Sure, you’ve heard of it, but don’t really understand it that well. Swapping your house with a total stranger? It may seem like a foreign or even scary concept, but it’s quickly become one of the latest trends in the tourism universe.
How does it work? The house swap concept is actually quite simple. Basically, you choose a location you want to explore, get in touch with people living in that area, see if they are interested in visiting the area you live in, and if it’s a match, you’re ready to set up your trip. Easy, right?
During the exchange process, house swappers tend to become friends, and if you know people who have exchanged their home, you’re likely to hear positive stories about their experience. A house exchange is a great way to immerse yourself in the place that you’re visiting, and observe the culture of the area from a local perspective.
How do I know all this? I’m a house swapper myself, and have been participating in home exchanges for roughly a decade. Through exchanging, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many great places around the world that I would not otherwise have seen, and have discovered some great spots located off the beaten path, away from the throngs of tourists. Over the last ten years, my family and I have exchanged homes with other families from France, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Holland and, most recently, Denmark and Sweden. We have had exchange requests from other places around Europe, in Canada and even in parts of Asia, which goes to show just how global this concept has become.
What are the benefits? Aside from the ability to choose from many diverse destinations around the world, exchanging your house has one immediately noticeable plus – it’s free. The Huffington Post described home exchanging as a way to eliminate three of the four major cost offenders of a vacation: lodging, eating in restaurants, car rental and transportation. In 2015, the average vacationer paid about $120 per night for a hotel room, meaning that a single week of vacation costs upwards of $600 in lodging alone (and more if you consider a family of two or more people). With a house exchange, there are zero accommodation costs. It is for this reason that many of the people who participate in home exchanges are families. An added bonus is that many exchanges also include use of a vehicle, which removes the need for a rental car.
Something people tend to overlook about vacations is that, while you’re away from home, your house is sitting empty, vulnerable to burglars. According to Safeguard The World, over 2 million home burglaries are reported each year in the United States. In an exchange, people stay in your house and act as a deterrent to intruders. If you’re worried about your exchange partners swiping some of your stuff during your swap, know that home exchanging is a safe way to arrange a stay. According to HomeLink, a site that has facilitated home exchanges for more than 60 years, theft and vandalism have never been an issue. They remind people that while exchange partners are in your home, you will be in theirs, and so there is a sense of mutual trust and respect.
My favorite thing about exchanging is that I get to see firsthand how someone in another country lives his or her daily life. Perhaps this is the anthropologist in me coming out, but I find it fascinating. To live in another person’s home is eye opening. What books do they read? How have they designed their house? What do they eat, and what are their favorite local attractions to visit? Equally intriguing is the challenge of living in another language, for however short a time. Upon our arrival in Denmark for example, we learned that to buy simple ingredients like bread, butter and milk, we had to recognize the words on a supermarket shelf (they are, respectively brød, smør and mælk). If we had stayed in a hotel rather than participated in an exchange, we likely would not have needed to visit a local supermarket, and so we would have missed out on this sometimes overlooked aspect of traveling.
Are there cons to home exchanging? Sure, like everything in life, home exchanging can have its downsides. Among them is the fact that you have to cook and clean for yourself while on vacation, and if you prefer a holiday getaway that doesn’t involve any work, this may not be the best choice for you. You may also hear the occasional story of a dirty house, a bizarre exchange partner or miscommunication during the exchange process. However, in the context of successful home exchanges that take place every year, those bad experiences are few.
More common are the good experiences. Many times our exchange partners have invited us to dine with their family, or in their absence (if we can’t meet in person at the beginning of the exchange) have formed a connection for us with friends or family so that we felt welcomed upon our arrival, and had a person to turn to in case a problem arose. On a recent exchange in Denmark, our host family left us homemade rolls and jam as well as their bikes, so that we could enjoy a delicious snack and cycle around the backroads of their Copenhagen suburb. (See my blog post Destination Highlight: 48 Hours in Copenhagen for fun suggestions on things to do in the Copenhagen area.)
Where do I sign up? Home exchanges have become quite common, and thanks to the abundance of house swap websites that exist, there are many options to choose from. Though they range in specifics, the general concept is the same. If you’re new to the process, Rick Steves recommends Home Exchange, HomeLink and Intervac Home Exchange as good places to start. We have pretty consistently used HomeLink and are pleased with both the destination options it offers (HomeLink currently has exchanges available in 80-plus countries) and the experience of the members. Something to note with a home exchange: if you are just starting out, it is helpful to partner with a more experienced exchange partner — they understand the routine, and their knowledge will make for an easier and more enjoyable trip for you.
Many of the home exchange websites you will encounter charge a small membership fee, but it’s generally far less than a hotel rate, and it enables members to know that they are working in a safe and secure community of people who are committed and invested in their exchange.
In the end, home exchanging is a fun and refreshing way to travel. The financial benefits of exchanging your house will allow you to visit destinations you never thought you could see, and the experience of living in another person’s home will allow you to make interesting connections with the people and places you visit. As always, wherever you travel, enjoy the trip!