8 Tips to Have an Amazing Host Family Experience Abroad

8 Surefire Tips to Have an Amazing Host Family Experience

The host family experience on our Spanish immersion programs in Costa Rica is always a highlight for the majority of our participants. At the same time, it’s also one of the components of the Spanish immersion programs that participants and prospective participants are most curious and, to be honest, apprehensive about.

There is a lot of mystery around staying with a host family; and you’re taking a significant risk by entering an unknown person’s home. You rightfully have safety and security questions for your host family provider; it’s important to know what processes are in place to ensure that the families who are hosting are legitimate and safe to stay with. Assuming the provider has great references and you trust their ability to deliver a great experience to you, what’s left is insight on WHAT you can do create a successful host family experience.

Since few people have had the pleasure of hosting someone from another country and culture, this adds to the mystery. You’re not really sure what it will be like. Additionally, most people have heard a story or two from someone they know about an experience abroad that involved host families, or possibly a personal experience that left them hesitant to repeat. So how can you set yourself up for host family success? Keep reading – we’ve converted our years of successful programs using host family lodging into 8 actionable steps you can take to help you have an amazing host family experience!

8 Surefire ways to have an amazing host family experience:

  1. Engage life with them! You’ve been placed in a home with a family for anywhere from a handful of days to aHigh School Spanish Host Families whole semester, possibly a year abroad. This is an amazing opportunity for you to add value to your immersion in ways that are impossible to quantify. We set up host family lodging for our programs because living life with people is the best way to understand others and their cultures that, on the surface, may seem very different from you. It can be so rich! I say “can” because it’s not automatic. You must ENGAGE life with your host family, and let’s face it – engaging takes effort. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just join them in their day to day life. If host mom walks every morning before your routine begins, ask her if you can join! Do what the family does, when the family does it, and as often as you can fit it into your schedule. Odds are that you’ll learn more going to the local market with your family than you will doing your homework for the next day’s class. So, whether it’s telenovelas or spinning classes, go out of your way to spend time with your family. There are some enemies of engagement that must be discussed because they are so detrimental to making a real connection with your family. These are things that you need to intentionally NOT do. The list could be longer probably, but here are some of the biggies:
    1. Social Media – turn it off! Resist the temptation to spend your time in the host home online sharing all of your thoughts and day’s work in English to your network back home. Update your status from language school or somewhere else you can get a WiFi connection – don’t waste the amazing opportunity to live life with your host family!
    2. Don’t retreat! Immersion is really challenging, and you probably will be tired at the end of the day. You’ll have homework to do, you might need some personal space, and you may have a headache because you’ve been working all day in a foreign language! Yes, you need to take care of yourself, of course, but be conscious of the amount of time you’re spending in your room and try spending less time alone day after day. Push yourself to interact with your family and little by little you’ll probably notice that spending time with your family can be a diversion, and not another activity that drains your energy.
    3. Busyness – slow down! This one is pretty simple; moderate your activities to make sure that you have time to spend with your family. Don’t be out every evening with your English speaking friends, and don’t be gone every weekend on another English speaking tour. Make sure you reserve time for your host family. You should explore the country on the weekends of course, but maybe reserve 1 -2 weekends a month to spend with your host family. You’ll get to see them in a different mode, and probably meet some of their extended family as well.
  2. Be honest about food & offer to cook a meal! This one is pretty straight forward as well. Your host family wants you to be comfortable in their home. They understand that you are out of your element, they understand that there is probably little that they can actually “give” you that will help you have a better command of the language or be more comfortable. But what they can do is make sure that you are well fed and they will do that the best way they know how. You can guarantee that any wrong sign here will be interpreted and acted upon. If you don’t like mystery meat pâté, but you stomach it and fake a smile; you can expect to have it again. At some point you’ll need to tell them that you can’t handle it and then it will be weird because everyone thought you “liked” it at first. You’re better off if you politely explain your food preferences to your family; your family will be glad to know because they want to take care of you. Of course you HAVE to try something new if you’ve never had it before, there’s no excuse (apart from deathly allergies and religious obligations) to avoid trying that soup with interesting animal parts in it. Give it a whirl – who knows you might like it! At the very least you’ll have a fun story to tell later. You might also want to print out a few of your favorite recipes before you travel and take them with you to try and cook with your host family. Make it a special night! You can do the shopping and ask the family for help with the prep work; it’s really fun to share your favorite dishes with your host family.
  3. Get to know them, and let them get to know you! One of the most common misinterpretations in a host family setting is that the student (usually a lower language level) is uninterested or stuck up. This usually happens unintentionally because the student is hesitant to speak the target language. Instead of risking sounding silly, they remain quiet – and quiet usually isn’t interpreted positively. Even if your host family can theoretically accept the possibility that you’re quiet because of language barriers, quiet means they have no idea what you’re thinking. You have to let your host family know what you’re thinking because the odds are that they won’t guess it right. There is usually a propensity to think that something negative is happening when you’re quiet. They may think that you are uninterested in them, they will definitely feel distant from you, they won’t know how to make you comfortable and happy in their home if you’re not open and chatty with them. Small talk is actually an art when you’re traveling abroad. Not only is it a great way to open relationship doors, in many cultures it’s considered polite and socially required before you can actually get to what you might consider “real” conversation. So, do it – master your small talk skills and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the growing connection you feel with your host family.
  4. Be open minded! This seems so cliché, but it’s really important. Many people have a handful of absolutes inBe open to new foods their lives (moral, spiritual, etc.) and that’s fine, probably even great to hold tightly to those absolutes; but with most things we’re just creatures of habit and products of our own cultures. There may not be a right or wrong way to cut a mango or cook rice. As long as you end up with an edible product, any method is probably fine for your time with the host family. In most areas of day to day life, we could live a little and learn a lot. Have fun doing things differently! If something strikes you as odd about a particular routine or process, ask yourself and your host family what’s behind that. How did this process or thought pattern get rubber stamped as “the way” to do things in this culture? Even the mundane tasks of cooking or cleaning can get really interesting if you’re understanding the “why” and “how” behind it. I have to make a special note here about food in a host culture. North Americans are pretty adamant about certain food choices and eating habits; we idolize food and in a lot of ways it dictates our experiences. I would challenge you to let go of your diet if there is any way that you can. Of course don’t eat peanuts if you’re allergic – that would be silly. But honestly, if you’re vegetarian or vegan consider the reasons why you’ve chosen that and if there can be any flexibility in your diet while traveling. What you don’t want to do is let your diet get in the way of building relationships with your host family. Note: if vegetarian or vegan is one of those moral absolutes for you, you have some research to do on the ability and likelihood of living that out while traveling abroad. 
  5. Express your gratitude! This one is kind of simple because no one likes an ingrate, right? We all know that being ungrateful is a pretty ugly quality in a person. But the trick here is actually going out of your way to express your thanks. You can’t imagine how much a “thank you” with a smile means to your host family. You’re communicating that you recognize the effort they took to do something for you. Whether they prepared a meal, did your laundry, changed your bedding, showed you around town, helped you with a project – whatever it was – actually recognizing it and thanking them directly for their efforts helps them feel good about what they’ve done for you. There is an unintended benefit here as well when you are quick to express gratitude; your host family is likely to do more of the things that you’re thankful for. This will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more thankful you are, the more reasons you’ll have to be thankful! So, look for every opportunity you can to say “thanks” to someone.
  6. Check in like a child (or a good spouse)! This one is most difficult for our single adult participants. Most adults are not used to checking in with “mom” or “dad” every time they go out or have a little schedule change. If you are a teen or if you’re living with someone who you share life with, this may come a little more natural; but you may not think about needing to treat your host family like your family back home. The truth is that your host family needs a high level of communication from you on logistical things. They are responsible for preparing your meals, they may need to ensure that someone is home to receive you when you arrive, they may want to make weekend plans with you, etc. The biggest potential expectation mismatch here is the family wanting to include you in everything they do, and you not realizing that they are probably waiting around for you and wondering what you’re up to if you haven’t made that clear. A lot of this misunderstanding can be cleared up with sharing a general itinerary of your day to day activities with your host family, but it also takes more intentional  communication because you’re going to want to capitalize on new and unique opportunities that present themselves and are “unplanned”. Your family will likely encourage you to do that, just help them know what you’re doing, where you’re going, and when you expect to be back home.
  7. Ask for help! This one isn’t difficult at all. Use your host family as a resource. This will give you natural and relevant things to talk about and give them an opportunity to be the expert on their town, country, or language. Common things you should consider asking help for are: how to get somewhere on public transportation, where to find that must-have item that you need, what recommendations they may have for a weekend away, or help with your homework. The point is that you have a need or want, and they can probably help you satisfy it based on their experience living there. Remember, they want to help you in any way they can. Worst case scenario is that they don’t know the answer or don’t know how to help you for whatever reason; but think about it – at least you generated some small talk! If it’s not urgent they’ll probably ask around and come back with some ideas to help.
  8. Be quick to laugh! Most of the time (if it’s not life-threatening) when you take a step back, miscommunication is pretty funny. You’re going to make so many mistakes in the target language on a regular basis that you just have to sit back and laugh at yourself and the situation. It takes some time to train yourself to make laughter your natural reaction to a frustrating experience, but you’d be surprised at how it changes the nature of the experience and lightens your mood. So lighten up, don’t take yourself too seriously, and find something to laugh about when things go wrong. You’ll make others more comfortable around you, and you’ll actually begin to create happiness all around you!

As you look at the 8 tips above, some of them probably resonate with you on the “duh, of course” level. While they may be obvious once someone lays them out for you, keep in mind that you’re going to be stressed in several unusual ways while you’re living or studying abroad. Experiences abroad often challenge some of the most basic and essential “norms” of what we think about life and how we live. When you’re stressed, out of your comfort zone, and philosophically challenged it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees; and what is “obvious” now can be challenging to remember.

The one thing that ties most of the 8 tips together is the idea of going “out of your way” or giving “extra effort” to the host family. It’s hard when you’re tired, but it’s totally worth it in the long run! If you’re able to remember the 8 tips above and implement them consistently, you’re going to have a great time with your host family!

Enjoy your host family, there is a good chance you’re going to be making some new life-long friends!

88 thoughts on “8 Surefire Tips to Have an Amazing Host Family Experience”

  1. So much good advice! I am excited to have a built in resource for learning more of the language and the culture, especially cooking, music and slang expressions.

  2. I appreciate the recommendation for open and honest communication. Even in a different language, I think this is crucial to our connecting better. Thank you for the tips!

  3. Andrew Kingston

    I can’t cook very much, but if they have a few simple ingredients maybe I could make something, fingers crossed!

  4. Joseph Anthony Gilardi

    Great tips I really like the engage in life one and will definitely utilize time for that when I’m down there

  5. Good points. Basic you are a guest, treat them with respect and understanding. They are a resource.

  6. I am so excited to experience authentic Ecuadorian food!

    The advice about checking in is much appreciated. I will make sure to communicate appropriately with my host family regarding logistic issues, perhaps erring on the side of overcommunication rather than undercommunication for those things.

  7. Great insight on how to reduce or eliminate the ‘unknowns’ that lead to misinterpretations and uncomfortable situations for both the visitor and the host. I’m certainly going to brush up on how to express heartfelt gratitude in Spanish prior to the trip also.

    1. Whitney Johnson

      I am also looking forward to helping in the kitchen. Hopefully learning some new recipes as well as new words!

  8. The point that if you are quiet your host family will not know what you are thinking and may interpret this poorly is very interesting and something I had not thought about previously, so it is good to be aware of!

    1. Tom Postlewaite

      This is excellent. I tend to be a quiet person, but know and have been telling myself that I am going to set aside my quietness and ask questions, show curiosity, and engage. This will be fun.

  9. Sharise Cunningham

    Great advice for this single here! I will be mindful of sharing my schedule and finding out/respecting whether the host family might be waiting on me to do something.

    1. Mary Beth Black

      I agree! I will also make an effort to share my schedule and to make more small talk than I am used (although my friends would probably say I have no problem being chatty).

  10. This is quite a bit of essential info, however will try to keep in mind all that I can do to have a positive experience with my host family.

  11. I struggle with making small talk in English so I know that aspect will be difficult for me. I am looking forward to trying new foods and learning recipes so I think that will be an easy place for me to develop my relationship with my host family and develop language skills at the same time.

  12. Wonderful tips! Thank you. I tend to be shy initially, but will make an extra effort to be more outgoing with my host family.


    This is the part of the program I am looking forward to most… making a new friend that can show me a new culture. I am really excited to do the daily things like cooking, going to the store, etc. I learned my hostess has a cat, that will be a great way to break the ice too.

  14. I have hosted people from other countries before and assumed I had a grasp on staying with a host family for my first time but you are correct – some of these obviously appearing tips can be easily overlooked. Especially for me the “don’t be too busy to spend quality time” part!

  15. Juliet Franklin

    I have traveled to Costa Rica and some South American countries, but I am really looking forward to experiencing it with my host family.

  16. This is really helpful! It’s a lot of little things that I might not have otherwise thought of that will vastly imrpove the experience.

  17. Alexandra Jones

    Thank you for the great tips! I will definitely try to get out of my comfort zone and interact with my host family as much as possible so that I can make the most of the trip!

  18. I am really looking forward to this part of the experience and getting to know the host family and share a glimpse their everyday life.

  19. caitlin.banks

    All of these tips will help me pass through the host family experience with some insight going into it! Very helpful!

  20. Mary Tommie Williams

    I like the idea of maybe spending time over one of the 2 weekends I’ll be there. I had planned to participate in 2 of the weekends overnight outings but think I will only do one since I’ve visited those destinations already. If it works out that I can do something with the host family, that’s great. If not, there are many local places for me to explore. I am excited!

  21. Thank you so much for all the tips. It is really helpful to think about how things might be interpreted and to think through how to promote building relationship with a host family. Thanks!

  22. I’m so so excited to meet my host family and to experience their daily lives firsthand! The list above is very helpful and I will definitely be mindful of how interactive I am with my host family.

  23. Lisa McClintock

    Very good advice. It will be different not being the parent for a few weeks but that will be nice too!

  24. Pascale Marie-Luce

    Great info. I am usually on the “shy” side, so I will definitely have to put in some extra extra effort there!

  25. Kathleen VanEepoel

    Years ago, we hosted a teen from Madrid in our home for two weeks—wish we had been better prepped! I’m hoping to really be able to participate in all the ways you have suggested!

  26. Lucas Armendariz

    very helpful this will remind me to make an effort to really connect with my host family and participate with them.

  27. I need to not retreat like I did the last time. Looking back, I missed great opportunities to interact with my family, like going to the gym with my mom or staying up late and waiting for the kids to come back from college. I don’t want to make that same mistake again.

  28. Benjamin Kingston

    Thanks for the tips about food! I’m honestly a little bit of a picky eater right now, but I still can’t wait to try out all of the new food in Costa Rica

  29. There are important ideas here. I’m looking forward to getting to know the host family and soaking up as much Spanish and culture as I can in 2 weeks.

  30. Brittan Sutphin

    I most appreciated the reminder on slowing down. As a medical student I always try to optimize down time by replying to emails or doing other busy work. I will remind myself to relax and engage with my host family!

  31. Hadley Meehan

    I am so excited to try new foods and especially excited to meet and get to know my host family

  32. Gabriella Ercolino

    I’m looking forward to spending time with my host family and adapting to their schedule- I think it’s important to be thankful and ask for help if you need it!

  33. Madeline Sexton

    For me, I think the most important tips are to express gratitude and to be engaged with your family!

  34. I think this is helpful information. I will have to remind myself about the “retreat” part because that is something that I naturally do at the end of a long day.

  35. I am so excited about living with a host family, and really want to be someone they want to have around (this is what makes me nervous). This type of travel is totally new to me. I wish I had more than two weeks because developing relationships take time. However with only two weeks I really have to commit to sacar el jugo in this part of the program.

  36. Catherine Cobb

    Thank you for the advice to make my experience in a host family the best possible. I am so excited about my immersion experience.

  37. carleenobrien

    Good reminders about checking in, because I do live by myself so it’s not something I have to think about on a day-to-day basis. And also about not retreating, because it is easy to do when I am tired and overwhelmed. But I think it will be important of being conscious of the amount of time and maybe just take a short break if needed and then push back out.

  38. Carly Woolman

    I think many host family members will want you to be comfortable and might think you are tired or want to rest. So, it is important to take an initiative and ask to be involved. Simple things like asking to help cook or accompanying them to the store can be ways to connect and to practice your speaking.

  39. I appreciate these tips to remember. An experienced traveler and introvert, I will embrace the challenge to engage with my host family. I may need a nudge sometimes, especially in an immersion program.

  40. Being invited to stay with a host family is really one of the most exciting aspects of this experience and I hope to share many laughs and memories with them along this journey!

  41. Reir es bueno. We hosted Japanese students three times and a French girl once. With the first three, we laughed a lot and the students became part of the family in those 4 weeks. The French girl kept to herself, never said thanks, and rarely cracked a smile–and she was an experienced traveler with better English skills. The light attitude made all the difference in those experiences.

  42. Learning how to cook Costa Rican food sounds fun, hopefully I will be able to do this while I’m there.

  43. I think the hardest thing for me will be “don’t retreat.” I have realized that it takes me a few days to adjust to new surroundings and that can leave me feeling overwhelmed and tired. So it will be difficult to push through that feeling and make the most of each day with my host family.

  44. I eat a vegan diet at home, but I like the idea of being more flexible to really embrace the culture.

  45. I have traveled quite a bit and consider myself pretty open-minded and flexible, but this is great information to be reminded of. Especially the tip about laughing–it works for me a lot!

  46. Pingback: 10 Bulletproof tips to maximize language growth on any travel...

  47. Pingback: Must Know Items when Staying with a host family in Costa Rica

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