The bright light of dawn enters through the open-air windows of the wood thatched house of a homestay in the remote community of Piedras Blancas, Costa Rica. I awake on a mattress surrounded by a dozen or so study abroad students who hiked with me to the village the day before.
The home’s owner, a middle-aged woman named Magda, starts our day off with a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, rice with beans and herbs, scrambled eggs, and of course, black coffee. We spend the day with Magda and her children, learning about the surrounding countryside, traditional farming techniques and the importance of rice and beans.
My experience on a homestay with Magda was an irreplaceable experience, offering me a unique window into Costa Rica’s authentic everyday culture that I would not be able to find elsewhere.
For many study abroad programs, especially those located in Central or South America or Africa, doing a homestay is the most common housing choice for students. Some programs even include homestays as a built-in component of the program.
But are homestays safe? Of course safety is the number one priority and concern for students while studying abroad. While most students report that their homestay experiences are both safe and rewarding, of course there are always exceptions.
Sometimes, Homestays Are the Safer Option
In addition to offering you a way to experience the local culture first-hand, staying with a local family provides you with a broader local network. Which means that sometimes homestays are actually the safer option for studying or volunteering abroad.
Many students report they feel much safer living with a host family especially in more rural or off the beaten path locations. Host families are able to tell you which areas to avoid or go out with you to places where you might be a target on your own. They can be a sounding board for any issues you face and help you learn how to navigate your new location.
Staying with a host family will also mean there will most always be someone at home with you, a fact that makes many students feel more secure in their new housing situation.
When choosing a homestay it is important to be thorough to weed out scams or homes that may not provide the safest environments. Here are some questions to ask of a potential homestay to get a better sense of whether or not it is a safe choice:
Where Can You Find Trusted Homestays?
There are numerous to find a host family in the country you will be studying abroad in. If your homestay is listed on a reputable website, chances are it has been vetted by a company to ensure it meets standards. For example, homestay.com verifies their hosts identities and utilizes guest reviews to provide insight on homestays.
Some study abroad programs will set up international students on homestays with families that they have worked with in the past. If you are concerned about the homestay you have been placed in, ask the housing manager how long students have been staying with the family. The longer an organization has been working with a host family the greater the odds are that it is a safe home.
Be aware of scams on the internet for homestays. Do not stay with a family that has not been recommended by a reputable organization or previous students. Trust your instincts as you research potential homestays and be wary of hosts who are unaffiliated and ask you to wire money ahead of time.
What Are the Reviews Like?
If you're locating a homestay through a website with a review system, reading reviews from other students who have stayed with the family can increase your chances for making a safe choice. Choose a host family that has multiple positive reviews.
If you're being set up on a homestay through your university or study abroad programs and have concerns, ask if you can speak to a student who stayed with the host family recently. Having a real conversation with a fellow student who was once in your shoes is the best way to get a sense of what the homestay will be like.
Will You be Staying at the Homestay Alone or with Other Students?
This depends -- at some homestays, just one student stays with a host family. At others, pairs or even groups of students stay under the same roof.
If you're feeling a bit uneasy about the prospect of staying with a host family, see if you can find one that will allow you to stay with a fellow student or group. Living with someone from your own culture while studying abroad can also help make your transition to the new culture easier as you will have someone to discover the nuances of the new country with.
Who Lives at the Homestay?
While family demographics are not necessarily an indicator of safety at a homestay, you may feel more comfortable if the people who live at the homestay match what you are looking for.
For example, if you are a young woman you may prefer to live with a host family that does not have any teenage or young adult sons living at the house. If you are a young male, perhaps you will feel more comfortable with sons in the house.
Sometimes, having a family member who is about your age is helpful for making you feel not just safer but more comfortable in your host family's home.
How Safe is the Homestay's Location?
Some safety concerns regarding homestays will be related to what occurs outside the host family’s home in the neighborhood.
Research the location of your homestay prior to your arrival to ensure it is in a safe neighborhood. Crime statistics for places throughout the world are available online. A simple Google search or even Google map view of the neighborhood will give you a better sense of the area you are going to be living in.
Looking for information regarding the neighborhoods general feel can be a good thing to screen for on reviews as well. If you have the opportunity to speak with any students who lived at the home in the past it is also a good idea to ask them how they felt as foreigners in the neighborhood.
In some countries, theft can be a problem even in safe neighborhoods. If this is true of the country you will be going to, ask what security your host family has in place, for example, does the home have a security system or is there a safe in your room?
What if Your Homestay is Set Up by the Program?
Of course, if your homestay is set up by your study abroad program, some of our safety tips won't apply to you. You won't be able to read reviews of your host family or necessarily judge them by their communication.
In this case, you'll want to look at reviews specifically of the program. Read them to see if any alumni have mentioned their homestay and anything about its quality. Get in touch with one of them and ask questions if you're concerned.
Alternatively, you should ask your program provider what their process is like for choosing homestay families. How do they vet them? Do they only choose families with a good reputation within the community? How do they prepare first time host families? How are students set up with a homestay family? Their answers to these questions will all be great indicators as to how safe your homestay will be.
How is the Homestay Host’s Communication?
Some homestay experiences are reported as being negative not necessarily because students were put in physical danger, but because of hostility on part of the host or their family. If possible, communicate with your host family prior to your arrival, either through email or live video communication using Skype and/or Facetime.
Screen your host’s communication. While other cultures may express kindness in quieter, more subtle ways than in the United States, this can be a good way to gauge your host family’s communication style to see if it will be a good fit for you. While you're there, remember this list of dos and don'ts.
In The End, Homestays Are Wonderful
If you have the opportunity to stay with a host family while studying abroad, this can be one of the most rewarding parts of your experience. Many students who stay on homestays keep in touch with their host family for years after returning home, and some even visit the family on future trips to the country.
However, as with any housing situation both in the United States and abroad, it is a good rule of thumb to proceed with caution and be wary of scams or unsafe situations. Trust your gut and use the above questions in your screening process for the best chances of keeping safe while staying at a homestay.