In recent years social travel networks have become increasingly popular, largely thanks to a rising interest in experiential and responsible tourism. Travellers are looking for new ways to engage with local communities and delve into the heart of a country’s culture.
One of the best ways to gain a genuine insight into your destination is to opt for a homestay. Offering something a night in a hotel can never provide, they give you a real experience of local life, connect you with like-minded people and can provide a vital source of revenue in struggling economies.
Here are just a few reasons to consider a homestay next time you travel:
Homestays provide the chance to get to know a destination you probably wouldn't have explored otherwise. Not only could you find a neighbourhood, town, or village yet to feature on the tourist map, but you'll learn about local customs and traditions, from eating habits to family routines.
Sprawling metropolises such as Paris, New York, Rome and London might count among the world's greatest cities – but they're hard to get to grips with in a weekend. Stay with a resident, and you'll have the ultimate insider to guide you.
Hosts will give you the scoop on the hidden highlights and unusual attractions. They might tip you off on the best place to watch the sunrise, share their favourite cosy café, or help you find the city's coolest bar scene.
Many hosts will rustle up a traditional meal, or include breakfast in the price of the room. Take this opportunity to sample authentic dishes – a homemade miso soup in Japan or fresh arancini in Italy could give any restaurant a run for its money.
If you want to put your own culinary skills to the test, offer to help out and you'll likely head home with a new recipe or two up your sleeve. You could even cook a traditional dish from your own country to share with your host, making the experience one of genuine cultural exchange.
Hanging out with a resident means ample chance to practise your language skills. Many hosts inevitably speak English, but will happily support you as you learn. This is a great chance for you to gain a better understanding of the local language, and pick up some new phrases.
Take advantage and ask your host to translate some key sentences that you’ll need as you explore the area. Even if you make a few mistakes, trying to communicate will help you create a bond with your host and the people you meet on your trip.
While hotels try to distance themselves from the one-size-fits-all image and sell themselves as being “a home away from home”, they never really are. Especially in larger hotels, rooms can feel anonymous and have little personality.
Homestays, on the other hand, may be less polished but are much more welcoming. You're often encouraged to feel at home – even part of the family. If you’re travelling solo, you’ll find you have someone to share your experiences with, and people who want to hear all about your day.
Around 1.2 billion tourists travelled the world last year – but the money they spend frequently doesn’t filter down into the local economy. With a homestay, you know a significant proportion of your accommodation costs are benefiting an individual or community, rather than a multinational chain.
In Cuba, for example, homestays – known as casas particulares – are almost the only alternative to state-run or international-owned hotels. Many families rent out a couple of rooms, so you might even have the chance to meet other travellers along the way.
How were you to know that pointing the soles of your feet towards someone is considered rude in Thailand? Or that you're obliged to stay for three drinks when someone invites you to a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia?
Fortunately, staying with a local can help you avoid any faux pas. Your host family are the ideal source of information when it comes to getting a deeper insight into a new culture. Don’t be shy and fire away plenty of questions. This is your chance to familiarise yourself with local customs and learn the rules for what is considered polite and what isn’t.
Homestays will give you better value for money than most hotels, making that once-in-a-lifetime trip all the more affordable.
Unlike in a hostel dorm, you’ll have your own space, but still be left with some spare cash to spend on things such as food and drink. Who says no to a few more beers?
The very nature of homestays means that you've already got some common ground with your host: they also love meeting new people. Stay with a local and you'll have the chance to come home with a new friendship – and a good excuse to return.
This feature was sponsored by Homestay.com; all content is editorially independent.
Top image © July Prokopiv/Shutterstock