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Save Money and Feel at Home by House-Swapping

Trading homes with another person or family can make a vacation more affordable

By Rick Steves | By Rick Steves' Europe | October 10, 2012
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Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.

PBS Travel Host Rick Steves received the following letter about home-swapping from a friendly reader.

Dear Rick,

Since retiring in 1997, I've enjoyed three inexpensive trips to Europe by house-swapping. I've stayed in a mini-palace in Biarritz overlooking the Atlantic, a Black Forest cottage near a stream, a townhouse in London, and a wonderful house on Ireland's Sligo Bay with views of sunbathing seals. My expenses, not including airfare: about $200 a week.

I arrange my house-swapping through Homelink USA. For $85 a year ($95 with a picture), my house is listed on their website and in a 300-page directory of available houses. Each listing includes information about the area, house, and owners (who can usually be contacted easily via email). Because most people also swap cars (my insurance company covers this just as it would if I lent the car to the friend), I see a lot of the country by taking day trips or short overnight hops.

House-swapping is not for people who can't stand the idea of someone sleeping in their bed, using their dishes, and touching their stuff. However, for everyone else it's wonderful. The main thing to remember is that while someone is in your house, you're in their house. After a total of six house swaps, I can report only one broken glass for which my house-swappers left profuse apologies and way too much money.

A few tips to bear in mind:

  1. Be triple-sure you know exactly where the key will be plus any tricks to opening the door.
  2. Find out in advance how to get to the nearest food store.
  3. Make sure they leave instructions for using the appliances. I have spent befuddled hours in front of a dryer that seemed to have locked my clothes in for eternity.
  4. Make arrangements in advance as to how telephone charges will be handled.
  5. Find out any peculiarities about the car you'll be driving. Peugeots have a device to keep it from starting unless you point a little gizmo at the electric eye on the windshield.

The rest is easy. You live for a time in an exotic place with a chance to really get to know the neighborhood and customs. In no time, you begin to think of your house-swap as "home." You are marginally less a "tourist" than all those other people and you begin to feel a little smug.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.
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