The home exchange concept started in the 1950s. That's when some teachers, faced with free summers and low salaries, figured out this way to travel far and wide without spending a fortune. Two current exchange companies, Homelink and Intervac, date back to that decade.
To describe what home exchange is, it is first necessary to discuss what it is not. It’s not a homestay, where you reside with a family. It’s not a home rental, where you pay to stay at someone’s abode. And it’s not couch surfing, that favorite activity among international budget travelers. Instead, home exchange is a trust-based transaction, where two dwellings are swapped without payment for a mutually-agreed upon period of time.
If you don't have friends living in desirable vacation destinations, your best bet for home exchange is signing up with an international agency. Most are now online. When looking for an online agency, though, do consider its history, references, mentions in newspaper and magazine articles, and its number of members (the more members, the more flexible the exchange). Most of the big guys charge a subscription fee in the neighborhood of $100 a year. For that C-note, you’ll get access to an online directory complete with comprehensive listings of who wants to exchange what, where and when. Beyond the home, the exchange may even include pets and cars (that is, if both parties agree).
(You can also “house swap” via Craigslist, but that can be more of a crapshoot (as it is when responding to any Craigslist listing). Potential exchangers on Craigslist also tend to be very specific about their desired destinations).
When listing your home on most sites, you will be asked to describe its features, your guest requirements (kids/no kids; maximum number of guests, etc.), local attractions in your area, and other matters that may make your house unique and interesting to out-of-towners. Photos are also a requirement.
Once you pick your exchangee, the online agency wanders out of the picture, leaving the two of you to discuss the exchange between yourselves. When you are talking, ask about anything that may be an issue. If you are allergic to smoke, down, or pet hair, ask about it. If you don’t drive and need to be by public transportation, ask about it. If you are a clean freak and need to take six showers a day, ask if that will be okay.
When you are planning an exchange, it’s generally best to start at least six months out, particularly if you are looking to travel to a desirable vacation destination during peak season. Note that Australians and New Zealanders like to set up their exchanges about a year ahead of time, in order to get cheaper overseas airfares. So, if you want to trade Down Under, work it out far ahead, mate. Similarly, if you want to be somewhere for a special event, say, London during the 2012 Olympics, start arranging things this very minute.
That said, there are also opportunities for last-minute rentals. The aforementioned CraigsList is a last-minute option. And many agencies do send members shortlists for 11th hour exchanges.
Speaking of lists, let's consider one. Here are some pros and cons of home exchange versus a standard hotel vacation.
- It's cheaper.
- You get more of a feeling of living in the place.
- There's more room.
- You can probably pack less, particularly if you are traveling with kids, since the exchange might include games, toys, and other items you would otherwise have to bring along.
- Someone will be occupying your home when you are away.
- There's a huge trust factor. If you are paranoid, forget about it.
- There's no hotel staff (housekeepers, bellmen, concierges) upon which to rely.
- You have to clean your home before going on vacation.
- You have to clean your vacation home before going back.
- Choice of exchange destinations may be limited.
1. Put terms of exchange in writing.
2. Buy trip cancellation insurance.
3. Find exchangers with similar lifestyles.
4. Start looking at least six months in advance if you plan to exchange during peak seasons.
5. Consider local standards. An average house in Sofia, Bulgaria may be quite different from an average home in Manhattan.
Questions to Ask:
1. Are there pets? If so, and even if the pets are not going to be in the home while you are there, consider allergies for cat hair, etc.
2. Are you actually exchanging pets? If so, what is the care regimen?
3. Does the house smell? Ask this question gently. But do remember that scents like smoke get engrained over time, and often are forgotten by the residents. Similarly, if the home cook likes to use onions or pepper on a frequent basis, the aroma in the kitchen may reflect that.
4. Ask about the car exchange. If you do exchange cars, make sure yours works, and that insurance covers guest drivers.
5. If your exchangees are traveling with kids, find out how old (messy) they are.
Things to Do for Visitors:
1. Leave a complete list of instructions for operating appliances, television sets and other equipment that normally comes from the store with a manual.
2. Leave local contacts/neighbors, etc. and emergency numbers.
3. Make a list of stores and attractions in the area.
4. Provide a welcome goodie, perhaps a bottle of wine (and corkscrew) and a snack plate.
5. Stock the refrigerator with a few general provisions (butter, eggs, soda) to get guests going.
6. Let guests know what they have access to (bikes, certain dishes, computers, etc.) If you want to guarantee non-use, put off-limits items in a separate locked room.
7. Set house rules.
8. Arrange for a family member, neighbor or friend to come by and welcome your exchange partners when they arrive.