Saturday, March 22, 2008

About Travelling

I just had the most interesting experience....

Some months ago, my daughter and I travelled overseas. While abroad, we ate at a really great place (a chain restaurant, but great all the same). Over the meal, we had a conversation with the person serving our table about where they were from and what they were doing in the city we were visiting and such.

The conversation obviously lead to where we're from and all that. We're generous people and we've been the recipients of some very generous hosts, so we passed on our contact info in the (off, we thought ...) chance that the person in question would ever come our way.

Not too many weeks later, the person got in touch with us about coming to visit. We have spare rooms and the projected visit time was two weeks, so we offered lodgings.

In the months ensuing, we communicated back and forth, sent info on our city and attractions in and nearby, as well as information on the visas one requires to work in this country, as our guest was interested in pursing that option. I asked a few question about the person's plans while here but that got me "I don't have plans, I'll be on vacation." That raised a bit of a red flag but, as I'm occasionally really dense, I didn't pay appropriate attention.

So, finally the guest arrived. We had made some plans to show our guest around where we live, but, as we'd made it quite clear we work full time, we didn't anticipate we'd be on the hook for daily entertainment. We did, however, help with internet research and we offered to take our guest to the bus station and local airport so they could visit other places nearby our city.

As it turned out, our guest presumed we would be looking after their daily needs and entertainment and, as our guest quickly ran out of money, we were on the hook to pay for things or to see this person do nothing. I was quite disappointed for us and for the guest, because this person's travel experience was not at all what it could have been had they pre-planned and taken full responsibility for their travels.

As a result of this experience, I thought I'd write a little how-to-be-a-great-guest guide for anyone who's taking advantage of a generous offer of free room AND board. So here goes....

1. Never forget that you are the recipient of a very generous offer. Free room and board means that you're already saving what you'd pay for lodgings and food for two weeks. That's usually a TON of money and, after airfare, usually the bulk of your vacation's cost. You should offer to pay for food occasionally and, if you're offering to cook meals, you should offer to buy the groceries for those meals. Consider that you're probably saving something like $1500 USD (that's like $1800 CDN! HA!) by living for free for two weeks... you can spring for food ok?

2. Do NOT presume that your generous host is going to look after you or is going to ferry you around or take ANY responsibility for whether you have a good time or not. That is fully, 100% your responsibility. IF your hosts do decide to show you around, don't take it as anything other than they're being even more generous.

3. PLAN AHEAD. Research where you're going and make some plans for what you want to see and do. Your host has not offered to be your personal travel guide. They've offered you a room.

4. Take enough money and make SURE you have easy access to more. It is INSANE to travel to another country on another continent without easy, instant access to money. Either that, or you're already planning to suck off your hosts....

5. Under no circumstances delay paying back your host for anything they pay for. In our case, we booked skiing on our credit card (our guest contravened rule #4 by running out of money on day 4), but the guest NEVER paid us back, never mentioned it and had no shame at all about that situation or a later situation where we took them to an event, assuming they'd pay for themselves at the door; they didn't. No money and no advance warning that they had no money. Nice hey?

If your host has to put anything on their credit card for you, pay them ON THE SPOT. Anything on a credit card accrues interest, so you presuming on your host by not paying them instantly and by potentially causing them to pay interest on the funds they LEND you.

In our case, when we arrived at the ski hill, our guest had a second opportunity to pay their own way, but declined with "No, leave it on your card. I'll pay you later." WHAT? I may be a pushover and disinclined to argue but I was overtaken by shock at that point. I let it slide, thinking the guest would offer up payment later that day. Nope. TWO days later, the guest proffered HALF the money - at the gas station, where I was filling up so I could ferry the guest around.

6. If your host ends up paying your way for you, do NOT assume that you can pay off your debt by buying drinks or dinner. By doing this, you are deciding how your host spends the money you owe them. You are PRESUMING that they would spend it on drinks or dinner. Pay them immediately and in full if they've lent you funds or paid for something on your behalf.

6a. If you run out of money, then you must immediately speak to your hosts, explain the situation and make arrangements for how you're going to deal with it. It is NOT your host's responsibility to fund your trip - they've already provided you free accommodations!

6b. If your hosts provide you funds or pay for events/entries/food, you MUST make arrangements for paying them back and you MUST pay them back prior to departure. To do otherwise will leave your hosts feeling resentful and second guessing why on earth they ever agreed to host you at all.

7. If you're planning on exploring working options in the country you're visiting, plan ahead! Despite our having provided a bunch of websites about working in our country, our guest argued with us and everyone they met that the entry stamp on their passport allowed them to work in our country for six months. This was absolutely not the case. Passport stamps allow a traveller to be in the country for a specified period of time - in this case, six months. Unless the stamp SPECIFICALLY says "Work permitted," you cannot work legally no matter how much you argue about it.

Our guest was told that many times, prior to arriving and by several potential employers, that they couldn't work in our country without a work visa but the guest refused to listen, claiming their EU passport granted them special status. Our guest was labouring under the very erroneous belief that an EU passport allows them to work wherever they wish. Not the case. Our country is not part of the EU so no, you cannot work here without the correct visa. Our guest was so annoying on this point that one of the employers they contacted told them never to call back and that there was no way they'd ever get at job with that employer... Not a good start to any work search.

8. Do NOT ask your hosts personal questions about their relationships (with spouse or partner) or their family. Prior to arriving, our guest questioned me on my relationship with my partner and our living arrangements!!! No, I didn't answer. Also, do not suggest that you, the guest, are such a perfect catch that you should be dating anyone in your host's family. You're a guest, not a potential mate.

8a. Never, ever argue with your hosts. No matter what, unless they've stolen your kit or they're really treating you very badly (at which point you don't argue; you leave), do NOT argue with your hosts. It is incredibly rude to do so when you're living for free!

9. Do NOT, under any circumstances, tell your hosts how to live, cook, eat, raise their children. You are a guest and you're going to be leaving. The impression you leave behind is permanent; YOU are NOT. Our guest one day glibly informed me they had decided in what order I favoured my children! The guest also informed me about my children's personalities, what they were good at and how they could improve themselves! I was shocked into silence, and if you know me, you know I was pretty shocked!

10. Do NOT lie. Don't make up stories about your life. Don't embellish your life, your stuff, your accomplishments. If you've been invited to stay with strangers, they've already found you interesting enough to invite into their home. There's no need to embellish and frankly, most people are shitty liars. In our case, our guest's stories didn't check out at all. Neither did their resume....

11. Although you absolutely should help out around the house, ASK your host what they'd like you to help with, when and how. Your host will really detest it that you're barging ahead with no permission or request to help. Do NOT go through their cupboards. Ever.

Keep the room you're staying in clean and don't leave your crap around the rest of the house. Your host has already gone well out of their way by offering you free room and board. As a guest, your goal is to make yourself VERY pleasant and easy to be around and, occasionally, to be invisible.

12. Don't be pig-headed. If your hosts want to expose you to something they think is really interesting, don't respond with "Nothing you can say will change my mind." Be open to experiences and, more particularly, be appreciative that your host is willing to include you at all. If being included will really ruin your life, plan to do something else. Do not, however, go to the event and then insult your host's friends by arguing or confronting them.

In our case, we have a very interesting, educated friend whose point of view on world events and politics is very informed. We took our guest with us out for drinks (which we paid for....) with our little group. Our guest was so egotistical that they argued about issues they had absolutely no knowledge of. When asked from where they got their information - what books had they read to form their opinion - they said "I don't read." Worse, our informed and very generous friend had brought books for us. Our guest, who was getting a free ride that night anyway, presumed on our lovely friend and took off with a book for themself! Unbelieveable.

Best practice in this situation is to shut up and listen and, when appropriate, ask questions. At least don't expose yourself as a Joe Know-it-All.

Never forget that you are a guest. If your host includes you in their group of friends, your JOB is to be as nice and accessible a person as possible. You will certainly hear things you don't know anything about or that you disagree with but, as YOU are the non-permanent fixture, you only get to ask questions and listen. You don't get to annoy people by presuming to be part of the inner circle. Never, ever tell strangers they're uninformed or wrong when you have no clue what they're talking about!

Unfortunately for our guest, they've left with the idea that they're welcome to come back, which is absolutely not the case. They made no arrangements for repaying the various activities we funded; they presumed on our very generous offer of free lodgings by not planning their vacation, not being independent, by being argumentative, by being insulting and invasive; they made no comment about being out of money and no arrangements for dealing with that; and they very much limited their future options for employment by establishing, in the space of 10 days, a reputation for being uninformed and inflexible.

Last point: after you've been a crappy guest and you've alienated your hosts and their friends, don't slag them off on your public social networking sites... It isn't like they - and their friends - are not going to see it....

For additional opinion on this subject, check out The Indie Travel Podcast

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