Travelers generally have some degree of interest in the anthropology of the cultures they are visiting. But with jam packed sight-seeing itineraries we can often miss out on the most important source of cultural information – the locals!
During a homestay, travelers pay to temporarily live alongside local families in order to learn about their lifestyle, culture and traditions.
These programs can be combined with tours, volunteer work or language classes and last anywhere from one day to the entire duration of your stay.
On your next trip abroad consider making time for a homestay; the experiences and conversations you have with these families are guaranteed to add depth to your memories and appreciation of that location.
How to Pick a Homestay
Word of mouth is best. If your personal network can’t provide a reference, search online for programs by city and country. You can also find a homestay through local hostels or tour agencies.
Look for programs with a high number of recently posted reviews. Use your gut instinct to judge how realistic the reviews are as they can easily be faked by the agencies or the program.
Beyond the duration and scheduled activities of your homestay, there are other factors you need to consider if you truly want a positive experience.
Ideally your organization has reviewed and prepped the host family for tourists and safety. You may or may not have a choice in the family you are matched with, but it is worth learning about them ahead since they can truly make or break your experience.
What are the ages and gender of the family members?
You might be living with an elderly widow or a screaming newborn or three college roommates. Like travel, homestays will push your comfort zone and remaining flexible is key. To maintain a positive experience for both sides, be honest about your preferences and keep your safety in mind. Determine if and how you can change host families in case there is any serious incompatibility.
Will the family have time for you?
Homestays are not just about accommodation, they are about cultural exchange. You may not be able to have in-depth discussions or to get involved in cultural activities if everyone is too busy to interact with you. The time spent attending a festival together or chatting over a home cooked meal can reveal small details of a culture that you wouldn’t otherwise recognize.
How many other travelers will be in the home at the same time?
Ensure you are not staying in a large group homestay where you will only have limited time to interact with the host family. Having other foreigners can be great to share the experience with, but being the sole foreigner in the home provides for the deepest immersion experience.
What language skills will you need?
No matter how wonderful your host family is, it is all pointless without good communication. Often the homestay families will know enough English to chat with you. Verify that there is at least one way to communicate during your homestay.
Will you get to review the family or the homestay?
Reviews are a sign that the organizing agency cares and works to improve their program. Ask to read previous reviews of your family or the program in general.
Depending on the location, homes can vary from a hut to a large house with a full range of conveniences (and inconveniences). Learn about the living conditions before hand so that you can be properly prepared.
Amenities: Homestays are not guaranteed or intended to be like your life at home. You might be using a squat toilet or an outhouse. There might not be electricity, heating, hot showers or clean water. Figure this out ahead of time so that you’ll know to bring headlamps, hot water bottles, toilet paper, water purification tablets and other necessities.
Meals: Food is an important part of the cultural experience and meals are most often included in homestay programs. If they are not, determine if there are restaurants or grocery stores nearby or if you will have access to a kitchen. This is also the time identify any food preferences and allergies.
Safety: You should consider where the lodging is located and if the neighborhood is safe. Ensure that your room and belongings will be kept locked up when you are not at your homestay and educate yourself on how the locals stay safe.
Homestays are about meaningful cultural exchange, which means you will have an impact on the families that host you. Unfortunately, the behavior of both well-meaning travelers and greedy tour operators have caused cultural and environmental changes to the very same societies they are serving. Please consider the long term impact of your actions during a homestay.
- Who gets the money?
Often tour agencies and other middle men receive a huge percentage of your payment while the family receives the bare minimum. Determine if any money is being invested in improving education, environmental conservation or the local community. Simply asking these questions can drive tourism behavior in the right direction.
- How are the families treated?
Find out how you will be interacting with the local people and ensure that you will get to truly connect with them. Some programs incorrectly use the term homestay to tour you around local villages and through their homes. You end up observing them as they go about their lives but never talking with them which is eerily like going to the zoo and is a very uncomfortable feeling. True homestays are about comfortably sharing your home culture in return for learning about their lifestyle.
Getting the Most From Your Homestay
Your host family has opened their home and their lives to a perfect stranger from a completely different culture; make sure to show your appreciation!
Contribute and Share: You are now temporarily part of this family, so find a way to contribute to the household. You could help with cooking a meal or washing dishes. Also remember this is an exchange of culture so makes sure to share your stories and pictures from home, as well as ask questions about your hosts and their lives.
Language: There is no better way to learn a language than full immersion. Encourage your hosts to help you and teach them a bit of your language too. If you haven’t learned enough to speak fluently, learn some key phrases and take a dictionary with you. Every attempt you make to learn will be appreciated!
Gratitude: Even though you are now a part of the host family, you are also still a guest in their home and their country. Be considerate of any customs or dress codes and ask any questions that might be sensitive (for example, religion and politics) in a respectful manner. You could also bring a small gift that represents your hometown as a token of appreciation.
Getting to know a country, a culture and a family at a deeper level personalizes and breaks down the broad stereotypes that fast travel can create.
With the right program and attitude your homestay can become the most memorable part of your journey and with the right conversations your temporary family could become a lifelong friendship.