One of the best ways to cut your travel expenses in half or even more is to eliminate the cost of lodging. Fortunately, this doesn't mean you have to limit your destinations to the homes of friends and family. By joining a vacation home exchange community, your options can increase to worldwide locations.
How Home Exchanges Work
Although the concept of exchanging homes with other vacationing travelers has been around for decades, the Internet has made it much easier to find up-to-date listings and connect with fellow exchangers much faster. In a nutshell, the process for home exchanges works like this:
- Join a home exchange community through one of the many agencies that offer the service.
- Create a listing for your home with a detailed description, high-quality photos and family profile.
- Search for homes in your desired location and look for exchange partners who share your values and interests.
- Connect with other members using internal messaging platforms that don't reveal your personal contact information until you feel comfortable and ready to take it to the next step.
- Discuss the details of the planned exchange with your exchange partner and fill out the required agreement form.
- Book your transportation, prepare your home for your exchange guests and pack your bags.
Home exchange agencies strongly encourage abundant communication with your exchange partners so you get to know them before the exchange. Try to arrange several phone calls or a Skype video call to help verify who you are dealing with. You may also want to connect with members in your local area - invite an experienced exchanger over for coffee or dinner and get first-hand tips and advice.
Three Types of Home Swapping
The three most typical options for home swapping include:
- Simultaneous exchanges: Your exchange partner stays in your home at the same time you are staying in their home,
- Vacation home exchange: You allow another member of the exchange community to stay in a vacation property you own, but not necessarily when you are vacationing yourself,
- Guest exchange: You host your exchange partner and family as guests in your home while you are still there. The guest exchange option is a good choice for those new to home swapping and is an excellent way to build trust with other members.
Where to Start
Exceptional photos of your home are essential to creating a listing that will help you attract and secure an exchange. You'll also want to show your home in the best possible light, so be sure to give it a good cleaning and clear away any clutter. Be prepared to create your listing with high-quality shots of the kitchen, bedrooms, living room and bathrooms. Include a few exterior pictures as well, especially if you have a swimming pool or nicely landscaped yard.
Some home exchange agencies recommend seeking help and advice from a professional photographer to get the best photos of your home. A camera with a wide-angle lens and abundant natural light helps rooms look spacious, warm and inviting.
Choosing a Home Exchange Agency
The increased popularity of home exchange-style vacations has resulted in dozens of home exchange agencies to choose from. Some agencies cater to specific destinations while others cater to specific clientele, such as Christian-based home exchanges or profession-based home exchanges.
The best home exchange agency to join depends on your personal interests and needs. Most sites allow you to browse through listings so you can decide if the community is a good match for you. According to a Huffington Post article by home exchange expert Shelley Miller, who has done multiple home exchanges with her family of four, key points to consider include:
- Location interest - Look for a club with numerous listings in the city or location you're interested in visiting. Also keep an eye out for members interested in visiting your city. Higher numbers of members and listings in destinations of interest can help increase your odds of booking an exchange.
- Fees - Membership fees vary from one home exchange agency to the next and are usually billed in annual installments. Some agencies offer limited free trials and varying subscription price points. Other incentives may include a free 2nd year listing if you are unable to arrange an exchange in the first year. Annual membership fees typically start between $50 and $100.
- Response rates - Many agencies include a percentage figure in each member's listing referred to as a response rate. This figure reflects the rate at which the member responds to messages delivered within an internal messaging system. High response rates indicate members that are actively communicating and exchanging.
- Website features - A website with an easy to use interface can be a plus - but even more important is an unlimited number of photos for your listing. The more high quality photos you have the better to help increase your odds of securing an exchange. Reverse search, such as the number of European members looking to visit your location, and language translation tools can also come in handy.
Home Exchange Agencies: A Quick Look
Some of the largest and most well established home exchange agencies include:
HomeLink has been in the home exchange industry since 1953 and boasts a membership of highly experienced exchangers, including a high number of European members. The agency offers 27 multi-lingual representatives around the world that can assist you with advice and support before, during or after your exchange. A 12-month membership is $95 and a 24-month membership is $152.
Home Base Holidays
Home Base Holidays is based in London, England and has been in the industry for 30 years. This agency has a U.S. phone number for interested American members and offers a Seniors Home Exchange for members aged 50 and up. Home Base Holidays has a free two-week trial in which you can contact up to five members. A six-month membership is $35 and a yearly membership is $59. The agency guarantees one home exchange within the first year or your second year is free.
Home Exchange has been in business since 1992, with over 65,000 listings in 150 countries. This agency has a generous offer for those who are already members on another exchange site. All you have to do is provide one of their live chat agents with the website link and physical address of your property and they will create a listing for you, enabling contact with members of their site. A 12-month membership is $150 and includes the one-year exchange guarantee or your second year is free.
Originally based in Europe by a group of teachers who needed to travel economically, Intervac has been in the home exchange industry since 1953. The agency credits its growth of 30,000 members to mainly referrals and word-of-mouth from satisfied exchangers. Intervac offers a 90 day free trial which can be activated without a credit card, making it an excellent choice for someone wanting to try their first exchange in the near future. After the 90 days, a one-year membership is $99.
Love Home Swap
Love Home Swap claims to have over 75,000 home listings in 160 countries. In addition to traditional home exchanges, Love Home Swap offers another flexible option called Swap Points. You earn points when another member stays in your home but you don't stay at their home or when members stay at your vacation home. You also earn points when signing up with one of three subscription levels. Your points can then be used to book a stay at another member's home or vacation home when it suits you, rather than having to coordinate simultaneous swaps. This agency offers a free two-week trial. Yearly memberships are available in levels - a silver membership costs $240, gold membership costs $276 and platinum membership costs $408.
Is Home Swapping Safe?
Overall, home swapping can be a safe way to travel. In an interview with USA Today, HomeLink representative, Katie Costabel, indicates that in the 60 years the company has been in business, there has never been a reported case of theft or vandalism. Because the majority of exchanges are mutual, the program is built on trust and respect at both ends.
Knowing the Risks
Although unfavorable experiences tend to be a minority, it's almost inevitable to come across a few problems, which can also occur with frequent hotel stays. On her frugal travel blog, The ShareTraveler, Dawn Zerly shares the downside of home exchanges with problems experienced by herself and other frequent exchangers. Risks of home swapping include:
- Dirty homes - From untidiness to filth and mold, the standard of a clean home can vary substantially from one person to the next. This is one of the most common problems with home swapping.
- Lack of expected items - Mild annoyances can range from no Wi-Fi or no corkscrew for the wine while the lack of hot water from a broken water heater or no running heat in the home can actually cause you to seek other accommodations.
- Damaged property - It could put a real damper on your vacation to come home to find broken dishes, a red wine stain on the carpet or sofa, or damage to the actual structure of your home.
- Cancellations - Your exchange partner may or may not have a legitimate reason to cancel but if you've already purchased plane tickets, the cost of changing your reservation falls on you.
Tips to Avoid Problems
It's advisable to take active steps to minimize the risk or impact of potential problems.
- Join a reputable home exchange agency to help ensure legitimate connections with trustworthy, like-minded vacationers.
- Protect your investment with appropriate insurance, if available. For example, Love Home Swap offers a Swap Protection Pack that includes additional coverage such as accidental damage protection, trip cancellation assistance and identity verification. A small investment in traveller's insurance can save you considerable costs in the event of a cancellation.
- Make sure your homeowners insurance will cover you in the event of major property damage. Home swapping is generally favorable with homeowner's insurance, as it deters burglary better than an empty home and the people staying in your home are considered invited guests.
- Offer to do a video Skype tour of your home and see if your exchange partner is willing to do the same so you have a good understanding of the property's condition.
- Lock up valuables in a safe or a locked room in the home that is off-limits to guests.
- Arrange to have a neighbor or nearby family member stop by and welcome your guests, hopefully making them feel more comfortable and giving you a little extra peace of mind.
Prepare for Success
Think about your own expectations and what you would hope to find when arriving at a swapped home in your dream location. Clean linens for the beds and bathrooms, drawer and closet space to unpack clothes and a few essentials in the kitchen for a dinner and simple breakfast can make weary travelers feel right at home. Follow the principles of a successful home exchange to help ensure a positive experience for everyone.