Home Exchanges Enrich and Extend Travel Abroad
For those who love to travel abroad, frequently or for extended periods of time, the biggest expense aside from airfare is typically accommodations. Although many different options for traveling cheaply and saving money on hotels are available, one of the best ways to arrange completely free accommodations is through home exchanges. If you have never considered or tried a home exchange, now might be just the time. With a worldwide economic recession, die-hard travelers are loath to give up their wanderings, yet interest in saving travel dollars has never been greater.
The Basics of Home Exchange
The basics of exchanging homes are simple and straightforward: you offer your home for a fellow traveler to stay in, while you stay in theirs. Often times this is done simultaneously, although not always. Many experienced exchangers have second vacation homes or travel for extended periods of time, offering opportunities to “bank” exchange time or set up non-simultaneous exchanges. There are numerous formal home exchange membership networks in existence (usually requiring a membership fee). With literally hundreds of thousands of members worldwide, the possibilities for locations and time periods, from a few days to long-term exchanges of months at a time, are almost limitless.
The Many Benefits
Home exchange provides travelers with the ability to save a tremendous amount of money by completely eliminating the huge expense of accommodations—but the beauty of the concept does not stop there. Exchanging offers many other benefits which are, in my opinion, just as important as the monetary consideration. Staying “local” in a home or apartment as opposed to a hotel on the tourist trail really adds to the travel experience, allowing you to stay in a neighborhood and live the way people there live. Most exchangers leave extensive information for their guests about the local area, full of insider’s tips about their favorite restaurants, little-known art exhibits, or other “secrets” about their city that a typical tourist would never have access to. Having a true home with a real kitchen also allows you to save money on other items, such as food, and offer the capability to store and cook meals at your leisure instead of eating out constantly.
Getting to Know the Locals
And then there are the people that you get to know through exchanging, whether in person or virtually. I have personally experience more than ten home exchanges, half of these internationally, and have met some interesting people in this way, from painters and art curators to film producers and wine merchants.
My first international exchange was in Paris, where I stayed for two weeks in a charming little 1-bedroom flat in the heart of Le Marais. Sophie, my exchange partner, was traveling on business—but her boyfriend, Jean-Marie, met me at the apartment and chivalrously carried my bags up the five flights of stairs. At the time I had let an apartment temporarily in Prague, which I exchanged with Sophie and Jean-Marie as they enjoyed their own Czech holiday.
In Venice, I took my mother and daughter to stay in an artistic 2-bedroom apartment while its owners were away on holiday of their own. The windows looked down upon a side canal, and in one of the most expensive cities on earth, our hosts provided a list of their favorite restaurants that were frequented only by locals while being very reasonably priced. That same month in Berlin, I lived in a funky flat in an avant-garde section of town that was full of live music and exciting graffiti art.
A year later, it was beautiful Vancouver, Canada, where I stayed in the second home of a retired, constantly-traveling couple. It was a renovated loft in the trendy, happening Yaletown district—and I was even able to take my dog! Today, as I write this, I am ensconced in a quaint studio apartment in Barcelona for a month, overlooking the Ramblas and only steps from the opera house, the Boqueria market, and Casa Gaudi. My exchange partner Katherine, a photography curator, is currently staying in my house in Austin where she is on fellowship at the University of Texas.
Often when I talk to others about home exchanging, the first response I get relates to the safety of opening up your home to strangers. For many their home is a sacred place full of valuable or sentimental possessions. Personally, I have never had a bad experience, and most everyone I have exchanged with are seasoned, experienced exchangers themselves. Of course, there are some tips and tricks to make your own exchange experience go smoothly.
Taking advantage of membership in a large, reputable company like HomeExchange.com is the first and foremost action you should take. Such sites provide tools such as applications and background checks. You can also ask for references from potential exchangers, and of course just use your own common sense. Keep valuables and personal/financial information locked away in filing cabinets or closets, and be clear up front about expectations from your exchange partners with regards to clean-up and key information. Of course there is an element of trust involved, but if you talk to the people beforehand through both email and telephone, and get to know them, you can verify their references and ascertain certain information. The truth is that a theft or bad travel experience could conceivably happen under any circumstance—even while staying in the most prestigious 5-star hotel.
Obviously, where you live and what type of home you have contributes to the types of exchange offers available to you. If you do not live in a place many people would want to visit, or you have a home that is not clean or conducive to visitors, exchanging might prove more difficult than for those who live in highly-desirable locations. I have never had a bad experience, and will keep home exchanging as a way to travel to places – and for lengths of time – that I might not have the money to do otherwise. I can spend two weeks in Europe or Asia for the same cost as most people might spend for a long weekend in Vegas.