How to… Be a good house guest (or host)

Staying with a friend or relative sure can save you money when you travel, but you’ve gotta be considerate.
Hosting out-of-town friends and family can also present any number of challenges.
In this story, I talked to experts about how to best handle this delicate situation, just in time for the holidays.

How to . . . Be a good houseguest or host
Experts say put the relationship first to avoid problems

Do you think your friends and relatives really mean it when they tell you to “make yourself at home” while spending a few days at their place? Of course not.
If they did, they wouldn’t care if you used their toothpaste, squeezed it from the middle and then left the cap off.
They wouldn’t grit their teeth each night as they debate whether it would be horribly impolite to ask you to turn the music down and the light off . . . puh-leeze!
And they’d smile when they walk into their kitchen to find you’ve emptied out the fridge and filled up the sink. Because, after all, they really wanted an excuse to make another trip to the grocery store.
During the holidays, a good many folks find themselves either hosting or being a houseguest. Unfortunately, way too many people have no idea what either role really entails.
Do you have to bring a gift if the hostess is your mother? Should you offer to take your guests out to dinner if they’ve traveled a long way and paid lots of money to come visit you? And who’s responsible, anyhow, for things like towels and washcloths?
The etiquette on such stuff is a bit fuzzy, so sometimes misunderstandings are actually understandable. Still, it’s good to know what’s expected of you, whether you’re hosting houseguests for the holidays or you yourself have the potential to become a houseguest from hell.
Length of stay
You know the old saying about houseguests and fish (both begin to smell after about three days) . . . well, it’s true and it’s one of those fundamental laws that you never want to break — especially if the person you’re staying with isn’t a best friend since birth, a relative who is used to your constantly annoying presence, or a saint.
“You want to keep it short and have a really good time while you’re there,” advises Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute, the authority on all things etiquette. “Don’t stay more than a couple of nights.”
If you’re a guest, by all means make sure your host or hostess knows when you’ll arrive and leave. If you have any specific plans while you’re there, be sure to fill him or her in on those as well.
On the flip side, if you’re inviting someone to visit you, be very clear about when the invitation is for and how long you expect your guest will stay.
Never, ever, ever — under any circumstances — arrive empty-handed.
This is why they invented airport gift shops and kooky local souvenirs. Even if you’re on your way to your host’s house when you realize you have nothing to offer, you can still stop for a bottle of wine, a candle, a box of chocolates.
“It starts things off on the right foot,” says nationally syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon, aka “The Advice Goddess.” “Quite frankly, it’s a bribe. It’s about making someone feel good about you staying there and mooching free hotel space.”
It doesn’t have to be something that’s going to break the bank. You don’t have to go all out for this kind of gift. Just something small and thoughtful — to show you’re not a schmuck. And yes, the rule still applies even if you’re just visiting your parents.
“For $10, your friend (or relative) feels really nice, and that’s a small price to pay to make someone feel all warm and fuzzy,” Alkon says.
If you need some ideas, think about what your host or hostess enjoys or what’s unique to where you live. If you’re from York County, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose between bringing a tin of Wolfgang chocolates or a jar of Hershey’s kisses, a stick of Lebanon bologna or a bag of pretzels.
Whether you brought a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, you should not expect your host or hostess to break open the goods and share them with everyone while you’re there, Post Senning says. After all, the gift is theirs.
Violators of this never-to-be-broken rule of bringing a hostess gift should take steps to send one within three days of their departure.
All the stuff
Just as a hotel or motel provides guests with the basics of a bed and bath, a good host or hostess should be prepared to provide guests with access to both. That means a cot with clean sheets, a pillow and blanket, and clean towels in the bathroom.
Beyond that, it’s up to the guest to bring whatever he or she needs to be comfortable, whether it be a special stuffed animal to sleep with or a particular brand of toothpaste.
If your guest is a college buddy accustomed to crashing on the couch, that’s one thing. But, generally, good manners dictate that you inform guests in advance of what their sleeping arrangements will be, Alkon says.
However, this does not mean that you must become your guest’s maid. Houseguests should make their beds, keep their space in the home neat and tidy, and clean up any messes he or she makes. They should also bring enough clothing for the duration of their stay and keep in mind that the host or hostess is not running a laundry service.
Alkon says guests need to remember that their annoying personal habits — while tolerable in small doses, can start to add up after a while.
“People are annoying — you, me and Jennifer Aniston. If you’re a realist and you operate on that principle, you might actually be a pleasant person to be around,” she says. “You should be like this mouse of a person and take up as little space as possible. … You want their house not to feel violated.”
If your host makes meals while you’re visiting, you, as a guest, should offer to set the table, help with preparations and clean up afterward. If you’re in town for more than a few days, you should offer to chip in for groceries or bring your own food, according to Post Senning.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, only eat purple foods or have other dietary restrictions, it’s wise — not to mention considerate — to let your host or hostess know ahead of time. If possible, bring your own snacks or offer to fix something else for yourself.
When staying with friends or family, it’s really nice if you offer to cook a special meal for your host or hostess or take them out for dinner — or even just coffee, if money is tight.


The words “host” and “hostess” are not synonymous with “shuttle service,” “tour guide” and “entertainer.” If you’re a guest, you shouldn’t expect the person you’re visiting to drive you all around town and plan a full schedule of activities to keep you entertained during your stay.
Alkon says it’s good to remember that your friend or relative has a life and responsibilities and commitments that haven’t screeched to a halt just because you’re in town. “They’re your friend and they want to see you, but they don’t want to experience being conjoined,” she says.
Learn the local public transportation system, call a cab or make transportation arrangements ahead of time. Alkon says under no circumstances should you expect to use your host or hostess’s car. “Then you’re not just their friend, you’re an insurance liability,” she says. “It just complicates things.”
And it’s a good idea to bring a book, magazine or other form of self-entertainment for the down times.
On the other hand, if you’ll be hosting out-of-town guests, it’s a good idea to chat ahead of time and find out if they’ll have free time to fill. Remember that they’re coming to visit you and see your town, so make sure you’ll have time to spend with them while they’re there. Offer some suggestions of places they might like to go, things they might like to do.
Do you think, maybe … ?
So you forgot to bring shampoo, you really would like a light to read by before bed or some time to go shopping while you’re in town?
Just ask.
Post Senning says most hosts or hostesses will probably be glad to help if they can. After all, they want you to be comfortable and enjoy your stay.
“The main thing is just to talk about it with your host,” she says. “Communicate, communicate, communicate. That will make the stay as pleasant as possible.”
She says etiquette — as old-fashioned as it may seem in today’s informal, casual society — is always in style because what it’s really all about is respect, consideration and honesty.
“Good manners isn’t a matter of formality or informality,” she says. “We think that etiquette is sort of the glue that holds relationships together and sometimes even keeps them from falling apart.”
So if that means shelling out a couple hundred bucks to stay at the Holiday Inn, it’s more than worth the price.


• Tell your host/hostess about your travel plans.
• Bring a gift, however small.
• Clean up after yourself.
• Offer to help with chores and/or meal preparation.
• Send a thank-you note.
• Bring children or pets without making sure your host/hostess is OK with that.
• Expect your host/hostess to be your maid, chef, mommy, chauffeur or tour guide.
• Overstay your welcome.
• Plan activities you think your guests might enjoy.
• Arrange your schedule so you have time to spend with your visitors.
• Provide clean sheets and linens.
• Ditch your guests to attend a party or other social gathering where they’re not welcome or invited.


Here is a list of some things you might want to do or place in the spare bedroom when you’re expecting houseguests. These extra touches will help make your guests more comfortable during their stay.
• Air out the room where the guest will be sleeping.
• Put freshly laundered sheets and an extra blanket on the bed.
• Empty drawers for clothes and put some extra hangers in the closet.
• Bedside lamp
• Alarm clock
• Radio and/or TV
• Magazines or the weekend/entertainment section of your local newspaper
• Clean towels and washcloths
• Tissues
• Wastebasket
Here are some ideas of “a little something” you can give your host or hostess to make sure he or she knows you appreciate the hospitality. The better you know his or her tastes, the easier it will be to choose a thoughtful, personalized gift. But if you’re at a loss, try one of the standards below.
• Bottle of wine
• Box of chocolates
• Scented candle
• Flower arrangement or plant
• Picture frame
• Hand lotion, soaps
• Box of stationery or notecards
• Flavored coffee or herbal tea samplers
• Gift basket of fruit, meats and cheeses, candies, snacks
• A book (if you know your host/hostess’s taste in reading material)

4 Responses

  1. Jian says:

    For the holidays this year my sister will be staying with me. I don’t have an extra bed so what I did was I bought a fold out bed from here: It folds out and stores easily underneath or behind things. I hate having her sleep on the couch because then all the blankets and pillows are everywhere. The bed in a box hides away easily…she loved it!

  2. Sara M says:

    Do you think family guests should clean their own sheets/towels before leaving? My mother-in-law was appalled when I stayed at her house and only stripped the bedding and gathered the towels together in a laundry basket. She thinks it is a well known fact that guests should wash, dry, and return their bedding and towels. I was made to feel like an idiot for not knowing this unspoken rule. I have appologized many many times and have never left without doing the laundry (unless my plane left too early in the morning), but it was brought up again and I would like some feedback. I have searched the interned and cannot find this rule.

  3. Sally says:

    What to do if you’re uncomfortable with guests taking over your kitchen?

  1. November 7, 2012

    [...] DIY hostess gift for less than $15 Posted on December 16, 2011 by April Trotter TweetMy go-to hostess gift has always been wine. It just seems right, if someone is having you over for dinner, to have a nice [...]

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