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Homestay Accommodation: How to (Almost) Live Like a Local

Have you tried homestay accommodation?

It's one of the better ways of living like a local and delving below the surface of a place or culture.

It's also perfect if you're a woman traveling solo because it offers some degree of safety: you're staying with a family, and in the best homestays you join their everyday lives for a bit of time.

Two generations of the Rungus tribe of BorneoGrandmother and granddaughter pore over a magazine at homestay in Sabah. The girl is learning traditional dance to perform for visitors and to retain the Rungus tribe's heritage

In case you're not familiar with this type of accommodation, it's a bit like paid couchsurfing meets two-way cultural exchange.

The principle is simple: you rent a couch, a room or the entire house from a local (although if you have the whole house you'll have a lot less contact with the owner, unless they live upstairs or next door...).

And then you share part of their life for a few days. You learn all about them, and they learn all about you. Some women will love the experience, others may run screaming. And language can be a barrier.

I've tried homestays several times. One of the more memorable was in Sabah, Malaysia, where I stayed with an extended family from the Rungus tribe in the relative luxury of a separate room and bathroom. Another time, I slept on Martina's couch in Vilnius, Lithuania. We had no common language but somehow managed to communicate.

It's one of my favorite ways to travel (the other is with Airbnb).

How to find a homestay

They are definitely easier to find in some countries, especially in Asia and Oceania, although the 'living like a local' trend is spreading globally.

A great first stop is the fast-growing Homestay.com, active in more than 150 countries.

To search in even greater depth, Search online for 'homestays in Borneo' or whatever country or region you want to visit. 

When you search online, look carefully because many so-called homestays are actually apartment or house rentals in disguise. A 'real' homestay involves staying with local people, and becoming at least peripherally involved in their lives. 

Homestays are brilliant

At least that's my take on it but they're not for everyone. I love them for a lot of reasons:

  • They're far more homey than an impersonal hotel - I get a nice warm feeling being in someone's home. And it's cheaper.
  • Local hosts know the neighborhood and can make recommendations about many sights and restaurants tourists often don't know. It's like a secret peek at a place away from the guidebooks.
  • Sharing someone's life for a few days means looking at the underbelly of daily existence in a place and to me, that's far more real than just staring at beautiful buildings (although I like that too). For me, discovering how people live is one of the greatest rewards of travel.
  • You can practice the language, learn to cook local dishes, and learn about local customs.
  • Your money goes straight into supporting the local economy.

Watch out for... the downsides. Homestays have them too.

  • Living with a family may mean more familiarity than you're accustomed to, and certainly less privacy than staying in a hotel. If it's your first homestay, you might want to limit it to one or two nights until you see whether you like it. 
  • Make sure everything is clear, either in a contract or by email - or at the very least by clear, spoken agreement (things like wifi use, smoking rules, meals etc). Especially check whether you're expected to spend a lot of time with the family or you may feel a little overwhelmed. In some cultures boundaries are fuzzy or don't exist and you might face a barrage of probing questions from your genuinely curious hosts. They're just as fascinated by you, remember?
  • If you have special food requirements, check carefully because homestays aren't as flexible as restaurants or hotels. Since you eat with the family and they often cook for many people at a time, you might not be able to get what you need, especially if you're doing this without the support of a booking agency or guide, and particularly if you don't speak the language. 'No sugar' is easily understood by putting your hand over the coffee cup, but what if sugar is used during cooking in your absence? You can't hover over pots all day.
  • Try to get as much information as possible about your homestay family, especially if you're a woman traveling solo. That's why I often use government-sponsored homestays - at least someone, sometime inspected the home before giving it a stamp of approval.
  • How far is your homestay from local sights and what are your transporation options? If you don't have a car, is there a bus of some sort nearby? Will you have to drive two hours to the nearest city or monastery? Is a donkey cart the only means of travel?
  • Even better if you can find a homestay with a website or a social media presence to see what you're getting into. If you can read reviews from previous visitors, even better.
Rural homestay in AfricaSome homestays can be extremely basic, especially in developing countries and rural areas, with rudimentary hygiene or no hot water.
  • Make sure it matches your travel style. For example if you like your privacy don't choose a place with eight children where you'll be be expected to spend your evenings with Mom, Dad, and the grandparents. If you're an independent soul you might not want to sign up for three meals a day.
  • Remember that cultures differ and when you live in close quarters those differences can be enhanced. You'll need some flexibility, adaptability, patience, and above all, genuine curiosity and openness to other ways of life.

I usually like to mix it up - homestays, hotel stays, hostels and couchsurfing. Even for a couple of days, staying with a local opens doors I would not have normally walked through. In Vilnius I shopped in the local market with Martina. In Sabah I joined the women in weaving and cooking and dancing.In each case, I was 'part of' rather than 'a-part from'.

Wouldn't you rather be?

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