A discussion came up with a friend, who is also a travel writer, in my local bar about the topic of hotels. She adores the fancy ones, and when we travelled to Bratislava together she forked out for a beautiful, historic hotel, complete with a stained glass ceiling, matching dressing gowns on the beds and a lobby boy named Joseph. I simply contributed to the trip by buying the train tickets, a few beers and dinner. While I can appreciate a nice hotel and lust after fin de siécle wonders that would put the Grand Budapest Hotel to shame, when I travel alone I prefer to forgo the luxury and comfort of a hotel and choose the hospitality of a homestay. This partly stems from budgetary reasons, since sleeping in someone’s spare room is ultimately cheaper than a hotel and more comfortable than a hostel dorm room.
But mostly I love staying with locals to get an insight into the heart of the place. Whether it’s a retired Bosniak football coach and his family in Sarajevo, a Georgian family up in the Caucasus Mountains who barely spoke English but made the best breakfast I’ve ever had, or a landscape gardener in Ljubljana who shared breakfast with me on her sunny balcony while we discussed Melania Trump’s Slovenian roots and cats (unrelated topics), I can say with certainty that all my home stays have been wonderful experiences.
Make New Friends, Hear New Stories
One of things I love about homestays is that when it goes well it’s like staying with a friend. This means it’s important to pick the right person, and I’ll talk a bit about this later, but usually at worst the experience is more formal (although I can appreciate the risk some feel), at best you gain a new friend in that location.
When I arrived in Riga, I took off my shoes, slipped into some fluffy slippers before putting my suitcases on the bed. My hosts invited me into the kitchen and sat down for tea while my hosts, a Spanish-Latvian couple, recounted their love story on how they met on the Camino de Santiago. I even got the chance to rekindle my rusty Spanish as we drank tea, discussed topics ranging from Spain, Latvia, art nouveau and even science and food.
The moment I turned up at the flat in the suburbs of Ljubljana, exhausted after an 8-hour train ride from Budapest, my host took one look at me and handed me a beer. “I think you need this,” she said with a smile. I gave her a small bottle of Unicum Plum I had bought as a gift and we sat down for a chat. She was a landscape gardener designing gardens for small urban places. She told me a lot about her job, which I knew nothing about, and she met me in town for a coffee by the riverside market. On my last day I bought a couple of bottles of craft beers we shared on the terrace while bonding over our mutual love of cats (she had 2 lovely kitties in the flat).
Get a Local Guide
When I arrived in Sarajevo, my host picked me up from the bus station. He was an old man, but full of life and passion for the city. The moment we sat down in his house up in Kovaci over a cup of Bosnian coffee he pulled out a note pad and wrote down all the places I must eat at.
“You won’t hear any English being spoken here,” he said, “But just show the waiter this note and you will get the best pljeskavica in town! And at a good price!” He passed me the note with a few sentences scribbled in Bosnian with hand-drawn directions of where to go over to me. He walked me down to the city centre, showing me his childhood haunts on the way and recalling the history of where he’s had the best coffee in Bosnia.
Staying with locals gave me their inside view of their city. They were keen to share their favourite places and their local secrets. I discovered some of my favourite spots this way, allowing me to explore the city beyond the local guidebook.
Learn About Local Culture
In my homestay up in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, my host barely spoke English but she cooked the best khachapuri in town. Every meal was a feast, freshly baked Georgian bread, vegetables from the garden, cheese meat, everything. It’s easy to get to know a country’s culture through its cuisine, and while not all hosts cooked for me, homestays in Georgia often come full board, or at least with an amazing breakfast!
And it was my host in Sarajevo who introduced me to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s unique coffee culture. He showed me the preparation ritual and its significance in Bosnian culture. I became so obsessed with it I bought my own coffee set to take home and ground Bosnian coffee (I think I need to return to Sarajevo soon, as I’ve run out!)
Feel at Home
All my homestays made me feel like I was staying at a good friend’s. Whether it was at a loft on the 6th floor with no lift in the art nouveau heart of Riga, a family household of Bosnian Muslims up on the hill overlooking the city, a Georgian family in the Caucasus mountains or in a small apartment away from the touristic centre of Ljubljana, each home stay for me has been special.
How to Do It and Stay Safe
Airbnb is the easiest way to find home stays, and you can find some great tips here from another Perceptive Travel blogger on how to get the most out of your Airbnb. I know a lot of people liked Couchsurfing, but as a solo female traveller, I heard too many horror stories to dare to take the plunge. Airbnb or even Booking.com offers home stays, and in some countries you can even find a list via their tourism boards.
When I book a homestay I always look at the reviews. These are usually a good indication of not just the quality of the place, but the people too. I sometimes gravitate more towards female hosts, but not exclusively, and I want to stay with someone I feel I have some common ground, which you can usually see the person’s profile. Remember, the other person also needs to accept you as well when it comes to booking (although there are some instabook options, too).
I always take a gift when I travel, something from home, like a small bottle of Unicum Plum, chocolates or paprika (I try to bring something Hungarian). This immediately breaks the ice and puts you in the host’s good books.