Finesse an Invite
Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies, suggests a subtle approach to feel out whether a family member might be up for hosting you. You could start by asking, "Gee, when I'm in town, maybe I can come by? Can you suggest any hotels in the area?"
"It's not OK to hint that you should be invited to spend the night," says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette authority Emily Post and author of lifestyle guide How Do You Work This Life Thing? "But it can happen through conversation. You might call a friend and say, 'Hey, we're coming through town and we'd really love to see you. Could we get together?' Then, leave it up to them to take the next step. Don't get upset if they're not rolling out the welcome mat."
Keep Your Visit Brief
"At the very start, deal with the exact start and end date of the visit," says Post. "Personally, I think no one should stay more than three days—you know the saying that both fish and houseguests stink after three days. It's true." If you want to visit the area longer, bite the bullet and split your stay between your friend's place and a hotel.
Be Clear and Up Front About Everything
Hosts do not deserve to be surprised that you've brought two German shepherds and your latest biker boyfriend, when they expected only you. "Never assume that bringing your pets, children, friend, or family member is acceptable if you're not directly told or invited to bring them," says Fox.
"You must also be up front about any dietary issues. It's awful when a guest shows up and says, 'I forgot to tell you I'm a vegan,'" says Norine Dresser, author of Multicultural Manners: Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century.
Maintain Contact in Advance
"Check in a few days before the visit to get directions and double-check the dates," advises Post. "And most definitely touch base on the morning of the day you're supposed to arrive. If anything changes your planned arrival time, you absolutely must call your hosts. It's rude to have people waiting around for you."
"Hosts will generally provide you with towels," says Dresser. "But ask before you take just any towel from the closet. In some families, each person has his or her own towel, and you don't want to upset anyone by drying off with the wrong one." As for pretty much everything else you'll need in the bathroom—shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, a special soap if you're particular—bring your own. It's OK to ask to use some toothpaste if you've forgotten yours.
Acknowledge Everyone in the House
Pet the hosts' dog, say hello to their aunt who lives above the garage, and most of all, make an effort to be nice to the hosts' children. "You don't have to get on your knees with the kids or play board games the entire time you're there," says Post. "But you should pay attention to the kids, even if you're not a 'kid person.' Every parent loves it when other people enjoy spending time with their kids."
Make It Look Like You're Not There
Wipe down the sink after you shave. Make the bed. Tidy up every chance you get—especially if you have children. "Don't leave toys in a pile, or worse, scattered all over the place," says June Hines Moore, author of Manners Made Easy for the Family. If you're in a makeshift bedroom in an office or the living room, fold up the futon. The goal is to make it look like no one is even visiting.
Offer a Helping Hand
This may be your vacation, but the host is not a combo cook-maid-butler-concierge. Offer to pick up groceries, do the dishes, mix some margaritas, chop vegetables for dinner, or take the dog for a walk, and make your offer an earnest one. "Let me help with that" is better than "You're all set in the kitchen, right?"
But don't be pushy. "Some people are weird about their kitchens," says Post. "They don't like other people messing with their spices. So if they turn down your request to help, back off."
Respect House Rules and Schedules
"Watch what the host family does," says Dresser. "If they take off their shoes, you take off yours." Be especially respectful if your hosts have to work during your visit. "Ask about your host's morning routine," says Post. "Then stay clear of the bathroom when your host needs the shower."
Spend Some Time With Your Hosts
"It's assumed that guests and hosts will hang out and share some meals together," says Dresser. "The host's house is not a hotel. It's not just a place to crash. It's offensive if you show up, disappear, and only come back to sleep and shower." You should still be able to find plenty of time to sightsee, with or without your host.
Get Out of Your Host's Hair
Don't expect your host to be a tour guide for the entire visit. When you arrive, plan a rough itinerary for what you want to see and let the host know that he or she is welcome to come along. Include some downtime in the itinerary, along with some time apart. "If your host has work to do, or even if you just feel like everyone needs a break, disappear for a little while," says Post. "Read a book, explore town by yourself, or go for a walk."
Give a Good Gift
"Do you have to show up at the host's house with gift in hand?" asks Post. "No. Absolutely not. Do you have to buy something? Again, no. A nice gift could be something you make—a pie, a scarf. Taking your hosts out to a nice dinner can also count." Fox suggests bringing a bottle of wine, a flowering plant, or some gourmet chocolates. "Special blends of coffee and tea are acceptable too," she says.
The key is knowing what your hosts like and don't like. If you're unsure what to give, listen for cues during your visit. Make a mental note when your host mentions loving a restaurant or shop, and get a gift certificate.
Handwrite the Thank You
"An e-mail thank you is still a no-no," says Post. "It's OK to jot off a quick thanks on your Blackberry from the airport, but you must follow that up with a handwritten note within a few days afterward." It's also nice to return the hospitality by extending a hearty "If you're ever in our neck of the woods..." invitation to the folks who just graciously hosted you.