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Paris for Free

Tips for a Successful Homestay

The prospect of staying in Paris—or any other expensive city—for little or no cost is certainly enticing. However, even some of us experienced independent travelers may be a bit hesitant if we don't know what to expect. Follow a few useful tips and you'll find the whole process much easier.

Servas (www.servas.org), Global Freeloaders (www.globalfreeloaders.com), and the Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) are three homestay programs recently mentioned in Transitions Abroad. It just so happens that I used all three on my latest trip to Paris.

The first person I met, Sebestien, was through Global Freeloaders. I simply showed up at his door, exchanged some pleasantries, and in no time I was being shown where I would sleep that night. It was that easy. But no matter how simple the process might be, there is going to be some awkwardness when you are face to face with a stranger whose home you will be sleeping in.

But there are ways to get through this. The most important advice is what Sebastien (Seb, as he likes to be called) himself told me: smile, smile, smile. I can still hear his words: "It is magic."

Pierre-Charles was the second person I met for a homestay, and I connected with him through Hospitality Exchange. After chatting a bit online, I showed up at his tiny but charming apartment, talked for a bit about mutual interests, and was introduced to my mattress on the floor.

With all three homestay programs you of course have the opportunity to communicate and thus find out about each other. In the case of Servas and the Hospitality Club, the hosts have specific sections where they list their interests. When I found that the initial conversation between Pierre-Charles and I may have been in danger of faltering, I simply brought up the topic that he featured on his profile, architecture. Since we both had a love for the topic, the conversation immediately perked up, and we got to know each other.

You will send out maybe 15 proposals for every acceptance you get. Pierre-Charles, who is very involved with the Hospitality Club, gave me some advice for increasing your odds of acceptance. He showed me on his computer screen how the short, curt queries are simply dismissed. When you send out a proposal, remember that the person on the other end has to decide if the person behind these words will be sleeping in his home. Make yourself come alive, so the person can develop a 3-dimensional image of you. Put down what you do for a living, where you have traveled before, and, of course, your interests. Be as polite as you can, so that the image they develop is a positive one.

Do not, under any circumstances, fail to show up for an agreed upon time without notifying your host of the change in plans. I'm afraid we Americans are developing a reputation in the homestay world for just not showing up—and without notice to boot. If you do this, you are hurting things for all of us who might want to enjoy a homestay after you.

The last person whose home I stayed at was a person I met through Servas. Her name was Catherine, a mother of two young boys. She had much experience with Servas, and she suggested right away that I accompany her and her kids on an uphill bike ride to a Paris park.

Which brings me to another bit of advice: whatever the host suggests, do it. You may not feel like peddling uphill after a long day, but remember that your host must feel comfortable with you, and she must know that you will respect the rules of her home.

After we made it to the top of Parc de Belleville, I got my reward: we had a lovely lunch, which included cheese and wine. As Catherine and I sat there discussing the culture of France her two young boys played in the grass.

All you need to do is heed the following tips, and you can stay in any city for free, including Paris.

Tips for a Successful Homestay:

  1. Pick a host who has similar interests.
  2. Buy a gift for your host. A going-away restaurant dinner would be nice, but small, useful items also work well.
  3. Agree to the suggested itinerary of the host.
  4. Don't be disappointed if you sleep on a mattress on the floor.
  5. Make your queries very polite and write a description of yourself that makes you sound like the kind of person they would want to meet.
  6. Smile, smile, smile.

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