I spent a considerable amount of university time as a houseguest of one kind or another. I lived with a wonderful host family during my study abroad in Chile; I stayed with friends of a friend for a week vacation in Seattle; I stayed with the director of a human rights organization for three nights while running some out-of-town events. Staying with a friend of a friend is a great way to empower travel and gain some interesting insights about life in unfamiliar places…or simply in other houses. I love having people come visit me, and love visiting other people. It’s common enough that when some new acquaintance says “come and stay some time,” I immediately get serious, make eye contact, and say “let me know if you mean it now, because if you offer I’ll be showing up on your doorstep someday.”
I won’t claim to be a perfect houseguest, or anything close to it. But I do have considerable practice, and have given this a lot of thought to how to do this well. Most of us probably slept over with friends at their houses growing up… but it’s different when crashing with someone as a “grown up.” Here are 8 tips on how to be a good houseguest.
1. Bring a gift
Showing up at someone’s house with a gift in hand is a great way to start things off right. Even if the host is a friend of yours, it’s still a lovely gesture. They’re doing you a favor, so do one in return. Food is a pretty universally appreciated gift (with attention paid to allergies and other food restrictions). Depending on age, alcohol is another good gift. Flowers are usually quite appreciated, particularly if you’re staying with someone with a “nice” house.
If you’re staying with someone abroad, some good gift ideas are
- A book of photography from your home
- A local product, food, or joke item
- A game you like (if it will translate well)
- Gifts for kids (if there are kids)
- Gifts for pets (if there are pets)
- Jewelry (There have been many recipients of hippie spoon rings from the Eugene Saturday Market during my travels, and I’ve always received positive feedback so far.
Generally stay away from anything too large, possibly offensive, or that will require work. Don’t bring a living plat unless you know they keep plants. Don’t bring anything that will require storage, or anything decorative unless you’re pretty confident that it will match their taste.
It’s a lovely thing to show up on someone’s doorstep and have a gift in-hand. If it’s food or drink it’s a perfect segue to a snack and settling in. If you bring a different kind of gift, it’s a chance to start a conversation. Regardless (and particularly if you’re a bit anxious), a gift is a great place to start.
2. Communicate your plans clearly
Let your host know when you plan to arrive and leave, and what you expect in between. This will vary with every different situation, and depending on both your schedule and theirs. There isn’t a “right way” to stay with someone as far as plans go. I’ve stayed with someone and spent almost every waking minute with them… and I’ve been a houseguest while I was working and therefore barely saw them. The key is to set this up in advance so that everyone knows what they’re getting into. Show up when you’re supposed to (or let them know if plans change) and leave when you’ve planned to (or give substantial notice).
3. What do they want?
This ties in closely with the previous point—what do your hosts expect from you? Will they want to spend lots of time with you? Will they be working/studying/seeing other friends while you’re there? Are you welcome for meals? You are taking advantage of their hospitality—what do they want in return?
You can ask this in a really nice way. Find out what they already have scheduled during their time. Ask how they picture the evenings/meals/whatever. You can say “I would love to spend time with you during the days, but I know you’re busy with your work/studies/family/whatever. Let’s schedule some plans together, and you let me know what will work best for you.”
Ask this before you arrive, and check back during your stay. Pay attention to their schedule and energy. Try to make your presence add something to their time, and try not to take them away from what’s meaningful to them.
4. What do you need?
We all need things when we are away from home. Think about this, and ask before you arrive.
- Do you need a bed to sleep in? Can you handle a couch? The floor? A shared room? Find out what you’re getting into before you arrive.
- Do you need transportation? A tour guide? If you need help navigating the city, ask and find out if they can help you. Don’t assume, and do ask.
- Are you traveling light? If so, you might need to find out if they have a towel, sleeping bag, hair drier, etc.
- Do you have food needs? Allergies? Sensitivities? Caffeine requirements in the morning?
Beyond this, what do you need during your stay? Do you need a certain amount of sleep each night? Do you need space to get work done in the afternoons? Do you have routines you like to keep, such as exercise or meditation or other self-driven activities?
It is OK to ask for a little space and time to yourself as a houseguest, particularly if you are up front and polite about it. I routinely “demand” space for study/work when I’m staying with people. I just let them know that there’s some stuff I need to work on, so I’ll need a couple of hours every day to get that done. It’s some of what makes my life run smoothly, so I build that into the plan.
5. Basic courtesies
There are some basic “good manners” behaviors when you’re in someone else’s home. I tend to have in mind what my grandmother would expect as basic courtesy. Of course, everyone’s grandmothers are different, but here are some basics:
Basic houseguest good manners
- Offer to help with cooking and cleaning
- Keep your stuff in one contained space, and keep it relatively tidy looking
- Clean up after yourself in the kitchen, bathroom, and around the house
- Be mindful of your host’s privacy
The best of good manners is just common sense. Try not to create any additional work for your host, unless they take it on with honest enthusiasm. And even then always, always offer to help.
6. Other people’s rules
Expectations vary from house to house. This is particularly the case when you stay with someone from a different cultural background from you, but is true wherever you go. All houses have different rules. For some, shoes off at the door is an iron-clad policy. For others, the bathroom door always stays closed. Or maybe there’s a recycling/trash sorting policy you’ve never heard of. Or a system of keeping doors locked. Or for tidying up after meals.
Whatever is going on, you are in someone else’s home, so you should try to follow their rules as much as possible. Beyond the basic good manners, try to be observant and extra-courteous. If there’s something you don’t understand, then ask. Ask soon.
I have many examples of this, from shoe removal failures to setting off the house alarm at my host family’s house in Chile (twice!), to a truly mortifying episode in Honduras when I couldn’t figure out how to use a toilet. It’s difficult to be the bumbling guest feeling like you can’t do it right… and all you can do is pay attention and ask for clarification when you need it.
7. Be fun
Have a good time. Be pleasant to be around. Tell good stories, buy a round of drinks, chat about stuff you both care about.
Basically, try make your host feel happy that you’re there.
This is the bonus tip. Say thank you. And there’s a huge bonus if you do so in writing, via snail mail. It’s a little thing, and in many situations it might seem unnecessary. But it’s a nice touch, and is a great way to end your visit, and to get a repeat visit if you decide you want to return.
So for all of you planning travel this summer... best of luck to you! Pick out a gift, ask some logistical questions in advance, and prepare to enjoy yourselves!