From Couchsurfing to Homestays: How to Truly Live like a Local in a Foreign Land
by Maria Guadagno
(New York, NY)
Growing up, stories of foreign lands always captivated my attention. History class with its tales of ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and Egyptian pyramids always transported me to a different time and place. The unknown landscapes, the different cultures, the melodic languages...I wanted to be immersed in it all. Unfortunately, my parent's idea of vacation was Disney World, just about the most artificial place you could get.
So, when I had enough cash saved up by 21, I began the intoxicating love affair with traveling on my own. Never having been outside of the US, my first destination was Europe, which captured my heart not only with its history but also through the pictures of avant-garde fashions in Vogue and news stories of modern-day uprisings and protests in the streets. Americans never have protests like the Europeans! How passionate as a people they must be, for them to light cars aflame and march in the streets! And that is where I wanted to be, so off I went.
My first stop was London to take a 5-week course on English literature. I didn't care so much about the literature, I just needed the school to set me up with housing. I ended up in an apartment with 3 other American girls in the course. While we got on just fine, I couldn't help but think how much better it would have been, how many more "local" spots I could have seen, if I was rooming with British girls!
So, on my next trip which was to the south of France, I eschewed the expat trap, and did a home-stay with a French woman whose kids had gone to their dad's for the summer. She didn't speak a word of English, smoked like a chimney, complained her 5 weeks of vacation was too short, and looked elegant even in her pajamas. I was smitten. She took me to the most beautiful beach I would have never heard of. She treated me to a typical Nicoise dish at a hidden gem of a restaurant. She cued me into some excellent French beauty products, and all in all, made the trip so amazing that I have returned to France every year since.
While most adults wouldn't dream of doing a home stay after college, for a solo woman traveler, it may just be the best thing you can do! You really get keyed in to the local spots not just in the city you visit, but the actual neighborhood you decide to stay in. Just by booking the place, you already have one local friend! And usually, they don't stop their lives, so you can easily be introduced to their friends, be invited to their parties, etc. The possibilities are endless.
The best way I have found to do this is through a website called www.airbnb.com, where people rent out their spare guest rooms for a fee, usually much less than a hotel. It is a step above couch surfing, but still reasonable for travelers on a budget. Even if you are not on a budget, I would still recommend using a site like this if you truly want to live like a local. After being welcomed in other peoples homes, I have now opened up my home on the site as well receiving travelers from as far away as Australia! So, when planning your next adventure in a foreign land, don't dismiss the ultimate local experience of doing a homestay!