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How can I be a good guest when staying in someone’s home, whether I’m couchsurfing, renting an apartment, or a personal guest of family or friends? – Melissa

 Dear Melissa,

As travellers we are always ambassadors of our home, whether we’re trying to be or not, so thank you for asking this question to help us all become better ambassadors.

A few years ago I couchsurfed through 27 cities and towns in Europe, staying with everyone from students to architects, from younger to older, single and married, and as varied as the places I visited, but they all had one thing in common: They wanted me to be comfortable in their homes. I bet you’re expecting me to tell you to bring a gift, leave a good review, or tidy up after yourself (and these things are recommended), but the number one thing you can do as a guest is take advantage of what’s being offered to you and express your enjoyment of it. And this holds true whether you’re a paying guest or a lucky freeloader.

From the considerate nature of your question, I’m guessing you may like to host people yourself so let’s take you, Melissa, as an example to think this through. When you have guests you’ve prepared for, aren’t you a little bummed afterward if they didn’t use the special soap you put out for them, or eat the cookies you made? One of the reasons people host is because they like to make others feel comfortable and welcome, so when you’re the guest, you should get comfortable and let your host know how well-treated you feel.

I know it seems a little counter-intuitive to approach good manners from a “how can I best take advantage of this?” perspective, but if you’re just trying to stay out of the way and leave as little trace as possible, you’re not really being a guest at all. You’re just a body occupying someone else’s space and you haven’t added anything new to your host’s life, which is the greatest thing you can do as a guest. Be an active part of your host’s home while you’re there—that’s why you were invited, to varying degrees. Here are some ways to do that and, for good measure, also some etiquette for those who probably aren’t as on top of this as you, Melissa.

1. Read your audience. Despite everything I’ve just said, some people don’t like a lot of interaction but may invite you to share their homes because you’re in need. If someone very obviously does not want much engagement, for whatever reason, just remember niceties like “good morning,” “how was your day?” and “thanks again for having me here—it’s really been great so far!” It still goes a long way to make an offer for some personal time, too, even if you know it will be rejected (“I know you’re busy, but if you’re interested in grabbing a drink after work today I’ll be near your office so just let me know!”)

2. If your host is staying with you, get involved in a meal together (and not by going out for dinner). Either buy some ingredients and make dinner for your host or offer to help if he/she already planned to make something. Nothing brings people together like preparing food, and your help also shows your appreciation. Regardless of who prepared this meal, play a major role in cleaning up from it. Good guests leave behind memories, not messes.

3. Don’t make a mess. Even if your host’s home is a mess, you shouldn’t be adding to it. Make your bed (or couch) every morning, keep your personal items contained and organized, and leave your host’s furniture/bathroom/kitchen the way you found it every time you finish using something—don’t wait until you’re leaving to put life back in order.

4. Complementing your host’s decor is swell, but complementing the home’s mood will have a deeper impact and really show your host that you appreciate the space and how it added to your time away. “It’s so relaxing and comfortable here!” will make your host feel much more appreciated and useful than “great sofa.”

5. Ask about your surroundings. Express interest in your host’s home and life by asking about interesting art, photographs, and odds and ends. If your host has kids or pets, ask about them (even if you don’t care), and interact with them a bit. They’re probably a very important part of your host’s life, and they’re also being shared with you at the moment, however minimally, so show respect and interest in them.

6. Yes, you should consider bringing a gift (especially if the accommodation is free, but this is an option for paying guests, too, if you really want to be exceptional). It’s never required, and there are plenty of reasons you may not be able to (luggage space), but if it’s possible for you, something small from home will always be appreciated. Remember this important guideline, though: Give, don’t impose. Bring a gift that is easily used (or better yet, eaten), and that doesn’t reflect a ton of your own taste and character, or take up large permanent space. You want to leave behind a gift, not a burden.

7. Ask for recommendations. Listen, the greatest value you’re getting from this isn’t the bed, it’s the chance to understand a new place more intimately, so ask about the best spot in town to grab a coffee/burger/book, and check go there. Here’s how it also makes you a good guest: You show interest in your host’s town and respect for your host’s opinion, and you connect on a personal level later when talking about your visit to that great spot. This is a time you might bring back something small, too, to show your appreciation for your stay and the recommendation!

8. Always, always leave a note behind. Thank-you cards have all but disappeared in routine life and now seem to exist only for the wedding and baby shower industries, but if there’s any other moment still personal enough to warrant a handwritten thank-you note, it’s when a home is shared with you. Show thanks, include a personal memory from your time there, and leave it behind on your bed or somewhere obvious that will be checked after you leave. If your host won’t be at the property for a while, you can email your thanks instead, but go out of your way to make it personal.

The Savvy Traveller with Brandon Schultz is Outpost’s weekly advice column on things travel big and small. Brandon is awaiting your question in the comments section!