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Home-Swapping: Slash Your Travel Costs and Live Like a Local

Join the wave of boomers trading places with people in their dream destinations

By Stephanie Oswald | January 28, 2013

You’re itching to get away, perhaps with family members in tow, but $300-a-night hotel rooms aren’t in the budget. Perhaps it’s time to join the tens of thousands of happy travelers who have embraced home-swapping.
 
“Exchanging may be the best thing I have ever done, and I wish I’d discovered it years earlier,” says Boyd Scheff, a New Yorker in his 70s who has done 18 such swaps. In addition to great vacations, Scheff’s takeaway includes a goddaughter in Barcelona, the child of the first couple he and his wife exchanged homes with (proving how strong swappers’ bonds can become).
 
With accommodations that include everything from Paris pied-à-terres to Connecticut country homes to Bahamian beach houses, home-swapping is one of the hottest travel trends and offers something for everyone. (Well, everyone comfortable with the idea of letting strangers stay in their home, that is.) And for good reason: Excluding the cost of posting a listing, home swaps are entirely free.
 
According to HomeExchange.com, a well-respected organization that facilitates swaps, these exchanges work especially well for experienced travelers seeking affordability and authenticity. “In my career as a management consultant, I have stayed in hundreds of hotels the world over,” Scheff says, “and I can’t say that I miss them at all.”
 
Helen Coyle Bergstein, founder of the 13-year-old exchange service Digsville.com has fond memories of a Caribbean home exchange. “In Anguilla one summer, the entire island treated us like family because our swap partners’ dad owned a local jazz club. My husband, Joe, had his flute with him and was invited to sit in with local musicians almost every night of the week.”
 
It’s that type of priceless experience that Bergstein says “would not have happened had we been staying in hotels or resorts.”

(MORE: Save Money and Feel at Home by House-Swapping)
 
3 Good Reasons to Swap

  • Go local and save money. As a general rule, you’ll benefit from more space, increased privacy and all the comforts of home — away from home. Some swappers also trade vehicles and pet care, making the package even more financially attractive. You essentially become a local and get all the perks that go along with that. 
  • Conserve resources. Keghan Hurst, director of public relations at HomeExchange.com, says trading addresses is also growing in popularity because of what she calls “a collaborative consumption trend.” Hurst says, “By exchanging and sharing items, such as your home, bicycle, car, etc., you essentially reduce your carbon footprint.” Basically, home-swapping allows you to have an authentic experience, save money and be an environmental do-gooder all at once. It’s another sign of sustainable tourism’s appeal to the 1.5 billion people expected to travel internationally by 2020
  • Forge lasting relationships. In many situations, exchange partners become friends for life. An alternative to exchanging keys at the same time is to agree to a “hospitality exchange,” where members host each other in their private homes at designated times. These do-it-yourself houseguest arrangements nurture social interaction and can be very appealing for mature travelers with years of travel notes to share.
 
How to Make a Home Swap Happen

1. Choose a reputable swapping company. Most home exchange programs have user-friendly websites that guide you through the process. (See below.) Word-of-mouth recommendations are always a bonus, or consider working with a travel agent familiar with home-swapping.
 
2. Do your research. Home-swapping is a Web-based industry, so you can “window shop” for your next vacation home at your convenience. Most places allow you to look online for free and post your home for a small fee. Professional home exchange clubs usually provide sample letters and housing descriptions to help you manage a stress-free swap. A great place to launch your quest is with Certified Home Exchange Community, a new watchdog site for the industry with 250 vetted members.
 
3. Build a meaningful rapport. As Hurst says, “Think of home exchange as Internet dating for your home.” As you search for the right match, keep in mind your specific needs, know what you’re willing to compromise on, and honor your deal-breakers. Once you find accommodations that match your desires, expect to communicate with the home owner for a few weeks or even months. The better your relationship with your hosts, the happier you're all likely to be. 

4. Get — and give — adequate information. The more you can learn about the situation that you’re getting into, the lower your risk of disappointment or scams will be. Home Base Holidays director Mark Sealey recommends keeping a reference folder with detailed information on your swaps for your own files and creating one with important household information to leave on-site for your guests. This should include user manuals for appliances or electronics, passwords for Internet access, directions to the nearest hospital and emergency contact numbers. You may also want to create a FAQ sheet that includes such information as the plumber’s number and what to do if the lights go out.
 
Sealey further advises that swappers alert their insurance companies, especially in cases of an extended swap. Confirm your coverage with your homeowners and car insurance companies — and make any needed adjustments well in advance of a swap, especially if international travel is involved.
 
5. Prepare your home: Go through every room and check for any needed repairs and take care of them. Beyond a reference folder, fill a basket, drawer or a separate folder with local information, like where to find the nearest grocery store or farmers market. Include maps and brochures from nearby attractions. Think of what you’ll want when you walk in the door of your new “home” — and prepare the same for your guests.
 
Ideally, swaps are arranged so far in advance that emails and phone conversations have established a comfortable and trustworthy relationship and most of the questions will have been answered ahead of time.

(MORE: Home Sweet Homestay: The Most Authentic Travel Experience)
 
Home-Swapping Smarts
  • Think outside the house. Do you dream of driving an RV through the Rockies or sailing a yacht along the Croatian coastline? You can swap those types of “alternative housing” with the help of home-exchange clubs. It comes down to finding the perfect match for what you have to offer. There are people who would enjoy two weeks in your uptown New Orleans home while you cruise the Florida Keys in their live-aboard sailboat.
  • Get everything in writing. Maybe you’ve spent hours chatting with your exchange partners on the phone or online and feel as if you’ve found new best friends, but agreements made verbally or via online chat should always be clearly written out on real paper, with signatures added. This is especially important if something's awry or off limits. For example, if the hot tub is broken or the antique china is for display only, don't depend on a text message; put it on paper. Avoid a hoax or ruined expectations by using a vetted company and addressing all potential problems up front.
  • Be totally honest. Having a home in a desirable destination or one tricked-out with extras, like a gourmet kitchen or mountain views, certainly makes you more desirable. Be truthful from the beginning when it comes to your home’s location, condition and amenities.
 
Bergstein says her clients tell her that their favorite query on the Digsville questionnaire is the one about housekeeping. It asks exchangers to describe their cleaning style as either “You can eat off the floor,” “Don’t even consider eating off the floor,” or “Company’s coming, better clean!”
 
Where to Start Your Swap Search
 
Here are a few companies with excellent track records and websites filled with home exchange inspiration.
 
HomeExchange.com is the largest home-swapping company online, with more than 43,000 members and options in 142 countries. Its “Last Minute Opportunities” allows for smooth swapping within the next 30 days. Membership is $9.95 per month. There are discounts for multimonth or yearly memberships. Browsing is free.
 
Digsville home exchange club has thousands of listings in 53 countries and is a great resource for tips of the trade, including advice for anyone worried about whether or not their home is “swap” material. The cost to list your home is $44.95 per year. Viewing current listings and contacting owners is free. Bergstein says a current trend is non-simultaneous swaps, often made by travelers 50 and up who have second homes purchased during the bullish 1990s that they use very little or only rent occasionally.
 
Home Base Holidays, based in London, has some 3,600 members and listings in more than 85 countries. Its Home Swap Blog features newsletters, contests and personal reviews. First-year membership is 29 pounds (about $47). 

Stephanie Oswald is an Emmy-winning journalist, television personality and the co-founder/editor in chief of Travelgirl magazine.