Home Away from Home

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Yes, there's no place like home. Friendly faces, shared meals, all the comforts of, well, home. What if you could have them even when you're far away?

That's the idea behind homestays, a lodging alternative that is spawning a new approach to traveling abroad. You still go wherever you're going, but instead of checking into the nearest hotel, hostel or hole-in-the-wall upon arrival, you hang your hat in a local home. For the next three days or three weeks, your room key is the family house key. You share the same roof, the same dinner table and some good times with your live-in hosts-who know the neighborhood better than any travel agent.

An extension of the B&B concept, homestays now occupy their own unique corner of the travel market-one that is expanding and producing companies like U.S.-based American-International Homestays, Inc., which began setting up home bases in the former Soviet Union in 1988. Ten years later, they're sending Americans all over the globe while sticking by a simple philosophy. 'Most people going to another country want to meet people in another country,' says AIH director Joe Kinczel. 'Our mission is to help Americans make friends overseas. You can't make friends with a building, and probably not the hotel concierge either. Instead of going to Berlin and meeting other Americans who happen to be there, why not meet a Berliner?'

The company operates by hooking up its clients with a home abroad that meets three standard requirements: The hosts speak some English; they have an empty room; and they want to interact with Americans. In exchange, travelers must have an interest in the homestay hosts' own culture-which explains the three-day minimum stay (starting at $59 a night in most places). 'If somebody's just doing this to save money,' Kinczel explains, 'we tell them that's not what we're all about.'

Budget concerns may have been the initial reason Kit Kucinkas, a teacher from San Antonio, got interested in AIH homestays, but she quickly found others when Kinczel organized her first home trip-a Mongolian retreat with a family of circus performers. The wife was an aerialist, the husband a weight lifter and trick rider. And their son, the only English speaker in the household, was in the hospital following a trick ride gone wrong. Despite the language lapse and the couple's hospital visits, Kucinkas immediately found herself accepted into the family. The night she arrived, she and her traveling companion were left with a cousin, who knocked on their bedroom door in the late hours. 'Movie. Movie,' she interjected in Mongolian-inviting them to come and watch Ghost with her on TV.

'If you don't meet the people, you don't know anything about where you've been,' says Kucinkas, who's been on four homestays since. And there's just no way to get to know people like being in their home.

Meanwhile, Kinczel is fulfilling his mission-arranging trips that have resulted in hundreds of lifelong friendships, and even the odd marriage. In the unusual case of a personality clash between host and guest, the local AIH organizer will come to the rescue with different arrangements. 'Maybe ten times out of 10,000 there's a real problem,' Kinczel says. 'Sometimes a new family has no idea what to do, and they do the worst possible thing. In that case, we give a refund.'

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