When staying in a local’s home—whether it’s arranged through an organized program or through a social-networking connection, it’s important to remember some basic rules of planning and etiquette to make the best of your stay. Virginia Pelley shares her tips for a successful homestay.
In the old days, homestays mostly came about through organized programs through schools and tour companies, or through word-of-mouth and “friends of friends.” Now online resources and social-networking sites offer even more opportunities to secure a space in a local’s home.
Some rely on the old standby of Craigslist to make connections. One of the more popular options is CouchSurfing.com, which brings travelers together local hosts who have a free couch or other informal sleeping arrangement. A newer service on the market, iStopOver.com, is one I haven’t tried, but allows travelers to find short-term rentals, whether it’s a room or an entire home.
I opted to use Airbnb.com, which also requires a rental fee and has some security measures in place. It works like a social networking site to hook up travelers with people who have rooms or entire homes to rent (in 4,500 cities worldwide as of press time). Travelers can peruse host profiles, reviews and recommendations, look at photos of available rentals and contact hosts directly.
The one-and-a-half-year old company charges a percentage of the rental fee to the renter and small booking fees to guests; all payments go through the site, and renters do not receive their fees until guests have safely checked in.
Here are some tips I gleaned after reserving two different rooms on a recent trip to Barcelona.
Be Realistic About Your Language Skills
When I was trying to decide where to book, I was turned off by American hosts living abroad, thinking that staying with them wouldn’t be an “authentic” enough experience. But after a week and a half of linguistic tripping through Paris, I was thanking my lucky stars that one of my hosts (originally from Venezuela, Bianca went to college in Montreal, Canada) was fluent in English.
Your host, hopefully, will be your concierge, so if your ability to speak and understand the language of the country you’re visiting is subpar, you’re probably going to want to stay with someone who speaks your language pretty well.
How Easy-Going Are You—Really?
Would you be comfortable staying in a two-bedroom apartment with three or four other people? Keep in mind that many airbnb users will be traveling in pairs, so that other room could possibly contain two or even three other people who will all be sharing the same bathroom as you. If a crowded place might bother you, ask potential hosts if they only accept one guest booking at a time or if they are lenient about how many can stay in each room.
Location, Location, Location
A travel guide can give you a heads up about the neighborhood a hotel is in, but with a private residence, it’s up to you to investigate whether you will be comfortable staying there. I stayed in one apartment in the heart of bustling El Raval (for a mere $33 a night), which was great in many ways but also meant that hookers and drunks made all sorts of noise all night, every night, outside my window. Ask about street noise if you’re a light sleeper.
Also, study the map of a given location: the cheaper rooms are cheaper for a reason—usually because it’s a hike to get to the center of the city or wherever you want to be. Many cab drivers prey on ignorant tourists, so you won’t want to have to depend on them to get back to your room late at night. Weigh price versus convenience carefully.
Ask About Amenities
This probably seems obvious, but if you’re staying near a beach, you’ll want to know if your host has beach towels or chairs available for you to take to the shore. And if you’re on a tight budget and would like to cook, make sure your host is truly amenable to guests preparing meals during their stay.
“Laundry facilities” might not include dryers. I don’t know if this was unusual, but no one I stayed with in Europe had a clothes dryer, even if they had a washing machine. So you might not want to assume that a laundry amenity means both.
Check the Hosts’ Smoking Policy
Definitely don’t assume any apartment will be smoke-free, especially in Europe. (One of my host’s only rule was to not smoke in the bedrooms, and she doesn’t even smoke!)
Discuss Key Pickup Arrangements Before You Book
Remember that hosts are regular people who might be working until 6 p.m. or later. Make sure you will be able to meet with this person and get into the apartment without a lot of hassle (i.e., lugging all your bags around all day until your host returns home) before booking.
Write down the email and phone number contacts if you need help. Obviously, screwing you over means a possible bad review for the host, so it’s in his or her best interest to be there when you show up, but flakiness happens. If you use a service like airbnb or have arranged a homestay through a program, keep that service or organization’s contact information on you. They might be able to find you another place to stay if the one you booked doesn’t work out for whatever reason.
Greasing the Wheels Never Hurts
The first room I booked (a beautiful apartment overlooking the Marina in Barceloneta for $65 a night) was with a guy who was pleasant and quick to respond to email but not particularly interested in who I was or what I planned to do in Barcelona (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Bianca, on the other hand, asked me what I did for a living in Los Angeles, what I like to do and what I thought I’d like to see while visiting her city.
The dynamic was very different, so although I figured it wasn’t necessary, I picked up a little soap and hand lotion from Paris to give to Bianca when I arrived. I was the first guest to bring her anything, she told me. But my thoughtfulness might have paid off given that she offered to go out to dinner and drinks with me that night. It was more than I had hoped for, and we had a great time.
It’s likely that your hosts will be warm and hospitable even without that extra nicety though. Both of my Barcelona hosts couldn’t have been more gracious or helpful. Even more incredibly, Bianca didn’t kick me out even though I mistakenly booked her room for one less night than I needed, and even though she had booked another couple to stay that night. She slept in the living room while her guests each took a bedroom. Would a hotel have been that compassionate, found somewhere to squeeze me in on a Friday in the high season? Doubtful. Which leads to me to my last tip:
Your host might not be the rent-a-pal you’d hoped he or she would be, but who knows? Hanging out with this person or persons could turn out to be one of the best experiences of your trip, as it was for me.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Hotels & Accommodations section
- Couch Surfing: Sleep on the Cheap
- Tips for Finding Kid-Friendly Vacation Homes & Villas
- Tip: House-Sitting Travel Accommodations
By Virginia Pelley for PeterGreenberg.com