To be completely candid, I've never stayed at a hostel. Call me high maintenance; call me whatever the heck you want but I couldn't get myself to stay at a hostel without paranoia creeping into my head about getting taken, getting mugged, or getting some STD. I'd rather have paid an extra $15 a night to stay in a private room at an AirBnB with a good local who just needed extra cash and doesn't speak any English.
Although I've actually never stayed at a hostel, I've heard both good and bad stories. Some of the better ones about people who've made friends such instant connections that they ended up traveling elsewhere together and continue to stay in touch to this day... and some of the worse ones being that the quality of the hostels were so bad that they came back with endless bed bugs and having to cancel certain plans on their trip to deal with it.
I think hostels are a decent option for people who are young, love backpacking, on a budget, and love meeting new people while traveling.
My biggest tip when it comes to hostels, is read through reviews to get a gist of the hostel's policy, vibes, and experiences. You can read through reviews on TripAdvisor or HostelWorld.
There are such things as a 5-star Hostel- they do exist! And based on the city or country, the standards of a given hostel can vary tremendously, as can the price of an AirBnB or hotel there, so I recommend looking at all of your options for that city before going straight to book a hostel.
Beware of bed bugs at hostels
Couchsurfing is a social networking website that connects travelers with local residents. Local residents can put up their couch, space, or room up for travelers to rest their head at night. It's always free, although it's etiquette for you to get your host a little something to say thank you.
Both guests and hosts verify their identity through personal information and Facebook, and reviewed as layers of safety. You create a profile for your trip (dates, what you'll be doing, etc.) for the host to read and know more about you. You can also see host's profiles and filter them (gender, languages spoken, pets, etc.) so both parties can be selective and even communicate with one another to see if the match would be a good fit.
the bottom line
You're choosing a budget option for travel so you can't be picky. Don't expect much privacy, space, or luxury when it comes to these options.
Better alternative option is finding to stay with, even if it's like a friend of a friend, at least you have that mutual connection, and free housing.
if you have the money, just stay at an airbnb or hotel. Find my comparison post here.
Disagree with me? Add comments below. :)