Vacation house swapping: Your place or mine?

The Orange County Register

I almost had to pinch myself to believe it was true. We were sleeping in an apartment on the Italian Riviera, one of the world's most expensive playgrounds. And we were doing it for free.

Let's face it. Times are tough. Lavish vacations are over, even for people who used to be able to afford them. But that doesn't mean you have to sit home this year

How to vacation free with a home exchange

How to exchange:

There are two ways to reach people. You can avoid listing your own home on the service, and just contact owners of places you want to visit, sending them photos and descriptions. Also tell them how many people would be visiting in your party and who you are.

However, for the biggest bang for your buck, send in a listing of your own home with a couple of photos and you will eventually hear from folks who want to come here. Don't be dishonest in your listing, but emphasize the positives about your neighborhood and proximity to any attractions like Disneyland, a university or the beach. People are also very concerned about safety so mention how your neighborhood rates.

If you have special needs or accommodations, mention, for example, that your house is kid-friendly or if you don't want any children staying in your home. If you are willing to trade cars, say so. Also, if you have any pets, say so and what accommodations will be made for them.

Types of exchanges:

Simultaneous: You go to their house from July 4 to July 24, they come to yours during the same period.

Non-Simultaneous: You go to their house in July, they come to your house in October. This works well for vacation homes or times you know you'll be gone.

Hospitality: They come and stay with you as your guests and vice-versa. This works if you're a gregarious type who gets along with many different types of people. For us, it resulted in lifelong friendships.

Rentals: Sometimes people will also list vacation rentals on home exchange sites.

Tips for a successful exchange:

Work out details in advance like using the phone and/or whether cars could be included in the exchange.

Have a friend or neighbor available to greet your guests, if you're not there, and emergency contacts, like a plumber.

Leave the home in the condition you found it. Your house should be clean and welcoming.

If people seem way too persnickety when you're e-mailing, maybe they're not a good fit. Home exchanging is sort of like dating, you want to have a good relationship.

You can travel all over the world on a budget, swapping your house with someone who wants to come here. Eat like a local, cook your meals in your new "home," and forget expensive restaurant dining.

Sometimes, you can even trade cars, boats or RVs.

That's how I, an underpaid single mom, ended up sitting at a cafe along the Italian Riviera, gazing at the blue Mediterranean Sea while the kids played on the beach in front of me.

Home exchange clubs existed before the Internet boom. In the early days, you paid a small fee, listed your house and found people with whom to swap via a big fat listing book that arrived in the mail.

Now, of course, the Internet has made it all so much easier.

When I first discovered the world of home exchanging, I thought it would be a great way to see the world for free. Especially with kids, swapping houses is a great way to travel. You can stay in homes where other kids live, and your offspring will love playing with their toys, sleeping in their beds.

Also, after I actually started home exchanging, I realized that the financial aspect of it was only one of its appeals.

We also met so many wonderful people and got involved in their lives in a way that never would have been possible otherwise.

Instead of arriving at a hotel in a foreign country and being assisted by employees, you arrive at someone's real home and meet their friends and neighbors.

Instead of staying on a street full of hotels and tourists, you are staying in a real neighborhood, surrounded by real people who inhabit the country you're visiting. Frequently, there's a yard for kids to run around in.

You get a much more intimate taste of life in that country, not to mention the fact that, gee, you're also saving a ton of money.

So, how does it work?

There are dozens of home exchange clubs on the Internet. You can browse the listings usually for free, read their rules and get an idea of whether it's something that appeals to you.

There are usually three different types of homes listed: A simultaneous exchange, where you agree to trade homes at the exact same time; a non-simultaneous exchange, where you can use their place anytime, for example if it's a vacation home; or a hospitality exchange, where you are still in the home, but welcome them to visit you and provide a place to stay.

All different types and levels of homes will be listed, from tiny apartments to mansions on private estates.

People will have photos of their properties, and also list the places they are interested in visiting.

In general, people will swap like for like, so you can't expect to get a huge mansion in the South of France if you're offering a little shotgun shack in the 'burbs.

The further in advance you can plan your vacation, the more choice you'll have. And if you can be flexible at the last minute, you can sometimes pick up some good exchanges from people whose plans fell through.

A lot of people ask me, "Aren't you afraid of strangers coming in and cleaning you out while you're gone?" I suppose that could happen, but realistically, these people are giving you their homes as well. So they're not too likely to be criminals.

Also, usually you'll be providing neighbors or friends who can drop by and help your houseguests out with any problems they experience, or just to say hi and welcome them.

Home exchanging is popular with teachers, who have long summer holidays, and also with people who live in far-flung places like Australia or South Africa. When they travel, they take long trips and are looking to economize.

I only had one negative experience with home exchanging, with a French family from Montreaux, Switzerland. This was when I hoped to someday go to the famous jazz festival there.

The family arrived and I temporarily moved out of my house, crashing with a friend with the idea that later they would pay me back with lodging in their gorgeous stone apartment in the Alps.

But they turned out to be a pain in the rear, the wife needed to be taken to the doctor, and I was appointed to help her out, because she was a hypochondriac who decided she had meningitis, when all she had was a cold. Then, they left me $50 for some phone calls they made to Europe, but the real phone bill ended up being $125 and they never paid the difference.

That was the one sour note in my home exchanging history, and I never ended up going to Switzerland, because right afterward I adopted my two kids, Michael and Sandy, and jazz festivals lost their importance to me for a number of years.

On the plus side, we met a really fun family from Copenhagen, Denmark, who called me up at the last minute and said their home exchange had fallen through and was mine available?

Well, I wasn't leaving my house, but I had an empty back house available for them if they were desperate enough. Yes, they said they were. So shortly afterward, six people from Denmark showed up on my doorstep and were promptly deposited in my back house, complete with air mattresses to sleep on.

One of the six visitors was a tall, stunningly gorgeous black man named Gigi, a high-fashion model who worked mostly in the European fashion capital of Milan.

Gigi was also the son of the late king of the African nation of Burundi. His mother had been Danish, so after his father was assassinated, he moved to Denmark. His partner Rikki liked to say he was still the crown prince of Burundi.

I liked to say that, too, and I enjoyed telling people that the crown prince of Burundi was sleeping on my floor.

The entire family was so much fun to be around that I ended up taking them to Rosarito Beach, so they could experience a day in Mexico. We parted reluctantly, with many promises to meet again. I've never made it to Denmark, but I still hope that someday we will.

The most fun people I ever met, with whom I am still in touch today, were a couple from Milan, Italy, named Stefano and Roberta. At the time, both of them worked for Microsoft and traveled around the world doing home exchanges.

They stayed with my roommate Barb and me on a hospitality exchange, umpteen years ago.

We had such a ball together that, the following year, they invited me to come and stay with them in a gorgeous villa in Baja they had acquired free through an exchange.

The villa had four bedrooms, three fireplaces, two barbecues, a hot tub, golf course and a nearby community swimming pool, so we weren't too miserable spending a long weekend there.

When my friend Barb got married the following year, she and her new husband spent their honeymoon in various homes owned by Stefano and Roberta's family, including a vineyard house in Treviso, outside of Venice and a villa in Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet.

Even though it had been years and years since I first met them, and Stefano and Roberta had broken up and married other people, I finally made good last year on my threat to go to Italy and went to visit Roberta and her husband, Fabrizio and their kids at their urban apartment in Milan.

Roberta lent us their vacant upstairs studio apartment that they usually save for in-laws, where we could cook and sleep on a foldout couch.

The apartment had a rooftop view of Milan from its terrace.

After a couple of days touring the famous Duomo cathedral and other sights around Milan, we took the train to Sestri Levante and stayed in Roberta's vacation apartment on the Riviera.

The town of Sestri Levante is a resort town for Italians. We never saw another American the whole time we were there, and that was just fine with us.

Roberta's apartment was small, with two bedrooms and a sofa-bed, but in a great location in the middle of the little town, only two blocks from the beach and the train station.

Every day, we took the train to different locations along the Riviera. We also cruised to Portofino, where I bought the most expensive piece of pizza I will ever purchase. The actual cost has been blotted out of my mind by post-traumatic stress.

The apartment allowed us to sprawl out and live like Italians, buying our pasta at the market across the street, cooking at home and saving scads of money.

Just as importantly, we got the feeling of being real Italians, in a real Italian neighborhood.

And the kids got to know the children of Roberta and Fabrizio, even though they couldn't speak each other's languages.

It's a great way to travel.