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Home Exchange for Daring Travelers

Home Exchange for Daring Travelers
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pictured: block in Berlin

By Stephanie Schroeder

Hotels are expensive and the four white walls provided begin to close in on you quite quickly. “Bargain” hotel rooms set aside for tourists are pretty unwelcoming – devoid of personality and often not very clean. The expense of hotels is also prohibitive if you desire an extended vacation.

Conserving cash while still taking your dream vacation is entirely possible by using alternative methods of securing accommodation. Apartment swapping, also known as home exchange, makes this lodging option itself an exciting adventure.

Inhabiting an apartment/house while on vacation allows you to authentically experience your destination. During an exchange you get the opportunity to see how folks in a different city, state, or country live day to day. For example, while you can still, of course, dine out, there is nothing so exciting as going to a local produce market, butcher, or cheese market to find just the right ingredients to prepare your own meals in ‘foreign’ territory.

Cheese market in north Holland

Cheese market in north Holland

Ed Kushins, the founder and president of HomeExchange.com, was an early proponent and facilitator of home exchange through casual social networks and, more formally, printed catalogs mailed out quarterly with postal addresses as the sole contact information. What began for Kushins as a hobby, pre-Internet, is for him now an online business employing home exchange experts in every part of the world.

With the advent of home exchange sites such as Kushins’ (homeexchange.com), living like a local is easier than ever before. Finding a swap can be done for free or by paid subscription on a home exchange site. Resources range from your local Craigslist “House Swap” section (where I have found five of the eleven swaps I have successfully completed) and Facebook home exchange groups to other mainstream paid home exchange sites like Love Home Swap (lovehomeswap.com) or specifically LGBT sites such as Home Around the World (homearoundtheworld.com).

Home exchange is not simply a business transaction, but a relationship – one that can turn into a friendship, extended family, a continued exchange situation, or simply a fun one-off swap.

You might dream of a spring fling in Paris, but when cruising through house swap listings you see an amazing villa in the picaresque Tuscany countryside available in the early fall. The idea of sitting in an olive grove writing in your journal and visiting Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden takes hold and you find yourself contacting the owner of the villa simply to inquire…. Being open to different destinations and flexible timeframes broadens your range of exchange opportunities.

And don’t think what you have to offer must be exactly the same as or even similar to what you might find or be offered. Folks with a Scottish castle, others with a villa on the French Riviera, and yet another with both an apartment in Rome and a house by the sea in Sardinia have expressed interest in exchanging with my modest Brooklyn apartment. Home exchange is about experience, trust and adventure, and not the scale real estate you own or rent.

I’ve experienced most all aspects of home exchange when swapping my various Brooklyn pads for Amsterdam, Alkmaar (in North Holland), Dublin, London, Stockholm, Bologna, Vancouver, Berlin, and then London, Amsterdam and Alkmaar again. All have worked out quite wonderfully.

Our swap in Amsterdam

Our swap in Amsterdam

Each space was special with its own charms and quirks, and I have different relationships with each home exchange partner. I returned to Amsterdam this year to attend the wedding of a gay male couple with whom I exchanged apartments last year. I’ve never heard from a young woman I exchanged with in Dublin again, while an older man living in Northern Holland was my constant email correspondent and a cherished friend until he died a few years ago. Others, some of whom I’ve never met in person, I keep in touch with via Facebook. I happen to have met family members of swap partners who were visiting New York City before, or in lieu of, meeting the actual exchangers. The sister of a New Zealander I swapped with in London is now a US resident and we are great pals. I’ve still never met her sister, whose London apartment I inhabited for two weeks several years ago, but I do keep up with her travel blog.

While saving dough and living like a local has broad appeal, lots of folks are understandably skeptical about leaving their home in the hands of people they’ve never met.

To really feel good about an exchange is to have open communication. Europeans, for the most part, aren’t as hung up on material possessions and lifestyle issues as Americans But, everyone should know what they are getting—and receiving—so honesty is essential.

Write a captivating online description of your property, yes, but don’t lie. If yours is not a safe neighborhood to be openly out as LGBTQ, tell that to your queer exchange partner. If you don’t have an elevator, fess up that folks will have to hike up five flights of stairs to reach your place. Do exchange photos of your respective abodes and yourselves as well as links to your professional or personal website, Facebook page, or other social media accounts. An online presence is reassuring. Asking for references, from past exchanges or otherwise, is an option as well. I never do this, but I keep my own reference list because other folks have asked me. Receiving reference guarantees that your potential swap mate is who/what they say they are and will ensure that you will have all the information necessary to feel good about leaving your space (and keys) in someone else’s possession.

For newcomers to home exchange the biggest concerns are, according to Kushins of HomeExchange.com, “What if they trash my place?” and “What if the place I’m going to isn’t really there/what they say it is?” Trust, says Kushins, is the hallmark of home exchange, and folks who can’t get past the trust issue generally aren’t suited for this type of travel. After all, you’ll be at someone’s else’s place and your swap partner needs – and wants – to be able to trust you just as much as you need and want to trust them.

10 Top Home Exchange Tips

  1. Be open. Every exchange is different. All are based on trust and proper planning. Make good acquaintance through phone calls and e-mails. HomeExchange.com’s Ed Kushins highly recommends getting to know your swap partner by video chatting on Skype.
  2. Get personal. Openly discuss specific preferences, share facts about your living space and neighborhood. It’s better to be open and comfortable than dishonest and furtive as that will make for a negative outcome.
  3. Be honest. You don’t want to disappoint or be disappointed. Don’t exaggerate your accommodations, just provide the facts and let other parties make their own decisions.
  4. Leave your home clean and prepare space in drawers, closets, bathrooms and other areas. Change the linens and put out clean towels. And leave plenty of toilet paper!
  5. Notify your landlords (if prudent) and insurance companies (homeowners’ or renters’ and, if you are swapping vehicles, your auto insurance company).
  6. Leave an extra set of keys with a friend or neighbor.
  7. Arrange for the care of gardens, swimming pools, plants, animals, and other home needs.
  8. Leave all appliances in working condition. Let your swap partner know whether you have Wi-Fi, and let them know if you have landline or if they should make other arrangements for telephone communications, particularly if they are traveling from overseas.
  9. Give, and get, a list of all important and emergency contact numbers.
  10. Have fun and enjoy this adventurous mode of traveling while saving a chunk of change.
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