Reuters: The prize-winning houseguest
Summer is in full swing, and it's time for vacations and trips to visit friends and family. Hotels may leave chocolates on the pillow at night and fresh towels in the morning, but nothing beats the fun and relaxation (and economy!) of staying with those you know.
No matter how closely you're related or how well you know your friends, being a guest in someone's home calls for a little extra sensitivity and awareness. Respect the agreed-upon arrival and departure times. While your hosts are sure to want you to feel at home, remember that it's their home: Don't use or borrow without permission, keep your room and bath tidy, and don't snoop.
Follow the rhythms of the house for meals and bedtimes. Be an enthusiastic participant and offer to help out. And be a little self-sufficient-don't expect your host to entertain you every minute.
Here are some important points to consider:
Bring your own toiletries. Don't count on your host having stocked the guest bathroom cabinet with everything you need.
Don't make other plans without letting your host know. For example, don't accept an invitation from someone else during your visit without first checking with your host.
Lend a helping hand. Any time you see a chance to help the host, do offer-but be specific. "I'll peel the carrots"; "It's my turn to clear the table"; or "Let me take those groceries in."
At the same time, don't overdo it. Prowling about the kitchen just waiting for an opportunity to pitch in can be distracting to the cook.
Don't ask to bring your pet. If you must travel with Fido, inquire about a good kennel in the area or offer to stay in a hotel. This gives your host an opening to invite your pet if she wishes.
Tidy up after yourself. Straighten up your room and make the bed each morning. Keep your bathroom neat, especially if you're sharing it with other people. Don't use more than your share of hot water, and don't leave the toilet seat up.
Be ready for anything-or for nothing. Hosts need down time too, so come prepared to rest and relax on your own.
Negotiate the schedule. "Saturday sounds perfect to go out on the boat. Would Sunday work for us to walk around town?"
At the end of your visit, ask if you should strip the bed. If so, remove the sheets, fold them loosely, place them at the foot of the bed, and pull the blanket and bedspread up neatly so that the bed will look "made."
This will make life easier for your host. If you're close friends, ask for fresh sheets to remake the bed. It's a nice gesture and it saves your host from having to do it later.
Regardless of how you do it, giving a gift to your host is a must for any houseguest. For an overnight stay, something simple like a bottle of good wine is fine. A longer stay merits something a little more elaborate.
You can bring the gift with you and present it to your host when you arrive, buy it during your stay once you've gotten a better idea of what your host might like, or send it as soon as possible after you return home.
In lieu of a gift, you could also treat your hosts to a dinner out if you think they'd prefer it. If you decide to do this, let your hosts know in advance so it becomes part of the game plan.
To choose the perfect gift for your host, think about what they like. Look around the house: What's their style? Are they in need of anything for the kitchen? What are their hobbies?
If shopping during your visit, consider a gift that speaks to what you did: If your trip to their beach house was rained out, opt for board games or a movie night selection of DVDs, popcorn, and popcorn bowl.
Some of the best gifts might reflect a piece of your home instead: Vermont maple syrup, Virginia peanut brittle, New Orleans chicory coffee or pralines, Napa wines, local artisanal cheeses or specialty chocolates.
The other must for overnight guests is to send a handwritten thank-you note afterward. (Though one British mum-in-law caused quite a stir recently when she tersely emailed a houseguest this reminder, she was correct that it should be done.) An email or phone call once you've returned home is fine, as long as a handwritten note follows it.
Finally, being a good houseguest means being good company. Switch off the mobile phone and log off of email. Skip complaints and get into the swing of things, be it vibrant dinner conversation or adventurous activities. A fun time for guest and host alike is why you're there in the first place, and it's what will get you invited back next time.