Swapping Vacations

Home Exchanges Can Cost No More than Staying Home

Article & Photos By Linda Lewis

Would you like to stay in our house near Munich for a month this summer in return for putting us up in Florida for a week or two next year?" The question came on the telephone from a strange voice with a German accent.

Members of a home exchange organization can expect calls, email, and letters from total strangers all over the world with offers to exchange homes or hospitality. Home exchanging allows you all the comforts of home while on vacation at a bargain price. While open to anyone, the arrangement is ideal for travelers who have the time and means to arrange flexible and sometimes long-term vacations and for those who wish to experience what it's really like to live in another country.

This particular call came from Melanie, an English teacher who was a seasoned traveler and exchanger. Her family had planned a sailing trip for that summer, but, she was thinking ahead for the following year. She, her husband, and their two sons intended to travel through the U.S., collecting hospitality she had accumulated from other exchange club members.

My husband and I already had planned a home exchange in Amsterdam that would provide us with a car for the summer and we were thrilled at the opportunity to see Germany. We decided to combine Melanie's exchange with the one in Holland and drive a circular route between the two countries to explore Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Austria.

Melanie invited us to arrive several days before she was scheduled to depart. As her guest, and later on our own in her home, we were able to experience life in Germany at a level most tourists never see. We were introduced to her friends, family, and the local shopkeepers; we were invited to a Bavarian dinner and to visit a working farm; we spoke to Melanie's English class about life in the U.S.; we visited the concentration camp at Dachau and participated in frank discussions on what this generation of Germans feels about the aftermath of the Holocaust. Our interactions left us with some understanding of Germany and what daily life is like there today.

How Home Exchange Works

While the hospitality exchange we arranged with Melanie worked out well for both of us, most home exchanges are done simultaneously—you stay at the home of your exchangers while they are staying in yours.

Exchanges often include swapping automobiles and can also include use of such amenities as boats, bicycles, and tennis clubs. Not only do you avoid hotel and car rental charges, but you can eat as many of your meals as you like at home. So while it's up to you and your exchanger to work out the arrangement that suits you best, a swapping vacation needn't cost you much more than staying at home.

To get started with swapping, register with an exchange service. Using these services has become significantly easier—and cheaper—with the advent of the Internet. In the past, we had to wait for the annual print directory listing the homes available for exchange, mail out letters to those that interested us, and wait for a positive response. Now we connect to the exchange web site, click on the areas where we wish to vacation, and send out multiple emails to all listings that seem desirable and are open to coming to Florida. At the same time prospective exchangers are sending us emails to see if we'd like to exchange with them.

Once we have connected with a mutually interested party, we exchange photographs and detailed information about our home, area, families, and dates we'd like to exchange, and we also speak on the telephone.

Our most common arrangement is to have one party arrive at the hosts' home a day or two before the host departs. This gives us time to spend together to get to know each other, exchange information and keys, and provide orientation to one another's localities. As was the case with Melanie, exchangers often introduce us to their friends and family, which is always an enlightening experience.

A Range of Possibilites

Since our initial exchange in 1985, we have done 21 successful exchanges—in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Each one has had its own unique rewards.

On a second trip to Melanie's we traveled into the then still communist countries of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and met a young Polish girl we were able to bring over to the U.S. French exchanges in Aix-en-Provence, Nice, and Cannes provided opportunities to explore seaside villages, perched mountain towns, and the glorious beaches of the French Riviera. We've flown from a San Francisco exchange to one in Hawaii and used our Calgary exchange to savor the spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies. Along the way, we've made numerous friendships.

Perhaps our favorite exchange was on Lake Annecy, in the French Alps. When my husband walked in and saw the view from the large chalet overlooking the sparkling lake, he grabbed Josianne, our hostess, and kissed her. Josianne, a superb cook, threw a dinner party for a dozen of her friends in our honor. Sitting on her balcony, drinking wine, and eating her wonderful food was the closest thing I've experienced to heaven. A few years later, for my fiftieth birthday, she invited us to use her house again. We have since returned to Annecy on additional exchanges, and Josianne has never failed to make a spectacular dinner.

Avoiding Problems

For those who might worry about entrusting their property to strangers, keep in mind that people who trust you to live in and take care of their homes are likely to take excellent care of yours. There are very few reported instances of problems like theft or property damage, and it's common to find your house cleaner and in better condition than you left it.

If you are worried about valuables you can always store them elsewhere, but we've stayed in homes where Rolex watches and antique silver were left about. Most homeowner and auto insurance policies cover damage that might accidentally occur. A pre-trade agreement helps establish responsibility for such things as who pays for utilities, breakage, repairs, and the like. Checking references from previous exchanges also adds to a feeling of security; you can ask frank questions about how they liked the exchange and how they found their home when they returned.

These are the steps you can take to ensure your exchange goes smoothly:

• Do your research. Make sure you have enough pictures to really know what the home is like and don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask for a description of each room—what types of beds, number of toilets, TV channels, or whatever is important to you. I always ask what I can walk to in the area and the distance to the nearest supermarket. Be aware that most European homes and many cars are not air-conditioned, so ask about that as well.

• Compile helpful information. Both parties should write a list of quirks about the house, car, and area. List necessities like favorite restaurants, locations of recreation facilities, emergency numbers of doctors and dentists. Compile documents and information about things like auto registration, insurance, and appliances, and provide maps of the area. Recruit friends, family, or neighbors to help.

• Make agreements in advance. Agree on things such as distance limits on the car, what you will leave in the refrigerator, use of home items such as laundry detergent and condiments, and what is off limits (like my husband's collection of model cars).

• Plan ahead. Most exchanges for the summer are made the previous winter, so most people list with exchange organizations in the fall.

If you're open, flexible and have a sense of adventure, home exchanging can provide unsurpassed opportunities for travel, learning, and friendship.