How to be a good houseguest

Yes, you can visit your friends. No, you cannot take over their lives.

(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

With summer vacations looming and the economy still as sluggish as a hung-over bond trader, many of us are looking for ways to stretch our travel dollars as far as possible. Given the expense of hotels (and the attendant taxes, service charges, and costs of eating out), staying with friends or family while on the road often seems like a logical option.

But is it?

Although hospitality is a time-honored tradition, with the bond between host and guest considered almost sacred, literature and lore are full of such visits gone sour. The Red Wedding is an extreme example, of course, but who among us has not fantasized about aiming a crossbow at a second cousin during her second week of occupying the sofa and the cable remote? Something has to give.

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Fortunately, it is possible to be a good houseguest, to make your hosts feel honored and respected and ensure the good status of your relationship. Here's how.

Thou shalt not invite thyself

Seems simple, doesn't it? Would you invite yourself to someone else's birthday party? Or out on a date they've set up with someone else? Of course not. A surprising number of people, however, think it's perfectly acceptable to call a potential host and announce an intention to crash at his or her place of residence for a given length of time.

The hosts in these cases are put in an untenable position. Even if a visit from you is convenient and desirable (and it may well not be), being denied the opportunity to choose whether to entertain a houseguest leaves the other person feeling unempowered. And who wants to feel powerless in his or her own home?

Instead, do this. Call your friend or family member. Announce your plans to visit their area and hopes to enjoy their company. Mention your timetable and that you are on a budget, and then ask if they can recommend someplace to stay that might be affordable for you. Then be quiet. Even the most clueless of former college roommates will recognize this for the hint that it is. If your friend is willing and able to put you up for a few days, she will enjoy extending the invitation. If not, she'll be spared the embarrassment of having to shut you down. She might know of an inexpensive bed and breakfast you can try, or offer to defray expenses by having you over for a meal or two while you're in town. Either way, you both save face, and possibly your friendship.

Thou shalt be a low-impact guest

You may be on vacation. Your host, most likely, is not. If you show up with a suitcase full of clothing and toiletries you immediately strew all over the place; if you barge in late and noisy or stay up 'til the wee hours watching a House of Cards marathon on the family flatscreen; if you use things and don't replace them; if you demand special foods or complain about a family pet (or the children) or don't offer to pitch in with the household chores; if, in fact, you do anything but make every effort to respect the layout and routines of the home you are visiting … you deserve every last nasty thing your friend or relative is going to say about you to others in your circle once you are gone.

In addition, make sure you give your hosts a measure of much-needed private time by arranging for yourself to either be in your room (if they have a guest room for you) or out of the house for an hour or two while they are home each day. Your hosts — and you — will appreciate the chance to decompress.

Thou shalt come bearing gifts

Human beings are reciprocal beasts. Showing up to stay in someone else's home without bringing a small gift implies you do not value their hospitality … or them, for that matter. You don't have to show up with an expensive present — a special food or craft item that is particular to your own hometown is a thoughtful, lovely gesture that says you are grateful for their generosity and eager to share your own.

One caveat: if your stay is an extended one — say, a week instead of just one or two nights — you'd better bring a pretty nice gift. Find out in advance from mutual friends if there is a small appliance or special piece of china your host may have been coveting. If tempted to fret about cost, calculate just how much you are saving by not staying in a hotel. Present your lovely gift just as soon as you arrive, and announce your intention of either making a meal or taking your host(s) out toward the end of your visit. This kind of forethought is not only mannerly and appropriate, it will temper your hosts' wishing you to perdition when your visit is only half over. And on that note, and in conclusion:

Thou shalt not overstay thy welcome

Ben Franklin had the right of it. Three days are, in fact, on the long end of the ideal length of an in-house visit. Busy people need their routines, and even the nicest, most charming houseguest is a disruption to routine. However long your planned visit, you and your host should agree upon it in advance. If you're an especially awesome guest — the kind who says things like "let me make pasta for the kids tonight while you two go out to a movie" — your hosts may beg you to stay a little longer. You, however, do not get similar visit-extension privileges. Leave when you said you would, and, if you get the feeling that your visit is causing strain even before its scheduled end, be extra-sensitive. Try to be even more low-impact than you were before. As a last resort, offer (kindly, and with a generous heart) to decamp to a motel or continue your road trip a bit earlier than expected.

It can be tricky to be a good houseguest … but infinitely worth the extra effort, for if you leave your hosts feeling respected and appreciated, you will no doubt be invited back again and again in years to come.

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