Saturday, February 4, 2012

Best short stay in London - where, what and why go for homestay


Despite falling to the 18th down the list of the most expensive cities to live in 2011, London remains expensive for tourists. While there are ways of stretching your pound when looking for budget travelling in London, the main cost of accommodation remains. Unless you don't mind splashing out a bit, you are easily looking at over £200 per night in a hotel in Central London. For that, you get a tiny room, with breakfast thrown in if you are lucky.

If you are planning on a trip to London, why not forgo the deary hotels and take the less trodden path - live like the locals do, opt for a homestay instead. Now, get the image of the creepy host out of your mind, we are talking about people with rooms or even an entire property to spare for a limited period of time, and don't mind having a few quid for renting them out.

Like all things, there are pros and cons of homestays, and more importantly what to look out for.

Pros of homestay

Photo by squishband

1. Cheaper

This cannot be denied, pound for pound, homestay gives you more bang for your buck. Instead of being at the mercy of the hotel restaurant or having to hunt for a local diner, you have access to a kitchen. A simple meal or a full three course dinner - it's entirely up to you.

2. Own time own target

How many times have you deliberately wake up, drag yourself out of the bed only to find out that you've missed out on the hotel's breakfast timing? What about having to get out of the room in a hurry before the chambermaids arrive to clean up your room? True, a do-not-disturb sign would probably do the trick but you have already paid for that service and you do not really feel like losing out, do you? Having a place of your own rules all that out. You set your own schedule.

3. Lived in conditions

A number of the homestay properties are lived in - the owners actually live there themselves, only to vacate it for a couple of weeks when they have to do some travelling themselves. You would trust that you would be able to find what you need in the property. It's literally someone else's home.

4. The local feel

Live like the locals do! That is something that most tourists who chose to stay in a hotel will never get to experience. Most homestay properties are tucked in the heart of London's residential areas. If you are staying over for a couple of days, get acquainted with the people behind the tills at the local grocer and convenient store, which makes the travelling much more interesting.

Also, if you are just renting a room from the host, they are likely to invite you to dine with them. I'm sure you would be entertained by the dinner table conversations. Take the chance to ask them about local amenities, that beats hunting for the tourist information counter. Some kinder ones would even prepare something special - a family in Wales baked a small cake just for us when we were there.

5. Less tourists, less hustle and bustle

The only thing that tourists hate more than being stuck behind a long ticket queue is other tourists. Staying in a hotel right smack in the city central means that you would step right right out into the hustle and bustle, not to mention sharing the lobby with loads of weary looking tourists who are determined to cover more than what they did yesterday. It does takes the fun out of travelling and gets a bit draining after some time.

A homestay on the other hand is different ball game altogether. Most people don't live in the same area where the tourists do. That's a fact.

Cons of homestay

Photo by jojo 77

1. Host can be tiresome

It is a double edged sword really. A overly friendly host can be overbearing. Instead of merely pointing out where you should visit, they can 'insist' on bring you there. They are not content with small talk over dinner and prefer to revel you in their life stories, which in all honestly, isn't very interesting. But then again, this happens only when the hosts are around in the first place - in most cases, they aren't.

2. No one to complain to

What happens when the water heater isn't working very well? You would call the front desk at a hotel to demand a room change. You can't very well do the same in a homestay, can you? While some hosts would probably boil some water for you, it does feel a bit awkward. That said, if you got your homestay properties through a website portal, there is usually a number to call. The more established ones have a team of plumbers and electricians on standby for this sort of things.

3. Lack of transport links

Being away from the hustle and bustle of the city is all fine provided that the place that you are staying in is well connected by public transport to the main attractions, which is the main point really. The last thing you need is having to switch three buses every single time you visit the city centre. This is particularly true in London where the main tourist attractions are mostly congregated in central London.

4. Worn out furnishings

A home away from a home is taken to extreme when you have tears in the sofa or your sleep disrupted by a bed spring that went awry. As mentioned earlier, homestay properties are more likely to be lived in than not. If the owner chooses to live 'simply', tough luck. That is where the reviews come in handy.

5. No information desk

While some hosts would kindly leave brochures or local maps on the table for you, others would leave you to your own devices. Unlike in hotels where they have people employed just to answer your questions, the host is all you got, and that is if they are present in the first place. Sure, there's internet access but popping a question would be so much easier, wouldn't it?

What to look out when homestaying

Fine, homestaying isn't all hunky-dory but there are ways to ensure that your stay would be a pleasant one. Here're some.

Photo by gerlos

1. Reviews, reviews, reviews

If you are going for the cheaper option, do your due research at least. More so if you are getting only a room from the host. Check out the house rules if any. Given a choice between price and good reviews, always opt for the latter. If you are going to travel, make sure it's an enjoyable experience.

2. Got a question? Ask the host

Most homestay portals do a fair job describing the properties. However, you might have some concerns that are not addressed on the website. Fine, get the information directly from the horse's mouth - post a question to the host directly. Not all homestay websites have this option though. Otherwise, contact the website directly and they would route the question to the host. While you are at it, ask for any specific house rules (alcohol, curfew timings etc.).

Go to another site if they don't get back to you within a few days.

3. Check transport links

Having to travel a bit isn't a great problem if the public transport links to the central London is good. It's straightforward for the case of London - the best option would be to live near a London Underground (or Tube) station or at least a bus stop along the main service lines. To be sure, ask for the postal code of the property and check out how long it would take you to get to Westminster Tube station and Covent Garden Tube station using the Journey Planner at Transport for London.

4. Crime rates

This is one thing that is often neglected. Living in a residential area is fine, living in a dodgy one isn't. London, like any other major cities, has its fair share of petty crimes. One site that I rely on is, another would be the site run by Metropolitan Police. Don't get too worried about the statistics though, most are anti-social behaviour, which can be something really trivial. Regardless, check out the area before committing to your stay.

Which homestay portal to go for? 

Short of contacting the host directly through Gumtree, I recommend that you head to the following homestay specialist portals. Well, some are better than the others but take some time to go through them.

Photo by utnapistim

1. Wimdu

Wimdu prides itself for being all over the place. With 35,000 properties in 103 countries, it has good reason to. From single beds to entire properties, Wimdu has it all. If you can't find it here, you would be hardpressed to find it anywhere else. What makes Wimdu stand among competition is its clearly laid out property photos, availability by means of a calender, location on Google Map, list of amenities and House Rules.

The best thing of all, you can just type in your question to the host directly on the property page itself and click on the Contact Me button. Presto! It's that easy.

2. Crashpadder

While the layout is a tad less appealing than Wimdu, Crashpadder has thousands of "pads" in London. Unless I'm missing something, I can't seem to find means of contacting the hosts on Crashpadder's website though. That said, a quick search for London accommodation Crashpadder has no shortage of rooms that goes for less than £50 per night.

Right now, it even has an entire section dedicated to London Olympics 2012. Now we are talking!

3. One Fine Stay

As the name suggests, One Fine Stay is for those who prefer to live in style. The word "Class" screams out loud as I surf through One Fine Stay website. A four bedroom Georgian Townhouse in the middle of Marylebone, a pied-a-terre in Mayfair or a designer one bedroom above the clubs in Leicester Square. Well, you get the idea.

4. Roomomara

Two things stand out for Roomomara: it allows express booking (immediate confirmation) for most properties and a long list of perks that Roomorama's members enjoy. These include handy discounts such as 10% off London Pass and 20% off The Original London Sightseeing Tour among others.

5. Couch Surfing

This is the one to go for if you are really looking to stretch your budget. You can't go cheaper than this 'cause it's free. Think of it as the Linux of the homestay universe - it's all about exchange of cultures, experiences and perspectives. You have hosts all over the whole who open up their house asking for nothing in return other than for the opportunity to meeting someone new.

However, while it sounds like a whole lot of fun, Couch Surfing also carries a certain element of risk. Just searching online for "Couch Surfing horror stories" for more on that.

Regardless of which option you go for, I'm almost certain that you would be in for quite an experience. If all goes well, homestaying can be rather addicting. Enjoy!

Did I miss out anything? I would love to hear your homestaying experiences!

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