Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/1/2007 4:10:46 PM ET 2007-06-01T20:10:46

In an effort to distract me from a broken heart one summer, some friends invited me to spend the weekend at their home in the country.

I arrived late, weepy and empty-handed, toting my laundry. I behaved badly: During the next few days I picked at elaborate home-cooked meals. I overfed the washing machine and hid the sudsy overflow in a hamper. I’m pretty sure I polished off a bottle of bourbon being saved for a special occasion. And I may have inadvertently started a small house fire.

My heart and that friendship have healed nicely, thank you. I’m now a much better — and much safer — houseguest. And I’ve learned the difference between being a pitiful houseguest, a good houseguest and the sort of houseguest who gets invited back again and again.

Which would you rather be?

How to be a good houseguest
The basic “secrets” to being a good houseguest may seem sort of obvious:

  • Don’t show up unannounced.
  • Don’t overstay your welcome.
  • Pick up after yourself.
  • Don’t set the place on fire. 

Agree? So let’s move on.

How to be a great houseguest
Anyone can be a good houseguest. I’m sure you want to be a great one. The difference between the two is easy to finesse.

I know. This is supposed to be an advice column about staying at someone’s house. But the first question your well-mannered host will ask (not out loud, at least not right away, of course) is, “When are you leaving?”  So be clear about when you plan to arrive and when you’re scheduled to push off.

Don’t overstay your welcome (see “Basics” above). A gracious host may say, “I wish you could stay longer,” but they really don’t mean it. Ben Franklin may have had it right when he wrote that “Fish and visitors smell in three days.” Or maybe he just needed a better freezer and a bigger hot water heater.

What to bring
Even if you’re just crashing on someone’s floor for the night and will be gone before the household begins to stir the next morning, bring a gift of some sort. Classic “thanks for having me” gifts include a bottle of wine or a six-pack of specialty beers (if your hosts aren’t teetotalers), fancy cookies, chocolates or pastries (if your hosts aren’t dieting), fresh flowers (if your hosts don’t have allergies) or, to play it really safe, a photo book or something characteristic of your home town. You can especially endear yourself to your hosts, their kids and even their pets by bringing a little something special for everyone.

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What else should you bring? A complete set of your own toiletries (it’s someone’s house, not a hotel), any foods you especially want or need to eat and a willingness to live by your host’s house rules.

House rules
It’s a good idea to call ahead to ask about the house rules regarding such things as smoking or drinking, but pay close attention once you’ve arrived. Is there a pile of shoes by the front door? Then take off those stinky loafers and put on your good, clean socks (the ones with no holes in them) as soon as possible. Is the toilet seat down? Then make sure you leave it that way when you’re done. Does your host say grace before eating and rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher? Then follow suit. And don’t go mixing paper and cans in with the garbage if there are recycling containers scattered about. In cities such as Portland and Seattle, this is worse than setting the house on fire.

Avoid rush hour
You may be on vacation, but your hosts probably aren’t. If they have to get up early to get to work or school don’t keep them up late yakking about old times or insist they go out clubbing with you on a Tuesday night. In the morning, steer clear of the bathroom and the coffee pot during the crucial morning rush hour.

Tread lightly and leave no traces
Staying at someone’s house isn’t exactly like camping in the woods, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt a “pack it in, pack it out” attitude.  Make your bed, fold up the futon, wash your dishes, stow your stuff, zip up your toiletries and, when it’s time to leave, strip the bed and offer to start the washing machine. And, says frequent host Helen Barrington, “If you're furry, wipe around the bathroom after bathing, grooming or shaving. And find out if your host has ‘scent’ issues or allergies before using perfumes and other products you've brought with you.”

Make it a vacation for everyone
Even if you’re neat and helpful and stay out of the way, your host may begin to resent you because you’re away from home and they’re not. So try to turn your visit into a special occasion for your hosts. Take them out for a nice dinner, cook a special meal (and clean up afterward) or pick up the tab for an adventure in town. And when you’re out and about on your own, bring “home” a souvenir of your day to share.

Get invited back
That show business saying, “always leave them wanting more” applies here as well:

Leave behind a thank-you note and a small thank-you gift or make sure you absolutely remember to mail those items as soon as you get home, perhaps with a photo or something fun that you found related to your visit.

And if you’ve damaged or broken anything during your stay, polished off a special bottle of bourbon or been in close proximity during that small house fire, do what you can to make proper reparations. Pay to repair the broken item or buy a new one. Replace the empty bottle with a full one. Maybe a bigger version of the one you emptied.

And if that small house fire had anything at all to do with you, have a fire extinguisher gift-wrapped and delivered as soon as possible. And be sure to renew your own fire insurance when you get home.

Next week: how to be a well-mannered host, so please send along your tips.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and MSN Travel, and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”


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