Beyond the gift giving, eggnog drinking and dreidel spinning, the heart of the holiday season is spending quality time with family and friends. But while it can be wonderful to catch up with long-lost cousins, the constant flurry of entertaining and socializing can be stressful -- especially if one of your holiday responsibilities is hosting a houseguest. A good houseguest can make a delightful addition to the family for a few days, while a bad one can cause unwelcome tension at an already busy time of year.
So if someone opens their home to you over the holiday season, try to return the favor. Respect your hosts, take care of their possessions, and remember the three C's: common sense, communication and courtesy.
Bring, Buy or Send a Gift
It is always a good idea to present your hosts with a token of gratitude for letting you share their digs. The classy, albeit standard, choice is to bring along a bottle of wine or other spirits for your host to enjoy. Of course, if it's well thought out, any type of offering will be greatly appreciated. Other ideas to consider include baked goods, a framed family portrait or a local specialty from your own home town.
Phone Ahead and Ask About the Ground Rules
This is particularly important in terms of what some consider "vices" -- like drinking, smoking and gluttony. Your host may not allow smoking in the house, so be prepared to stand outside to have a cigarette. If you typically have wine with dinner each night, be prepared to forgo this ritual if your host doesn't drink.
Lend a Helping Hand
Ask your host or hostess what needs to be done, and be prepared to help out. Even if you're not familiar with the home's layout, you can always pitch in by doing simple tasks like vacuuming, washing dishes or making a run to the grocery store.
BYO (Bring Your Own)
This is particularly important if you're traveling with an entourage. It's not polite to arrive at your host's home and clean them out of staple items like shampoo and toothpaste. The BYO rule also applies to food when you or a family member has an allergy, is a vegetarian or is particularly picky. If this is the case, offer to bring or prepare a dish.
Don't Expect to Be Entertained
You don't want your hosts to feel like tour guides all weekend, but you also don't want to appear as if you are using their home as a crash pad for your sightseeing trip. To strike a balance, be prepared to adapt. If your host plans a visit to a 19th-century re-creation frontier village and that's not really your thing, be enthusiastic nonetheless. Finally, avoid making other plans without letting your hosts know.
Don't Add to the Chaos
Many guests will find that their hosts insist they not lift a finger during their stay. If you have tried to extend yourself with no luck, it could just be that your hosts feel more comfortable doing it all themselves. If this is the case, the least you can do is clean up after yourself -- make your bed each morning, don't leave your towels on the bathroom floor, place any dishes you use in the dishwasher. Just taking care of yourself will go a long way toward ensuring an invitation back.
What About Spot?
Of course you don't want to leave your pet behind during the holidays, but it's often necessary. Conversely, if your host has animals of their own and they invite you to bring yours, make sure to bring everything that your pet requires. Although your hosts may have no problem sharing, don't expect them to provide treats for your widdle buddy.
Don't Be a Freeloader
This applies especially to extended visits. If you'll be spending several days with your hosts, treat them to dinner out or offer to cook a meal for everyone. Use your cell phone to make long-distance phone calls. Don't monopolize their computer or TV for your own purposes.
Don't Wear Out Your Welcome
You know the old joke about houseguests and fish stinking after three days. Be thoughtful when you're planning your trip, and be clear about your arrival and departure dates and times. For many hosts, nothing is more stressful than not knowing when a houseguest plans on leaving.
Have you had a bad experience as a host or a houseguest? Share your horror story on our message boards!
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--updated by Dan Askin and Sarah Schlichter