Ghumakkar Insights – Homestays

In May 2012, my family avoided the sweltering summers of Delhi for a few days by escaping to the beautiful little town of Barot in Himachal Pradesh. We reached there on a pleasant morning and headed to the Forest Guest House, with which we had made bookings. After a tiring drive down the mountains, we were looking forward to catching some sleep. But we were shocked when the caretaker of the guest house informed us that the rooms we had booked at the Guest House weren’t available as the Forest Officer himself was travelling to the town and preferred to stay in those rooms. He showed us a couple of other rooms, but we weren’t impressed. And though we were indignant, we thought it would be better to search for other options rather than waste our time arguing with the caretaker. Thankfully, we hadn’t paid any advance.

Locals guided us to a cluster of homes near the River Uhl that runs through the town, and we discovered several homestays that were ready to take us in. After looking at the rooms, we zeroed in on Negi Homestay, which had rooms with balconies that opened to breath-taking views of the river and the mountains beyond. The rental was pretty reasonable, only a few hundred Rupees per night, and the owner – a sweet, chubby middle-aged lady – didn’t ask us for any advance.

Our stay in the town was leisurely and peaceful and the lovely homestay we opted for had a huge role to play in this. The kindly owner took care of all our needs. The rooms were clean and equipped with all the basic amenities. We had running hot water, lovely, home-cooked food, and, above all, a hassle-free stay. More than what we could’ve asked for. The owner always greeted us with a warm smile and we felt more like house-guests than customers. We spent time with the family as they went about their daily chores. We clicked their pictures as they chased a flock of hens and their chicks.

The miscreants

We spent time with the family as they went about their daily chores. We clicked their pictures as they chased a flock of hens and their chicks.

We laughed with them as they sat relieved, wiping their sweat, after containing the miscreants under a wicker basket. In short, we got to experience Barot much more closely that we would have if we had stayed in the Forest Guest House. The old proverb “Whatever happens, happens for the best” had come true for us.

This was my first experience with homestays and it left a lasting impression. But I do say that we were lucky. A thousand things went right for us just by chance. The truth is it is as easy to land up in an unsuitable homestay as it is in case of hotels and guesthouses. And one needs to take as much care while choosing a homestay as one does when choosing a hotel. Unlike us, most people book homestays in advance, and there are several websites that one can use for this purpose.

Booking.com

When Swapnil visited Switzerland, he used Airbnb to make an informed decision about the homestays he should book. Airbnb is a key player in this market, and Swapnil has some great things to say about them. And so does Aurojit, who used their services to book homestays during his stay in Europe. Right from searching for the appropriate homestay to actually getting to know the homeowners, the website takes care of everything.

Upon contacting Airbnb for more information, they informed us that a lot of Airbnb travelers, and specially the ones going abroad, find Airbnb a very cost-effective option and feel that it gets them good value for their money. They also shared that through Airbnb users have access to more than 6,00,000 properties in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities. And so far, 15 Million rooms have already been booked through them. They also have a Mobile App now and a reliable system for Instant Bookings.

Click here to read how Swapnil got the real flavour of Switzerland. And click here to read Aurojit’s story.

Unlike us, most people book homestays in advance, and there are several websites that one can use for this purpose.

AirBnb

Those who aren’t familiar with the concept of homestays, would probably have guessed by now that homestays are different from hotels in several ways. Essentially when you are opting for a homestay, you are choosing to stay in someone’s home. It is a great way to experience local culture up close. And, especially if you are travelling alone, the thought of coming back to a family after a tiring day is especially warm. In Swapnil’s words, “Wow!! In a strange, mystical, faraway land someone was waiting for you and was concerned about your journey.”

Essentially when you are opting for a homestay, you are choosing to stay in someone’s home.

Apart from travellers, homestays are also a popular option for students, who often visit faraway land as a part of exchange programmes. Parents are able to breathe easily with their children staying with a family, under the care of grown-ups who can watch over them.

The rules, facilities, and expectations may be different for each homestay so it is good to do some research before you book. Following are some things you should know before you book a homestay:

The location and rates
Like any other hotel, it is important to know how close your homestay is to the public mode of transport and other facilities. Based on your preference, you may want to choose a place that is smack in the middle of the city or set aside away from the hustle and bustle. It may also be worth finding out how secure the area is. This is the key in ensuring that you will have a pleasant hassle-free stay. With so many options available, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Therefore, it is important to know what exactly you are looking for from your stay. It helps in filtering out the unsuitable options right in the beginning.

Of course you may want to compare the rates, and your budget can prove to be the most important filter. I have often seen that if one puts in a day or two worth of research for one destination, you often come up with options that are cheaper but still provide all the basic facilities. But try to do more, and you end up going round and round in circles. Many websites, for example Airbnb, gives you a “map view” which tells you exactly how far is the nearest bus/train/taxi depot.

The homestay Abhijit opted for in Vienna

It is important to know what exactly you are looking for from your stay. It helps in filtering out the unsuitable options right in the beginning.

The facilities available
While homestays are required to provide basic options such as a clean room that can be locked from inside and outside, beddings, and a hygienic washroom, everything is pretty much negotiable. In fact, in the pretty little BnB in Portree I opted for on my solo travel to the Isle of Skye in 2010, the key to the room door was also optional. The nice owner told me “You probably wouldn’t need this. We never lock our doors on the Island. We even leave our cars unlocked on the street at night.” But it was a strange land for me, and I locked my door and bolted my window before I went off to sleep at night.

My room at the Isle of Skype BnB

The dining room at Isle of Skye BnB

But the point is one shouldn’t take facilities like a television, a phone, meal options, tea maker or coffee maker, toiletries, laundry, a nice view from the window etc. for granted. Also, in many homestays, you need to share the washroom with the owners and other guests. So if you are very particular about having a restroom for your own individual use, make sure you find out whether the homestay you are zeroing in offers that for the room you are booking. Ask what all is available so that you do not end up feeling disappointed when you reach there. Homestays are a great way to experience local homemade cuisine and can guarantee an authentic experience, provided you do your research about the place, read reviews, and talk frankly to the owners before making a booking.

Ask what all is available so that you do not end up feeling disappointed when you reach there.

The rules
Several hotels have strict policies against smoking and drinking. So you may well imagine that homestays can be even more particular about these things along with several others. You have to keep in mind that you are someone’s guest and are sharing someone’s home when you are opting for a homestay. While some homestays do not care what you do inside your room and what time you leave and come back, some may have reservations against you smoking and drinking inside, and even on you having non-vegetarian food when you are inside. Some homestays, especially in case of students, may have night curfews. And it is in everyone’s best interest that you respect these. Any negotiations about these rules should be done prior to making a booking, and not afterwards.

You have to keep in mind that you are someone’s guest and are sharing someone’s home when you are opting for a homestay.

The expectations
Each homestay is as different from the other as a fingerprint, and so are the expectations. While some homeowners simply rent out a part of their house and do not expect you to interact much with them, others are looking forward to knowing you and where you come from better. Some expect you to participate in their mealtime discussions and play a role in their festivals and birthday celebrations. Yet others expect you to offer to share responsibilities when it comes to household tasks as well. You can get to know the expectations of the homeowners by reading up about them on the Internet and through the reviews posted by other travellers. Here again, Airbnb and a few other websites allow only the real guest (who made a booking through them) review the hosts… and vice versa. So you get to know the exact experience both parties exchanged. And in case there is any confusion, it is often better to ask upfront about the responsibilities of house guests, and go just one step beyond these responsibilities to make the stay even more pleasant. But don’t go overboard as you may end up annoying the homeowners with your repeated requests of helping around the house, when they really don’t expect you to do so, and would rather that you do not.

And in case there is any confusion, it is often better to ask upfront about the responsibilities of house guests, and go just one step beyond these responsibilities to make the stay even more pleasant.

The etiquettes
All the etiquettes we follow when we are a guest at a friend’s house apply to a homestay as well. It is needless to say that one shouldn’t play music at too loud a volume, shouldn’t talk too loudly, shouldn’t waste water and electricity, and shouldn’t walk in with dirty shoes. One should also make sure not to leave the room in a mess when going out or when checking out. If the homeowner employs a help or two, it may be nice to leave tip for them for their hard work, but only if one exceptionally happy with their work. If the homestay is more of a home than a hotel, it may be good to carry a small gift for them. And never forget to appreciate a meal that you enjoyed above others. Leave a small hand-written “thank you” note for them when leaving. And don’t forget to write a review for them online after you are back, especially if you’ve had a wonderful stay. After all, good and honest reviews keep them going and inspire new and right kind of guests to check-in.

Don’t forget to write a review for them online after you are back, especially if you’ve had a wonderful stay.

When I searched online, I discovered that most people who opt for a homestay have a pleasant and fulfilling stay and the bonus is that with no star ratings to justify an unreasonable price, homestays are often far more affordable. In the article titled Homestay is the latest buzz in tourism market, dated June 2011, Vimla Dorairaju, then business head, Mahindra Homestays, says “The feedback we got on Homestays is anything between 4.2-4.5/5. It is this experience that is making them recommend this to their friends.”

Breakfast Swapnil was served at Kasia’s place

And the food is mostly great. With more and more people opting for homestays, it seems like these unique stay options are all set to become the Number One preference for frequent travellers. In fact, it may be preposterous at this point to say this, but I will still go ahead and claim that with more and more people opening up their homes for travellers abroad and in India, world will soon become a much more pleasant, interesting, and a much safer place for Ghumakkars. With all my fingers and toes crossed, I do hope that I will not be proven wrong in this.

p.s.: In case you have not been on an active homestay lookout, use this link to signup on Airbnb and get a Rs.1500/- off on your first Reservation.

  • Vibha, that is quite a comprehensive guide.

    Last year we stayed at a home stay at Allahabad and the experience we had can never be matched by a hotel. You really get to meet people and learn many things about the city and the place you are visiting.

    In India, the concept is still catching up but I do see more of us staying in ‘Homestays’ as we travel more. Wishes.

    • Thanks, Nandan! The concept is catching on fast. Especially after my experience in Barot, I think I will prefer a homestay over a hotel wherever one is available.

  • Rumjhum

    We stayed in 3 homestays on our recent trip to US, all booked via airbnb and the experience was really good. Its way better than staying in a hotel mainly due to the personalized attention that you get and the local guidance.

    • Thanks, Rumjhum! I can well imagine. You get to experience a place in depths you can never do while staying in a hotel.

  • Very insightful, Vibha! We have had fantastic experiences as guests at homestays and must I say, we are hooked! Of course, within this category, there’s a very wide range of rooms and services that are on the offer but it comes out to be a much richer experience at a marginally lower cost.

    I am also a homestay host and have witnessed a slow change over the last two years between the number and profile of guests who prefer to live in real homes than hotels. A far larger number of people, Indians, now look for staying in different homes and know what to expect.

    Great story, thank you.

    • Thanks, Smita!

      I love the name of your homestay, Firdaus!

  • Shivang

    Great Work! Very Informative blog.

    The details included in the blog make it even better, have had a similar experience while choosing a homestay.

    Definite help for people choosing an accommodation for their travels specially a homestay or a BNB. I am an Airbnb convert and would vouch for them :)

    • Dear Shivang, I am glad you had a nice experience choosing a homestay. Where all have you stayed and could you share the names of the homestays?

  • Manish

    Good Read!
    Thanks for sharing this, very helpful!

    • Thanks Manish!

      Have you ever stayed in a homestay or a BnB?

  • Nikhil Sharma

    Thanks for insights on home stays …
    Can you advice me for upcoming visit with my family by June starting.
    Either it will be in Uttrakhand or Himachal….

    Rgds

  • Hello Nikhil – I would recommend that you check at airbnb.com as well as ‘Speciality Lodging’ section on TripAdvisor.

    If you are looking for advice on a particular destination then please comment on any of the ‘Destination’ stories. For your convenience, I am sharing the link of destination page here

    http://www.ghumakkar.com/destinations/