As a part of our in-country Peace Corps Volunteer training, my husband and I lived for two weeks with a spicy older lady and her daughter upon arrival in Jamaica, and then we each stayed for about five weeks with a different set of Jamaican host parents during our job-specific training. As digital nomads, we’ve enjoyed the guest bedrooms of numerous friends, family, and friends of friends who have hosted us domestically and abroad. Although we enjoy our privacy, we seek out homestay opportunities when we visit a new place. Most recently, in Ecuador, we did a homestay as part of our Spanish language program.
The Bad and the Ugly about Homestays
Let’s start with the tough stuff, because once you have a realistic idea of what you’re getting into, you can be better prepared to make the most of it. Next, we’ll talk about why these challenges are worth working through.
1. Awkward and Uncomfortable Moments
If you’re about to stay in a stranger’s home – especially if they hail from a different culture – then this is probably your greatest concern. Awkward moments and misunderstandings are almost inevitable when you’re in tight quarters with new acquaintances who may not speak your language.
I once stayed with a host family in a tiny, coffee-growing, mountain village of Nicaragua. I was accompanying twenty college students on a summer service-learning immersion and my host parents for those two nights happened to be a few years younger than I was. When they boarded up their teeny-tiny tin shed home for the night; I slept on a cot under a mosquito net (thank God for that thing!). Because of the heat in Nicaragua, I drank a lot of water the day before and woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible need to pee. Unfortunately, the outhouse was outside, and the inside of their home was completely pitch black. I fumbled around for the door, desperately but unsuccessfully trying not to wake anyone up. With no success, I returned to my cot for an hour or two, but the pressure on my bladder was unbearable! I tried to blindly seek out a door one last time, but of course, it was locked, and I was clueless as to how to unlock it. At the end of my desperation, I finally bit the bullet and sheepishly woke up my host mom to rescue me. Despite my anxiety, she was happy to help.
2. Lack of Privacy
Many cultures have a different take on personal privacy and sometimes, the set up in a home may not allow for the separation of space that we’re used to. I remember one host who had us stay in the guest bedroom also kept some of the clothes and things they need on a daily basis in that room. I was surprised to find them coming in and out of “our” room when they could have easily taken out whatever they needed before our arrival. But not everyone thinks that way, and it’s their prerogative to use the space however they like. As an introvert who likes to hole up in private to recharge, it took some adjustment and a reminder to myself that it was just temporary.
3. Personality Conflicts
Misunderstandings are common when crossing cultures and language barriers. Sometimes we don’t know when a behavior that seems normal to us can come across as disrespectful. If we’re not conscientious of these differences, people can take them personally and end up offended. But also, there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll get along with someone you don’t know. The best you can do is be as respectful as you know how, communicate expectations ahead of time to make sure you’re on the same page and address any issues immediately (and delicately). It helps when both parties have entered into the situation with the intent to learn from each other, which is usually the case when signing up for a homestay.
The Good about Homestays
Despite the challenges, which are real and sometimes intimidating. The truth is, a homestay is one of the most meaningful experiences you can get while traveling.
1. Stretch Yourself
None of us can grow without challenge. Stepping outside of our comfort zones is the ultimate way learn and develop as a human being. By living in an unfamiliar place with strangers, we get increasingly more comfortable and capable.
I credit my first set of home stays in the Dominican Republic with my ability to speak Spanish. I also tried a lot of strange foods for the first time and eventually grew to like many of them. I remember barely managing to swallow a boiled green banana for breakfast when I first arrived, and now it’s just like eating potatoes.
2. Invaluable Glimpse Into Culture
Doing life with a family is the best way to get up close and personal. They model the nuances of culture for you without thinking about it, so you get to go much deeper culturally than you otherwise would. You see their daily routine, what they do in their free time, how they interact with each other. Experiencing life outside of your own “bubble” can open your mind in a powerful way.
For two years in Peace Corps, we lived in an apartment below our Jamaican host parents. We can’t even count the amazing things we got to experience with them: weddings and funerals, hunting land crabs in the backyard, and watching Jamaica win races in the Olympics on TV. We learned so much from that family, and their positive attitudes have permanently rubbed off on us. To this day, we’ve adapted the things we’ve learned from them into our daily lives.
3. Personal Tour Guide and Advice
When staying with our friend’s family in Denmark, our knowledge of Copenhagen and Danish culture grew tremendously – from zero to sixty – in the span of a week. They explained how and why Danish people react to certain things; they shared traditional home-cooked Danish meals with us; they bought us amazing pastries to sample, and they told us exactly where to go when we had a day to walk around the city. Had we shown up to Copenhagen on our own, we would have either fumbled around or had to do a ton of research to match the depth of insight they were able to give us as locals.
4. Cost Savings
An added bonus of staying in a homestay is that it is almost always cheaper than renting a hotel. Depending on how you get connected to your host family, you may pay a hosting fee. If the homestay is not set up through a network or tour program, you may offer to help cover living expenses while you’re there. (In our case with the families we already know, we like to offer help with manual labor projects and cooking a meal or two in exchange for their hospitality.) Whatever the situation, even sharing costs for things like meals will be cheaper than what either party would pay separately. Plus, you can’t put a price tag on the value you get out of an authentic experience with locals.
5. Lifelong Memories
Sharing life under the same roof, even for just a couple nights, creates fast and strong bonds. It’s amazing how quickly you can build an emotional attachment with a host family, and how hard it becomes to say goodbye when it’s time to go. The homestay experience can deepen your experience of a place in a big way and help you build relationships that are unforgettable. In most cases, it’s completely worth overcoming any discomfort or awkwardness to have such a rare, authentic, and transformative experience.
If you’ve never done a homestay, hopefully knowing the pros and cons will help you prepare and show you how little you have to lose by giving it a try.
How to Find a Homestay
One easy way to stay with locals is through AirBnB (use our link to get $20 off when you sign up). Search for a “Private Room” in someone’s home (rather than “Entire Place”) to find listings where your hosts will help get you oriented and point you to their favorite local spots. Usually, the host’s description or the guest reviews will tip you off to how the host will interact with you- some are more hands-off while others will go so far as to personally guide you around town.
For a more tradition homestay experience, here are a few online resources and networks you can use:
For more stories about homestays, check out Dorene and Troy’s experience in Nicaragua, staying with a family and going to Spanish school.