Money & Policy

How This Couple Saved $250,000 In Travel Costs

Make a vacation affordable, as they do, with a home swap

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.)

I want to tell you about a couple I have known for more than 25 years, and who, by my rough calculations, have probably obtained at least $250,000 worth of “free” travel in 17 countries and many U.S. locations.

They are veteran home exchangers; they stay in other people’s homes; the other homeowners stay in theirs. (They did not want to be identified for this article, so for convenience I’ll call them Andy and Sybil.)

Since they started in 1989, without paying a dime for lodging, they have exchanged homes 106 times, staying two dozen times in New York City, 10 times in Paris and six in England.

Exchanging homes isn't all sweetness and light. As you can easily imagine, there can be unwelcome surprises.

I know others who have done this too. I have a friend in Seattle who, partly inspired by Andy’s experience, has done six exchanges; earlier this year, he and his wife stayed two weeks in Tokyo.

Exchanging homes is popular with many retirees, who have the time. But it’s also excellent for pre-retirees who are looking for ways to save money without sacrificing their lifestyles.

Is it Safe?

I’ll discuss the finances a bit more, but first, here’s something you may be wondering about: The first thing people ask home exchangers is often some variation of “Aren’t you worried that people will steal your stuff?”

Sybil had that question when Andy first proposed the idea.

“Wait a minute, we are going to let people in our house that we don’t know?” she said. The answer was “yes,” though Andy and Sybil made a point to get to know their fellow home exchangers in advance by phone, emails and in some cases exchanging photos.

Even after 106 exchanges, Andy said he has never had anything stolen, and their homes have always been left as clean as when they left. “One couple broke one of our kitchen plates and insisted on buying us a whole new set of plates,” he told me. Fortunately, he talked them out of that.

Neither Andy and Sybil nor my Seattle friends go to great lengths to protect their belongings. They don’t lock up the liquor. They do lock up their most important papers and empty a few drawers and create closet space for their guests. Otherwise, they leave their homes the way they normally are.

Surprising as it may seem, people who exchange homes are by and large trustworthy. “I’m in their home, too, and I know where to find them” if something goes wrong, Andy said.

Though inexpensive travel is the most obvious benefit of exchanging homes, everyone I know who has done this has made long-term friendships with fellow home exchangers.

“One of our first exchanges was with a couple on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, across from the Metropolitan Art Museum,” Andy said. “We have gotten to be good friends with them over the years. They offer their New York apartment to let us stay even if we aren’t exchanging any more. We have done the same with them in our home in Mexico.”

This may sound too good to be true, but thousands of people do it, mostly through membership web sites. Andy and Sybil use two: Homelink ($95 a year) and HomeExchange ($150 a year).

It’s easy (and free) to go to either site and browse for possible places to travel. Andy and Sybil usually contact other members several months in advance, sometimes even a year in advance.

You May Get the Car, Too

Very often, home exchanges include automobile exchanges, too. That adds to the savings, since it eliminates the need to rent a car when traveling.

I said earlier that I think Andy has saved at least a quarter million bucks on travel costs. That’s conservative. My wife and have just returned from a terrific trip to Paris. This place is full of magical museums and has been called the world’s greatest city for walking.

We figure that a visitor to Paris who is happy to cook “at home” instead of eating in fancy restaurants could easily save $500 a day through a home exchange. Most of Andy and Sybil’s exchanges have been for two weeks or more.

With 10 exchanges of two weeks each (20 weeks), they might have saved $70,000 right there.

But let’s take a more conservative approach. If their 106 exchanges totaled 1,400 days during which they didn’t stay at fairly modest hotels (say $160 a night with taxes) and they didn’t spend $50 a day to rent a car, the savings add up to $294,000.

In addition, Andy and Sybil have undoubtedly saved a significant sum by fixing some of their own meals instead of always dining out.

By the way, that $160 a night figure doesn’t come close to what you’d spend on Fifth Avenue in the Big Apple. Last year, the owners of the apartment where Andy and Sybil have repeatedly stayed rented it for $26,000 a month.

My Seattle friend estimates that he and his wife have saved $14,400 in the six exchanges they have done. They’ve done this in Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Ashland, Ore., the Florida Keys, Tokyo and Bellingham, Wash. (You can read more about their experiences here.)

In addition to New York and Paris, Andy and Sybil have stayed in other people’s homes in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, St. Croix, England, Ireland, France (including Corsica), Spain, Italy (including Sardinia), Portugal, Holland, Austria and Denmark.

They once did a month-long exchange, including a vehicle that they used to visit and stay in the family’s four homes throughout Spain.

Their first exchange (a whole month) was in London at the home of a member of the board of directors of the Covent Garden Royal Opera House. The home came with a pretty special perk: free tickets (with excellent seats) to all performances.

Not All Sweetness and Light

Exchanging homes isn’t all sweetness and light. As you can easily imagine, there can be unwelcome surprises.

Andy and Sybil arranged an exchange with a college professor in Pennsylvania who said he had a second home in New York’s Greenwich Village. True, but not the whole story.

The professor somehow neglected to mention that the Greenwich Village apartment was the home of his college-age son. When they arrived, they found the apartment “a bit messy, not perfectly clean. It was like one would expect for a college-age kid,” Andy said in what is probably a charitable description.

That isolated instance didn’t discourage them from continuing to exchange homes.

“This is an interesting way to travel,” he says. “If you are going to a city and want to learn about it, get to know it, explore it, staying in a home in that city (or very close) is a good way to do it.”

Both home-exchanging couples I know have the same advice to people who are intrigued with the idea: Try it.

You can dip your toe in the water, so to speak, by exchanging homes for a week or even just a long weekend with somebody who’s relatively near by. However you do it, you’ll likely discover a way to save money while you travel to places you might not otherwise go.

Richard Buck contributed to this article.

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