How I managed to do a homestay with local families abroad for free
This post was originally published on April 2, 2017, and was edited/modified to fit the current travel situation.
Did you know that staying with local families in the course of my traveling here in South America helped me become fluent in Spanish for less than a year, taught me how to cook local food and made me come to a conclusion that the only way to know how other people eat, cook and sleep is to live with them?
I know it’s a bit weird to live with someone you don’t know and you’ve asked me a bunch of times how can I be comfortable with this lifestyle but let me tell you that my best experiences are from staying with local families.
There are a lot of websites that offer local family stays but it comes with a fee. To tell you honestly, I don’t believe in paying for the experience. I believe this should come naturally. I firmly believe a local family should not have a program on how to show their culture though I do not judge the people I met on the road who signed up for this program.
Why should you stay with local host families?
A tangible experience. You can never say you’ve been to a country if you don’t know how they eat, sleep cook and live. You can never say “I’ve been to Brasil” just because you visited the famous landmarks of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. You will learn how to speak another language fluently, how they serve food in a different way and how they live their life on a daily basis. You will understand the meaning of “we are all different culturally but we are all the same.” And that is just amazing.
My best advice when looking for a host family abroad: write with honesty. Tell them what you are expecting from this experience and what you can contribute in exchange. You can tell them you can share your culture by cooking food from your country or teaching them a bit of your language. Tell them about your family and if you have the chance, introduce them via Skype – and it doesn’t matter if they don’t speak English. If there’s one important thing I learned from staying with local families is that love is the language of the world. They will give that to you unconditionally.
Up until today, I am in contact with my host families and they are quite updated about everything I am doing (and about to do). They’re like my real family now and one of them is even listed as an emergency contact just in case something happens to me while traveling Latin America!
I got tired of volunteering when I was traveling in Brasil and that’s where I started craving for a family stay, again. So, I looked for a host in CouchSurfing Uruguay. More often than not, CS hosts (who regularly receive surfers) live alone. I checked the profiles of the Uruguayan hosts to see who is receiving surfers at the moment.
To every person I wrote, I clearly stated that I am looking for a host living with their families. I received a bunch of replies that didn’t quite understand what I was looking for. Luckily, one cool dude told me he lives with his family. In his message, he also stated the house setting, how many siblings he has, and what his parents do for a living. “I am coming,” I replied.
I lived with an Uruguayan family for a month doing the same things they do every day, taking them to school, walking the dogs, drinking tea while chatting in parks with the whole clan, and many more.
Couchsurfing has weekly meet-ups in every city in the world and this was one of the best ways I made friends! When I was living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I went to the meet-ups every week and this is where I also got a chance to meet my host family in Brazil!
#2: Sign up for Meet Up
I often use Tinder or Bumble but I received messages from girls who read this blog – they find these dating apps creepy, especially if your intention is not to date. 4 years ago, I found out about MeetUp, a platform where you can see current events happening in the city you are in. Couchsurfing has a similar feature but what’s good about Meet Up is that there are many active members! During the glory days of Couchsurfing, everyone was posting actively but these days, only a few people participate.
What’s good about MeetUp is that you can filter the groups based on interest. When I first used this platform, I did not expect to make long-lasting friendships. I helped a woman with a Spanish to English translation for her website. She said she couldn’t afford to pay for my services so she offered for me to stay in her home for free for 2 months. She was a single mother living with her son so she had space in her home. This was really one of the best experiences because the barter was fair and none of us had to pay for anything!
#3: Explore house-sitting gigs
I did a lot of house-sitting in South America which enabled me to save over $4,000 USD on accommodations for one year of travel. House-sitting works like this: people who are going on vacation usually look for someone who will take care of the pets they will leave behind. You will stay in their house by yourself for free. All you have to do is to feed their pets and clean after you! Most of the house sits I did in the past were in super huge homes with pools. Since I love pets (I travel with dogs!), I was able to get a gig easily. Please note that homeowners will interview you and there’s lots of competition! My tip is to put pictures on your profile with your pets – it’s always a winner!
I use Trusted House Sitters when finding gigs. If you have a reference on your profile, it’s way easier for you to get a house-sitting gig. Some did not even interview me anymore! I house-sat in Brazil for 3 weeks and when the family came back, they invited me to extend my stay with them in exchange for teaching their daughter English. It’s so funny and amazing how you start with the intention of just house-sitting but if they like you, they will definitely invite you to stay for free!
#4: Do a work exchange
I also did volunteer travel for a while – I am sure that with this post, you are understanding how I tenaciously planned my trip to get free accommodations. I was really a broke backpacker but I did not let that hinder me from traveling. I made sure I always had a home for free and it was pretty easy! Volunteering opened a lot of doors for me. I am still in awe thinking how many long-term friends I met along the road!
Worldpackers is my go-to website when it comes to volunteering. 2 weeks is the minimum stay when volunteering but if the host likes you, then you can stay longer! I once volunteered in Argentina where I taught 2 kids to speak English in preparation for their Disney trip. In the beginning, it was a paid job (the parents paid me and I stayed in an apartment nearby). But as time went by and I became close to their mother, she invited me to live with them in exchange for teaching her children English. She was also a single mother and I was always attracting these kinds of women! I was raised in a single mother household so I can imagine that people see that energy in me.
If you sign up through Worldpackers, you can use the link above to automatically get a 10% discount on your membership.
#5: Facebook Groups
I am amazed how much joining Facebook groups has helped a lot in this journey. Today, I am a member of over a hundred FB groups and it’s my main vehicle for any questions I may have while traveling South America. I found my host family in Argentina by posting in the Argentina Backpackers group in a span of minutes. I taught a whole family English while staying with them. I had my own room, they fed me well and I stayed with them for one and a half months.
You don’t need to find a specific Facebook group for host families abroad. Any group in the city that you’re in will definitely work. When I was in Cambodia, I posted in a group that I am a journalist looking to write about local family culture in Cambodia. After a few minutes, I received 10 messages inviting me to stay with them! But of course, Asian countries are more open to receiving visitors so that was really easy for me.
#6: Friends of friends
I have a bunch of friends in Brasil who I met while CouchSurfing. I asked one of my friends if she knows someone who can accept me as a guest for a couple of weeks and luckily, she did. I stayed with her aunt who lives alone on a big cow farm, a bit South of Brasil where I helped in feeding/milking the cows and every farming task you can think of. I also had my own room with a state-of-the-art bathroom. Additionally, the aunt didn’t speak English so I had to battle my way to learn Portuguese – and I did.
I’ve stayed with all their families throughout my travels in Brazil because they just kept passing me around: “Oh, stay with my aunt in Curitiba!” “Trisha, I have a friend that lives in Rio and she will like you!” This one family has helped me traveled all throughout Brazil without paying for accommodations. This was really one of the most in-depth cultural exchanges I did and it was not even intentional!