I am a big fan of homestays, as opposed to staying in hotels, for several reasons and wherever possible, I try to see if any homestays are available. Homestays have many things going for them. For one thing, its an opportunity to stay with a local person who can point of things that the regular tourist may miss. Often, after a day spent roaming around, your host may be able to tell you more about the things you’ve seen, perhaps legends connected to them, perhaps local gossip, how such and such municipal office is letting a park rot, why the roads to a particular destination are so bad…All this makes you feel much more aware of the places you are going to.

Another major attraction for me is the food. Most homestays have a maximum of 7-8 rooms that they offer. With a smaller number of people to serve, and the homeowners either doing the cooking or overseeing it closely, food quality tends to be much better. Its also easier to get special requests catered to, for example, if you have small children, or if you are diabetic etc. Homeowners tend to treat you as a guest in their house and not just another room that needs to be catered to. Customisation is therefore not such a challenge. And – if your host is a great cook, you often get a chance to eat the local cuisine that tourist hotspots may not necessarily cater to. In India, many tourist places these days offer only the standard “North Indian” food, which can often mean poorly made greasy sabzis and upset stomachs. At the end of a hard day of wandering around, a home cooked meal can seem like heaven.

Homestays tend to be quieter, due to the smaller crowd. There are also homestays that have come up on different locations, such as organic farms, dairy farms, nurseries etc. Staying on these also helps one appreciate the interesting ventures that these owners are involved in.

So is it all good then? Well, the flip-side to a homestay could be that a lot of the experience really depends on the personality and character of the owner, unlike hotels where a standard experience is laid out that hotel employees are expected to adhere to. Maybe the homeowner has had a bad week. Maybe he/she is not physically upto par. Maybe he/she is just a jerk who really has no interest in treating people well. So some element of unpredictability exists.

Again, homestays may not offer all the creature comforts of a hotel. Some of them may not offer telephones in your room, some may not have television, some may not have enough staff to offer room service. You need to play this off against the fact that you are more likely to get out of your room and meet people. With communal meals around a table, we’ve often met some really nice people at homestays.

Again, not all homestays are equipped to cater to the needs of kids, older people, those with a medical condition. Some of them tend to be further away from the centre of town, since suburbs/ residential areas may be further away. In any case, its always better to talk to the owner beforehand, and check these things out. If the owner seems hesitant to share information, or spend time talking to you, its a good bet that they will be too busy to look after you when you are there!

Further, you can always check out some of the more organised ones at sites like Holiday IQ, and see what other visitors have to say. If you have a good experience, go on and write about it. Its a good way to promote small businesses. Two homestays that I would unhesitatingly recommend – the Hidden Forest Retreat in Gangtok, Sikkim which I’ve blogged about earlier, and the Taj Gardens at Yelagiri, a tiny hill station in Tamil Nadu. At the Taj Garden, noteworthy features include excellent food and an owner who can teach you all you want to know about the beautiful trees and plants on his property, and the birds that inhabit them !