After you are done reading this post, do see the photos I’ve posted at the end – of my homestay – where the idea of this post germinated. 

At the homestay in Gangtok, Sikkim on my recent trip, I saw my hosts – the couple and the lady’s elderly mother, a bit pensive. Soon enough I understood. 

Their beautiful homestay has rooms at two levels and I saw two women walk up the stairs from the rooms below, muttering, “We wanted a homestay in the city. This is too ‘up’…” (She meant it is too far from the main city). Geographically, she was wrong because Gangtok had only just begun from this area called Tadong.

My hostess looked up at me and said, “They don’t like the place, no…” and smiled. She is certainly house proud and knew that nothing was really wrong with her space. It is just that the guests didn’t like it. 

“This is the city Ma’am,” I chipped in, hoping to make them see sense. They ignored me, and later I was to learn, understandably so.

I was the first guest at this homestay just two days ago – this is a brand new space, and so I was surprised to see the women muttering while their respective husbands and children waited up stairs in the reception area for their ‘verdict’. I didn’t want to embarrass my hosts by being present during this unpalatable situation, and I walked back to my room. 

The following morning I learned that the two families had left right then, and were upset because their travel agent had misguided them. They, tired from their journey, and hungry, (it was almost 8:00 PM) left to find a place more suited to their needs. 

The host told me, “We felt so bad no, but what to do. Their travel agent said the moment you step out of homestay is main market. It is wrong, no. So even though we lose money, we didn’t want to stop them.”

The homestay is located on the main road of Gangtok – the NH 10, and is 5 kms from the main shopping area, MG Marg. But anyone who has been to Gangtok would know that traversing this 5 km can take any where between 30 minutes to 1 hour depending upon time of day. 

Many tourists/travellers take the word of their travel agent as the gospel truth. But when the places to stay, amenities etc. are not up to the mark, they are justifiably upset. The impact of this anger and discontent is on the person interacting with them in that moment of time, in this case, the homestay owners. 

Since I saw the episode unfold before me, I offer a checklist of 5 important questions that travellers must ask their travel agent to ensure that they are being given what they want – 

  1. At the outset, be very specific about your requirement – I want a homestay away from the main city, in a quiet place but close to some restaurants/I want to live with a family in their house/I want a family run place but which is commercial and has all amenities etc. These are good way to spell it out
  2. Ask for the name and address of the homestay (most travel agents do not share the same until the guests arrive for fear of the guests approaching them directly). But please assure them that they won’t lose business and that you will go through them. It may still not work, but its worth a try
  3. Nearest landmark to the homestay – Look this up on Google Maps and search for ‘shopping places nearby’ or ‘restaurants nearby’ etc. to understand how close or far it is from civilisation. Even though this is not 100% foolproof, it will give you some idea of where you are
  4. Do take the trouble to read reviews of areas to stay in, available on Trip Advisor, to understand what you’re getting into
  5. Always ask your travel agent for photos and description of the area/location. Do not take their word for granted

Now let’s address the other side – 

While the guests ended up wasting their time and had a bad start to their holiday, the homestay owners also had a bad experience for no fault of theirs. Not only were they losing business, they also had to handle the frustration the guests were heaping on them. Many times, I’ve seen that happen when the guests are not happy with the homestay as well, not just the location. 

Why?

Because most tourists have this misconception that homestays are cheap and the amenities are like a ‘home’. This is not necessarily true any more. Gone are the days when a homestay meant ‘staying with a host family’ – this is perhaps still true in Bhutan. In India, homestays have reinvented themselves and how.

5 questions to ask yourself before you book a homestay – 

  • Am I seeking a homestay because they are cheap? The cheaper the homestay, the more basic it will be; be prepared for an Indian toilet, damp walls, basic furnishings etc. On the other hand, I’ve stayed in homestays that offered me better facilities than a 2 star
  • Are all homestays basic? Not necessarily. I’ve lived in homestays more expensive than 2 star hotels and I have stayed in some very basic ones as well. Ultimately, the experience offered in all places have been different based on what kind of a ‘homestay’ they are
  • Am I looking for hotel-like amenities in a homestay? If yes, you may either be pleasantly surprised or rudely shocked, again, depending upon the homestay you choose
  • Do I wish to stay in a homestay to interact with the owners and understand more about their way of life? Most owners are happy to interact and share details about the location, culture, traditions etc. But this need not be a rule. Some owners cannot speak a common language, are shy, or simply unavailable. 

In Gangtok, I stayed in two homestays. The difference was – in one, the owner was chatty but I never got to meet his wife, and in the other, the whole family was involved and I learned a lot from them about Sikkimese life. 

Similarly, when staying on an Estate in Coorg, I learned much about their cuisine and way of life from the rather stiff owner who opened up after a few drinks.

  • Can I find a homestay that looks like a hotel? Most certainly. In Gangtok, both places I stayed in, were like hotel rooms, well equipped with all modern amenities, comfortable beds, cosy quilts, clean sheets and towels and many electrical points to charge all my gadgetry

All in all, the cardinal rule I would say is to know what you’re getting into and not blame the provider of the facilities should they not be up to the mark. Most homestay owners are just trying to make a little money by opening the doors of their homes to you; some are running a professional/commercial set up, offering you highly specialised hotel-like environs, but however hard they try, they’re still family run and not professional or commercial like hotels.

Choose wisely and approach the space with an open mind. 

Ritu

Author Ritu

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