Whether it's hip West Hollywood, breathtaking New Zealand or oh-so-chic Paris, each destination has its own story to tell. And what's the best way to have an authentic, local experience and immerse yourself in a city? Live like a local, of course! Travel Columnist, Kate Gibbs, explores the rise of the sharing economy and how to enrich your travels with her personal homestay tips.
“You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between.”
This is how a native Thai woman describes her perception of tourists in Sightseeing, a collection of short stories on modern Thai life by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. She complains of farangs, or foreign tourists, who come only to ride elephants and “get sunburned on the beach,” in her opinion.
This perception of gaudy tourists is almost enough to keep my adventures strictly domestic. These locals may be beastly, sunburned, beer swilling loud mouths, but they’re my beastly, sunburned, beer swilling loud mouths, right? Or, we could start travelling in more sensitive way and become more receptive to the various cultures.
Instead of mingling with a few fellow travellers in well-trodden locations we could actually dip into the world we’re visiting. Like, really dive right in there and get sodden.
Homestays are the answer
The burgeoning sharing economy has seen a groundswell of paying things forward, from giving rides to others via Uber to offering a room in your house, or the whole house, via Airbnb. This collaborative approach has transformed the way we travel, opening up chic accommodation that’s authentic, and that offers an alternative to the hulking grey beast cliché we’re determined to avoid.
There’s no 24-hour buffet breakfast and and rarely a turn-down service, but home owners will shed light on local experiences you simply don’t discover in resorts. I have learned how to dig for pippies at high tide in New Zealand, I’ve paid $1 for a handmade crispy spiced roti from a cart in Sri Lanka and cycled through a pomegranate orchard in Spain after visiting a local market, I’ve sculpted my own wooden bowl, to great hilarity of the instructor, in Bali.
I learned how to use a coffee machine with intricate buttons and beeps in a homestay in Kyoto, Japan. It wasn’t glamorous and it certainly wasn’t instagrammable, but that coffee machine was one of the most foreign things I’ve ever engaged with, and attempting to decipher the various valves, symbols and buttons of this common household item in another country enlightened me, somehow, to the real life as locals really experience it.
This, to me, is travel. It’s non-tourism.
Travel beyond the hotels
From castles to gardens for pitching tents, the sharing economy in travel extends beyond plain houses, adding further intrigue to the stays. There’s a sort of Airbnb for gardens in Campinmygarden.com, which helps campers find thrifty pitches on private lawns.
Launched in 2010, there are currently more than 800 sites internationally, from tiny back gardens to landscaped grounds spanning rural England, Fiji, Tonga, Jamaica and elsewhere.
More and more hotels are targeting design lovers with fitouts so stunning they have us starting new inspo boards for our own homes. But there’s now a home exchange community for the aesthetically discerning in behomm.com, a traditional home-swap concept that’s tightly curated to ensure style and quality. No money passes hands - you simply swap homes with someone else for a specific time. The only catch? Like all of the most exclusive clubs, it’s invitation only.
The similarly discriminating One Fine Stay was launched in 2009 when Founder, Greg Marsh was walking through Mayfair in London on his way home from work and noticed how many houses appeared to be empty.
He developed the site to allow its 2500 homeowners to make money when they are away. All properties are evaluated by the site so quality is guaranteed, and there is always someone to greet you and leave you with an iPhone with free data and local calls to use during your stay. Hotel phone services, of course, are slightly less generous.
How to do home stays like a pro
1. Plan ahead
Give yourself plenty of time to find a home that suits. It’s typical for many guests to book their favourite homes more than a year in advance, so the best places book up early.
2. Be creative
You don’t need to find a home that looks like a hotel. Find a place which feels an adventure to stay in, whether that’s because of the design, the location, the backyard lake with the diving board, or because it’s a houseboat floating on the Thames and you’ve always wanted to try that.
3. Be open-minded
You may never think to travel to Umbria to stay in a two-star inn but that villa on the hilltop might lure you. Homestays open up new locations, and a magnificent house that inspires you could be enough to take you anywhere – think a yurt in the Pyrenees or a penthouse in Boracay.
4. Be meticulous
Editing out no-go homes is a must on sites such as Airbnb, where more than one million properties are listed. You may find the chic apartment with the pretty French windows in a gated cul-de-sac that’s a jaunty stroll from the Arc de Triumph with a walk-in robe, or you might end up in a stark high rise that’s in not-quite Paris because you misread the details. What you need is there, just look carefully.
5. Parents like to travel too
Hotels can become tricky when there are kids in tow, so head to Kid & Coe for the 850-plus properties that are definitely child-friendly. The houses are perfect for babies – with high chairs, cots, nurseries, babysitter recommendations, some are stacked with books and toys, and many come with recommendations of things to do locally with teens.
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