I haven't really spent all that much time in hostels, though it is my preferred method of accommodation when I actually have to pay to sleep somewhere. I am lucky enough to have lots of friends in lots of countries so I often get to stay places for free. But those few times I have had to stay in a hostel, it has been a great experience.
- Always get to know your roommates, as much as you can.
Some people go to hostels and don't want to talk to anyone. This however, is not the norm. The quicker you get to know your roommates, the quicker you can trust them to watch your stuff.
- Always take the bottom bunk if you can.
Though I prefer the top bunk in most situations, grabbing the bottom bunk in a hostel allows you not only to lay claim to any wall sockets nearby, but also all the space around your bunk to keep your stuff. If you are worried about security while you sleep, having a top bunk means you have to share the bed with all your luggage, whereas having a bottom bunk means it can be under your bed. Also, you don't have to climb over anyone when you go to bed or wake up. Always a plus.
- Keep your ear to the ground.
Always listen to the gossip and the scuttlebutt (best word ever) among your fellow travelers. People who stay in hostels generally know their way around and probably know of some crazy/interesting/off the beaten track thing that you've never heard of.
- Make friends with the people who work at the hostel.
The people who work there are great resources and generally will help you out if you ask. They, too, listen to gossip and will know the best way to do everything. Watch out, though, because they may just direct you to their own personal travel agency. This may be a good deal and it may not.
- Never leave your clothes on the floor of the bathroom when you shower.
No matter how much it looks like they will stay dry, they won't. Just don't do it.
- Label all the food in the fridge that is yours.
I typically go with the classics. Labels that say things like “Science Experiment” or “ Poisonous” or “For My Enemies”. I suppose you could just write your name, if you want to be lame.
- Always bring an eye mask and a flashlight.
You never want your illumination requirements in the hands of other people. You want to sleep and your roommate wants to read? BAM. Eye mask. When you come in the room late at night after everyone's asleep and can't find your toothbrush? BAM. Flashlight.
- Make someone take responsibility.
There is always a risk to traveling in general. But I truly believe that people are generally good and will look after you if you ask. But only if you ask. By that I mean, if you are going to leave your luggage unattended in the common room, ask someone specific to look after it for you. If you make someone personally responsible for your things, even if it's a complete stranger, it will be looked after. If you say to the general room, 'don't let anyone touch my things' there's no guarantee.
- Always be aware.
Like I said; inherent risk and all that. Obvi.
- Take advantage of any free meals.
Some hostels will give you breakfast and if that's the case, then eat as much as you can in the morning. If you have a huge breakfast, chances are you won't be hungry for lunch i.e.: you won't need to pay for lunch. That's two meals free.
In general, hostels are the bomb diggity, so I would recommend them to anyone looking to travel on the cheap. Sure, hotel rooms are more private, but who needs privacy when you can have sleep-over style chats well into the morning?