09/01/2010 06:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Labor Day Weekend: Try a Moochcation

Whether you're a moocher or a moochee, (or both) chances are that you've participated in the mooching experience even before this financial crisis. It's normal to visit family or stay with friends.

But with the desperation level climbing, the economic future volatile, and the Labor Day weekend ahead, I suggest a quest for finding new sources of low-cost or, preferably, no-cost breaks: a moochcation -- staying with people you may hardly know.

Mooching offers the least expensive chance to get away, and many of us need just that. It just takes a bit of nerve, maybe cashing in some miles, as little as a box of wine and a supermarket bouquet in hand.

Mooching doesn't apply just to close relatives. Think far and wide about who you can mooch. A no-longer Significant Other? A former neighbor? Friends from middle school? Maybe your ex's sister, or that lady at your table on the cruise who said "visit me some time" when she waved goodbye?

On the other hand, if you live in a desirable or exotic area, your chances of being the moochee increase exponentially. When I lived in London in the 1970s I once woke up and bumped into an imposing college dean (later the head of a major government agency) -- peeing in my bathroom. We exchanged greetings. How he got there I'm still not sure. That same year, my brother arrived with his girlfriend -- and her mom and grandmom. (They took me out to a new restaurant that their relative had just opened -- The Hard Rock Café! I heard grandma tell her grandson, Peter Morton, "The restaurant business is too risky. Go back to school." Yeah.)

And that brings about a positive of a moochcation. You get to intimately know a variety of folks you may otherwise have never met, and may never meet again, unless, alas, there's a continuing recession.

Some rules for moochers:

Call ahead if possible. If the hosts balk, accept it and move to another possible victim ... er, host.

Suggest bartering as a way to get in the door, such as: "You have a chateau outside of Paris. I have a studio in Milwaukee. Would you be interested in swapping?" Or, "Could you use a house/cat/plant sitter for a month?"

Don't seem greedy. If hosts ask, "How long do you plan to be staying with us?" say, "Well ... what would you be comfortable with?" Never say more than a week, even if you want it to be. If you're a good guest you may be invited for an extended stay, so leave wiggle room.

Be generous. Send a gift ahead, bring one with you or send one after you leave -- or all three for a really long stay. These can be inexpensive, but if you know the people, try to hit the mark. Gifting brings payback, as you may be asked to extend a short stay, and remember, there's always next year. If you're staying a long while, expect also to take the hosts out for a meal or two. Breakfast is the bargain meal, so suggest it first.

Help out. Babysit, fix things, keep your area neat. Cook a meal if you're good at it, set up and clean up in any case. But if you're asked to stay away from the kitchen, heed the caution.

And a couple of tips for moochees:

Be honest. If you don't want a moocher in your house, just say no. If it's hard to say it, email it. Don't be a sucker. If you're too nice you may wind up out of your bed, staring at an empty fridge, with guests in your bathroom until the end of the recession.

Establish rules. Then write them out and hand them out. And if they aren't followed, that's your chance to toss out Max or Minnie the Moocher, lock up the house, and maybe enjoy an all-American cost-effective moochcation yourself.

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