When I arrived in Inverness, Scotland, late in the evening due to a delayed train I thought that I'd find myself in a frustrating situation--trying to find low-cost lodging in a strange city late at night. Instead, my stop in Inverness turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Several residents who offered bed-and-breakfast accommodations in their homes had dropped by the station to meet the delayed train. Within half an hour I found myself settled in front of a cozy fire enjoying evening tea and trading tales with two Norwegian travelers. The following day I accepted an invitation to join one of my hosts for a drive down to the Loch Ness area. His job with the municipal government consisted of visiting senior residents in their country cottages to check their food and fuel. I became the official gate opener and saw a side of Scotland few visitors encounter.
Several years later a similar situation arose when I encountered transportation difficulties in Portugal. I arrived in a small village by train and found that I couldn't make my next connection because of a bus strike. A teen-age girl approached me and explained that her family had a room for rent. She then brought her parents over for an introduction. My new hosts couldn't speak English but their next-door neighbor was an English teacher and she invited me for lunch the following day. I learned more about the people of Portugal in that 24-hour period, than I had in the whole previous week.
Getting to meet people in their home environment can be a terrific experience and it's one that the budget traveler should take advantage of. I should point out that it's important to be careful when approached at a train station. In the Inverness situation I requested that the people show identification, which indicated that they were registered with the local tourism association as a B&B (bed and breakfast) operator.
In both of the situations I mentioned luck was a major factor. You don't have to rely on luck, though. Always ask at local tourist information offices for homes that take guests. For example, in Britain there are over 700 tourist information offices, many will assist you by making a reservation in a B&B. In England the charge is 75 pence (about $1.15 U.S.), in Scotland a refundable deposit is required, in Wales and Northern Ireland the service is free. For a slightly higher fee it is also possible to get assistance booking a B&B for the next area you plan to visit.
The average cost of a British B&B is 6.50 ($10 U.S.) to 12 ($18 U.S.) per night. That's more expensive than a youth hostel but not only do you get a chance to get closer to residents, you get a private room, no curfews and a big breakfast.
Staying in a home is not always possible but there are often alternative programs that allow you to visit in a home. Again, your best bet is to inquire at tourist information offices representing the areas you intend to visit.
For example, in Brussels you can pick up a list at the youth travel service, ACOTRA, for the Meet Brussels program. The list includes telephone numbers of residents who want to meet foreign visitors--to show them the town or just share a drink. There is no charge for this. ACOTRA is located at 36 Rue de La Montange (between Grande Palace and Central Station).
In Japan, 12 cities are participating in a home visit program. You can arrange to visit with a family in their home after the evening meal for several hours. There is no charge but you should take a small gift, such as candy. You must make your request for a visit at least one day in advance at a local tourist office.
One source for a listing of similar programs is "The Directory of Low-Cost Vacations with a Difference." It was compiled by J. Crawford, former U.S. Chairman of the Board of SERVAS, an organization involved with home visits around the world.
Through it you'll learn how to contact groups such as the Hong Kong Student Travel Bureau, which can arrange home-stay programs; a cycle touring organization, which publishes a directory for cyclists participating in a free reciprocal accommodation service, and the Experiment in International Living, a group which helps individuals arrange home stays in a variety of countries around the world.
"The Directory of Low-Cost Vacations With a Difference" is available from Pilot Books, 103 Cooper St., Babylon, N.Y. 11702. The cost is $4.95 (U.S.) plus $1 postage.