As a hostel owner, your goal is to get paying guests that are respectful and contribute to the overall atmosphere. Yet, not every customer is a welcomed guest.
Some are simply not worth the time, money and hassle to deal with. So how can you avoid the “bad” ones?
This process is known as “guest screening”. It basically means that you don’t accommodate each and every person but only the ones that pass your individual “filters”.
But what exactly should you look out for?
As you might have guessed, this topic is far from black and white. Not only do subjective criteria come into play, but also legal issues.
In this guide, you’ll learn all common red flags in order to prevent unruly guests altogether as well as methods to deal with them once they’re already in your hostel.
Let’s dive in!
Is Guest Screening Necessary?
As I researched the topic, it was interesting to me that I could not find a single article about “guest screening” that was written for hoteliers.
On the contrary, there are a gazillion blog posts about screening Airbnb guests and a handful for hostels. Why is that?
Obviously, if you’re renting your own private house to a stranger, you want to make sure he takes care of your personal belongings.
That’s why the Airbnb platform comes with a review system for hosts as well as guests.
Since guests are often pretty much isolated in hotels and have their own private room with an ensuite bathroom, it’s not really important for hoteliers to ensure considerate behavior of their guests.
Yet, hostels are different.
In hostels, guests typically not only share the bathroom and other common areas, but they also sleep with strangers in the same room.
A single disrespectful person has a massive influence on the well-being of several other guests. It’s like having a wolf inside a sheepfold.
Here are the risks of accommodating them:
- Poor hostel atmosphere
- Safety issues (e.g. theft)
- Poor guest experience & bad reviews
While rejecting a guest might cost you potential revenue, the negative side effects are often way higher than that. Especially bad online reviews have a massive impact on the number of bookings you’ll get in the future.
In my survey on the #1 challenge of hostel owners, I was surprised to see that screening guests seem to be not a topic in Asia.
The answers clearly showed that Asian hostel owners tend to approach guest service with a very different mindset. They tend to take full responsibility for their guest’s well-being as well as their behavior.
In other words: They don’t search for mistakes on their guest’s side and approach every single one with a true service mentality.
However, for most other continents it has become common practice to screen guests in order to ensure a great experience for all the other travelers.
The question is, what specifically should you look out for?
How To Avoid Unwanted Hostel Guests
Let me set the record straight: Screening guests is NOT about discrimination. It’s all about caring about your guests and your hostel.
For Airbnb properties, that’s an easy one: just look up the profile of your guests and read through their reviews. However, hostels aren’t equipped with such a feature.
While there is no bulletproof method to avoid ever getting unwanted guests, when applying a few principles, you can greatly reduce the risk. On a basic level, there are two options for filtering your guests:
- 1) With your Marketing
- 2) At check-in and through policies
Let’s start with the former to help you navigate through these tricky waters. Marketing is all about how you position your hostel.
If you’re a boutique hostel and offer rates at the high end of the price range, you’ll definitely attract less “problem-guests” compared to one that claims to be the “Ryanair among hostels”.
You can further increase the effectiveness to screen guests by applying “niche marketing”, i.e. focusing your marketing efforts towards a smaller target market that you can serve best.
I’ve already covered niche marketing for hostels in another article. Hence, I won’t repeat myself here.
However, most hostel owners say that the vast majority of unwanted guests are walk-ins.
- That’s when policies and other procedures come into play!
Before going any further, let’s see what you’re legally allowed and not allowed to do:
Obviously, the laws differ from country to country. That said, the US is known for having one of the strictest rules worldwide. Hence, if you follow them you probably won’t have any issues in your country.
- “Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a place of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.” [Source]
- “In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a wide range of places of public accommodation, including facilities that offer lodging.” [Source]
In a nutshell: You are not allowed to reject people because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or disabilities. For all others, you have the right to refuse service.
That said, I recommend doing your own research to find out the applicable laws in your country!
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and this is no legal advice. Please read my full disclaimer and research your local laws before taking action upon my recommendations.
Top 5 Red Flags When Screening Guests
Here’s a list of the most common red flags that will help you separate the wheat from the chaff:
#1 Residence: “No Locals”
The “no local”-rule is very common in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand where homeless people try to use hostels for temporary accommodation. It’s not to say that locals or hobos are per se “bad”, it’s rather that hostel owners got bitten too many times.
Hostels are made for travelers who come to the area to do the “tourist stuff”. Locals are typically not interested in this that which inevitably decreases the community feeling in your hostel.
Moreover, locals are often not as interested in connecting with other people compared to international travelers.
However, to see if it’s the right fit for your hostel, you need to assess your individual city:
- Is there a high crime rate in your area?
- Are drugs an issue? If so, how many drug abusers are there?
- What about robberies and muggings?
If your city shows a high “local weirdos rate”, it might be best for your hostel and your guests to turn locals away. However, how you define “local” is up to you.
Vikki Matsis, manager of the NotSo Hostel in Charleston, USA, and author of “Inside An American Hostel” (recommended read), uses a 50-mile radius. Other hostels in Las Vegas, for example, don’t host any Americans at all.
I’d like to share two stories with you:
- A) Vikki Matsis’ experience
In her book, Vikki tells that when she started working as a manager, she allowed locals to stay in the low season.
However, that backfired quickly when a homeless guest gave the code for the keypad to another homeless lady who stole her phone.
As she searched for it, it rang in the lady’s purse… and the lady was oblivious to how it got there 😅
Vikki further explains that she often struggles with this rule. After all, why not helping these people on a cold winter night when you have enough beds?
What keeps her consistent is the thought about how her guests will feel sleeping next to these people in their dorm. And in fact, I personally can add a thing or two to this:
- B) My experience as a traveler
When I traveled up the east coast in Australia, I slept for 2 nights with a local man in a 4-bed dorm in Airlie Beach. As I went to my room, I instantly caught a disgusting whiff.
He was lying in his bed and played on his phone the entire day at full volume. He also had some weird convulsions.
Since it was in the off-season, there were plenty of other free rooms. However, I thought that 2 nights wouldn’t be too bad, so I didn’t ask for being moved to another room.
At around 11 pm I asked him to turn off the sound of his phone since I wanted to sleep. However, he either wasn’t able to speak proper English or he was so influenced by drugs that he couldn’t move his tongue the right way.
I finally was able to fall asleep with earplugs. However, both nights, I had all my belongings – including my laptop – underneath my pillow.
Even though he didn’t particularly do something bad, he made me feel super uncomfortable. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever forget these two nights.
The bottom line: Consider how guests will feel about the different people you host.
#2 Passport & Driver's License
Another common and super effective screening method is to turn away any guest that is unable to provide a valid ID. Typical signs of potential troublemakers are:
- Expired passports
- Unusual forms of IDs (e.g. a student card)
- If they are acting up when you ask for their ID
- “It just got stolen…”
In the latter case, you can provide them the number for the local embassy in order for them to get a letter of verification. Since “lies have short legs”, they typically decline your offer or walk away never to be seen again.
Other hostel owners even go beyond that and want to see their driver’s license in addition to their valid passport. In Germany, for example, it’s very unusual for an adult to not carry a driver’s license. This can be a good indicator for your country as well.as
Besides that, I either recommend to type in their ID details in your property management system (PMS) or upload a scan of it.
This is what it looks like in Cloudbeds PMS:
#3 No Luggage
Even the most minimalist travelers come with a decent backpack or suitcase. If they instead arrive with some grocery or black garbage bags, you smell a rat.
Several hostel owners experienced such guests who often ask for a single night in order to take advantage of other travelers who like the freedom of spreading their valuables all over their room.
More on thefts shortly.
#4 Queasy Gut Feeling
When working at the front desk for quite some time, you’ll develop a 6th sense for detecting shady characters.
Even if there are no clear rational indicators, your gut feeling tends to tell you when something is off.
If you’re a “people person” but you wouldn’t like to sleep with this guest in a room, it’s likely that your guests will feel the same. More often than not, your gut knew the truth right from the start.
#5 Guest Blacklist
Blacklisted guests are people who stayed in your hostel earlier and caused problems to the point where you decided to not let them stay at your hostel ever again.
There have been several attempts to create national and international blacklists in order to benefit from the experience of other lodging facilities: “Safehostel”, “WhosYourGuest”, “Guest-Blacklist”,… only to name a few.
However, they all come with one deficiency or another:
- A) Creating extra work for your staff
If the blacklist isn’t fully integrated into your property management system – no matter if it’s a software or a spreadsheet – it creates an extra step to check if a guest is blacklisted or not.
Since most guests are awesome, this can become time-consuming in relation to the small percentage of people you’re able to filter out.
- B) Data protection laws
At the latest when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced in 2016, many companies had to throw in their towels.
It’s now illegal to collect personal data about guests and sharing it with other entities without having their permission to do so. And yes, the same holds true for a simple Google Sheet that you share with another hostel.
However, you’re still allowed to create your own blacklist and that’s something I definitely recommend if you have this opportunity with the PMS you’re using.
This is how it works in Cloudbeds PMS – the most commonly used property management software among hostel owners:
Step 1: Create a guest status called “Blacklisted”
Let’s pretend your guest “Donald Trump” didn’t do his dishes at your hostel multiple times and other guests complained about him. 😅
Hence, the next step is to…
Step 2: Label your guests
Simply click on his reservation and change the status to “Blacklisted”.
You can also leave a note with more details:
If Donald Trump ever wants to visit your hostel again, the system automatically shows you that he got blacklisted earlier:
“Special” Guest Procedures
In most cases, the above filters will do the job and prevent potential headaches. However, there are several types of touchy situations you might encounter:
#1 Sick Guests
What should you do if your guest arrives ill or develops a contagious disease?
Fortunately, most sick guests are well aware of the fact that they are a threat to other people. The most common recommendation is to give them either a free or paid update to a private room.
#2 People Under The Influence Of Alcohol And Other Drugs
If someone arrives drunk, the odds are high that the person might be an alcoholic. The same holds true for people that show visible signs of drug abuse.
There are ambivalent opinions among hostel owners about them: Some let them stay for short periods (1-2 days) and keep an eye on them, others are “suddenly” booked out.
If someone looks, smells or acts like a hobo, most hostel owners refuse service. In most cases, they are walk-ins without an ID and carry garbage bags.
They are typically also the ones that don’t make a big drama out of the situation because they’re used to rejection. They simply nod understandingly and walk away… sad, but true. 😕
Interestingly, several hostel owners have come up with a typical behavior that they believe is a signal for potential thieves: It’s people that are “too friendly”. No joke.
Nate Bunger, manager of the “Casa Miraflores Hostel” in Colombia and the author of “How To Start A Hostel And Retire In Paradise” (recommended read) describes these people as the kind of persons that you’d suspect the least.
Every time he had to deal with theft, he couldn’t believe it when he figured out who it was. Ever since, if someone is “too friendly”, the staff is told to keep an eye on them.
#5 Guests With Poor Hygiene
Every person has a different standard when it comes to their body hygiene. However, some tend to have very low standards… so how do you deal with someone that is super nice yet is encompassed by an offensive smell?
Instead of turning them away for some “fishy reasons”, I recommend offering them your “specials”: You could pretend that every guest who checks in, gets a free laundry wash on their first day.
Furthermore, you could tell him or her how many compliments you receive on your showerheads… “you should give them a try and let me know how you like them!” 😉
You could also offer them a free upgrade to a private room (if available).
This is not a case of turning someone away or not. The question is rather how you should handle such a person.
A transgender is a person that has the identity of the opposite sex they were born with. In most cases, these people try to fit in as much as possible and avoid causing any issues.
Hence, no hostel owner I ever talked to had a case where a male to female gender insisted on staying in a female-only dorm. And if you’re the first, I’d personally rather move other guests out (if they ask to) instead of refusing her wish.
Here’s a panel discussion about guest screening that I found helpful:
How To Get Rid Of Unwanted Hostel Guests
Once unwanted guests arrive at your reception, there are three ways to make them leave:
#1: “I'm Sorry, We Are Fully Booked”
Even if someone has already made a booking, you could blame the reservation system for showing availability even though you’re completely booked out for the next 2 weeks.
In this case, a small lie can prevent uncomfortable situations. However, ALWAYS offer alternative accommodation for them!
Get them in touch with other hostels nearby and make some calls on their behalf. Honestly, I would even offer them a coffee while they wait.
There is no need to be remembered as a bad and impolite place. Make friends and treat everyone with respect. Think of what a high-class receptionist of a 5-star accommodation would do. Always professional and servicing.
#2 Search For A Violation Of Your Policies
When a shady person made it through all your filters, it’s useful to have some additional policies that you can play as your wild card. Two common rules are:
- Proof of travel plans
“We might ask you at check-in to provide proof of your future travel itinerary.” – Obviously, not all travelers plan ahead. Hence, this is rather a back-up policy that you only play when needed.
- Proof of credit card
“We might ask you at check-in to provide a valid credit card.” – While most “legit” travelers have a credit card, shady people often don’t. Again, this is another back-up policy.
As with all policies, I highly recommend to let a lawyer look over them to make sure they are valid and don’t violate any applicable laws.
Apropos, I recently analyzed the policies of the top 30 hostels worldwide and created free templates with bulletproof policies.
To see all the statistics, check out my article about hostel policies. Make sure you check out number 2, 3 and 7 as those will affect you the most.
#3 Take Heart And Talk To Them
First and foremost, a visible sign saying “We reserve the right to refuse service” at the front desk is a must-have in my opinion. It serves as an unmistakable excuse to turn someone away.
Besides that, it’s more about HOW you say it, as opposed to WHAT you say. Here are some tips to achieve that:
- Be polite and respectful – always
No matter how aggressive your guest might become, never raise your voice and resist the temptation to mirror their behavior.
- Use the broken-record method
Repeat one sentence in a polite manner over and over again: “I’m really sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.” – But why…?! – “I’m really sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.” – Isn’t it possible to…?! – “I’m really sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.”
Even the most stubborn person leaves after you’ve repeated the same sentence three times in a row. It’s what I personally use when someone tries to sell me some stuff at the beach.
- Avoid any physical contact
Never never never ever touch a person or their belongings. If someone refuses to leave, as a last resort: call the police.
Funny coincidence: As I uploaded this article, a hobo entered the common area of my hostel in Canberra, Australia. The lady at the front desk shouted: “I will call the police if you don’t leave!”. The result: He left shortly after (and slammed the door).
- Discourage them from staying at your hostel
Here’s an example of what this could look like:
“Hey, I see you’re really into X. I probably shouldn’t advertise other places, but I’ll make an exception for you. The hostel down the street would be a great fit for you (given it really is). Their entire community is filled with like-minded people. They are all totally into X. I feel like you could find your soul-mate there. It’s only half a mile down the street. If you like, I can make a call for you and see if they have a room for you for similar conditions that you booked here.”
Which brings me to my next point…
- Offer alternative accommodation
To diminish the potential feeling of “I have nowhere to go”, always provide them with a backup plan.
Now, what to do about guests who already checked-in and disrespect your house rules?
If they caused any damage on purpose, ask for the payment and use the same principles above. If it was not their intent, it’s time to check your insurance policies.
If they violated any house rules, it’s common among hostels to not offer any refund. If there are other more touchy reasons, I recommend a refund to reduce the likelihood of vendetta reviews.
Last but not least, I want to address a topic that is mentioned a lot in forums:
Solution = Being Able To Review Guests?
Here’s one response I received to my survey:
Let’s discuss the pros and cons of such a review system:
- Seems fair
- Could prevent unruly guests
- Could provoke more negative reviews if you leave a bad one
- Higher likelihood of losing the chilled & relaxed atmosphere, because travelers fear everything will be reported
- Super time-consuming: Even if the review system was completely integrated in your PMS, you’d still have to manually review all your guests.
In my opinion, the drawbacks outweigh the advantages by far.
From what I’ve experienced, most hostel travelers are absolutely awesome. It’s just this tiny percentage of people who cause 95% of the headaches. Hence, I think a guest review system for hostels would equal using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
That said, I think when it comes to Airbnbs and renting your own personal room, it’s a must-have. I’d love to hear your opinion in the comment section below.
Here’s another panel discussion about
guest review systems that I found interesting:
Before you leave: Answer this quick question and help our community.
What’s your opinion about reviewing your hostel guests?
Must-have in the future or not?
Share your opinion in the comment section below!