How I travel for free with the comforts of home

Guest post by Carlene Gagnon
Wooden world map by EnjoyTheWood

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, 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:

US Scratch Off Map by 50trips

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

Leather Passport Cover by PortlandLeather

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 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, 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?

Comments on How I travel for free with the comforts of home

  1. My parents did this with a couple in England it was fabulous. They had their neighbors pick us up from the airport, and we hit it off so wonderfully that we ended up going to their AMAZING 15th century cottage home for dinner one night.

    I think I may suggest it to my husband once we get settled in our new home.

  2. One question I have is what recourse is available to you if the swappers trash your property or break something while there? I guess that’s just a tough shit situation unless they offer to pay up?

    • The website doesn’t take any responsibility, but yeah, it would be covered under homeowners insurance. And if its really bad you could always press charges. Obviously you’d know who did it and where they live.

      • Still in that situation you’re taking a hit on your homeowners’ insurance which could cause problems if you need to file a claim because of a natural disaster or something later down the line. And if your deductible is something like $1000 your insurance probably isn’t going to help much anyway.

  3. My in-laws has been doing this for a couple of years and they swear by it. They have traveled all over Europe, Canada and the USA using this system and they have never had any major problems. I think one house swapper left a water ring on a piece of furniture but that is about the worst of it. I think the most important thing is make sure that the site you use is reliable. My husband and I have not had time to try this out but it seems like a great way to see the world for a lot less money.

  4. New York City is cracking down on room/house rentals, this may fall under that banner as well. Seems the authorities don’t like missing out on their permit and hotel taxes…France has outlawed rentals for less than a year duration. I suppose if it is an outright swap they’d have trouble enforcing that tho’…

    • Yeah. If you aren’t charging them anything, and it’s a swap, there is nothing to tax. It’s basically having a house guest except you are not home. I can see how taxes could get really tricky if you had rental income, but then later had to pay tax like it was a hotel because the city or govt wanted their cut. I think thats something to consider for sites like couchsurfing and airbnb.

  5. This is the coolest!! Oh man, I can’t wait until my husband and I are in a position to try this out (right now we’re planning a cross-country move for graduate school, so it’s not a good time to swap houses).

  6. Hi, I’m from New Zealand and this sounds like an excellent idea. I will have to try this with my family. Maybe I can do a home swap next year before ski season starts as I just love going up the mountains in winter unlike some people who try to get away for winter.

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