A Friendly Place to Lay Your Head
Hosting and Homestay Programs Offer a Break from the Tourist Trail
When my wife and I spent two weeks in Holland toward the end of our first around-the-world trip, we only spent one night in a hostel. The rest of the time we stayed with Dutch people, seeing their country the way they see
it, learning a lot about their schools, their routines, and their culture.
Now that we are more grounded, with a house to call our own, we have moved to the other side. Through homestay programs, we have hosted travelers from Brazil, Canada, Korea, Australia, and Scotland.
After traveling for weeks or months on end, it is easy to feel like you have entered a parallel universe. In this other dimension most of the locals you meet are either guides, touts, merchants, or hustlers. When you manage
to strike up a conversation with someone from the host country on a train or bus, you will likely go separate ways at the end. As a result, it is sometimes hard to dig deep and find out what people are really like where you are, to find out how
they think, what they value, or what frames an average day.
With a hosting or homestay program, you can get a glimpse of how the non-traveler lives. You can hop off the “gringo trail” or “farang trail” and gain an experience that goes beyond hanging out with
other travelers in guesthouses and cafes. In expensive countries, this option can save you quite a few dollars as well, with the kindness of strangers helping you extend your travels a few days or weeks longer.
These services go by many names and the differences are outlined below. What they have in common is some kind of registration and membership database, a method to request a homestay, and a feedback system to keep everyone
honest and accountable. You can sign up as either a guest or a host, with the understanding that guests will become hosts someday when they have a place of their own to share. If you are going to be in Berlin in mid-September, for example, you
would check the host database for that area, find what looks like a good or interesting match, then request the date or dates you would like to stay. The host will then reply with a yea or nay. If it’s the latter, you repeat the process.
Sometimes you’ll strike out, but often you will end up staying with a person, couple, or family and see a whole different side of the city or country. Sometimes the host will be too busy to spend any time with you
and you’ll be on your own for fun and transportation. Other times the host may pick you up from the station or airport and take you to some local in-the-know spots not in any guidebook.
Naturally, you’ll get a much better response when you ask someone for a place to stay in an area that’s at least a bit off the beaten track. Hosts in Amsterdam, Paris, and New York get deluged with more requests
than they can handle. Hosts in small towns rarely hear from anyone. (I live in the popular tourist city of Nashville, Tennessee so I’m kind of in the middle: I average about one request a month.)
These are the key programs and how they work. With all of them, most of the hosts are former long-term travelers themselves, so there’s a lot of instant camraderie. Some kind of database generally allows feedback,
eBay-style, so travelers who don’t show up or are inconsiderate will soon be flagged. At the end of this article you will find some keys to keeping this from happening.
Servas (www.servas.org) is the oldest and most serious homestay program. When my wife and I joined this program back in the early 1990s, we had to apply
weeks ahead, drive 30 miles for a personal interview, and order listings books for each country. Now the lists are online in a secured area for members, but this is the only thing that has gotten easier. This is a high-minded organization more
interested in cultural understanding and sharing than in providing travelers with a free place to crash for the night. You are, in essence, joining a clubby organization with high standards and will pay dues to match—around $65 in the U.S.
Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org), based in Europe, has info available in a lot of languages and is a well-run organization with a truly
global network. Free, and at last count over 12,000 members.
The Couchsurfing Project (www.couchsurfing.org) is similar to the other free services but tends to attract a younger, more party-hearty crowd.
Women Welcome Women (www.WomenWelcomeWomen.org.uk) obviously caters to women, while Lesbian and Gay Hospitality Exchange International (www.lghei.org)
narrows it down even further. There is an annual fee of around $36 for the former and $40 for the latter.
Here are some tips that will make things go smoothly while you take advantage of this opportunity:
Pay attention to the listings. Find an appropriate host rather than just sending out shotgun requests. Many hosts have
a maximum stay period of two nights; others are open to longer stays. Families are often looking for someone who is not an all-night partier knocking on the door in the wee hours; others are young singles who will love to take you out clubbing.
Do something nice for your hosts. Most hosts are working stiffs who aren’t looking for any kind of monetary compensation,
but it’s a welcome gesture to bring a small gift (flowers or edibles are always good) or to do something helpful around the house. Offer to do the dishes or watch the kids for an hour, especially if you’re staying more than a couple
of nights. If you have a specific skill, such as carpentry or computer tune-ups, offer to help out with that—it may even result in some paid work.
Give plenty of notice. Hosts have families, jobs, responsibilities, and social schedules. Respect this by providing plenty
of advance notice and staying in touch if things change. Remember that they are doing you a big favor; don’t abuse the good will.
When in doubt, get a room. Too often I get requests from 20-year-old kids who are driving from two hours away to go to
a concert. They want to arrive late at night and leave the next morning to go home. For me—a host with a wife and young child—this is not an appropriate use of the system. It’s okay to impose on your friends this way, but
it's not okay for a complete stranger. A motel room will cost less than the concert tickets did: pay up and get an appropriate place to crash.
Show up. This seems obvious, but the biggest complaint among hosts is not about rude guests, but ones who just never appear.
The host has cleaned up, made schedule changes, and stocked the fridge. Then the person who has requested a stay either changes plans without telling anyone or just stops staying in touch. If you work out a stay, be there when you said you
TIM LEFFEL, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor
of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.