Lay Down Your Head but Not a Lot of Cash
When Australian Steve Savage set out on his around-the-world journey he was traveling alone but wanted to meet lots of people. And he didn’t have nearly enough money. So he signed up with some homestay programs.
Now he is spending most nights in the homes of total strangers—including mine. When Steve came to Nashville we had a nice dinner together and talked for hours about travel, politics, and the oddities of the U.S. and Australia. His
new hosts picked him up the next day and he spent a week at their farm, earning a little cash for helping out with odd jobs.
Homestay programs are a great way to meet locals on your trip, people who aren’t trying to sell you something or be your paid guide. It can be an enriching experience for both parties and can save the traveler
a significant sum of money, especially in countries where lodging is expensive. It gives you a chance to see how the locals live and to get an insider’s perspective on the area. The people you stay with often know the best local
bargains, the most worthwhile things to see and do, and the easiest way to get from point A to point B. In places with limited public transportation (such as most of the U.S.), your hosts will often pick you up from the train station,
bus station, or airport.
Homestay programs are built upon the idea of give and take. When you’re a traveler, you stay with others; when you’re stationary, you volunteer to be a host. If you live in Manhattan or San Francisco you’ll
probably get lots of requests. If you live in an area that’s not a tourist attraction, you’ll get very few. There are ground rules about how long people can stay and information on sleeping arrangements. Some people may have
a guesthouse; others may have an air mattress on the living room floor. These details are generally available up front.
As a traveler, you contact hosts in advance of when you plan to visit and request accommodations around a specific time period. The host accepts or denies the request (or says, “Contact me again when it’s
closer”); then you exchange more details and contact information. Some hosts will bend over backward to feed you and show you around town if you want; others may not have the time to provide more than a bed and a shower.
The oldest and largest organization is Servas, which aims to facilitate cultural exchange rather than a mere bed exchange. The organization has 14,000 hosts in 130 countries. You pay a membership fee to join and you
are interviewed by another member before you are accepted. Then you can order host lists for the areas you intend to visit. Servas says these lists are not available on line “and never will be.” Travelers present a letter of
introduction upon arrival. My wife and I were Servas members during a trip through Europe in the mid-90s and stayed with several people in Holland. We had many interesting conversations, and one host loaned us bicycles to go exploring
for a day.
Other organizations charge no fee to join. The four travelers we’ve hosted (two Australians and a couple from Brazil) all came via my membership in Global Freeloaders, a group where the title says it all. This
one-man show, made possible by Web technology, aims to help people “save money and make new friends whilst seeing the world from a local's perspective.” Although it’s natural to worry about the lack of screening, a feedback
system keeps tabs on people and complaints are extremely rare. Anyone can view dozens of positive testimonials posted on the site. Personal host details are kept secret until a traveler is accepted.
The Hospitality Club, Web-based in Europe, has more than 8,000 members and over 100 hosts in countries that include Lithuania, Poland, Argentina, and Finland.
Individual countries often offer organized homestay programs that allow you to stay with local families. These are sometimes commercial arrangements that help families subsidize their meager salaries and are especially
common in former Soviet states, including Eastern Europe. In other countries the fee just covers costs for food and transportation. Several states in India, for example, have official lists of families willing to host travelers. The fee
is often similar to that of the cheapest budget lodgings. But the experience is much more enriching, and you’ll often get to sample local specialties that are a far cry from what you find in restaurants. A good guidebook usually
lists places to go for information on these programs. It’s worth checking with local tourism offices even if you don’t see anything listed.
If you decide to take advantage of these kinds of programs your hosts won’t be expecting much in return, but it’s always a good idea to either bring an inexpensive gift (such as flowers or fruit) or offer
to help out around the house. Offering to wash the dinner dishes or watch the children for a while will be appreciated, even if they don’t take you up on it. Be a good ambassador and the system will continue to work well for everyone.
TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and several other books. He is also
the the award-winning editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.