Vacationing Abroad With All the Comforts of Home

by David and Mary Lee Cole

London! Paris! Amsterdam! Athens! Europe beckons, but for many families the cost of accommodations, and the logistics of steering children through a vacation abroadnavigating restaurants, keeping the kids entertained, living out of suitcases in hotelsquickly tarnish the appeal. Even so, more and more families are overcoming these obstacles and finding their way to destinations all over the world through the growing popularity of home exchange vacations.

We first learned about home exchanges while resting our feet in the café at London's Tate Museum. Having struck up a conversation with a retired American couple sitting at the adjacent table, we were dumbfounded as they explained that they were on their fifth house exchange in as many years, enjoying all the conveniences of a small home in central London. Our immediate response was, "What about families with children?" To our delight we discovered that home exchanges come in every size and shape, and can be arranged for families with just one child or many children, and for stays of a week or two, or much more.

The very next summer, having set up an exchange with a French family, we found ourselves ensconced for three glorious weeks in an elegant 18th century home in the Norman city of Rouen. The house was a two-minute stroll along cobblestoned streets to a colorful open-air market in the plaza where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Our son, then eight, eagerly settled into one of the children's rooms and discovered a wonderful collection of games and toys, including the French versions of some old favorites.

With all the amenities of home at our fingertips, we enjoyed a pleasant balance of busy sightseeing and relaxing evenings with a day off now and then just to play and read in the yard. We used the family car to drive into Paris, explore the countryside, and check out the Normandy coast. And because we were there on a house exchange, we were able to enjoy this vacation for little more than the cost of our plane tickets.

The year after, we were thrilled to find ourselves in a chic modern home in a stylish suburb of Copenhagen, and last summer we enjoyed a wonderful three-week vacation, once again in London, but this time in a charming, spacious home near parks, shops, and transportation.

In addition to these amazingly successful vacations, we have also had the opportunity to consider enticing exchangesthat, alas, we couldn't pursuein Vienna, Barcelona, Provence, and New Zealand, as well as several major cities in the U.S. Other friends and acquaintances have completed exchanges in Paris, Amsterdam, and Florence. The possibilities seem endless. One couple we know spent a month with their baby in a home 100 yards from the beach in Sardinia.

For families the advantages of a home exchange are many. Besides the huge money savings on both hotels and restaurants, you can arrange to stay in a family neighborhoodand one you probably otherwise would never have seen as a touristrather than the noisy city center. Our son, now eleven, has had the opportunity to play with neighborhood children, and we have hired local teenagers, recommended by our host families, as babysitters, thus giving us the rare opportunity for a romantic evening out in a foreign city. We have also enjoyed having all the conveniences of homedishwasher, washing machine, television, vcr, games and bikesand some we do not even have at homean immense master suite, electric towel warmers, and convertible car.

Another advantage of being in a house as opposed to a hotel, is that we have been able to balance sightseeing with relaxation. We treasure the memory of coming back to the house after a hectic day, eating a casual dinner in the garden room, and enjoying the luxury of spreading out our Stonehenge jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table while our host family's cat took turns in our laps.

We have arranged all of our exchanges through Intervac International which publishes a series of worldwide directories and features listing of over 10,000 families interested in arranging home exchanges. Another company, Homelink USA, provides similar catalogs plus internet listings. For about $100 either of these companies will list information about your house and your vacation needs in their catalog. All kinds of homes are offered for exchange, from modest apartments to mansions. Each listing follows a very detailed format that provides lots of information about your family, where you live, where you would like to go and for how long and when, the number of people your home can accommodate, the availability of various appliances, local attractions, and whether a car is to be included in the exchange.

Once your copy of the directory arrives you look for listings in the places you'd like to visit with matching vacation dates, a somewhat similar family, and an appropriate house. Next comes the exciting process of contacting these potential exchange families by phone, fax, email or letter, and working out the details of your exchange. Meanwhile other members will have seen your listing and will be writing to you about exchanging homes. It's thrilling to pick up your phone and have someone calling from Paris or Amsterdam offering you their house for three weeks. Once you decide to swap homes with another member family you need to work out all the details. Most home exchange services offer information and advice on how to negotiate the details, but they leave the actual arrangements to you.

Here are several points to keep in mind when planning a home exchange.

1. Think through your ideal location. Do you want to be in a major city, a suburb, or a small town out in the country with lots of outdoor recreational possibilities. As much research as you can do in this regard at your library, bookstore, or over the internet will prove to be helpful.

2. Learn to interpret the directory listings. When we first started investigating Copenhagen, for instance, we discovered there were very few listings of houses for the city. Only after examining a detailed city map did we realize that each suburb was listed by its own name, and that we needed to pay close attention to another part of the listing that indicated the distance to the city center.

3. Look for a family similar to yours. The listing information tells you the number of family members and their ages. If your exchange family has children in the same general age bracket as yours, you can arrange to use their strollers, car seats, bicycles, toys, computer games, and whatever else you need. They, in turn will be thankful to use your equipment. In our experience, other families have taken very good care of our house, cars, pets, and possessions.

4. Develop a bond of mutual respect and trust with your exchange family. While you are setting up the exchange you will get to know the other family, their professions, their interests, the features of their home, their car, even their children's babysitter. Just as you are entrusting your home to them, they are entrusting their home and car to you. We have found it helpful to meet our exchange family when they arrive so we could introduce them to our dog Rosie, and show them around our house. Likewise, they have arranged for a friend or family member to introduce us to their home. We do know of people who have exchanged homes without ever meeting the other partyhaving crossed paths over the Atlanticand the exchanges have worked out fine, but for us part of the joy has been to make new friends.

5. Leave detailed information about your house and car. You'll have time to put together a file folder with information about your home that outlines the essentials such as trash pick-up, recycling, how to take care of your pets, where to turn off the gas or water in emergency, what repair services to contact for fixing an appliance or your car, names of baby sitters, cleaning service, and who to contact if they have questions. Remember they know where you are should they need to be in touch! We have collected a packet of information about local attractions, parks, and recreational facilities that we leave to help our new friends, and have equally appreciated information they have left for us.

With these guidelines in hand, we want to encourage you to go forward and arrange the vacation you always imagined, or, perhaps, never dared to imagine. Remember, just as you are dreaming of taking your family to a country estate on the outskirts of London or a Spanish villa minutes from the ocean, there is a family dreaming of spending their vacation in a home far from their own, a home like yours perhaps.