1. "You will bolt the door when I'm gone."
As the old saying goes, guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. Turns out, that assessment may be optimistic. A 2010 survey by travel-rental site HomeAway.com concluded that, during the holidays, nearly a quarter of relatives have overstayed their welcome after just one day. Of course, vacation rental websites may have an invested interest in travelers not imposing on their friends and relatives. Nonetheless, that statistic doesn't bode well for the thousands of households now breaking out fresh soap and crisp linens.
More than 93 million Americans are expected to travel to visit friends and relatives during the year-end holiday season, according to the American Automobile Association. And while many will stay in hotels, almost 50% will stay at the homes of friends and family, according to the 2012 "December Holiday Travel Survey" by travel website TripAdvisor.com. And that is where the problems begin.
Experts suggest laying out firm ground rules -- starting with the exit date and continuing on to out-of-bounds areas, whether pets are welcome and where guests can smoke. That allows the host to plan activities and know there is an end in sight. "This is probably the most important decision to make before your guest arrives," says Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of the grand dame of etiquette Emily Post, who founded the Emily Post Institute. "The three-day guideline is phenomenally good," he says. "The host can get through so much more when that is already established."
2. "Some relatives are more equal than others."
When the houseguest is a family member, some surveys suggest, dads are dearest. Nearly 30% of visiting siblings will most likely grate on the nerves of their hosts, a 2012 HomeAway.com survey of holiday travelers found. Adult children (22%), mothers-in-law (16%) and even mothers (11%) will likewise become a nuisance. Fathers and fathers-in-law, meanwhile, appear to be the most popular (or least offensive) guest, with just 6% and 4% getting complaints, respectively. Adding to the risk of personality clashes: 55% of travelers plan to spend the December holidays with nine or more people.
Why do mothers and mothers-in-law get such a bad rap? "Women are generally more involved in planning vacations," says Kathy Bertone, author of "The Art of the Visit: Being the Perfect Host; Becoming the Perfect Guest." Women are also more likely to deal with more of the logistics of hosting. And consequently, they may be more likely to interfere. But to be fair to the guests, hosts sometimes have unrealistic Norman Rockwell-like expectations when it comes to dealing with family -- wanting everything to be perfect -- and may experience heightened anxiety about being judged by their guests. "The stress level will be higher than it normally would be, because we want to impress," Bertone says.
One way hosts can avoid trouble, experts say, is to set expectations before the relatives roll up with their excited kids and a barking dog. "Guests can take relationships for granted," says ChrisYoung, executive director of The Protocol School of Washington. Comfort and ease -- the hallmarks of good hospitality -- can also be the death knell to a friendship, he says. "It allows us to slack on our manners," he says, which can lead to such egregious improprieties as "teaching the host's kids bad words, eating the last slice of cake or hogging the television."
3. "I'd prefer a hotel, but your place is free."
Houseguests often hang their coat in your closet not for love, experts say, but for money. It's understandable that many people would rather stay with family than pony up for a hotel, given the still uncertain economic outlook, but long-lost friends may be a different story, says Ummu Bradley Thomas, an etiquette expert and the founder of the Freddie Bell Jones Modeling & Finishing School in Denton, Md. "If they phone you when they're in town and need somewhere to stay, chances are, it's because you were the only local contact that agreed to offer them room and board."
Some folks, though, go out of their way to avoid being a burden. Around 15% of houseguests say they will stay in a hotel to sidestep the strain of staying with family throughout the holiday season, according to TripAdvisor.com -- even though they pay for the privilege, with the average hotel room in the U.S. running upwards of $150 a night, according to American Express. Plus, travel experts say, some hotels in popular winter destinations increase their rates during the holiday season."In some cases, it's better to get a hotel room," says author Kathy Bertone. For those who do decide to stay with their hosts, she says, guests on a tight budget can show their gratitude by offering to cook their hosts a meal or even to order a pizza.
But plenty of people forgo hotels not just to save money, but also for the simple joy of it. One person's free room for a night is another person's cultural exchange program, Bradley Thomas says. Case in point: One online community, CouchSurfing.com, has a membership list of 5 million people who choose to sleep in random homes for free in over 9,700 cities around the world. CouchSurfing.com, which went public in 2004, envisions "a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter," according to its website. The upside: If it goes horribly wrong, you never have to see the person again, Bradley Thomas points out. If it all goes swimmingly, on the other hand, you've made a new friend.
4. "The service around here stinks."
A place to rest is not the only free gift hosts bestow on their guests at Christmas. Cooking and cleaning is a time-consuming and expensive business. And that's even before you account for the cost of doing the laundry. Just over a quarter of hosts say the most annoying habit of guests is not helping with cooking, according to HomeAway.com. "Some guests prefer for you to treat them as if they were dignitaries and not houseguests," says Bradley Thomas, the etiquette expert.
Like children, guests need boundaries, experts say. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, CEO of interiors website ApartmentTherapy.com, says his favorite hosts greet him with two welcome choices: the offer of a shower and/or a nap. "Anticipate what your guests need, give it to them and leave them alone," he says. Invite them to help themselves -- though perhaps not to your $4,600 Highland Park Reserve 1902 vintage Scotch. Close family should be given clear instructions to pitch in, which will make them feel like they are doing their part, says Jon Gray, senior vice president of North American business at Hotels.com. If your guests are arriving in time for a dinner party, he says, "don't hesitate to ask them to bring a dish."
5. "The less well I know you, the more harshly I'll judge you."
For those who live near holiday tourist destinations, spare beds can be turned into spare cash. But experts say paying guests can be notoriously hard to please. What's more, they often won't come back -- for reasons that go beyond price or even location. "A guest could be put off by something as simple as the d cor," says Christine Karpinski, an independent consultant who advises owners on renting properties.
There's a lot at stake: Homeowners can make $25,000 to $35,000 a year by renting their home, Karpinski says. That's one reason why San Francisco-based Airbnb -- which was founded in 2008 and helps people rent out their room, apartment or home via its website -- already has listings in over 33,000 cities and 192 countries. As such, it's important for hosts to make sure rental spaces are modern enough to suit all tastes, but not so bland that they'll be unappealing to potential guests perusing online ads. For instance, paisley wallpaper could conjure up images of rustic chic -- or make prospective guests think a place hasn't been redecorated (or perhaps even renovated) in 20 years.
Nor does the roll of good judgment stop at the choice of curtains or other interior design elements. One of the first things guests do when they enter a home is eye the list of titles on the bookshelf, says Post Senning. A political book by a well-known pundit might lead to snap judgments about where the host falls on the political spectrum rather than give the impression that the host has a vast and unbiased intellectual curiosity, he says. Of course, people may not be able to help themselves from judging their hosts by their book covers. "It's human nature," Post Senning says.
6. "I will cost you your apartment."
Chris Dannen, a journalist and consultant, had a steady stream of houseguests helping him pay his rent, but last June, it cost him his New York apartment. Over 13 months serving as an Airbnb-facilitated host, renting out a spare room in his three-bedroom apartment, his earnings covered more than half the cost of his rent -- after Airbnb received its cut, which is typically 10% of each transaction. "There were other people in the building who were making as much as me, but I had a higher turnover," he says. His houseguests were often from Europe and, on occasion, could be found in the corridors wielding their luggage.
The reason he lost his apartment? His lease required him to seek permission first. His landlord's legal counsel claimed that Dannen was running a hotel, but Dannen contends that they were just temporary guests.
Airbnb's terms warn prospective hosts to be careful not to break their building's regulations, a spokeswoman for the company says. Airbnb's responsibilities are limited to serving as the limited agent of each host for the purpose of accepting payments from guests on behalf of the host, according to the company's policy. That is, all bookings will be made at the host and guest's own risk. That hasn't stopped others from doing what Dannen did. To date, Airbnb has logged over 10 million bookings worldwide, at least some of which could break landlord-tenant agreements.
7. "...but not before I trash it."
The downside to playing host to a stranger: a broken glass may be the least of your worries. In June 2011, an Airbnb customer arrived home to find her San Francisco apartment trashed by her houseguest: "They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother's jewelry I had hidden inside," the Airbnb customer wrote in a blog post that went viral.
While the Airbnb host, a corporate events planner who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals should any other suspects be still at large, was initially complimentary about Airbnb's customer support in the wake of the incident, she later wrote that a co-founder of the site asked her to "shut down the blog altogether or limit its access," and suggested she "update the blog with a 'twist' of good news" to complete the story. (A spokeswoman for Airbnb declined to comment on the host's claim.)
Because the site facilitates the reservation details and payment information, the spokeswoman says, Airbnb was able to pass details of the guest to the authorities, to assist with the investigation. (Two individuals eventually pleaded guilty to first degree residential burglary in the case.) "Thousands of people are staying at properties through Airbnb every night and virtually all of these experiences have been incredibly positive," the Airbnb spokeswoman says. Additionally, Airbnb has instituted a "$1 million host guarantee" to reimburse hosts in the rare event of guest damages, but this doesn't cover cash, collectibles, rare artwork or jewelry, and shouldn't be seen as a replacement for home insurance, she says.
8. "Snooping through drawers is for amateurs."
Last summer, Kat McDonald, owner of Art+Farm Wine vineyard in Napa, Calif., invited a friend of a friend to stay at her home. The next day over breakfast, her guest told her that he tried all night to get into her Wi-Fi. "I tried your dog's name," he reportedly said. "I tried your baby's name, and I even looked in your baby's books to find a date of birth." McDonald was stunned. She does usually give guests the Wi-Fi password, but after hearing how hard he tried to break into her system, she made an exception and withheld the password. "I thought, 'Forget it,'" she recalls.
McDonald was right to be cautious, experts say. The number of victims of identity theft rose by 13% last year to 11.6 million adults, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, a research and consulting firm. "A great deal of identity theft occurs between people who know each other," says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. "We advise people to be careful about what others have access to in their home." But that's not always possible. The mean direct financial hit suffered by victims of the misuse of personal information was $13,160 in 2010, up from $5,400 five years earlier, the Department of Justice found.
And 21st century snooping can be far more sinister than rifling through an underwear drawer, says Post Senning, the etiquette-family scion. When houseguests use their host's computer, lists of previously searched items and visited sites will often automatically pop up. Looked up a financial adviser, divorce lawyer, psychiatrist or a therapist recently? Unless the search history has been cleared, most browsers are programmed to provide a list of auto-fill guesses based on previous searches. Not everyone knows how to use their browser's "private" setting, Post Senning says, "and you don't have to be a sleuth to figure that out."
9. "These bed bugs are my parting gift."
This is the time of year when that friendly neighbor from the apartment upstairs decides to pop in for a glass of port or your favorite aunt or uncle travels hundreds of miles to spend the holidays with you. Be warned: They may both bring the same plus-one -- the dreaded bed bug. Unlike some guests, bed bugs are not fussy about their hosts. "The primary vector for a bed bug infestation would be luggage or clothing of somebody coming to stay with you," says David Hedman, CEO of ThermaPure, a Ventura, Calif.-based company that specializes in the eradication of bed bugs without the use of pesticides.
Bed bug-infested rental cars are showing up with increasing frequency, Hedman claims, especially as bed bugs easily develop resistance to pesticides and can survive freezing temperatures tucked away in a pair of socks in the trunk. "We have companies driving their rental cars to our offices, telling us, 'We've got bed bugs in our car,'" Hedman says. One thing the bugs don't like: heat. "If you have bed bugs after your guests leave, the first thing you should do is put all your clothes and linen in a dryer."
Neighbors may be most likely to cause your place to become infested. "If your friends and neighbors do have a problem with bed bugs, they will typically carry them on their clothes," Hedman says. If one apartment gets treated, he says, the responsible thing to do is tell your neighbors. "It's the last gift you want to leave after the holidays."
10. "Thanks for having me. I'm going to cost you a fortune."
For many Americans, the holiday houseguest season may start with a chocolate on the pillow and a round of air kisses, but it can end in recrimination, empty pockets and regret. People often spend a lot of money while on vacation. But without hefty hotel bills to contend with, houseguests can literally go to town on their spending, and sometimes the hosts feel pressure to keep up with their guests' large holiday budgets. In fact, Airbnb says its customers spend around $740 on their vacation activities, 40% more than those who stay in hotels. For those who stay with friends and relatives for free, experts say, the spending is likely even higher. Hosts who want to avoid overspending, Bertone says, should send an email several weeks before the guests arrive. Suggesting low-cost or free activities for the stay can open up a dialog, she says.
It works both ways: Hosts who are planning a fancy cocktail party should give their guests a heads-up, so they can pack the right clothes and avoid an expensive last-minute shopping trip, Bertone says. Meanwhile, "if the guest wants everyone to go a Broadway show at $150 ticket, this request should be made upfront," she says. Same goes for a night out at an expensive silver-service restaurant, she says. And if those same guests have turned vegan in the past 12 months, they should inform their host before they buy a 20-pound turkey. Otherwise, Bertone says, all parties might prefer to wait another year until they see each other again