How to be a good guest
Hospitality exchange works because people somehow know how to be a good guest.
You don't need to stay with someone to use hospitality networks! You can always email people just to offer a coffee or beer, or ask if they can show you around their hometown. It is very important to remember that the whole idea of hospitality exchange is new to many people. It is up to you to build up trust. Different people warm up to others at different rates. Please be respectful of this.
Tips from single networks "how to be a good guest"
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- If you haven't yet read how to write a couch request, please do so before you start search for a host or someone to meet.
- Hospitality exchange is not the same as a hotel. You should be looking for a host to stay with, and not just a couch to use. Hospitality exchange is also about the experience of meeting and spending time with people, so try to choose compatible hosts. Don't forget that while you are traveling, your hosts have their own work, school, and daily schedules to keep.
- "Spread the love around": Less days with more hosts is better than more days with less hosts. You get to meet more hosts, see more places, and don't become a burden or bore returning night after night to the same host. Try 'one night max per host' on your next trip and see if it makes your travel more lively.
- Appreciate the hospitality, time, and effort spent on your behalf.
- Communicate clearly. Be clear about the dates you are arriving and leaving. Use formats like "9 August", instead of "9/8" or "8/9". If possible, share chat accounts, personal e-mail addresses, Skype, additional phone numbers, as backups for the network message system. If you can, confirm your arrival the day before. Don't overstay; leave when you said you would.
- Plan to be self-sufficient for meals: either bring food with you (e.g. sandwich fixings, cereal for breakfast), or be prepared to eat out. Your hosts may invite you to share their meals, but are under no obligation to do so. (Hosts themselves may be on limited budgets, or have different dietary preferences.) If you're invited to join them for a meal, offer to help in some way: with the preparation, washing-up, or by buying some of the groceries for the meal.
- Be flexible. You may have to hang out for a few hours at a cafe until your host gets off work. Your host may not be able to give you a spare key, so you might have to be out of the house while they're at work or school. Arrange your schedule around theirs. Being flexible and having good communication with your host is critical for a positive experience.
- Gifts. The entire idea of hospitality exchange is that you can stay, for free, as a guest in a person's home. That being said, however, gifts from home are generally welcome and may even be culturally required. But try to do better than cheap, dollar-store souvenir trinkets. And be sensitive to individual and cultural differences: for example, some hosts don't drink (so don't bring them a bottle of wine); or certain flowers in some cultures are associated with mourning. Read your hosts' profiles to get a sense of what they may like; chocolates, fruit, pastries, or baked goods from a local bakery, are often good standbys. If you have the skill and time (and your hosts agree), you could even offer to cook a meal for them (see section below). MP3's shared, books left behind or lent, can cost you nothing to leave behind, but leave a nice lasting impression.
- Money. You should have funds to pay for travel-related expenses: budget for food, local transportation and other costs (museum entries, etc.). Hosts should not be expected to provide anything except a place to stay for the night. If your host provides you with meals, entertainment, or transportation, offer to compensate them: offer to buy groceries, pay for your share of the tickets, or re-imburse them for fuel costs. If your host will not accept payment, then a "thank you" in some other form - whether a gift, a cooked meal, a chore done (e.g. shovelling snow from the sidewalk) or shared skill (e.g. fixing their bicycle) - would be nice. Don't take advantage of the generosity of your hosts; don't be a freeloader.
- Local Information - Your host is a valuable source of information. You can find out how to get around (cheaply!), where the nightlife is, how to meet other local people, how to deal with the authorities, and what you should see in the area. Ask! However, be aware that your host is not a free tour guide or travel agent, and may be busy with work and other commitments, so don't bombard them with constant questions.
- That said, try to have some idea of what you want to do in the area if possible by checking out a guidebook or the city's tourism site before you arrive. While hosts usually have many ideas, you shouldn't expect them to provide you with an itinerary.
- If a host is unable to offer you a couch at the time that you need it, please acknowledge their response with a "thanks anyway..." or something along those lines. You never know... maybe they will host you in the future.
- If a host offers you a couch, and you choose not to accept it, you have to let them know. At least send a polite note saying "thanks, but I've found another place to stay...". You might like to add, "..maybe we can meet for coffee or a drink?" - but do so only if you genuinely have the time and desire to meet.
Along the way
- Don't pick the fruit. It may seem to grow wild to you but it may very well be the hard work of your host's neighboring farmers. One or two such incidents is all it might take to get guests banned from the whole area.
During your stay
- Appearances & Cleanliness: A whole division of the backpacker world seems to think looking dirty and being stinky is cool, but it does not make strangers want to share their living spaces with you. So shower: but also check with your host as to when it would be a good time to do so. Some hosts may live in areas with water-use restrictions; or have limited hot water; or have only one shared bathroom and several people who all need it at the same time in the morning.
- Toilets: Some sewage systems are not designed to take tampons; others may not take toilet paper (for example, you may be expected to clean yourself with water, or to put toilet paper in a special bin for other disposal). If in doubt, ask beforehand. (In some cultures, it may be polite to talk about such subjects only with a member of the same sex. Or not raise the topic at all. But it may be better to risk being rude, than to clog the only household toilet.)
- Keep your footprint small: Remember to be as tidy and use the least space possible - perhaps try to fit all your belongings in one square meter! Some couchsurfers suggest not leaving accessories in the bathroom. But, if you do so, keep them (makeup, shampoo, soaps) neatly bagged. This is especially important if your host's place is small (one-room 20 square meters flats are common in main European cities such as Paris or London)
- Adapt to your host's rhythm at home: Is the "couch" in a "high traffic" area for the household? If so, do people tend to stay up late, or wake up early? Be sensitive to your host's style, preferences, and schedule, and everyone will enjoy the experience. If you go to a party host, then sure, party on! (Only at their invitation, of course.) If you go to a family, take it easy.
- Schedules: Your hosts probably have fixed work or school schedules. Before or at the beginning of your stay, ask what schedule they keep. Allow time in your schedule to spend time with them. Even if you have a separate room, don't sleep all morning unless it is compatible with the household schedule. If you are badly jet-lagged, let your hosts know, and check if it's okay if you sleep in.
- Bringing guests back: It is never acceptable to bring back guests to the host's house without getting explicit permission first. You should not ask to bring back a guest that you have just met as the host may feel uneasy about having to refuse. Expecting to bring back a guest "to spend the night with you" is nearly always considered extremely inappropriate.
- Door keys: Hosts decide whether or not to lend a spare house key to their guests. Some do. Others prefer that guests be in the house only when someone else is at home. Yet others lend a house key, but request that guests be back by a certain hour (to avoid waking the household upon return). Respect your host's wishes. If he/she is gracious enough to lend you a spare door key, it is not a free ticket to stay out as long as you want, especially if you plan to go out at night without them. Check to see what would be a reasonable and convenient time for you to return. Call them if you are unexpectedly delayed.
- Door locks: Ask about the host's door-locking policy, and how the door lock works. You don't want to accidentally lock your host (or yourself) out of the apartment! (In some countries and communities, people don't lock the doors from inside, because it is not needed. In some rural areas, some houses might not even have doors.) Be sure to confirm with you host how you can leave early without him/her available to unlock an exit door!
- Cooking: If you have the skill and inclination, and the host would like enjoy it, offer to cook for your host. Making dinner is usually appreciated, but hard to pull off if you are only stopping for a night. If you are staying for a few nights, those later in your vist may be better ones for you to cook: by then, you'll have a chance to check if your host has the necessary spices, condiments and other ingredients; and if not, for you to buy them. Your hosts will also know at least a bit about you, and be comfortable with you in their space (since some people are very particular and picky in their own kitchens).
- Helping out: When you eat together, offer to wash dishes. Nothing is better for a couch surfer than doing the dishes. This is especially appreciated when you are staying at a shared house and you only know one of the renters, or if you have been hooked up with this couch by a 3rd party. Everyone likes to have a clean kitchen, even if they are too lazy to deal with it. And cleaning the kitchen is usually "safe": people are unlikely to be offended by your help there, and you can usually figure out where things go.
- If borrowing something from your host (with permission beforehand, of course), try to return it in better condition than you found it: e.g. re-fill the fuel tank of a motorbike, oil the chain and pump up the tire of a bicycle. At least return what you've used clean and in good condition.
- PC and Telephone: Don't use your host's computer or telephone unless he/she gives you explicit permission. Offer to pay for all phone calls. Don't download any programmes onto their computer. Check to see if they prefer the computer logged off, shut-down, or left on when you finish using it.
- Electrics: Check your host's preferences about having things like lights, fans, and air-conditioning left on or off.
- Leave the house: It is expected that you are traveling to see the area you are visiting. Do venture outside, and be prepared for temperature extremes of the region you are in. Have an idea of what you can do in the area and don't expect to be in your host's home for most of the day or every day.
- Staying on longer: You should always ask permission, as far in advance as possible, if you want to stay on longer than initially agreed and not just assume it will be okay. If no agreement is made initially, try to let the host know as soon as possible when you are intending to leave and check that it is okay. Do not outstay your welcome, be conscious of signals that you may be staying too long even if your host doesn't explicitly say so. Never question or try to overturn a request by your host that you need to leave or that they can't host you for any longer.
- Clean up after yourself: If you bought food please take it with you when leaving, unless your hosts would like it.
- Say "thank you" when you're with your host, but also after you leave.
- Hospitality exchange works works because people can trust others. That's why it's important to leave comments (=references in CS talk :). If you have a bad experience, this is even more important, though might be more difficult. Just remember that other CouchSurfers depend on you leaving comments.
- Say "thank you". Either the old fashioned way, with a card, postcard, or letter from a later destination, or from back home. Or, if you're not into sending "snail mail" anymore, at least e-mail a "thank you" note.
Violating customs can cause offense. Read ahead of time and find what is appropriate, and what are considered "local sensitivities". Ask your host what is expected, or assume the most conservative scenario. Be well-informed in advance, so that you do not inadvertently find yourself embarrassed. For instance:
- Remove your shoes outside the door in Japan, and you eat with your right hand only in some parts of the Middle East.
- Avoid conversation topics that are taboo or poor taste to discuss. These subjects are things like: (homo) sexuality, religion, politics, war, genocide, minorities. These are probably not the best topics to discuss in casual or public environments. Save these conversations for your close friends, and not for people you have just met. This is a good social relation tip in general, actually.
- Hindus don't eat beef, as cows are considered sacred. Muslims generally do not eat pig related food products (as do some Jews).
- Sometimes, romantic couples may need to sleep separately.