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.
But wait. Are they still popular? What about all the safety issues we’ve heard about? How sensible is it for a solo female traveler to use one of these services?
This article will peel away some of that confusion, tell you about the best homestay and hospitality exchange networks, and provide you with a list of things to watch out for if this is something you’d like to try.
Whether you’re hiking in Iceland, climbing Kili or kayaking in the Philippines, there’s a local hostess (or host) waiting to welcome you.
This isn’t for everyone, mind you, but this kind of intensely local experience will make you feel like you’re practically a local yourself.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A HOMESTAY?
According to Homestay.com, “A homestay is an affordable accommodation alternative… It’s staying in a spare room of a real home while the homeowner is there.”
There are two basic kinds of homestays, paid and free.
Most homestays are paid but cost far less than a hotel or even a guest house. They can even be free, as in couchsurfing or other similar hospitality exchanges.
I’ve tried homestays several times. In Sabah, Malaysia, 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. These and many other similar experiences enriched my travels and showed me facets of places I never would have seen or understood otherwise.
Many types of accommodation fall under the homestay umbrella, and hospitality is what they have in common. You may stay in someone’s house, but you might also enjoy their hospitality in other ways, like connecting for a meal, or information about a place you’re visiting.
Most will share at least one thing with you: a love of travel. Some homestay or hospitality exchange sites were built by travelers themselves, touched by the kindness of strangers as they traveled and wishing – often in pre-Internet days – that they had a network of like-minded people with whom to share their joy of the road. And often, hosts open up their homes not because they need the money, but because they want to meet people from other lands and other cultures.
THE BASICS OF HOMESTAYS AND HOSPITALITY EXCHANGES
The principle is simple: you rent (or borrow) a couch or a room from a local who still lives in it. If the accommodation is empty, it’s no longer a homestay, but a purely commercial rental.
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.
Some are transactional: you look on a website, choose an accommodation you want, check the availability, and reserve. In most other cases, you join a network, post a profile and look for homestays that fit what you’re looking for.
Most have reviews so you’ll have an idea of what you’re getting into but remember, reviews aren’t necessarily complete or fully authentic, and should be taken as indications, not evidence.
THE ADVANTAGES OF HOMESTAYS
✅ They help you connect with local people so you can see how people live, not just skim the surface.
✅ You’ll be guided towards places that aren’t on the tourist circuit – great restaurants, little-known sights. It’s like a secret peek at a place away from the guidebooks.
✅ A chance to exchange views and ideas with people you might not normally meet.
✅ You can practice the language, learn to cook local dishes, and learn about local customs.
✅ The possibility of staying in unusual places away from tourists; most everyday residents don’t live in tourist areas and you might see towns or regions you wouldn’t visit otherwise.
✅ Sharing someone’s life for a few days means looking behind the scenes 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’ll understand your destination better because you’ll be part of it, a participant rather than a spectator.
✅ You’ll spend less money. By their nature, these accommodations are either free or inexpensive.
✅ And whatever money you do spend goes straight into supporting the local economy.
THE DOWNSIDES OF HOMESTAYS
❌ There’s a lot less choice; you can find a hotel on every corner, but not a host.
❌ There’s a safety factor that comes into play when you stay with other people – you’ll be sharing some facilities with individuals you’ve never met. If something goes wrong with your hosts, you won’t have many options for redress.
❌ Living with a host 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. And if you can’t possibility handle the thought of sharing a bathroom, well…
❌ You might be expected to do a few things around the house, keep your room clean, help out with cooking, or abide by certain rules; you may not have the 24/7 freedom you’d have if you’d stayed in a hotel. Or none of the above.
❌ Just as you might discover new, non-touristed areas, you might also be far from the area’s best sights.
❌ You won’t have the guarantees you would from a hotel if your host cancels at the last minute.
❌ If for some reason you don’t get along with your host or hostess, you’ll be stuck unless you’ve made alternative arrangements.
THE MOST POPULAR HOMESTAYS OR HOSPITALITY NETWORKS
Homestay.com is probably the largest provider of homestay accommodation online, with over 55,000 rooms in over 160 countries and a Trustpilot rating of 8.5/10. If you’re looking to stay with a family rather than in a hotel or guest room, this should be your first port of call.
A site like booking.com may seem like an unusual place to search for a homestay but think again. While many so-called ‘homestays’ are thinly disguised rentals, others are bona fide homestays with host families. As always, read the fine print and choose something you’ll actually enjoy.
Airbnb may be the most famous homestay network there is today – at least the part of Airbnb where you share a room in someone’s house. These days, though, Airbnb has changed and is in large part a rental agency that has wandered far from its roots. Still, it does have a number of homestay opportunities in which you can rent a room in someone’s house.
Women Welcome Women Worldwide
If you prefer a women-only service, Women Welcome Women World Wide, or 5W as it’s also known, operates in 80 countries and has a great reputation. There is a membership fee for which you receive a list of members, whom you then contact directly.
They definitely sound like my kind of people when they say this: “If only people would learn that experiencing a different lifestyle is interesting, enriching and mind-opening. Too many people regard different as threatening.”
If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community and feel more comfortable in a gay or lesbian household, gayhomestays.com has listings in dozens of countries around the world at affordable prices. Just be aware that some households host men, others women, and others men and women. You’ll find that information in the lightest of grey type just under the price.
Government homestay networks
Some countries offer homestay networks of their own so before you go, make sure you check the national tourism board website to see if they have homestay contacts for travelers.
FREE HOMESTAY NETWORKS
The idea is delayed reciprocity: you stay in someone’s home, and somewhere down the line you might provide someone else with hospitality. In most cases there’s no obligation, but if everyone is a guest and no one a host, the system will soon fall apart.
This one is by far the largest and most popular, even today. With over 15 million members in 220,000 cities, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find something suitable.
Couchsurfing has its supporters and detractors. A corporate takeover took away much of its distinct personality, and in many places the network has deteriorated, especially in large touristy North American and European cities.
Couchsurfing seems to thrive in some Asian countries and in developing countries, especially those with people too poor to travel beyond their region or who are subjected to restricted exchanges by authoritarian regimes. But in some urban centers, it can be more of a hookup platform or one that is used purely to save money, with no interaction with the owners.
So yes, it’s still there, and still heavily in use, but it will take a lot longer for you to find the right connection with the right person in the right place. If you’re patient, chances are you’ll be rewarded. (You’ll find a discussion of safety issues further below.)
For many travelers, this is the non-profit alternative to Couchsurfing. Here’s their mission: ‘Their dream is to create a project that allows everyone to visit a destination through the eyes of local people and to experience the variety of cultures in everyday life – when travelling but also at home.”
The news about this site is that it seems to have taken over where the old Couchsurfing left off, bearing the standard of the truly curious traveler, and less of a ‘dating service’, which is what some people fear Couchsurfing is turning into.
Servas means ‘service’ in Esperanto and may well have been the first service of this kind. As active today as it was upon founding more than half a century ago, it offers hospitality to promote world peace and understanding. It doesn’t see itself as simply a free accommodation service – hosts expect to have a meaningful exchange with guests and to part ways with a better sense of one another’s worlds.
Warm Showers is no newcomer, having been founded in 1993. It is a hospitality group for cyclists and is managed by a group of volunteers. It now boasts more than 120,000 members in more than 160 countries so if you’re on a long-distance bicycle tour and are looking for meaningful exchanges along the way, this is a well-maintained network that’s definitely worth a try – The Guardian speaks highly of them as well. The one proviso: you must be ready and willing to ‘pay it forward’.
OTHER HOMESTAY ALTERNATIVES
In my research I’ve come across quite a few other possible networks if a family stay with host families is something you’d like to try:
- Trustroots: launched for hitchhikers but now opened up to everyone.
- HelpX: you don’t pay for accommodation but you have to help with chores instead – there’s also a membership fee.
- Working Traveller: an interesting foray into the barter economy – you provide skills in exchange for your stay. A number of other groups offer this kind of exchange.
- Pasaporta Servo: for those of you who speak Esperanto.
- Staydu: a slightly different formula where you can stay and pay or stay for free – the host decides and provides the information in her listing.
- Affordable Travel Club: now we wander into the realm of paid accommodation, but not quite. It’s called a “small gratuity” and it’s cheaper than paying for a hotel room, but does include a local orientation by your host. Interesting: it’s for the over 40s.
- Evergreen Bed and Breakfast Club: this is another hospitality exchange with a modest price tag, for people over 50.
- Hospitality Club: once a biggie, this one is limping although a few diehards are trying hard to keep it alive. Too bad – this was an excellent service, not only for overnight stays but just to connect for lunch or coffee. Who knows, it may re-emerge like a phoenix yet…
A FEW FINAL TIPS ABOUT HOSPITALITY EXCHANGES
While this kind of hospitality is something many of us enjoy, there are things to watch out for. Some organizations are well structured for feedback and safety, others less so. These tips will help you find the right hosting family and homestay network.
- This is one of those cases in which you have to trust your gut. My rule tends to be stay with women only, or with a family. You’ll have your own boundaries, but set them and stick to them. If you get that gnawing feeling in your stomach, listen to it. It’s better to pass up a potential homestay host than to spend your time regretting you didn’t.
- 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 home stays – at least someone, sometime inspected the home before giving it a stamp of approval.
- If your local homestay network posts reviews, make sure you stick with reviews that are positive. Be especially cautious if the home is out of town. Don’t make your own way to a secluded location but meet your hosts in town or at the airport first. And make sure you exchange plenty of emails before deciding – with Skype these days, you might even be able to talk in person before you meet.
- Make sure everything is clear, either in writing or 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. If you eat with the family, they may be cooking for quite a few people at a time so you might not be able to get what you need. This is especially the case 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.
- Consider the location. 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?
- Make sure the host house 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.
- Most services and networks have a built-in safety mechanism, through reporting or hotline or email. The last thing I want is to wander into a dicey situation in someone’s home. Of course there is never a guarantee of safety but here are some of the safeguards: since people have to register as members, they can be tracked; reviews and testimonials provide information about members and their hospitality; some organizations provide a verification system that ensures your name and address are correct and valid. Make sure you take advantage of these but remember, no system is perfect and ultimately, you are staying with someone you haven’t met.
- If something untoward should happen, let the organization know immediately and head straight to the police. Trying to resolve something on your own in a strange place in a foreign language is not a recipe for success.
But ultimately – ENJOY! I’ve loved my various homestays and have always learned more through the families I stayed with than from the many books I read before traveling.
ALTERNATIVES TO HOMESTAYS?
If you’re not convinced and want to try another type of accommodation, you’ll be spoiled for choice:
- stay in a lovely hotel, with all the services and amenities
- if you’re tight on money you could try one of the modern hostels (many of which have private rooms these days)
- sit in the lap of luxury and mind someone’s house while they’re away
- rent an Airbnb for the duration
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’.
— Originally published on 23 January 2014