1. Bring your host something.
Ideally something your city/town is known for. Coming from New York? Bring Ess-a bagels. Seattle? Zoka's Sumatra Harimau Tiger coffee. If you visit me from Saint Louis, I want some toasted ravioli from Charlie Gitto’s. I don’t care if it makes your luggage smell like an Italian diner, pack it in Tupperware, because I still want it.
2. Schedule like you’re Anna Wintour’s P.A.
Lots of people think vacations mean a complete break from all the planning that goes on during the rest of their lives. And if you stay at a hotel, then yep, it’s the break you deserve! Go ahead and sleep until noon, think about waking up, then sleep for another hour.
But if you’re staying with a friend, this is off the agenda, unless you actually schedule it into the agenda. Hosts have jobs and outside commitments and reasons they might like to use their living room couch. So if you’re not going to pay for a hotel, schedule things ahead of time so your host knows how to work her regular life around her hosting life. If you want to spend the day on the couch watching TV, then let her know that’s your plan. She can then decide to use that day to catch up on her [whatever] and everyone can be happy.
Here’s the tricky part: You have to actually stick to the schedule. Just because you have the capacity to send a text message doesn’t mean you can send one at 2:50 that says, “Hey, I know we planned to go to the museum at 3, but I just started lunch. OK?”
Nope, not OK. You planned for 3, and your host probably scheduled her work around that. She might even have told other people to meet at 3. You should to be ready to go at 3. This is another one of those lessons that applies far beyond the guest-host relationship. Maybe just try to never do this to anyone ever, via any means of communication.
3. Give your host some space.
This applies to both physical and mental space. Keep your things contained, if possible. Don’t start strewing bits of clothing around your host’s bedroom. Perfect your strewing technique on a different sort of overnight visit.
Give your host some mental space by keeping yourself occupied for at least two hours each day. Hosting is exhausting, so acknowledge this by making yourself scarce. There are so many great things to do in whatever city you’re in! Go for a walk and take in the sights. That café down the street is famous for its croissants; you should definitely go eat them.
4. Respect your host’s relationships with other people.
You know who else lives in the city where you’re going? Dave! Oh man, it would be so great to get together with Dave. You’ll probably call him and tell him that he should get a drink with you and your host on Thursday. I hope that before you do this, you check with your host and make sure she didn’t drunkenly hook up with him last Memorial Day, have it go really badly, and then have to change her running route so she wouldn’t pass his house anymore.
5. Buy dinner.
If you’re going to skip the other items on this list, at least do this one. This is the easiest step and the one you’ll get the most credit for. Buy dinner. Buy it more than once. In-n-Out doesn’t count, and neither does a coffee run.
Maybe, like me, you’re a grad student with no income. While this is a great excuse for lots of things — homemade Christmas gifts, not attending your cousin’s third wedding, perpetual adolescence — it isn’t an excuse here. If you can afford the trip, you can afford to buy dinner. And if you don't want to shell out for a restaurant, you can just as easily buy ingredients to make a delicious meal for your host at home. (Note: This is not the same as making a meal with ingredients she has already bought. Also, clean up afterward.)
Generally, the cost of the meal should be proportional to the number of nights you’re staying, the amount of inconvenience you’ve put your host through, and your income level. A three-night stay should be, minimum, a $15 entree + drinks. Hopefully, things will go so swimmingly that the next time your friend visits you, she’ll spring for dinner at Melisse.
6. Don't overstay.
Ben Franklin said that "fish and visitors smell in three days," and modern technology has solved only one of these problems.
Liz Levin's cotillion training taught her a great trick for remembering which side your bread plate goes on but not much else. She's currently a law student in Los Angeles, and alhough she loves her house guests, she just needs to put in a few more hours at the library, then promises she'll be free to hang out.