If you don’t know what it’s like to sleep in a dormitory, you’ve obviously never backpacked in Europe (beenou), North America or Down Under. The reason there’s a difference is because backpacking in the developed world is expensive as hell (See 8. The Lonely Planet). Meanwhile, in underdeveloped countries, one can procure a luxurious private hotel room for the price of a Happy Meal in Western currency.
Because affordable lodging space is so limited in the former, it becomes possible to charge a premium for not only a room, but for a tiny fraction of a room (literally one-16th). There are, of course, varying levels of expensiveness. For example, North American backpackers know what it feels like to pay outrageous sums of money (after converting their meager dollars to English Pounds or Euros) for half of a bunk bed. It’s a sensation akin to non-consensual jailhouse sodomy (i.e. ass rape).
Aside from obvious disparities in global currency and real estate values, the inflation in high-traffic tourist areas is senseless. The average minimum cost of a dorm bed in Prague in July is 15 Euros (21 USD) per night; 23 Euros in Rome; 26 Euros in Barcelona; 22 Pounds (36 USD) in London; 30 Euros (43 USD) in Paris; and a whopping 35 Euros (49 USD) in Amsterdam. Go to the same cities in, say, November and the price is 30 to 40 percent cheaper. That’s the beauty of supply and demand, folks.
Remember: a) this is for a wretched dorm bed, and b) backpackers have no money.
So what makes dormitories so awful? Hygiene is a major issue. Before going on my first backpacking trip, I brought a sleepsack (a bedsheet folded over once and sewn) as it was suggested to me to avoid using hostel bedsheets, which could have bedbugs. Long story short, the sleepsack was excess baggage and I’d overpacked to begin with, so I ditched it early on. Besides, I was too lazy to use or wash it, so I went ahead and used the hostel bedsheets. Bad idea. I got bitten by bedbugs and it was terrible - but that’s for another post altogether.
Regardless of the hundreds of online reviews you read about competing hostels, they are all dirty. It’s not the hostel’s fault. Consider their clientele. A typical backpacker’s day consists of sightseeing and heavy drinking, both of which involve perpetual movement and perspiration. Piles of unwashed and reworn clothes, especially socks and underwear, contribute to the dormitory’s signature potpourri. At capacity, there can be 8 to 16 people in a room (on 4 to 8 bunk beds), depending on its size. The room smells of other people’s feet, breath and sweat. It’s disgusting. Every morning, a sour, humid stench hangs over the place as sunlight begins to cook it through the windows.
The mattresses are uncomfortable and sometimes squeaky. The really bad ones have uneven springs that dig into your back. So, it’s hard enough to fall asleep, and then there’s the element of noise. Whispering, giggling, snoring and, God forbid, fornicating. Like bedbugs, dorm sex requires its own post. There are also the drunks that stumble in, yelling belligerently, turning on all the lights and crashing violently into their bunk… which is incidentally right beneath yours.
Because other backpackers are generally untrustworthy, there are often large lockers in the corners of the dormitory, consuming whatever residual space that would have allowed for orderly room navigation. Lockers must be large enough to fit a 90-liter pack. Thus, occupants bump into and step over each other attempting to get from one end of the room to the other. Doing so in pitch darkness, while drunk, is no easy task.
Sleeping in close proximity to foreign strangers is creepy. Movies like Hostel or Taken are not particularly inspiring cinema to watch prior to going on a cross-Europe dormitory tour. You never know what kind of nutjobs are sleeping in there - above you, under you, or beside you. Some of them are Aussies, others are Israeli - both are crazy. Sweet dreams, everybody.