If paying to stay in a beach house in Thailand, an apartment in Paris, a ranch in Montana or a chalet in the Swiss Alps sounds unaffordable and out of reach, think again. It's doable, and almost for free, saving you an average of $2,500 a week on accommodations -- if you don't mind strangers living in your home while you stay in theirs.
We're talking home swaps, and while home exchange services date back to the days of flipping through catalogs, they're trendy again thanks to websites and online searches being easier, faster and safer with features like profile verification and being able to get digitally social with travelers before handing over the keys.
Chris Roman, a health care writer and empty nester, did her first home swap when her kids were young and has exchanged her coastal California home many times since. "We're value travelers, and the first time we drove and stayed in an incredible mountain view home in Taos, New Mexico, saving so much money."
But getting the best vacation for your buck isn't the only appeal for frequent swappers; it's the adventure of living like a local. "I'd been to France and Brazil in high school as an exchange student and always enjoy traveling in an authentic way, instead of bland and sterile hotels," Roman explains. "We also love to cook and have more space to spread out."
Rhonda Conry first swapped homes home for a long weekend in Monterey, California, three years ago to test the waters. She says: "Our friends came down from San Francisco with their kids for a sleepover, and we looked after the family's cat while they took care of our dog back home. They left us sweets from the bakery down the street, and we texted photos to each other the whole weekend. It was perfect."
*Strangers Home Alone
The thought of people you've never met living in your house is typically the biggest barrier to embracing a home swap. Veterans say it comes down to your comfort level and having lots of contact with potential swappers so you find a good fit.
"I was not into it at all," Conry says adamantly. "My husband talked me into it. I was nervous. But after all the communication before we exchanged, I felt much better. I love traveling and experiencing different cultures, and it opened up our world to all kinds of new adventures. And best of all, we made new friends."
While there's trust that exchange parties will treat your home as they do their own, it's still good policy to remove things of extreme monetary or sentimental value. Like most swappers, Conry and Roman protect their prized possessions, but -- also like most -- they don't go to extremes. "Yes, we put away valuables and lock our master closet and place anything we don't want broken in there," says Conry. "But I'm not too concerned anymore about theft because people are generally very good with your things."
Roman believes home exchange works due to the reciprocity: "When you're in someone else's home and they're in yours, you both have skin in the game."
*Home Swapping 101
Here's what to know and do when trading places so you can relax, enjoy your home away from home, and make memories and friends in places you'd only dreamed of visiting.
Popular home swap sites include Love Home Swap, Knok (catering to families with kids), ThirdHome (for luxury second homeowners) and, one of the originals, HomeExchange. Most have free trials and annual memberships ranging from $29 to around $300. The Share Traveler blog has a nifty comparison table of 72 home swap websites, organized by destination, property type, demographics and specialties like Christian swap services and those for travelers over 50 with disabilities.
*Types of Swap
Before you jump to make a booking, figure out which kind of swap is right for you. There are three kinds of home exchanges:
--Simultaneous swap: Owners stay in each other's homes at the same time.
--Non-simultaneous swap: Owners are elsewhere or have more than one home.
--Hospitality exchanges: Homeowners don't leave.
Many seasoned swappers do reverse searches well ahead of time, looking at who wants to travel to their location and then reaching out to many of them. By getting in touch with people who want to visit your specific area, you might have a better chance of arranging an exchange.
Create a welcome packet of dos and don'ts, specific house rules, and recommendations for places to visit and things to do -- and trade it before locking in your stay. This way, both parties know what to expect, especially if you're trading cars and pets.
Peace of mind is priceless, but with home exchange, you can cut down on prices, too. You're just a few clicks away from experiencing an exotic locale on the other side of the globe, and saving money in the process.