Why a Home Exchange is a Great Indie Travel Experience

As my husband, daughter and I cruised along Amsterdam’s canals in a small metal boat with an outboard motor, my daughter pointed to the street above where someone was taking our picture. “They probably think we’re an Amsterdam family,” she said.  We laughed because she was probably right.  After all, we looked like all the other locals in their own boats, enjoying the evening and watching out for the big tourist cruise boats, so we could stay out of their way.

We had access to the small boat because we were staying in someone’s home as part of our very first home exchange, and use of the boat was included. Since that first home exchange to Amsterdam in 2009, my family has often traveled using home exchanges.  A home exchange provides access to two things travelers often want: insight into daily life and a local contact that can provide you with on-the-ground information targeted to your travel interests. It is a great opportunity to not only live like a local but to do so in a home that is actually lived in and not set up as a vacation rental or as a place that caters strictly to tourists.  While learning about and dealing with the idiosyncrasies of local home life, you also begin to understand just how much of your daily life back home is culturally determined.

A home exchange provides access to two things travelers often want: insight into daily life and a local contact that can provide you with on-the-ground information targeted to your travel interests.

I had never heard of home exchanging until 2008, when I overheard someone make a random remark about it, mainly that it was something her family would never do. Immediately intrigued, I began doing research.  I have always loved to travel, and my husband, daughter, and I go on at least one long trip and several shorter trips each year. Initially, I wrongly assumed that home exchange destinations were limited, but as I investigated, I discovered that, while North America and Europe constitute a large portion of the listings, there were many homes available all over the world. Almost anyplace I could think of that we wanted to go — and that list includes South America, Australia, and parts of Asia we haven’t been to yet — there was the potential for a home exchange.

This is the perfect opportunity for long-term travelers as well. It provides the opportunity to slow down for a while and really dig into the culture you’re visiting, and it can be a great way to stretch out the budget.

What site to use

While there are several home exchanges websites, we chose to list our home on Home Exchange and HomeLink, which seemed to have the easiest interfaces and most homes, although the bulk of our exchanges have come through Home Exchange. To sign up, you pay a fee, which runs about $120 annually, and create a profile for your family, home, and neighborhood. To make your listing more appealing, you can add pictures and links as well as a list of places you’d like to exchange to and your approximate travel dates.

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Since that first exchange in 2009, we have done eight more and will embark on our tenth exchange this summer when we exchange our home in Oregon for a home in Spain.

Pros and cons

 

Of course, not everything about a home exchange works out perfectly, but that’s to be expected when you travel this way.  On an exchange in Hawaii, we stayed in beautiful, remote house on the Big Island near its black sand beaches. The house looked out over a field of lava rock interspersed with pineapple plants, but we were in a tropical climate, and it was spring.  The homeowner’s instructions stated that we needed to immediately clean up after we ate, but we missed a spot on the counter, and after spending the day at Volcanoes National Park, we returned to spend the next couple hours battling ants. Another time, the homeowners who had stayed in our house while we were out of town during Christmas in exchange for a stay in their house during spring break called to tell us that they had unexpectedly sold their house and that it would close before our scheduled visit. To make up for that, the family gave us the amount of money it would cost to rent a place in their area, so we could make our own arrangements and still have a vacation without paying for a place to stay.

One of our most unusual exchange experiences was in a cabin in Central Oregon. The owners told us that they never locked their door and that when we arrived, we should open the door, greet their dog, and make ourselves at home.  We didn’t really think that they never locked their doors, but after we arrived, it became evident that was the case. There was not a key anywhere in the house, and when we examined the front door, we discovered it had no lock. When we left five days later, we just carefully closed the door behind us as we had done every time we left the house.

The benefits of using a home exchange are many

We began home exchanging as a way to save money on travel and have more space than a hotel room, but we soon discovered that the rewards extended far beyond the saved money.  Arranging an exchange puts you in immediate contact with someone who can help you plan what you want to do.  For example, while arranging our exchange to Amsterdam, the homeowners and I provided each other with information on activities we thought our respective children would enjoy. I found places for their son to take his BMX bike, and they suggested our then nine-year-old daughter would enjoy a day trip to Efteling, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks. Recently, we did a home exchange in San Diego’s Mission Beach area, and the homeowner told us that one of his favorite breakfast places would be celebrating its 33rd birthday while we were there, and that we could get a full breakfast at 1979 prices.  For local knowledge on where to get groceries, eat, and go shopping and sightseeing, there is nothing like a list of possibilities tailored to you by someone who lives there.

We began home exchanging as a way to save money on travel and have more space than a hotel room, but we soon discovered that the rewards extended far beyond the saved money.

We have had a wonderful time on all our trips, and home exchanging has provided an extra dimension that allows us to see aspects of daily life and to know what it’s like to live in one of those homes you walk by. If it hadn’t been for the box of hagelslag, or chocolate sprinkles, in the kitchen, we never would have known that people in the Netherlands often put them on buttered bread. We have gotten design ideas for our home by seeing how other people place their furniture, artwork, and accessories around a room.  We have mastered the art of metric cooking, walked dogs, talked to neighbors, repaired bicycles, and learned to operate several styles of locks, dishwashers, laundry machines, and coffee makers.

Because each home is so different, the homes and what they offer become part of the memories. The five-story canal house and its staircase that you continually ran up and down, and once, even slipped down. The house where you were given use of a kayak that allowed you to explore quiet rivers overhung with greenery and strewn with plants, and the 1920s cottage with its small beautiful garden all become part of your traveler’s tales.

Home exchange tips

Here are some tips we’ve learned from our home exchanging experiences:

  1. Don’t worry that your home isn’t “nice” enough.  Even if you think your home is full of flaws, it’s probably not. Nobody will expect your home to be perfect. Think about the great things your home has to offer. For example, does it have a large yard for kids to play? Even if it’s not in what you consider to be a prime destination, think about what’s around your home. Maybe it’s a great spot to base a regional vacation.
  2. Be proactive about getting an exchange but also be open to destinations. If you have a specific destination in mind, send out requests to people who live there rather than waiting for them to contact you. But, don’t discard requests from people asking if you’re interested in their home. Two of our best home exchange trips happened this way. We spent a week in a wonderful area of Seattle that we didn’t know existed and spent a long weekend in a prime outdoor destination where we could hike and mountain bike right out the front door.
  3. Make sure the home exchange agreement covers everything you need it to. Most home exchange sites have sample documents that you can use to write an exchange agreement, and you should feel free to modify them to meet your needs. For example, if there are areas or items in your home that will be off-limits, or if you are exchanging cars and don’t want the family’s teens driving yours, put that in the agreement. We recently completed exchange documents with a family who added a section on what we would do if one party ended up not being able to fulfill its part of the exchange, a section we plan to include in all our future agreements.
  4. By the time the exchange happens, you and your exchange partner are no longer complete strangers. Arranging a home exchange is a back-and-forth process that involves several emails and the occasional phone call. While the initial email comes from a stranger, by the time the details are worked out, you know enough about your exchange partners to feel comfortable having them stay in our home.
  5. Home exchanging frees up funds. Because you save money on accommodations, home exchanging can stretch your travel budget. For example, you can take an additional trip with the saved money or extend a vacation. When we go to Spain this summer, we are tacking on a trip to England. If you are trying to save money in general, trying a home exchange means you don’t have to forego vacations completely.
  6. Staying in a home often provides you with “extras” that you can’t get in a hotel or vacation rental. Home exchanges often include the use of bicycles, outdoor gear, beach chairs, and other equipment that will allow you to get out and experience all the destination has to offer.

To read more about alternative ways to save money while traveling, check out the following articles:

Read more about author Margaret Foley here.

Photo credits: Cabinvacation2 Punaluublacksand2, cubanjunkyMissionbeachrestaurant2 Herengrachtcanal2 -photo courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission. 

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  • Lauren S. Kahn said at 2013-10-19T19:58:05+0000: I now have a website entirely devoted to my home exchange adventures. You can start here (and, yes, I am AlteCocker):http://altecockertravels.weebly.com/I will be doing my 55th home exchange in Costa Rica soon. I do deal with the downside of home exchanging as well as the positives (something the websites would rather you not know:http://altecockertravels.weebly.com/the-nasty-side-of-home-exchanging.htmlThe basic how to piece is here:http://altecockertravels.weebly.com/how-to-do-a-home-exchange.html
  • said at 2013-02-04T17:51:14+0000: knok.com is another easy and convenient way to list your home and find others to swap with! Voted one of the best start ups in Spain and also one of the most user friendly.
  • The Drifter Journals said at 2012-12-25T08:04:22+0000: Thanks for sharing your insight on this, I've heard about home exchanges through the years, but have never actually taken the time to look into it.
  • Lauren S. Kahn said at 2012-07-19T20:53:45+0000: Just saying "Hello" from my 46th home exchange in Fredrikstad, Norway. #47 begins in a week in Stockholm, Sweden. Both these exchanges were from Intervac. My Australian exchanges next winter are all from Homelink, but I will be doing a 3 night home hospitality stay in Tasmania and that one is ffrom Intervac (I have already hosted the Tasmanians). For the summer of 2013 I already have my deals (Brittany, France, and Salamanca, Spain)--both through Intervac. I already have 2 tentative deals for the summer of 2014, but I do not give a final commitment until a year before. My experience with long lead times is that someone gets sick or changes his mind. 2014, if all works out, will be in Poland and the Czech Republic. I certainly do plenty of exchanging in the US and Canada as well. I especially like winter exchanges where everyone drives. You get bad weather, you make a phone call and adjust and/or cancel the exchanges. In recent years I did "local" exchanges in Ottawa, Myrtle Beach, SC, and Williamsburg, VA.Since someone else below mentioned TV, was the subject of a piece a few years back that was on CNN.
  • Home Base Holidays said at 2012-06-04T09:54:44+0000: Excellent article on home exchange. The best choice of home exchange agency can vary depending on where you live and where you want to go. Look beyond total numbers of listings at the balance of offers in an area/country you want to visit against the number of members from your country who want the same destination. Check how up-to-date exchange offers are (listings should include join/renewal and expiry dates) and also look for a well established service (many new agencies come and go each year) to increase your chances of finding great matches.Our own service is based in London (est 1985) and we have a really great choice of offers in the city and throughout the UK. Looking for an exchange during the 2012 Olympics? Do check the many possibilities available as many Londoners are planning to escape the city during this busy period! Swapping homes is a great way not only to save money but to really get to know an area well.
  • Christine Pearson said at 2012-07-14T08:01:54+0000: Ive been swapping since 2000. Only had 1 "iffy" swap to france. That was arranged last minute as our exchangers to Australia had backed out because of redundancy, We hadn't booked the tickets thank goodness. France was an old house, 1st time exchangers and cleanliness not up to my standards. So 1st order of the day was a bottle of bleach. The weather was awfull, and their cat had fleas! so not a great experience! However all other swaps we have done were great. We usually start looking about 14 months in andvance. I do find some people just don't answer my emails. but I just keep trying till I find somwhere. we ask for a few destinations but sometime get an offer from somewhere else different that takes our fancy. next year we asked for. Savannah, Washington DC, Boston and the Maine coatline. WE have accepted an offer for Vancouver Island! So my motto is never say never. One of the best trips we done was 3 weeks in SanFrancisco when we took a british camera crew with us and we were featured on the home exchange TV program. home from home.
  • Fly, Icarus, Fly said at 2012-07-12T10:30:38+0000: Question: Are you always traveling somewhere when someone uses your home? What if it doesn't work out to be a simultaneous exchange? (You mentioned an example where s/o stayed at your home at Xmas and you were going to stay at their home in the spring). So, if it's not simultaneous, where are you supposed to stay when they're at your place?
  • Lauren S. Kahn said at 2012-06-03T20:10:37+0000: I have been home exchanging since 1990. I get all my exchanges from Homelink.org and Intervac. I found homeexchange.com to be virtually useless for me; despite sending out scads of email, few on homeexchange.com seem to answer their emails (I live in the Washington, DC, area, so I am in a good tourist area). This year I have home exchanges in Norway and Sweden during the summer (both from Intervac) and 3 in Australia in the Sydney and Canberra region (all from Homelink). While I am in Australia, I have 3 days home hospitality in Tasmania to use up and I will do a side trip to Tasmania; those days are from Intervac. I have belonged to both Intervac and Homelink since 1990. I already, by the way, have an exchange deal for July 2013. Experienced home exchangers often plan way ahead. Whichever service you use, you cannot go wrong if you get a deal, as it is cheaper than any alternative plus you have a lot of interaction with the locals.
  • Lauren S. Kahn said at 2012-06-03T20:20:31+0000: By the way, by the time I am done visiting Australia, next winter, my total of exchanges will be 51. I have done everything from local long weekend exchanges to much longer trips. My trip to Australia will be my third down under--all based on home exchanges. I have also been to New Zealand (which I did as part of the two previous Australia based home exchanges; I went from Australia to NZ and did exchanges there on both prior trips; no NZ this time). I Europe I have exchanged in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Finland (multiple times in all countries). I have also exchanged in Istanbul. Of course, I have exchanged in Canada and the US. I was once on CNN in a piece on home exchange--a real kick!
  • Brian Luckhurst said at 2012-06-01T08:27:36+0000: A really good comprehensive article on Home Exchanging. Swapping Homes for a vacation has become more and more popular, why pay for accommodation when you can have it free? If you haven't tried it I thoroughly recommend it and I know it doesn't suit everyone. It is not all about saving money though, the experience you will get swapping your home with another is worth paying for.