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Homestay Sweet Homestay

Arriving at the Tel Aviv airport with our weary three-year-old twin daughters Michaela and Talia in tow, my husband, Alan, and I dragged our luggage past the crowded car rental counters and the lines of jostling taxis. A Fiat pulled up, its horn tooting a salutation. Out jumped Eitan, an athletic man in a T-shirt and olive shorts. With warm shouts of "Hello! Welcome!" Eitan greeted us like long-lost friends. In truth, we had never met.

Moments later we were heading toward the comfortable suburban house Eitan shares with his wife, Susan, and their two young children. For the next two days, we would be their guests. Joining in their routine, we'd sit in their garden and chat over a breakfast of fresh tomato salad, yogurt and pita bread. The kids would eat cornflakes—the familiar red rooster on the cereal box surrounded by Hebrew script—and later they'd splash together in the backyard wading pool. We had arrived as strangers, but at the end of our weekend homestay, we would leave as friends.

Such is the spirit of fellowship that characterizes homestays, also called hospitality exchanges, in which travelers receive not only a place to sleep but also an insider's look into another community and culture. Although commonly associated with students studying abroad, they're also an inexpensive, educational, but little-known option for families traveling both within the United States and overseas. For our family, on a six-week trip through Spain and Israel, homestays provided a welcome relief—for us and for our budget—from night after night of hotel rooms.

Planning a Homestay
Two months before our trip, we signed up with U.S. Servas, one of several international membership organizations that help travelers arrange stays with host families. We completed the brief application, then scheduled an interview with a local Servas volunteer. Our interviewer asked about our backgrounds, the trip we were planning and why we were interested in homestays—questions designed to screen out travelers seeking only free rooms rather than cultural exchange. She also shared tips from her own family's homestays: Choose hosts with kids close in age to your children. Bring or send a small gift, perhaps college T-shirts or a book of hometown photos. When you arrive at a host's home, ask about their schedules and any "house rules." And remember to help with the dishes.

Homestay organizations provide lists of hosts in each country, but it was up to us to write or phone to arrange our visits. We scanned the Servas directories, which detail each family's professions, interests, language skills and ages, to find compatible English-speaking hosts with space to accommodate our family of four. Since we were traveling without a fixed itinerary, we looked for hosts also willing to receive visitors with just a few days' notice.

Our first homestay was in a hillside town north of Barcelona. Our hosts, English teachers Alba and Steve, met us at the family farm, where Alba's parents welcomed us with homemade ice cream. Throughout the day, family members stopped by to visit—a sister with her toddler son who took my girls to feed the sheep, and a brother with a truckload of hay to unload. Alan joined the hay brigade, only later rubbing his shoulders and confessing, "Who knew bales of hay were so heavy?" After our afternoon at the farm, we pitched in to cook supper, making a salad while Alba prepared tortilla española, a savory potato omelet. Later, Steve led us on a moonlit walk around the village, pointing out churches, fountains, and a park where we'd bring Michaela and Talia the next morning.

Is a Homestay Right for Your Family?
If your ideal accommodations include room service and drinks by the pool, you may not be happy helping your hosts cook and make the beds. Sleeping arrangements may be cozy—we've slept in a snug guest room, on a playroom sofa bed and on a living room floor. You—and your children—should be comfortable dealing with unknowns, since homestays can bring all sorts of surprises.

Because, to quote Ben Franklin and homestay enthusiasts, "fish and guests begin to smell in three days," we found a good balance by alternating two-night homestays with hotel accommodations. This was long enough to get to know our hosts without wearing out our welcome.

In one case, our short visit led us to another homestay in a region we would otherwise never have considered. During our homestay in Tel Aviv, our hosts encouraged us to visit a Druze family they knew in a tiny village in the Golan Heights. Although wary about bringing our daughters to this historically troubled area, we took our hosts' advice and drove north to Hassan and Hana's boxy stucco house. To get acquainted, we shared snapshots of home, school and hobbies, a tactic that we found is a great icebreaker, particularly if you and your host family don't have a common language. On this warm summer day, our hosts marveled at a picture of our New England home surrounded by 3 feet of snow.

Settling into cushions on the living room floor, we asked Hana to tell a favorite children's story.

"Do you know the tale of Red Leila?" she asked. We shook our heads.

As her husband translated, Hana told in Arabic of a girl in a red cape who climbed the hills to bring a basket of bread and honey to her grandmother. Even our three-year-olds quickly recognized the familiar story of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Will we plan a homestay again? Absolutely. As many exchangers say, "There's no place like someone else's home."

Sidebar: Family-friendly Homestay Organizations

If your family is interested in arranging a homestay in the United States or abroad, check in with one of the following family-recommended organizations.

US Servas
11 John Street, Suite 407
New York, NY 10038
A nonprofit organization founded in 1949 to encourage international peace and understanding, Servas has around 14,000 hosts in more than 130 countries. The annual membership fee is $65 for adults; homestay accommodations are free. You can request lists of hosts in regions you're interested in visiting (a $25 deposit covers up to five lists). Travelers are encouraged, but not required, to become hosts, too.

HomeLink International
P.O. Box 650
Key West, FL 33041
800-638-3841 or 813-975-9825
Established in 1952, HomeLink primarily coordinates home exchanges—an arrangement in which one family swaps houses with another for a period of time. But they also list members interested in hospitality exchanges (about 10 percent of their membership). Web-only membership is $80 a year and includes free photos. Full membership, which includes three full-color directories, is $125.

The Friendship Force
57 Forsyth Street N.W., Suite 900
Atlanta, GA 30303
The Friendship Force, established in 1977 with support from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, organizes group tours that include homestays. Destinations include everything from a European tour to a South Pacific excursion. Although trips are not specifically designed for children, some are appropriate for older kids.

The Hospitality Exchange
P.O. Box 561
Lewistown, MT 59457
Started in 1965, the Hospitality Exchange has members in some 25 countries. Family membership is $20 for one year or $35 for two years. Homestays are free, but you're expected to reciprocate by hosting another traveling family for a one- or two-night stay.