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Do I have to book a hostel in advance?
I'm sure other more knowledgable folks will chime in here, but from my experience, much like hotels, it can vary from property to property. To a certain degree this is a clientele that is more footloose and nonchalant about reserving ahead, and as a travel writer who has inspected my share of hostels, I can't remember the last time I came across one that had absolutely no space available. But on the other hand, it's true that certain hostels are particularly popular, either because of their locations, their amenities, or whatever, and so if you have your heart set on staying at a particular special hostel at a particular time, it's probably a good idea to book ahead. Hope this helps a bit!
I actually work for a hostel association here in the US and we highly recommend that you book in advance, especially for any of the big city hostels like New York City, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and LA as they get very busy. We usually try to keep a few beds open for walk-ins but sometimes that is very difficult if there is a big festival going on (like Lollapalooza in early August in Chicago) or city-wide event (like a marathon). Our hostels require a 24-hour notice of cancellation so you can always call and change or cancel your reservation somewhat last-minute if need be. Happy Hostelling!
Agree if it's a popular destination, large city OR if you want one of the few private rooms. Most hostels have a couple private rooms, sometimes with bath. They go quickly so reservations are essential.
Chrissy, Is it a generic question, or a destination specific question ? I agree with David, the backpacker culture is very vagabondish in their travel itineraries. I would suggest you book in advance the first one or two nights, if you arriving after a long international flight; Arriving late at night, or traveling during a wet (or harsh winter) season.
I think You should book the hostel in advance only as booking before will cost you cheap rather than on last minute
I think you should go through this page http://www.flightandroom.com/hotels.htm and simply entering the dates and destinations you get many options for the hostel.
Enjoy your trip