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updated 12/14/2005 4:31:24 PM ET 2005-12-14T21:31:24

It's a few days before Christmas and there are five people who won't be opening any presents unless you get a few hours to yourself to shop. On top of that, you're expecting 20 guests on Christmas Eve for dinner and the only thing in the refrigerator is a stick of butter and dated milk. And the tree still isn't up. Just as you formulate a plan of attack that involves nonstop shopping, cooking and tree trimming for the next 72 hours, the doorbell rings. It's your cousin Sally, her husband, their three kids, their dog Spot and several suitcases. You stare at them, baffled. They aren't supposed to be here until Christmas Eve, you think. What are they doing here?

Turns out they're in town a few days early and thought it would be nice to surprise you. Sound familiar? Most of us have found ourselves in a similar situation. But ask yourself an honest question -- are you the stressed-out host this holiday season? Or are you ... Sally?

Many of us will visit friends and family in the next few weeks. With that in mind, we asked the Emily Post Institute (the authority on manners and social graces) to help us help you be a good houseguest this holiday season. The first rule: Never, ever show up uninvited. Here are nine more:

Bring, Buy or Send a Gift
It is always a good idea to present your hosts with a token of gratitude for letting you stay with them. Dawn Stanyon from the Emily Post Institute says, "A bottle of wine, a new best-seller or a dozen golf balls are all appropriate gifts for an overnight stay. You can take a gift with you and present it as soon as you arrive, or buy one during your stay. A third option is to send a gift as soon as possible after you leave."

Phone Ahead and Ask About the Ground Rules
This is particularly important in terms of what some consider "vices" -- like drinking and smoking. Your host may not allow smoking in the house, so be prepared to stand outside to have a cigarette. If you typically have wine with dinner each night, be prepared to forgo this ritual if your host doesn't drink.

Lend a Helping Hand
Ask your host or hostess what needs to be done and be prepared to help out. Even if you are not familiar with the home's layout, you can always help out by doing simple tasks like washing dishes, making a run to the grocery store or even shoveling the walkway.

Don't Add to the Chaos
Many guests will find that their hosts insist they not lift a finger during their stay. If you have tried to extend yourself with no luck, it could just be that your hosts feel more comfortable doing it all themselves. If this is the case, the least you can do is clean up after yourself -- make your bed each morning, don't leave your towels on the bathroom floor, place any dishes you use in the dishwasher -- just taking care of yourself will go a long way towards ensuring an invitation back.

Don't Expect to Be Entertained
You don't want your hosts to feel like tour guides all weekend, but you also don't want to appear as if you are using their home as a crash pad for your sightseeing trip. To strike a balance, Ms. Stanyon suggests that guests follow the host's lead. "For example, if a visit starts on a Thursday night, the host might say, 'Dan and I need to work on Friday. Let's have dinner together that night and then we'll go to the car show on Saturday.' Guests should be adaptable." If the host plans a visit to the local craft show and craft shows aren't 'your thing,' be enthusiastic nonetheless. And don't make other plans without letting your host know."

BYO (Bring Your Own)
This is particularly important if you're traveling with an entourage. It's not polite to arrive at your host's home and clean them out of staple items like shampoo and toothpaste. The BYO rule also applies to food when you or a family member has an allergy, is a vegetarian or is particularly picky. If this is the case, offer to bring or prepare a dish.

What About Spot?
Of course you don't want to leave your pet behind, but often it is a necessity. Ms. Stanyon says, "Don't ask to bring your pet unless the host is a very close friend and you have reason to believe he or she might be receptive or feel able to say no. If your pet is a chewer or jumper, or has continence problems, arrange for it to be cared for while you are away."

Don't Be a Freeloader
This applies especially to extended visits. If you'll be spending several days with your hosts, treat them to dinner out or offer to cook a meal for everyone. Use your cell phone or a calling card to make long-distance phone calls. Do not monopolize their computer for work or to check e-mail.

Don't Wear Out Your Welcome
You know the old joke about houseguests and fish stinking after three days. Be thoughtful when you're planning your trip and also be clear about your arrival and departure dates and times. Nothing is more stressful to a host than not knowing when a houseguest plans on leaving.

For more holiday etiquette tips, visit The Emily Post Institute Web site.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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