Today we have a guest post from Anne, a longtime reader from Norway. Anne is going to give us the skinny on home exchange networks (think “The Holiday”) and how they’ve enabled her to get nearly-free lodging in some great locations.
Take it away, Anne!
I’ve stayed in houses in Madrid, another small town outside of Madrid, and Paris for free! And in a couple days we’ll be arriving in Hawaii where we’ll also have free lodging.
We’ve done this via public home exchange networks. What are they? How do they work? Are they safe? I’ll answer those common questions, but first a video intro, courtesy of Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet…
The Holiday, starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet brought the home exchange concept to the silver screen.
My Friend Showed Me the Way
I actually first heard about this concept when I was invited to join a friend of mine and her two kids on a vacation. My friend is a teacher so she has a long summer vacation. This had been her only way of vacationing for years and she was very happy with it.
On the trip for which I joined her, she had a big apartment in Madrid, Spain. Our two families had a great time.
Since then we have stayed in a house in the mountains outside Madrid, and in Paris. Our next exchange will be on the Big Island of Hawaii this summer.
You Can Choose from Multiple Home Exchange Networks
There are several home exchange networks available on the web. I intended to join the network my friend was using but I wasn’t paying enough attention and inadvertently ended up joining a different one then her. However, it ended up working out fine. We are both very happy with the networks we’re using and find them both trustworthy.
I am using a service called HomeExchange (www.homeexchange.com). There are more than 65,000 homes in 150 countries listed, ranging from boats and small apartments to big mansions. You pay a yearly fee to be listed on the service and to be able to contact other members. Then swaps themselves are free. There is a free trial period of 14 days.
For HomeExchange.com, if you are not able to get an exchange the first year, your membership is extended for another year for free. That happened to me, and I was approached by the service and they offered helpful advice on how to secure an exchange the next year. You are guided through the listing of you own property and profile. You can also list second homes for free, if you like.
After the Listing, Comes the Match-Making
So when you have listed your house, what’s next? There are 2 ways to make a connection with another member. Either, another member sends you a message, proposing an exchange, or you search the database and send some proposals yourself.
If you are approached by someone, they will provide pictures of their home and an indication of when they’re interested in traveling. If you are not interested, that’s OK of course. The message contains a Yes and a No button. If you select the No button, the other member will get a polite “Thanks, but no thanks” message. If you are interested, you simply select the Yes button and you can then continue to message back and forth, detailing out the exchange.
If you want to be proactive, contacting other members, you head to the search part of the website. The search engine is easy to use, with the option to use either guidewords or a map function. The staff members have also made compilations of themes, including their own favorites, and they write a blog with tips about searching and places to go. In addition, they have a 24/7 chat service through which you can seek help.
Oh, The Places to Go!
I live in a fairly small place in Norway, just outside Trondheim, and I thought that I wouldn’t get many approaches when I signed up. That was so wrong! Every month I get at least 3-4 messages, from people in places like Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel and the US. None of those have suited me yet, some because of the destination, some because of the timing. Some I am still in touch with, hoping to find an opportunity later.
In your profile, you have the opportunity to state your travel wishes, both time and area of the world. When I search, I usually start by searching only those members in the area where I want to go who wish to visit my home area. If that doesn’t bring any luck, I start with the others. I always send several messages at the same time. You will get a few members who won’t respond and quite a few who will turn you down.
Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail
Okay, so that section heading may be a little harsh in this case but it is best if you can plan ahead, as many members secure their summer vacation as long as the fall before. If you are on a budget, this can be an advantage, because you can get good airfare by booking early. That being said, I have also managed to get an agreement just a few weeks before traveling. When you fill out your profile, you can check a box if you can do last minute agreements. This is typically appropriate for second homes or if you are a small family with flexibility. You can find these homes in the search pages.
Will Your House be Burgled?
Based on my friend’s experience, I was positive to the concept. When I tell others about it though, some express concerns. Some are worried about their valuables. Myself, living with two kids, I don’t have delicate furniture. I have seen members that put their valuables in a locked spare bedroom or a storage room. I work in an office building which is well guarded, so I keep my valuable stuff, like jewels, in a locker there while the exchange last.
In your profile, you can also check boxes if you don’t open your home to children or pets, so if you have a delicate home, this would be a good idea. The other thing people usually are concerned with, is whether you can trust the visiting party not to damage your house. In the member system, you can rate your experience and this will be shown in the other member’s profile. You can get a good picture of them by reading those. You also establish a bit of contact by messaging back and forth. I have only had one bad experience. I found someone who wanted to do an exchange with me, but then a few months later withdrew from the deal. Luckily, I managed to find someone else who helped out.
Home Exchanges Offer Some Advantages Over Hotels
So what are the advantages of this way of traveling? Obviously, it can be a cheap way of getting accommodation. Once you have paid the annual fee for the service, the rest is free. And contrary to most hotel rooms, you will also have a fully equipped kitchen where you can cook your own food, saving even more. Also compared to hotels, you will have more space, like a living room, which is particularly nice for families traveling together.
Another advantage is that you stay away from the tourist traps often found in bigger cities, so you will get more of a cultural exchange out of your visit. If you go to a foreign country, you see how normal people are living their lives there, and the neighbors are often eager to chat with you. This also help keeps spending down, as the prices of snack, food, etc. tends to be lower than in tourist areas.
You also have “friends” in the area you are going to. When messaging, you always get good advice on what to see, how to get around, etc. On top of that, the house usually come with some useful items and features, like bikes, wifi, TV. If you exchange with another family, you know there will be toys there, which is great if you have kids of your own.
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If something happens, you have someone to ask – either the member, or friendly neighbors. My youngest son got some unfamiliar and aggressive rash in Paris. I contacted the member, who helped me get in touch with the family doctor’s office, and in no time my son had received medication and the problem was solved.
I have also used the network for getting advice when going places, even though I was not using the option for accommodation. Usually people are very helpful and friendly in this program.
If you want to go on vacation as a large group, say multiple families, this is a nice way of doing it. Usually, vacation rentals with 3-4 bedrooms are expensive, where as it is quite easy to find a home on the webpage of that size.
There Are Some Drawbacks to Home Exchanges
The main downside is that sometimes you may have to spend significant time searching and sending messages to find someone who wants to do a swap. If you are very specific about where you want to go, it may be difficult to find someone who is interested.
Another downside, which I personally experienced, is that the other party can pull out of the agreement. Usually it works out, though. I am hosting a couple from Denver this summer. They had an agreement with another member, but this spring, their house burned down. Of course I wanted to help, so I offered them to stay in my house while I am there, which they accepted.
Hospitality Exchanges Are an Excellent Option
There is one other key point I should mention. It is most common to do a 1:1 exchange, either simultaneously or at a different time. However, you can also choose to do what is called a hospitality exchange. That’s when you host a visitor while you’re in your house, similar to having friends come visit.
The hospitality exchange feature has just recently been enhanced, as there is now an established badge system for it. You get an online “badge” when you host people in your home without visiting their home, and you use one badge the other way round. So this year, I am having a member from Denver staying with me, which earns me a badge, and I am using that badge when I am visiting a family’s second home in Hawaii. I think this will make the system more flexible, and increase the probability of getting an agreement.
The Home Exchange Concept is Great for Many
So, who is this approach suited for? Given the amount and wide specter of available homes, it will fit most people and groups. All will benefit from the low cost, getting advice from locals, having a network at the place and other cultural aspects. Families will enjoy having more space and bikes, toys etc available. Honeymooners will have the benefit of either going somewhere special or having an extended trip duration due to the low cost. If you are retires or having a lot of time off, you can travel more often if you like.
Thank you so much, Anne, for sharing such great insight on home exchanges! It was great to get your perspective. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this guest post!
Readers – What are your thoughts on home exchanges? Have you done one? Does the hospitality exchange get you considering participation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
PS If you’re interested in writing a guest post yourself, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!