Imagine waking up to the sound of a rooster on a farm in New Zealand, or sitting around a kitchen table with an Italian family to enjoy a homemade Tuscan meal. Sound appealing? If you're sick of sterile hotel rooms and you'd like to get a closer look at the local culture on your next trip, you may want to consider a homestay or farmstay.
Staying on a working farm or in the home of a local family can offer an intimate glimpse of what life is truly like in another country. It can also be an inexpensive (or even free) way to travel. But homestays and farmstays aren't for everyone — so it's important to know what to expect before you show up at a stranger's front door. Read on for tips, Web resources and more information to help you plan your own homestay or farmstay.
What's a homestay?
A typical homestay involves living with a local family (often for a nominal nightly or weekly fee) and experiencing its customs, cuisine and way of life firsthand. Homestays are most common among young people studying or working abroad, but they're open to any type of traveler.
Homestays vary widely — in some cases you'll be very involved in the life of your host family, sharing meals and attending family events, while in other cases you may simply get your own room and be left to come and go as you please. When planning your homestay, find out how much (or how little) interaction you'll have with your host family ahead of time to make sure you know what to expect.
What's a farmstay?
Also known as agritourism or agriturismo, farmstays can encompass a range of accommodations from rural bed and breakfasts to working ranches and cattle farms. Some farmstays are quite luxurious, with spacious rooms and homemade breakfasts each morning; in this sort of accommodation, your closest contact with the farm itself may be a leisurely stroll across a rolling pasture. Other farmstays offer more hands-on activities, which could include learning about the workings of a vineyard or even pitching in to help with milking cows and feeding livestock.
Farmstays are most popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If you're looking to interact with locals in the country you're visiting, a homestay or farmstay offers an unbeatable opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. While living with a family for a few nights or a few weeks, you can practice a new language, learn to cook traditional dishes, get the inside scoop on local politics or see a neighborhood through the eyes of someone who lives there.
Many people who have done homestays also find that by the time they leave, they feel less like a guest and more like a member of the family. Don't be surprised if you find yourself keeping in touch with your hosts long after you head back home.
For travelers on a budget, homestays and farmstays can be a real bargain over hotels and other types of accommodation, particularly for long-term travel. Many hosts choose to have guests in their home not only to supplement their income but also because they simply enjoy meeting travelers from around the world; profit is often not their primary motive (and some hosts make no profit at all).
Also, at a homestay or farmstay there's no built-in cost for extras such as swimming pools, gyms, business centers and other common hotel amenities. Many homestays cost as little as $10 to $15 a night per person — and if you join a homestay membership club or hospitality exchange, you could even stay for free.
Homestays and farmstays aren't right for everyone. If you appreciate the privacy, personal space and anonymity of a hotel, you may feel claustrophobic in a small home where you have to share a bathroom with five or six other people.
When you choose a homestay, you are choosing to be a guest in someone's home and to abide by a set of house rules that may not match your own. That might mean limiting your showers to under 10 minutes, helping with cleaning or cooking, sharing the television or computer, or keeping quiet after certain hours. Be prepared for less personal space and less freedom than you're used to at home.
Also, keep in mind that many homestays may be subject to length-of-stay restrictions. For example, International Homestay Agencies has a two-week minimum for all homestays.
Finally, be aware that living in close quarters with others may occasionally lead to personality conflicts, particularly during longer homestays or farmstays. Discovering that you don't get along with one of your hosts when you still have a two-month homestay ahead of you can be a traveler's worst nightmare. Many homestay agencies will help you change accommodations in the case of a major mismatch — but ask ahead of time to be sure.
Homestay and farmstay tips
Before you arrive for your stay, send a letter or e-mail to your hosts and introduce yourself. Tell them a bit about who you are and where you're from. If you have any food allergies or other special needs, make sure to mention those as well. Establishing a relationship with your hosts before your stay will help ease the transition once you arrive.
If you don't speak the language of the country you're visiting, try to learn a few key phrases before you arrive — it will help you communicate better with your hosts, and they'll appreciate your effort to reach out to them.
Bring a thank-you gift for your hosts. Ideas to consider include food items, postcards or souvenirs from your home town. Keep in mind that wine and other alcoholic beverages may not be appropriate gifts in certain cultures.
As soon as you arrive (or better yet, beforehand), discuss any ground rules for television or radio use, curfews, meals and other aspects of your stay. Do quiet hours apply at a certain time of night once family members have gone to bed? Will you be responsible for cooking your own meals or will you be eating some meals with your hosts? What chores, if any, will you be expected to help with?
Don't make calls from the house phone without permission — especially international calls. Instead, get an international cell phone or bring a calling card.
Use your hosts' resources sparingly. Water and electricity are in short supply in many parts of the world.
Attune yourself to the local customs and try to fit in as best you can. Some adjustments may be simple, like remembering to take off your shoes as soon as you enter the house. But other cultural differences may be more difficult to adapt to, such as gender roles that are less egalitarian than you're used to at home. Use your homestay as an opportunity to learn more about local practices and perhaps discuss them (in a respectful way) with your hosts. For more help, see Independent Traveler's tips for dealing with culture shock.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Going out for the day? Tell your hosts about your plans so they know whether to save a place for you at dinner. Confused about one of the house rules? Ask for clarification. Keeping the lines of communication open will make for a smoother, happier stay.
Take advantage of your host family's local knowledge. Go beyond your guidebook and ask them for recommendations about what to see in the area. If you're lucky, they may even give you a personal tour.
At the end of your stay, consider leaving your host family a memento — perhaps a photo of yourself with them. And be sure to write a thank-you letter or e-mail after you return home.
Arranging a homestay or farmstay
While there are a few worldwide databases of homestays and farmstays (see box), often your best bet is to do an Internet search for stays in your destination. Many homestay and farmstay resources are specific to a particular country or region.
Another good bet is to visit the Web site of the local tourist board. Typically these sites have a database of accommodations that include homestays and farmstays. If you don't see the type of listings you're looking for, give the tourist board a call and ask if they're familiar with any homestay or farmstay resources in the area.
Before booking any homestay or farmstay, ask for references from travelers who have stayed there before. Be sure you understand exactly what type of stay you're signing up for — if things like hot showers or Internet access are important to you, ask whether they'll be available. Read any contracts carefully before signing and check to see what recourse you have if you need to find a new host due to personality conflict or other issues.