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How I traveled for free with the comforts of home

Guestpost by Carlene Gagnon on Jul 20th


When my husband and I got married, we had one major priority in common: a need to travel. And not in the fly-to-a-Carribean-beach-and-drink-margaritas-for-a-week kind of way. We wanted to explore new places, and live like locals. Between our common travel philosophy and the fact that we're cheapskates, we had to find alternative ways to travel.

We looked into renting homes when we vacationed, but it was as, or more, expensive than a hotel in most cases. We felt like we were too old for hostels, and camping isn't a practical option in a lot of locations (New York City and Maine in February, to name a few). After a bit of internet surfing, we discovered HomeExchange.com, and whoa, it was the perfect fit for us! Free, low-key, and lets us vacation while having the use of a kitchen and a local's expertise on the neighborhood. The way it works is basically like a dating website for homes.

  1. You put up your profile. Include info about bedrooms, your neighborhood, wi-fi, etc.
  2. Find people that live where you want to vacation.
  3. Send those people an e-mail, offering up your house in exchange for as long as you feel.
  4. Hope that they accept.
  5. Work out how you'll exchange keys, if you want to exchange cars, and if you'll switch computers.
  6. Get packing!

We've been on the site for about a year, and have literally received over 100 e-mails from strangers asking to switch homes. People from the French Riviera, Denver, New Zealand, Paris, and even middle-of-nowhere Russia. Unfortunately, we're Americans with very American lack of vacation time so we've only been able to make two exchanges happen. We did a long weekend in NYC and our first anniversary trip to Montreal. Both exchanges went wonderfully.

If you're interested in doing a home exchanges, here's some info that may come in handy:

COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE! So many friends think we're crazy to give our home to total strangers. But honestly, by the time all the arrangements are made, they don't feel like strangers. We e-mail back and forth so many times, find each other on Facebook and make phone calls to get everything squared away.

I admit it can be a scary concept, but don't be afraid to dive in! And for most exchangers, you can work it out so you meet each other when you swap keys.

There's no such thing as asking too many questions. Yes, a stranger is living in your house, but a stranger is living in their house, too!

You don't need to live in a vacation spot to do this. Right now I live on Cape Cod so we get a lot of e-mails. But my husband is in the military, so in two years we may be living in nowheresville Oregon. You can search by "listings who want to exchange to" and find out who wants to visit your area. You'll be surprised.

My parents live in a very rural area in the deep South, and they've found people from Breckinridge, Colorado and Dublin, Ireland that want to switch with them, either because they were attending a wedding in the area, or because of the college that's nearby.

When you make your profile, include every amenity you can think of, but don't exaggerate. If you'll include a computer for your guests to use, or bicycles, or a car, or kayaks, or a baby stroller and crib, or subway pass, or your membership to a local rec club, put that in! Some people even exchange pets.

Most Exchangers are vacationers that want to travel like a local, and you can help them with that experience. BUT, don't stretch the truth. It's about a 3-4 hour drive to get to skiing from Cape Cod. And yes, we ski a lot, so it was tempting to check off that box on the profile. But really, what person that already traveled who knows how far to get to your house is going to travel another several hours to do something you said was "nearby"?

If you are worried about your valuables, no hard feelings. It's very common for Exchangers to keep one room or closet locked and private. We went to the hardware store and replaced the doorknob on our office door with one that locks so we could put bank statements, social security information, passports, and the crazy expensive road bike in there. Some people put away all photographs, but we don't find that necessary.

Leave behind useful information. When we did our first exchange, we got to Brooklyn and the homeowners had put together an awesome binder of information about their apartment and neighborhood. It included:

  • emergency contact information
  • trash and laundry pick-up info
  • tricks for dealing with the quirks that come with an old building
  • and, my favorite, all their recommendations for shops, restaurants, and attractions.

We recently put together a similar binder and included take-out menus from our favorite restaurants

Don't be afraid to say no! You'll likely get more e-mails than you know what to do with. We often have to tell Europeans and retirees, "Sorry, but we just can't spend three months in your Tuscan villa." It sucks, but that's the way it works sometimes.

Make many many inquiries. When you're planning a vacation to a certain destination, send e-mails to just about everyone in that area. There are a shocking number of people that don't respond at all when you send out an inquiry.

Yes, there is a cost to signing up for HomeExchange.com. But my feeling is that in one weekend you'll make up what you'd pay in hotel costs. There are similar sites that are free, but none have listings as exhaustive as this one.

No, you don't necessarily have to line up your dates perfectly with the other person/couple/family. A lot of the listings are second homes, so a family that lives in London may stay in your house in Toronto while you stay in their vacation home in Madrid.

No, you don't need to be a homeowner. Most renters give their landlords a heads-up that people will be staying in their place while they're out of town so there's no confusion.

I'm a big fan of HomeExchange.com, and I want to spread the word! Hopefully Offbeat Homies can find this information useful!

Anyone tried HomeExchange? What'd you think? Oh, and is it just us, or could this make a great low-budget Offbeat Bride honeymoon?