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Home Exchange: Stay at Your Destination for Free

When it comes to low-cost accommodations, you can’t beat “free.” Specifically, if you can arrange to swap your house with someone who lives where you want to go, your vacation accommodations cost you nothing up front. And the miscellaneous costs involved are far less than you’d find at any other place to stay. As with many other really great deals, however, you have to carefully consider the pluses and minuses.

The basic idea is simple. You arrange with another family to switch houses for the period of your vacations—you stay in their house, they stay in yours. Home swaps can also include such extras as use of a car and access to private local recreation facilities, but they don’t have to include any extras; exchange may apply to second or primary homes.

If you’d like to explore the idea of a home exchange, you have two critical considerations:

Location. You have to live (or own a second home) somewhere that people want to visit. A beach house on Cape Cod or an apartment on Nob Hill is likely to generate more interest than an ordinary place in mid-America. Seinfeld might quip, “Not that there’s anything wrong with mid-America,” but you have to be realistic about your chances. And you may have to get creative about how you describe your home area.

Schedule. Clearly, you’ll do best if you can offer a flexible schedule—when you can make your house available, and for how long. Obviously, the ability to conform to someone else’s schedule is a big plus, compared with making someone else conform to yours.

If you decide to give it a try, your next move is obviously to find someone with whom to make the exchange. For most of you, that means looking on the Internet, where many sites and agencies specialize in matching potential exchange partners. Some offer worldwide listings, others are specific to regions or niche markets. Some charge fees; others don’t. Here’s a sample from my “favorites” home-exchange list:

As usual, I present this list for your exploration, not as a personal recommendation for any individual site.

Of course, the Internet isn’t the only way to find exchange partners. A trade with a relative or friend is ideal, since you presumably know the locations and activities. You can also find classified ads in various travel publications; I’ve noticed quite a few in university alumni magazines.

Once you decide to proceed, you’ll probably want to make some physical changes around your house. Most exchangers prefer to keep at least some of their houses off limits to visitors. That means, for example, designating a private room (or section of the house) and installing a special lock that isn’t on the same key as the rest of the house. Before you leave, you might want to move some particularly valuable or fragile items into that safe area. For the visitors, prepare a list of phone numbers and other emergency data—the same sort of stuff you find in a typical vacation rental. Also prepare a notebook with manuals or instructions to the various appliances and services guests will use.

You might also think about an alternative to straight exchange: Reciprocal hospitality. You make a deal with a partner family; you take them in as guests when they visit your home; they host you in theirs at a different time. Reciprocal hospitality naturally entails a lot more personal involvement than a simple property exchange, but it also provides rewards that a simple exchange doers not. I’ll have more on reciprocal hospitality in a future column.

Many travelers find a straight exchange to be the ideal low-cost vacation option. If you’re interested, give it a try.

Have you ever swapped homes with friends or strangers? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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