During our unplanned trip to the US we stayed in what we endearingly named the tiniest hotel in LA. Two of our friends had moved there a few years ago and lived in a studio flat 30 seconds from Venice Beach. They were kind enough to put us up in an airbed in their living area, separated from their bedroom by a curtain.
Two weeks after that, we were in San Francisco bunking in the Market Street living room of another set of expat friends. Without them, we would have found ourselves far from the centre, traipsing into town using dubious public transport.
We joked that they must be suddenly popular with those back home, a common scenario among expats: someone moves to an interesting or desirable location and their flat suddenly becomes a revolving door of guests from past homes.
We’ll admit that ‘freeload’ is a provocative term – most expats welcome visitors from their past hometowns – but there is an art to taking advantage. Here’s how to do it.
Make it clear there’s no obligation
If you’re visiting the country specifically to see your friend, it’s safe to assume they’ll put you up. If, however, you’re visiting for a general holiday or for business, then make it clear that there is no obligation to host you. This is particularly important if the expat friend is really just an acquaintance who you’re treating as a friend because they have a cool apartment in the centre of town. If this is the case, mention that you’ve seen a few nice hotels or Airbnb options close by and are happy to bunk there instead. This gives them the option to say no.
Bring a gift from home
Most expats miss certain foods or comforts from back home. This might be a really hot chilli sauce from an east London cash and carry, or a box of PG Tips from Tesco. Find out what your friend misses from back home and take a stash to say thank you. Naturally, if you can find other opportunities to express your gratitude, take them (e.g. treating your friend to dinner, doing some cleaning or running an errand in town).
Be mindful that they have a ‘real life’
You might expect your friends to be living a fairytale life in their new home (Venice Beach! Sun! Sea! Sand!) but remember that they are living real life. Don’t expect them to put their responsibilities and commitments on hold just because you’re passing through town. This means not urging them to have ‘one more drink’ when they have an early morning start or hogging the bathroom when they’ve got to get to work or hanging around when they’ve got a conference call to make.
When we went out in LA, we teased our host for choosing salad over a burger and chips. He said, “Yes, but I live here now. I can’t eat like that every day.”
Make it clear that you’re happy to be independent; to fill your own days and source your own entertainment. This takes the pressure off your hosts. You will of course want to spend some time with them but make it clear that it’s not their responsibility to show you a good time.
Follow their lead
It’s obvious that if your host is a clean freak, you should keep things clean. It’s equally important, however, to be relaxed if your hosts are laidback. Sure, do the dishes but don’t jump up to do so every time they finish a cup of coffee. You’ll put them on edge and make them think twice about leaving things lying around lest they inconvenience you.
Don’t overstay your welcome
Make it clear from the start how long you are planning to stay. The expats we spoke to said up to five nights is the sweet spot. Close friends can get away with a bit longer while a stay of several weeks should only be expected of very close friends and family.
A private room where you’re tucked out of the way gives you a bit more leeway while sleeping in the living room area of a studio flat gives you less. It may sound rather regimented to approach your stay this way – especially if your friends are close ones – but be mindful that you may be only one of a long string of guests that are taking advantage of free accommodation.
Don’t ask about their tan
There are certain things expats hate hearing. Asking why they’re pasty white after two years in the golden sun is one of them. Asking if they’re fluent yet is another. In fact, we have a whole list of things not to say to an expat, taken from those who have left their home shores. Take heed.
Return the favour
This should go without saying. Always offer to return the favour should your friends find themselves in your hometown. Even if your place is less comfortable and/or spacious than theirs, the offer will always be appreciated.