The revolution of Home Exchange
Home exchanges are getting very popular among travellers – especially those who work online and have the freedom to explore the world while working. They are also very attractive to families whose costs can really escalade when paying for all members of their family. It’s a fantastic way to see new places, without ‘breaking the bank’. We recently caught up with Chris and Hannah Alford from the United Kingdom, who traveled around the world using only home exchanges. We were keen to find out more about this concept and see what we could learn from these wonderful, seasoned travellers.
Ok, so what exactly is a home exchange?
It’s really simple – you find an exchange partner and then you swap your home for theirs. Sort of like a language exchange you may have done as a kid – except you and your family arrive to an empty house because your host family is at your place!
It’s not just about having a place to stay, exchanges can include cars, bikes, sports equipment – anything you like really. You don’t have to worry about packing towels or bedding – it’s all there for you. And unlike holiday rental accommodation, you won’t have to worry about buying any of the basics, detergent, cupboard essentials, etc – they will all be there for you to use as well.
There is a strong hospitality element, even though you may never meet your hosts. They will leave plenty of information to help you get the most out of the local area – from recommendations of where to eat to hidden hikes or quirky festivals only locals would know about. You’re likely to arrive to a welcome card, flowers or bottle of wine, and you may be pleased when you arrive home to find a few thoughtful essentials in your fridge.
You find a home exchange partner via one of the many home exchange websites, which have been growing in popularity. You pay a minimal fee to become a member and from there you create your ‘profile’ on the site – such as who you are, what your home is like, what your area can offer, etc. You will get emails from people who have seen your profile and would like you to consider them for a potential swap. You will decide if it’s a good fit based on their profile and if you are keen to visit their country or region and are excited by the prospect of staying in their home. This can happen if they have something which would make your holiday special – for instance a hot tub on the deck, great city location or fabulous views. You can also be proactive about your own search in addition to reacting to offers which come to you. If this is your preference, you will decide where you’d like to go and what sort of home you would like to stay in. You can use filters on the websites to narrow down your search, and when you have found a few you like the look of, you can send them a message to see if they might be interested in a swap.
What type of people are doing home exchanges?
Traditionally there were two main categories of home exchangers – retired couples with more freedom to travel and young families looking for a cost effective way to take a summer break. Now, home exchanging appeals to a much broader range of people. We do several swaps a year because we work on-line which means we can travel as much as we like. Home exchanging means we can regularly swap our office at home for one with much better views!
What are the benefits?
The most obvious benefit is the money that you save. When you cut out hotel and rental costs, you have a lot more cash to spend on enjoying the holiday, or even going further afield than you normally would. There are hidden savings as well, such as not needing to eat out as often because you have your own kitchen to make lunches or a backyard garden to BBQ in.
Another benefit is that you can find yourself in places well and truly away from the usual tourist traps, so you see a very different side. Our first exchange was in a leafy suburb outside Quebec city which was perfectly located for all the cultural events but also close to trails and restaurants only locals would visit.
With children, home exchanging can be much easier. If you exchange with another family your kids can get excited about a new bedroom full of cool stuff they don’t have, and no doubt your guest’s kids will feel the same! You will also have plenty of helpful info to guide you to get the most out of the holiday because your hosts have done all the research for their own family. You may even find that there are neighbourhood children for yours to play with, while you relax with a beer with their parents!
Are there any challenges or issues people should know about?
It can be quite time consuming to arrange an exchange, depending on the approach you take. If you like to be very thorough you could find yourself trawling through thousands of profiles in search of the ‘perfect’ one. Whether you email them, or they contact you – moving from a tentative to a firm agreement can happen very quickly, or take a while, again, depending on the individuals involved. So, although it is wise to start planning an exchange early if your dates are very specific, if you can be more flexible – you could take advantage of ‘last minute offers’, which some websites feature.
Do you have any advice for people who are considering home exchange?
Firstly, don’t listen to any horror stories. It’s only the people who have never done a house swap that seem to take great pleasure in recounting these! None of the many experienced house swappers we have met have ever had a bad experience themselves, or heard of any either; its genuinely a nice community of like-minded people looking for a different travel experience and committed to making sure you have a wonderful stay in their home.
Secondly, be aware of what you need to feel comfortable with the exchange. If you need to speak to the contact you have been emailing – arrange a call. If you would feel more comfortable having a friend pop over to check your home after a couple of days, mention to your guests to expect a visit ‘to see if they need anything’. If you are very particular about the standard of cleanliness of your home when you return, arrange for cleaners to come in before you arrive. Most house swappers take good care to leave your home as they found it, but if you think anything they may miss might bother you, then take this extra precaution.
I understand you travelled around the world using home exchange. How did you organise that?
In hindsight, not very well! We had lined up the first exchange for the summer in Oregon, USA, several months in advance. Then we received an out of the blue offer a few weeks later asking if we would like to go to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The dates fit, so we could travel straight from Oregon to Mexico. That got us thinking about whether we could just continue on from there, taking advantage of a good value round-the-world multi-flight ticket. It was getting close to our departure date so we realised to pull this off we would need some help, so we approached the biggest home exchange company who kindly offered to help us if we wrote blogs for them about our adventures. So the ‘Round the World in Home Exchanges’ was born, which is how we also came to write a book about house swapping and our experiences of it across 7 different countries and 20 exchanges. There were some stressful times when we didn’t have a home exchange lined up, despite departure to a new country looming! Luckily for us, the home exchange community is very supportive of travellers, and very generous. On the few occasions we couldn’t make an actual house exchange work for the dates we needed we were offered the use of second homes, spare rooms or even basements so we could continue our trip and stay true to our mission of only drawing on home exchange resources throughout.
Would you have been able to do such a big trip if it was not for home exchange?
It would have cost a lot more! The great thing was that we were paying our mortgage and bills back home, but instead of our flat sitting empty, other people were getting the benefit of it while we were finding beds for the night all over the world in return. Another consideration for us is that we run a business, so we had to stay at least a week in each place so we could keep on top of our workload. Despite not being as flexible as other travellers might be, we found everything we needed, wherever we went and met some truly lovely people along the way.
What was the highlight of your trip?
We had so many amazing experiences! Stand out memories are when we kayaked across a turquoise lagoon in French Polynesia and took a dip amidst inquisitive sharks and sting rays; spent a day learning to wake board on a beautiful mountain lake with our home exchange neighbours then that night watched a meteor shower from a canoe; took a terrifying and hilarious pony trek up a steep valley to a waterfall in Mexico; and of course finding out that we were expecting a baby as a wonderful Christmas present in Australia.
What did your house look like after you finished with your trip? (i.e. was it totally trashed and things went missing?)
Considering we had been away for 7 months (June-January) and had had six sets of guests staying in our home at various times during those months, it looked pretty much as we left it! People tend to move things which they don’t want to risk damaging so we had to look for some ornaments, and the contents of our kitchen cupboards and drawers had drifted to different locations over time, but nothing was missing. In fact, we gained various items, such as a new ceramic knife (obviously ours weren’t up to scratch!), a handbag and a walking stick!
How do you find home exchange different now that you are travelling as a family?
It’s not hugely different. Of course we ask for different information now, less about where there are good bars, more about where the best swing parks are! We’re also more likely to make use of the kind offers that many ‘exchangers’ make to introduce us to their friends and neighbours. It’s incredible how welcoming and friendly people can be, and with a little one it’s a real bonus to be able to find ‘play dates’ and other parents to chat to. The biggest difference with the home exchange we recently did in Italy for 6 weeks, was that we chose to stay closer to the UK so we could drive there, given the huge amount of luggage a small person requires. As it turned out, most of what we needed was already there which has given us the confidence to go further afield next time a great offer comes along.
Chris and Hannah also published a fabulous book called, ‘Home Exchange – Your Definitive Guide”. It is by far the best guide we have come across. An absolute must for any family (or a person) contemplating using home exchange for their future travels.