Before CouchSurfing There Was Homestaying: Successful Stays with Locals
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: true traveling for me involves getting to know the local culture. And one of the best ways to do this is to stay with locals, and I don’t mean picking a locally-owned hotel brand.
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I’m talking about sleeping in the spare bedroom of an ordinary local person at your destination, and there are a few ways to do this — my favorite is finding a good homestay arrangement.
Homestaying: Slightly More Organized CouchSurfing
CouchSurfing has got cool. If you haven’t heard, couchsurfing involves getting in touch with like-minded internet users who are happy to offer a spare bed (or couch) in their house for a few days so you can stay in their city or town, for free. Here begin the differences, because if you make a homestay arrangement these days, your hosts will usually receive a fee.
Often the cost is cheaper than staying at a ho(s)tel, and the experience is a whole lot more interesting.
Most people know homestays from a school context — exchange students or students on a class trip might do a homestay with families from the local area. But it’s increasingly available to everyday travelers like us who want to spend a night (or a week) with a local family. Often the cost is cheaper than staying at a ho(s)tel, and the experience is a whole lot more interesting.
If you’re headed someplace where you’ve got no local contacts, then start with the internet. Google “homestay” and the destination you’re going to and then beware: not every homestay opportunity is really what you’re looking for. Important things to check for (or ask before you make a booking) include:
Whether the host(s) actually live at the place where you’ll be staying. While most homestay hosts are genuinely interested in hosting someone from out of town or abroad, there are some people who advertise “homestays” but then dump you at the door and just take the cash — you might as well stay in a hotel.
Check if there’ll be other guests there — this could be good or bad, depending on how much interaction you’re after, but if there will be more than a couple of other guests then it’s not going to be much of a personalized homestay experience.
Find out what meals are offered. Most homestay arrangements include breakfast as part of the charge. Some also offer dinner, and you should consider whether or not you want to pay for this. If you think you’ll be out sightseeing and not want to come back home in time for the supplied dinner (this could be at 6pm), opt out. On the other hand, if you’re homestaying out in the countryside in mid-winter and you know you’ll only be out during daylight hours, then having dinners with the hosts can give you even more insight into the local ways of life.
Check if there’s a transfer arrangement. You might not want to rely on public transport (or even a taxi) to find your way to some obscure apartment address for the first time. Many homestay hosts are happy to meet you at the train station or airport.
Consider the language barrier. Not being able to speak the same language certainly isn’t a barrier to a successful homestay, but it’s good to know what to expect. I’ve stayed with Russian women who couldn’t speak a word of English — and I knew just a handful of words in Russian — but with the help of a phrasebook and a pen and paper to draw pictures, we’ve got along just fine.
Ask about the location of public transport. Good homestay websites will often list how far the homestay location is from the city center and from train or bus links. Remember that unlike a hotel or hostel, a homestay could really be on the far outskirts of a city and if you’re combining some good sightseeing with the homestay visit, you might be frustrated.
If you have special needs (you might be vegetarian, or allergic to pets) check that these can be met. In a homestay situation, you’re expected to fit in with your hosts’ expectations to some extent — and I think that’s only fair — so don’t turn up and expect them to change their whole lives for you.
At the same time, try to find out if the hosts are likely to spend some time with you. This can vary a lot and it’s really mostly a matter of chance, but if you can find some comments from previous visitors about the hosts, you might have a better idea. The best hosts that I’ve had would eat breakfast with me, offer me tea and a chat as soon as I returned home from sightseeing, and give me tips on “hidden” places I should visit.
In the end, homestaying is a bit of a lucky dip, but that’s not really much different from staying in a ho(s)tel, either. I definitely think it’s worth the risk, and if you want to get the most out of the homestay, here are a few tips:
Be open-minded. This applies to travel in general, but especially in a homestay. You might have to share a bathroom with your host, you’ll definitely have to eat some foods cooked their way, and you could be surprised at any number of other lifestyle habits. Watch and learn.
Ask questions. Whether or not you share a common language, show an interest in the culture of your host and also offer some interesting insights into your own. For example, ask if the breakfast they serve you is typical for their country, and whether it’s for special occasions or everyday eating. Use sign language and gestures if necessary.
Take a small gift, and try to make it something practical. I’ve stayed in homestays with bedrooms full of toy koalas and was so glad I’d at least brought an Aussie tea towel. Of course, there’s no compulsion to give your hosts a gift, but the chances are good that you’ll make a real connection with them during your stay so it pays to be prepared.
Now Go Forth and Homestay!
Truly, some of my best travel experiences have come from homestays, and I really encourage you to try it. Probably my favorite homestays have been with widows in Russia — it’s a common way for women who’ve lost their husbands to get an income — who have told me so much about recent Russian history and fed me up on delicious Russian food. But another time, a widow who should have hosted my mother and I ended up in hospital for that week — so brought her grown-up son in to take care of us. She called everyday to check we were enjoying ourselves, and we certainly were.
If you’ve had a good (or bad) homestay experience, let me know in the comments. Otherwise, start seriously considering a homestay component to your next trip. I’m certain you won’t regret it.