Your mother’s missive to “Be polite!” might suffice to help you get by as a tolerable guest. But if you really want to shine as an exceptional and always-welcome guest, you may want to add a trick or two to your traveling bag.
Blast from the past is a weekly feature at Lifehacker in which we revive old, but still relevant, posts for your reading and hacking pleasure. This week, we’re preparing you for your spring and summer travels with friends.
We’ve looked at how to be the perfect host in the 21st century, and now we’re back with a companion guide to help you hone your skills as an honored guest. Like the hosting guide, we consider this a “best practice” compilation of tips and tricks. It’s by no means the only way, and for many relationships it may be overly formal at times. You should adjust the tips according to your relationship with your host, your personal financial situation, and other factors which play into the visit.
On the surface, the principal responsibility of a guest might be to enjoy themselves above all else. The real responsibility of the guest, when staying with people not in the business of running a bed and breakfast, is not to burden the host. Whether you’re being hosted by your brother, distant relative, or the friend of a friend, your goal in playing the role of guest should be to ensure the host would invite you to return again and again.
Above All, Communicate
The worst guests, short of those that smash the fine china and abscond with your teenage daughter, are by far the poor communicators. There is no surer way to a horrible visit for your host and for yourself than failure to communicate. You are a guest in someone’s home, and even if you are the most welcome of guests, you’re still a disruption to their normal schedules and routines. Good communication can minimize the disruption and smooth over any tension, however small, before it even arises.
Keep your host current on your schedule and inquire about theirs. As soon as you know information about your projected schedule, you should share it with your host. Whether you bought theater tickets months in advance of your trip to visit a friend in Chicago or you bought them two days after arriving, keep your host posted on when you will and will not be present. This helps your host plan for meals, arrange their personal business, and schedule time to spend with you.
If you’re going to be staying for an extended period of time and doing some heavy traveling and sightseeing in the process, consider using a service like TripIt to keep tabs on delayed flights and other travel inconveniences.
You’ll also want to ask your host about her schedule. Knowing the host’s schedule goes a long way towards being a better guest. If you know they have to be up to work very early in the morning, you’ll know you likely won’t be able to plan late night activities with them and you should return from your own late night activities as quietly as possible.
You might be expecting to spend the whole week catching up with them but they might be swamped with work-related emergencies. Alternately, they might have thought you were going to spend the whole week like old college chums and you were planning on spending the week in a whirlwind of sightseeing. Clearing these things up before the visit is best but at the minimum you should get a good idea of what your visit will look like shortly after arriving.
Share any allergies, dietary needs, or personal quirks well in advance. If you’re deathly allergic to any foods—peanuts, shellfish, etc.—tell your host long before you arrive. Dietary needs can be a tricky area to navigate. It’s up to you to judge how much of an inconvenience it would be for your host to follow your dietary guidelines (if you have any). Asking a friend to make sure there is always a vegetarian-friendly dish at every meal isn’t much of a hassle. Asking someone to make all their meals adhere to your strict interpretation of vegan dietary rules is more difficult.
Inquire about household practices. Your goal is to cause as little disruption as possible. Ask your host about things like when they usually go to bed, when the children go to bed—woe and misery upon the head of the house guest that wakes a cranky baby—and other household routines. If you’re an extremely early riser or a night owl you need to have a plan for how you can best enjoy your daily routine without imposing upon the good sleep and patience of your host.
Good communication is a great way to increase the happiness of the host and guest. Bad communication is an extremely quick way to sour a visit.
Be Prepared for Your Visit
An unprepared house guest is a terrible burden. If your host is a master of 21st century hosting, they’ve already anticipated that you might arrive wide-eyed and without a toothbrush. But it’s rude to expect your host to do all the work in planning entertainment for you, ensuring you have toiletries, and such.
Hone your packing skills. Use the Universal Packing List or create your own reusable packing list to ensure your bag is well stocked with everything you need. While you’re at it, check out how to roll your clothes to prevent wrinkles and pack like a pro using the bundle wrapping method.
Plan a rough itinerary. Your host might have an absolutely amazing tour of their city lined up for you or they might be the kind of hosts that just wing it when people show up. Don’t rely on your host to have a good idea of what is going on in their city. It’s extremely easy to get head-down and focus on work and day-to-day living and lose site of the cool things going on in your home town.
Nearly all the resources we suggested in our hosting guide work just as well for guests doing a little preemptive planning. Local search sites like Yelp are obvious, but there are a lot of tools that can help you find nearby stuff. A guest who not only takes their host out to dinner but introduces them to a new and delicious restaurant that was right under their nose is a guest to remember.
Not only does taking a few minutes to skim over listings for local sites and entertainment give you something interesting and local to talk about with your host—it also takes pressure off them. Now if your host has to run into the office to deal with an emergency or has a family event they need to attend, you can bust out your planning packet and be merrily on your way.
Plan for your own transportation. How are you going to get around? Does the city you’re visiting have an extensive subway or bus system? Does your host have a spare car for you to use? If you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling in and out of the locale to see the local sights, you may need to rent a car or at the minimum refuel the host’s loaner car. If you need to rent a car be sure to check out the alternatives first.
You’re Not Staying at a Hotel
Part of the luxury of staying at a hotel is that you’re paying to be waited on. The staff of the hotel exists to take care of you, answer all your questions, make your bed, shuttle your belongs to and fro, and win your customer loyalty. Things are a bit of an inverse when it comes to being a guest outside of the formal hospitality industry. When you’re staying with a friend, a relative, or a friend of a friend of a friend you’re the one competing for loyalty. You want to be such a good guest that you’re always welcome to return. A hotel might take a bad guest back but your previously gracious host can always be able to find a good reason to not host you in the future.
The last leg of stellar-guest training is very similar to the primary rule of outdoor sports. Never leave a site worse than you found it.
Clean up after yourself. Every morning make the guest bed or, if the guest bed is a big obtrusive air mattress in the middle of their living room, put the guest bed and bedding away. Always rinse and wash your dishes or load them in the dishwasher. Don’t leave your toiletries sprawled across the counter of the bathroom. Be preemptive in helping your host. Take the trash out when it is getting full, wipe down the counters after helping clean away the post-dinner mess.
When it’s time for you to leave, strip the bed, gather up your dirty towels, and if putting them directly in the washer isn’t an option at least neatly roll the whole thing up in the top sheet and put it out of the way in a laundry basket or in the laundry room. If there is a linen closet or fresh linens in the guest room put fresh sheets on the bed.
Cleaning up after yourself extends to all areas of your host’s home and includes clutter, like laptops and charging cables. Stow all your stuff away when you aren’t using it unless your host has specifically given you the go ahead to turn the coffee table into a command center.
Ease the financial burden of hosting. Unless you’re staying with your millionaire Uncle Ted who would be deeply offended by you offering some of your meager college intern pay to diffuse the cost of your visit, you should make some effort to do so. Hosting guests often includes buying extra food you wouldn’t normally buy, visiting tourist destinations you usually wouldn’t visit, and other expenses. While most hosts are happy to incur these expenses to spend time with you, that doesn’t negate the cost of having a guest.
It’s good form to make an effort to repay your hosts in some fashion. If you’re going to be staying more than a few days, consider offering to take your host shopping to restock on groceries. Whether you ate all the fresh fruit or drank an entire standard of their favorite vodka, the thoughtful thing to do is to replace whatever it is you consumed. If you’re sure your host would decline any offer of grocery purchases or money towards groceries, you have two stealthier options. You can send money ahead before you arrive and insist in your letter that the money be used to cover the expense of hosting you or you can leave money with a thank you note on the guest room dresser or on the kitchen counter. Use your own intuition on a visit by visit basis to feel out what the best course of action is.
Reward you host with a present or night out. If you’re sure your host would be absolutely opposed to accepting any money for hosting you, your best bet is a nice hosting gift and/or a nice dinner. A great way to put it in perspective is to think about how much money you’d have spent on hotel expenses and take a fraction of that money and put it towards a gift for your host or a nice night on the town.
A week long stay in a NYC hotel worth its salt could easily cost you over a thousand dollars. If a Big Apple friend has put you up for an equal amount of time it’s hardly unreasonable to give a small gift or take them out to dinner. For extra bonus points, pay attention to what your host needs around the house. I once had a host take me out to dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant and comment on how much they liked the flavor of fresh squeezed limes on the various dishes. I picked up a $ 12 lime squeezer at a culinary store before the end of my visit and gave it to them as a parting gift. The gift wasn’t expensive but it was extremely well received.
Send a thank you note when you get back home. When you get home, send a note thanking the host for their hospitality. Make it a point to highlight one or two things that really stood out about their hosting—the thoughtfulness of getting your favorite breakfast treats, making sure you had tickets to your favorite Broadway show, etc.—and if possible include some photo mementos like the two of you enjoying city life or snapshots you took on your daily adventures while your host was at work.
Not every situation is formal enough to merit pulling out all the super-guest stops, and you’ll vary your routine based on whether you’re staying with family, your best friend, or the friend of a friend of a friend who owes your barber a favor. Nonetheless, adopting even a portion of the above tips and tricks will make you a dream guest.
Now that you’ve read over our guide to stellar-guesthood, sound off in the comments with your own opinions and best-guest practices—and share your horror stories!