HOW TO BE THE PERFECT HOUSE GUEST: I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a house guest, especially in my younger days and the times when I was “between homes”, and I’m sure I still do make an idiot of myself from time to time, for which I would like to officially apologise.
Here are a few stories from the darkside and some ways to be a great house guest yourself…
I’ve realised how my standards have risen over the years, as I’ve learnt from my own “poor form”.
I hate thinking about the times when I’ve overstayed my welcome, forgotten to clean up a mess made by Mabel, said something inappropriate, or – in the spirit of being helpful for a host – put their much-loved “dry clean only” blouse in the washing machine. There have been times when I’ve used the last of the milk because I was too lazy to get to the shop, or forgotten to leave a thank you card unwritten because I didn’t do it straight away and thought “oh, an email will do instead”.
And now, I cringe inwardly when people don’t do the right thing in my own home, especially after I’ve spent days ironing sheets and making beds, selecting and arranging flowers, burning expensive candles, and shopping for special local Mornington Peninsula wines and hard-to-get groceries to make delicious meals for them to enjoy. See more in my popular post about preparing for household guests.
Mr Luscious and I generally love having people to stay, and I think it’s a nice sign that so many people clamour to come to Chez Luscious, many of whom continuously ask us to set up a professional B&B or boutique hotel. One day we will, perhaps, as I do dream of having a selection of Luscious hotels in some of my favourite locations around the world, but that’s another story.
Essentially, I want our guests to feel welcome when they arrive, relax whilst they are with us, and leave refreshed. But I still expect them to behave respectfully before, during and after, if they hope to come back.
Not-so-luscious house guest tales
Sadly, even some of our nicest guests have been known to break items and not clean up (let alone offer to replace the offending item), or have allowed their (uninvited) dog to rule our home and upset our own dog Mabel, or happily let us to pay each time we’ve taken them out for a meal even though we’re saving them a fortune by not having to stay at a hotel.
On one occasion, a guest offered to make breakfast. But when we went to sit down, he served up everyone except me, and told me, “You can get your own if you want.” I was so shocked that I pretended I wasn’t hungry rather than remark on his rudeness. Looking back, I should have called him out on it but at the time I was stunned and speechless. Had I said something previously to offend him? Did he think I’d said something about not wanting anything to eat? Even today, I keep telling myself that it must have been a miscommunication. At least, I really hope that’s what it was.
We’ve had people leave linen with red wine and pen stains, hiding the offending item under some other sheets, as if we wouldn’t notice. Another time, as we were eating breakfast, a guest told me – with my hand mid-air to my mouth – that I shouldn’t eat that croissant if I wanted to lose weight. There was also the guest – whom I hadn’t seen for years – who was determined to talk non-stop about the idiotic men we’d dated (about a million years ago) and how miserable her life was today and why I should stop fooling myself that I was truly happy. It took me a good week to get the toxicity out of my system, and I still shudder when I see her trying to get in touch.
We’ve also had guests who think it’s acceptable to tell off Mabel for something inconsequential, whilst allowing their own dog to jump up on our furniture and leave muddy paw prints on white linen sheets. And multiple guests who’ve treated the guest bedroom and guest bathroom like a their own private party zone, throwing items on the floor, not putting rubbish in the bin, and leaving a plethora of dirty cups and glasses everywhere for us to clean up. We don’t have a housekeeping service, so who do they think is going to be cleaning up?
It does not make for happiness, as we say at our house, and we’re now finding more reasons not to be available when these people say they are keen to visit again in the future.
I know the obvious response is “These people sound awful, why would you be friends with them??” but sadly, these are generally people we’ve known for a long time and with whom other social interactions are usually fun. Or worse still, family members with whom you are stuck forever.
It’s easier-said-than-done to be assertive when people behave badly in your home, and I do have regrets when I should have stood up to dodgy behaviour, but I try to make the best decision I can at the time, based on our relationship. As Mr Luscious will say, “do you really want to lose a friend over it?”
So, here are some suggestions to help you be a great house guest. The more of these you follow, the more likely you are to be invited back.
- Please do not invite yourself. Wait to be asked and if you’re not asked, accept that the timing isn’t right for your prospective host, or you aren’t particularly welcome. If you want to see your friend or family member and will be in their area, offer to meet them somewhere for a meal. And if you really need a weekend away or a full holiday, then stay at a hotel.
- If you’ve been invited for a weekend, and are free and keen to come, then accept graciously. Do not go back and forth about the dates on offer – if they don’t suit you, decline with thanks and hope that you might be asked again in the future.
- Just because you are coming to stay for a break, your host probably doesn’t feel the same about being able to relax. Their home will now contain at least one guest (you) and possibly others, but they may also have their own children and pets requiring their attention, and possibly even work to do. Be as sensitive as possible and don’t abuse your position as visitor – it may be fun for you to watch a Downton Abbey marathon all day and all night, spread out on their couch munching on popcorn, but it probably isn’t as great for your host.
- A “weekend visit” usually means Friday night to Sunday lunch, ie. arrive in time for cocktails on the Friday, and be ready to depart after lunch on the Sunday. But do check this with your host and be very clear about times.
- Should you have been given an open-ended invitation – “We’d love to see you…stay as long as you like” – it’s up to you to be clear about how long you’ll be staying and how you hope to spend the time. Discuss it specifically in the nicest way possible, eg. “Would it be OK with you if I stay from this Friday night, arriving around 5pm, until next Thursday morning about 10am, when I’ll be getting a taxi to the airport?”. Also, be firm about how you will be perfectly happy to entertain yourself, access public transport/hire car, and are keen to contribute to groceries, cooking etc.
- Perhaps ask if you could pay to have a spare key cut so you don’t need them to be home to let you in if you choose to go out by yourself.
- Do not invite additional guests such as “my sister will be in town” or “I’ve just started going out with this great guy” unless the host has already met them and is aware that they might make good company. Just because you like them, doesn’t mean your host is obliged to welcome strangers into their home.
- If possible, talk to the host in advance about how you can help rather than “can I help?”, especially when it comes to meals. If you know there will be a large party, ask the host beforehand about contributing and/or assisting. Sometimes the easiest thing is to help other guests feel comfortable in the host’s home by ensuring they have a drink and introducing them to people you already know, which enables the host to focus on specific things like welcoming the next arrivals at the door or serving the food.
- Pack appropriately for the stay, eg. casual clothes for relaxed meals out at cafes, smarter clothes for dinner parties, beach clothes for a stay at a summer house, snow gear for a ski lodge. Ideally, you should already have a packing list saved on your computer if you go away regularly.
- If you already have trouble sleeping in your own bed, assume it will be even harder in a guest bed. No host wants to think you’ve had a rough night under their roof so be prepared by bringing whatever it is that may be helpful such as your own pillow, eye mask, sleeping pills, hot water bottle. If you get cold, ask for an extra blanket before retiring, or if you get hot, check whether windows open, or if there is a fan or air conditioning you can use.
- If you are bringing a pet, bring every thing you’ll need including food, bowls, a bed and supplies for cleaning up.
OK, so the term “hostess gift” sounds a little archaic, but it clearly implies “something a bit nice for the person/people who are making the effort to host you” so listen up:
- A hostess gift doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does need to be thoughtful.
- If you know the host well, chose something personal such as a compilation of music, fresh seasonal berries or a foodie delicacy you know they’ll love, a beautiful craft item or a painting by one of your children done just for the host, something elegant to add to their silver or china collection, or a luxurious bath robe and matching slippers.
- For a more general gift (if you aren’t so familiar with the host), go for a beautiful scented candle, fancy chocolate, pretty pot of fresh herbs or a very special bottle of wine (in addition to some wine as a contribution to dinner).
- Something handmade is usually a joy to receive – such as the jars of caramelised walnuts and preserved lemon made for me by Luscious Lifer Lourayne – will bring happiness for a long time. Lourayne contacted me well before a lunch visit to Chez Luscious and asked if there was anything we were keen on but couldn’t get as easily because we live in the country. She then proceeded to make these items herself and I have valued them so much ever since.
- If you’re worried about how much to spend, you can think of it as an equivalent of a 10% of the cost of a hotel stay. Add up what you might be spending for a similar experience in a hotel and times it by the number of days – adds up, doesn’t it? So don’t be stingy – if you’d be spending $1000 for a hotel, then $100 towards your gift is a bargain.
- If flowers are your thing, consider sending them ahead of time or arrive with the flowers already cut and a vase in tow. It can be tricky for a host to scramble around sorting flowers when receiving multiple guests, organising drinks and dinner, and showing people where they are staying.
- If you are bringing wine, be clear about whether you wanted to open it to share now, or if it’s a special gift for the host to open later just for themselves. If you really wanted to drink it, say so rather than begrudge it being put away in a cupboard. Ideally, if you’re staying for an extended visit, you should have a bottle of wine for the host, and a bottle “for the table”.
Before you arrive/arrival
- Ensure you’ve already checked the address and route before you head off. Sending a frantic text with “What’s the address again??” on you way just makes you look disorganised and disrespectful, and interrupts whatever the host is doing in preparing for your visit.
- Never, ever arrive before the appointed time.
- If you’re going to be more than 15 minutes late, you must phone or text the host – you don’t know what the plan is and your delay may be ruining a special meal.
During your stay: In general
- Follow the rules of the house – if shoes come off at the door, so do yours. If lights are switched off in empty rooms, remember to do so. If pets are kept outside, so are yours. If a meal is served at a specific time, be prompt. If someone needs a shared bathroom to get ready for work at 7am each morning, give the bathroom a wide berth at that time.
- If visiting a home where another language is spoken, make an effort to learn a few words at least, especially the polite ones of “please” and “thank you”. Don’t spend your time speaking English in front of people who can’t speak English because it’s their country and you are just the visitor.
- The same goes for watching what you say and how you say it. You may swear like a trooper, but unless your host is the same and think it is truly hysterical when you swear too, keep your language clean. And don’t gossip about mutual friends – it may get your host wondering what you say about them behind their back.
- Before sitting down to dinner, check whether the host had a seating plan in mind. The same goes for movie watching and comfy chairs – assume that the host has a favourite couch and they deserve to sit on it. Choose the most uncomfortable looking one unless directed otherwise.
- Ask for the password to the host’s WiFi but don’t abuse it by downloading large quantities of data or anything illegal. If you need to use their computer, be quick about it.
- You may want to stay up all night (or be suffering from jetlag), but your host probably doesn’t. Say goodnight and let them go to bed. If you still need to stay up, then be as quiet as possible as you move around the house, and use earphones for electronic devices.
- Unless you have advised the host about dietary requirements beforehand, do not assume they will remember from a previous visit. If something is served which you cannot eat, apologise profusely or stay quiet. And do not presume that non-vegetarians will stop eating meat just because you are visiting.
- Bring or hire your own car, or do some thorough research about public transport, taxis, bike and walking tracks well before your visit. Do not expect your host to drive you around.
- If your plan is to explore the local area, give your host the freedom to join you. They probably don’t have the time or want to see the same attractions for the 20th time, but let them know they are most welcome to come (and pay for them if they do). If they aren’t keen or able to join you, give them a clear idea of where you’ll be and what time you intend to return home. This helps with basic safety and also gives them an idea of how long their have house back to themselves.
- If given a house key, be obsessive about security, double checking locks and checking that windows are closed, heaters turned off etc as you leave. I regret once being told that I’d left the front door unlocked when staying with friends, even though I thought I’d done the right thing. So to be safe, ask the host to show you how to lock doors in case there is a trick.
During your stay: Make a contribution
- The fridge and pantry may be full of food and your host may have said “make yourself at home” but don’t help yourself. You don’t know what the host may have specially bought for make tomorrow’s meal. It’s safer to ask first, or go out to the shop and buy whatever you need in terms of snacks.
- It’s nice to contribute to the groceries if you’re staying for more than a night, but be sure to replace items “like for like” eg. don’t be cheap by buying a product of lesser quality when you know your host likes a certain brand.
- Do not hog the television/the hot water in the shower/the pool/all the host’s time unless they specifically say so. There’s a difference between being a guest coming to relax and a being complete sloth. And when it comes to the host’s time, they probably also need a rest. In fact, do things to give your host a break such as entertaining their children, taking their dog for a walk, stacking and unstacking the dishwasher, and offering to cook a meal.
- If you break something, apologise, clean it up immediately and find out how you can go about replacing it. Even if the host insists on you not replacing it, you should send a thoughtful gift after your stay with another apology. Expecting your host to track down the replacement and pay for it, is very rude. In my own case, a picture frame was broken and whilst it may only cost $40 to replace, the act of returning to the shop where I bought it to get a new one will take me half a day. The lack of apology, cost and inconvenience of it has left a sour taste in my mouth.
- If going out for coffee or a meal with the host (when staying at the host’s home), you should pay. Either get in early when the bill comes, or discreetly remove yourself during the event to go up to the cashier to take care of things.
- Just because you offer to help and your host says “Oh don’t worry, I’ll sort it out” doesn’t mean they don’t still value assistance. You’re probably offering to help with the wrong thing or at the wrong time, so find another way to be helpful, eg. get up earlier in the morning to tidy up the kitchen, empty the rubbish bin, make the host breakfast or drive down to the shop when you see that supplies are getting low.
- Keep it nice: Replace the toilet roll, don’t use the last of the milk, keep dirty feet off furniture, shower daily (and always after exercise) but don’t use all the hot water, and keep the volume of music and/or television at a decent level.
- If you are unwell during your stay, do whatever you can to minimise the disruption for your host and other guests. Ensure you regularly sanitise areas of potential infection such as toilets and sinks, wash your hands continuously, and keep rubbish such as dirty tissues in your own plastic rubbish bag. If you are truly infectious, see a doctor for the correct prescription to ease your pain, and stay in your room until things improve.
During your stay: Your room and belongings
- Whilst a guest room may be technically yours for the duration, don’t be a slob. Treat it with respect by making your bed, hanging your clothes and towels, and allowing light in and fresh air to circulate during the day – no one wants to see a room in their home turned into a mouldy, smelly dungeon.
- If you aren’t sleeping in a dedicated guest room, it’s particularly important to pay attention to how the room is normally used. If it’s the kids playroom, be prepared to have children jumping on top of you, wanting to play early in the morning. If it’s someone’s office, realise that you’ll need to get up and dressed so the inhabitant can get some work done. Keep things neatly stacked in a corner, and be especially conscious of doing the right thing. Having to tiptoe around your home because a guest is hungover and sleeping all day is not fun for a host.
- Unless the bed has a spring sticking up through the fabric, or is on such a lean that you fall out of bed as soon as you get in it, don’t complain. If the host asks you what the bed is like, eg. “We’re wondering whether it’s time to get a new mattress, do you think that would be a good thing?” then you can be honest. Otherwise, you’ll have to grin and bear it, or quietly try to fix the offending problem yourself.
- For guest beds with decorative cushions, stack them neatly in a corner or in a cupboard so they are out of the way. Tossing them randomly on the floor is disrespectful.
- If you forget to bring something, quietly ask the host if they have something you can borrow and then treat it with the proper respect. And remember to mention it in your thank you note.
- Should you be female and it’s “that time of the month” and you’re at all concerned with leaving a mark during the night, put down a towel. Better to do this than have an awkward conversation the next morning about washing stained sheets.
- If you need to do some laundry, ask your host how things work and when would be convenient to put a load on, and they set about doing it for yourself. Don’t expect them to do it for you – no one really wants to handle your dirty underwear, no matter how friendly you are.
- Don’t leave your personal belongings all over the house, eg. on the kitchen counter, dining table and on the couch. These spaces are communal and have other functions. Having to move a guest’s sunglasses, phone and grotty shoes from the kitchen because a guest stopped to help themselves to a cool drink after a beach walk, is not appetising for the host who now wants to get started on dinner.
- If you have an accident in your room eg. spilling something on the bed or floor, tangling up blinds or knocking over flowers, do everything to clean or fix it yourself and advise the host at their earliest convenience. Leaving it for them to find later is in very poor form.
- Don’t walk around half undressed if the host is more conservative, even if it’s just going between your bedroom and the bathroom. Put on a robe.
At the end of your stay
- Double check cupboards, drawers, under pillows and sheets, and around the house and garden where you may have spent time to ensure you don’t leave anything behind. If you do, jump in first to make arrangements to retrieve it rather than expecting the host to be inconvenienced.
- Ask your host if they’d like you to strip the bed, and if so, whether they want just part or all of the items removed. For example, if there were multiple pillows but you only used one, then the others probably don’t need washing and ironing all over again.
- Do not leave anything thrown in the floor, especially wet towels. Stuff used linen into the used pillowcases (but not the wet towels as they might make things mouldy if not washed straight away) and put in a neat pile in the laundry. Or ask your host where they would like them left.
- Wipe down the bathroom with a cleaning cloth, and then put this and the used hand towel in the laundry with the other wet towels.
- Put used glasses in the dishwasher, and empty water bottles in the recycling bin, and any books and magazines you’ve been reading back where you found them.
- Should the host have given you the use of their car, ensure it is topped up with the right petrol, tyres pumped, and put through a car wash. If toll roads have been accessed by electronic tag, leave some coins in an envelope in the car as a contribution.
- If departing after the host eg. because they have gone to work or are dropping their kids at school, be sure to leave a handwritten note of thanks and the house key in a pre-agreed spot.
After your stay
If you can find time to pack a bag and have a break, you can find time to organise a hostess gift beforehand and send a thank you card afterwards.
Ultimately, you should thank your host on these three occasions:
- when you arrive, verbally and with hostess gift
- as you are leaving, verbally, possibly with a small gift such as a jar of delicious jam or handmade truffles from a local shop or something else from your adventuring
- and once you’ve returned home or arrived at your next destination, with a handwritten thank you card and possibly a thank you gift of flowers. For each day that you forget to send a proper thank you, the more expensive the gift should be.
Tricky scenarios with kids and pets
- Never, ever, ever arrive with children or pets unless they were specifically included in the invitation. Don’t assume that the host knows how attached you are to Spot and how you believe “everyone just loves Spot when they get to know him!” Most people will just smile and grit their teeth out of politeness.
- If your children were invited, it’s your job to be super careful and keep an eye on every single thing they do – the host is not your built-in babysitter, and they certainly don’t want their home trashed by your kids just because you couldn’t be bothered.
- Even if you brought your dog to stay once, doesn’t mean it is welcome back every other time – give the host an “out” in case they aren’t as keen to see your furry friend as you are eg. “We wondered if we might send Spot to stay with neighbours and give everyone a little break…” If the host doesn’t say, “Oh, but we’d love to see Spot!” with complete enthusiasm, you have your answer.
- If your own dog is welcome to stay, find out what the house rules are eg. inside/outside, whether the dog can sleep on the bed. If inside, find out where the vacuum cleaner is and do a quick clean before you go. If allowed in your guest room, bring a dog bed and an extra cover for the guest bed so dog marks don’t ruin the linen. And ensure all dog excrement is tossed discretely onto garden beds or into compost bins rather than staying on the lawn as an ongoing reminder of Spot’s visit.
- If your dog simply must sleep inside at night but still requires that you take it out during the night to go to the toilet, find the quietest door to use. Turning on lights, talking to your beloved Spot and encouraging him to pee, and the sound of doors opening and closing at odd times, and letting in cold air in winter and hot air in summer, will not endear you to your host.
- If the host has a dog, treat it as the host treats it. Just because you feed your own dog at the table or allow it to jump up on the couch at your place, doesn’t mean you can set the rules in the host’s home.
- Also, if your host has a pet, be prepared to adore it, even if you don’t really want to. This is their beloved family member and this is their home. Bring some anti-allergy medication, a brush to remove the hair, and a big smile.
And finally, remember this: Ben Franklin once said, “Fish and visitors stink after three days” so don’t overstay your welcome.
Leave a comment below to share your own horror stories and suggestions for being a better house guest. I’d be fascinated to hear what you have to say!