got ready for the day. I’d get changed into my bikini and board shorts then head straight down to the hostel courtyard where the surf boards were stored. These were rented out to guests during office hours, but before 9am I was allowed to take one out for free. I’d walk down to the beach and surf for an hour or so, then be back in time to catch the free hostel breakfast (usually oatmeal and toast). 

My shift at the hostel didn’t begin until 4pm, so I pretty much had the whole day free. I’d usually team up with a couple of guests and either head back to the beach or go out to explore Oahu. I worked at the hostel reception from 4pm – 11pm, 5 days a week. My job involved checking in new guests and showing them to their accommodation, folding and sorting laundry, caring for the hostel dog (a cute little Yorkie called Gypsy) and cleaning the kitchen and common areas after the reception had closed. Once my shift was over I’d either head to bed or join some guests on a night out.

Did you get free accommodation? And were there any other perks?
As I was a paid employee the hostel did charge me for accommodation, but it was at a significantly reduced rate and came straight out of my paycheque. However I think it is more common for hostels to employ staff as part of a work exchange system, where the employee receives free accommodation in exchange for working at the hostel. 

Being able to use the surf boards for free was obviously a great perk! And I got to do my laundry and eat breakfast for free as well. The hostel also ran weekly social nights where food would be prepared and staff members were given free reign of the leftovers!

Did you have to work long, unsociable hours?
Not at all, I was working 40 hours a week with 2 days off. Having the late shift meant I had my days free to enjoy the island and make the most of the beautiful weather which suited me perfectly.

New guests arrived every day and the feel of the hostel would change all the time.
Jules working at the hostel reception in Hawaii wearing a Lei given to her by one of the guests.

Jules working at the hostel reception in Hawaii wearing a Lei given to her by one of the guests.

What was the best part of your job?
I loved meeting so many people! New guests arrived every day and the feel of the hostel would change all the time. We also had a few guests who ended up staying for longer periods and it was nice to get to know them more personally. I was also working with a great bunch of people at the hostel, we socialised outside of work and I left having made some great friends.

And the worst?
As I both lived and worked at the hostel, sometimes the line between work time and down time could blur and it would feel overwhelming. But it wasn’t a huge problem and on a couple of occasions I was able to request for my days off to be together so I could travel somewhere overnight for a little change of scenery.

Would you recommend hostel working to anyone?
I would recommend hostel work to people that have stayed in hostels themselves and enjoyed them! They’re hugely sociable spaces so if you are someone who really values privacy and alone-time, they may not be the best fit. But for the majority of travels, I believe hostel work is pretty much an ideal situation! It’s a great place to connect with fellow travellers and can really help lower the cost of long-term travel.