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Managing House Guests:

When Home Turns into a Hilton

By Nanci Tangeman

You can almost hear the suitcases slamming. In just a few weeks all those bags - and their owners - will descend on our adopted homes in search of adventure and history.

Our former co-workers are cashing in their air miles; our fathers are loading their video cameras; and the next-door neighbor of your high school English teacher's second cousin is rejoicing that he and his three kids have a place to stay on their big overseas adventure! Is your guest room starting to ache already? Penciled dates are beginning to turn to ink on calendars as the hordes of house guests surround us. Picture the Night of the Living Dead ... and they're all headed our way!

Here are a few suggestions to keep the dream vacation of your friend or relative from turning into your own family's nightmare.

Do their homework

I once had a visitor arrive at my house, plop down on the couch, and say "Whatever you want to do is fine." Suddenly, I was responsible for the success of her annual holiday! This is the first rule of hosting house guests: Prepare them.

Put together a letter (you can use the same one for all your guests) with your impressions of the top tourist spots and ideas for less-publicized days out. Include suggestions for a few overnight excursions and travel times to surrounding cities. Warn them about bad drinking water, uneven pavement or whatever else your home has to offer.

Tell them what clothing to bring

As soon as someone expresses an interest in visiting, send him the letter and a stack of brochures from the local tourist bureau (if there is one). Be relentless in emailing links on the World Wide Web. Make your house guests do their homework - but if they don't, do it for them!

Money, money, money

I remember a Russian visitor arriving in San Francisco with $300 and the hope of financing a month's stay, as well as buying a VCR to take home. Be up front about the costs of staying in your city. Public transportation, meals, side trips and attractions all cost money. Make sure your guests budget for some meals out, so you don't end up cooking all the time. And don't turn down their offer to finance a trip or two to the grocery store or bazaar. It makes everyone feel better.

Living with jet lag

I know the exact point between Schiphol and my apartment where my American guests' eyes glaze over and all communication is lost. Plan for the worst. Have puzzles and magazines in the guest room for use before dawn. Point out the snacks available for midnight forages. Leave them directions for a sunrise walk and give them a key - before they turn in at night. Even with the best planning, however, you may still end up entertaining your in-laws at 4 a.m.

Enjoy your visitors in doses

If you spend 24 hours every day with your house guests, you'll all go mad. Hold their hand during the first trips around town, then set them loose. Reserve one or two activities to share with them. Remind them that you still need to go to work, keep appointments and run errands. Keep guidebooks in the guest room to help them plan outings. If you have a slew of visitors, keep a memory book so they can pass on their tourism ideas to the next guests.

Don't be driven crazy

I lived for three years near London. I can't count the times I drove out to Warwick Castle (about 50 miles) the first summer I lived there. Eventually, I kept its existence a secret from house guests so I wouldn't have to visit it again. Do not become a chauffeur service. Don't become a car rental agency, either. Show them where public transportation is available. If they're in need of a car, recommend a reasonably priced car rental company (before they arrive) or set them up with a driver . Don't be afraid to suggest they find their own way to your place from the airport either (unless it's your mother!). Again, give costs of transportation and explanations on how to buy tickets.

Realize their holiday fantasy

I once spent hours scouring a town in the UK helping a visitor find wooden toys "like the English children play with" as a souvenir for his son. Even though it was easier to find a computer game, I went along with his illusion because I knew the fantasy was an important part of his visit.

Everyone will have a preconceived idea of life in your neck of the woods. Indulge your house guests. Visit a bazaar even if you have a Safeway. Walk through the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Show them a thatched roof cottage. They'll get a dose of real-life when they spend a couple of days with a water distiller, a minuscule refrigerator or spotty electricity service.

Just say no

Don't be afraid to say "no" when people ask if they can stay with you - especially if it's the next-door neighbor of your high school English teacher's second cousin. If someone wants to visit at an inconvenient time for you, be honest and ask her to reschedule. And be honest with yourself: Are your guests missing you, or worried about missing an opportunity for a free bed? There's nothing wrong with being generous and sharing your home and city with friends, family and even acquaintances. But it's important that you keep your sanity through the whole process.

Humor helps

At some point, even the worst house guest experience will make you look back and laugh. Why not let the laughter begin while they're still around? Keeping your sense of humor about a rough situation is bound to be contagious. Have fun with your guests and soon you'll be an expert (as well as experienced) host - whether you want to be or not.

© Nanci Tangeman has managed houseguests in the UK, Uzbekistan and Holland. She is currently based in Amsterdam, where she has recently published "Forty Excuses to Get Together with the Girls." Information about the book, which includes more than 300 activities to help women explore new things, as well as create and nurture friendships, can be found at www.nancitangeman.com.