Tips for staying with a host family

When I was going through my life list goals I noticed that I have never actually written about what it is like to stay with a host family abroad. I know when I get on the IVHQ forums one of the biggest concerns I read about is “What is it really like to stay with a host family?” I remember when I first set off to go to Guatemala the thought terrified me. I had so many concerns because staying with someone you do not know can be terrifying your first time believe me. Some of the questions I asked were…

Would I like them?
What if I don’t like the food?
What if I feel unsafe?
How the hell am I going to communicate with a language barrier?

Looking back I laugh at my concerns because I realize my concerns were seriously unfounded and when I volunteer abroad again I will always choose a host family.

If you are offered the option of a host family stay on a volunteer trip or vacation you should strongly consider if for many reasons.

1. It is immersion into a language and culture. One of the main reasons I still consider Guatemala my favorite country still to this day is because of my host family. I did not speak nearly as much Spanish as I do now but I was able to practice daily and I really did get to know the culture of a Guatemalan family. It was a beautiful thing and I can assure you that while traveling to a country may give you insight into a local culture, living with a local family will put you in the middle of it.

2. I was forced to try local food. Now it is absolutely no secret how I am not a foodie, when I travel I do not think about food. In fact, I am one of the most frustrating people to travel with because I am too busy trying to see every single sight I do not even think about food and simply will not eat. I will literally grab a bagel and hit the ground running and not stop. Seriously I am one of the lucky ones that will lose weight on a vacation. Anyway, I digress. Food in a foreign country is actually one of the most terrifying things to me, (TMI GROSS FACTOR COMING, I have gotten worms before, ewww I know but if you are not careful IT CAN and WILL happen) so believe me I get the concerns. I have found though home stays will often offer the freshest and most local dishes. Sure you can go to a restaurant and eat local food but going to a Central American restaurant in the states is vastly different than eating Central American food with a Central American family. Seriously, it is significantly fresher and well more authentic.

3. There is an additional safety factor. I am not going to lie to you, Antigua is not a city you go out after dusk alone. You do not do it. One night however, I lost track of time and was going to walk almost a mile home in the dark but thanks to my home stay it did not happen. I told my house mom that I would be home by dark and one night I wasn’t because I lost track of time and went to salsa classes. When she called the studio and found out I was there she drove to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home at night. Now I am not saying this is something that will happen with your home stay, but living with a local will often give you added security because they know the reality of their city. They are often very proud of their city, but they get that it may not be safe.

4. You get families from all over the world. I am friends with my house momma on facebook. We are SO lucky to live in the age of facebook. Anyone you meet in the world you can say hey add me on facebook and you are friends and you can keep up with them. With the exception of a few countries just about everyone has access to the internet in some way and you will find they love keeping up with you too. They still invite me to stay with them today.

So those are just a few of the benefits of choosing a home stay when you volunteer or travel. Now let me give you a few tips for staying with a local family.

1. Practice their language. Now this one was hard for me at first. I often found myself gravitating towards the person that spoke the most English and having them translate for me. This was the easy way out, but then I learned that if I wanted to learn Spanish I was going to have to get over my self esteem and make mistakes when speaking the language. I did this with some serious embarrassing results, one time, I was trying to communicate that a dog was 14 years old… well I messed up the Spanish words and said the dog had 14 anuses. Everyone and I do mean everyone laughed so hard at that. I was embarrassed at first but then my house momma corrected the Spanish words and I now know how to say years in Spanish properly. SO dive in speak the local language make mistakes, you will find that even after a week you will easily speak 20-30 more words than you did upon arrival.

2. Bring something from your home area. Often you will find that your family is not as well traveled as you and will be very curious about your life in the United States. It is often easy to forget that while you live in the USA and know what day to day life is like, your host family doesn’t, they only know what they see on the news. I am from Texas and I tend to bring Texas Pralines and every time I do they are a hit. Mostly because the candy is very different and they have not had it before. It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive. I think I spend like $5 and I am a hit. If you don’t bring a gift buying something in a local market is a great idea. I bought blackberries once, because they were considered expensive to my local family so they never bought them, but to me they were a steal.

3. KEEP YOUR SPACE CLEAN. I put this in caps because it is so important. Now I am messy as hell and if my mom reads this she is going to laugh because my space is often a disaster at home. However, while I may be messy she did raise me to have some damn manners and respect others. So all I am going to say is, keep you space clean. Just like you take pride in your home, they take pride in theirs. Keep your space clean.

4. Be honest about your food habits. I have found that home stays are often SHOCKED at how little I eat and often if I don’t eat a lot they feel I don’t like the food and want to change my meals. Which is why I say be 100% honest about the food, if you can’t eat something let them know. Food is expensive in countries and it is more important to not waste it. Also be clear if you don’t eat a lot. I am someone that will eat more frequently throughout the day and it may take a few days but I have found that being clear about what I do like is better up front than wasting food. However, that being said it is important to understand you will likely not eat like you do at home. I have found that me just saying I really don’t eat a lot, so smaller portions with more carb heavy meals… ie rice and fruit works wonders and once that happens food is never wasted and they know I am happy.

5. Get to know your host family and do NOT lose touch. I can’t stress this enough ask questions in their language no matter how broken, find out their favorite color, what is their favorite holiday? Ask questions, communicate. When it is time to leave exchange emails or become facebook friends. I can’t stress this last tip enough. You will enjoy your stay in whatever country so much more if you get to know your family. They will be able to offer insight into the local area and even their favorite restaurants if you just communicate with them. Plus you will have a new family that you can talk about for years to come. Seriously I still talk about my home stays they had that big of an impact on me. Take pictures because if you don’t you might regret it.

Well that is all I have for tips on staying in a home stay. I hope if you are on the fence on whether to stay with a family or not this helps you decide to do it. I will never choose a hotel or any other option if I have the opportunity to stay with a house family.


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