A few years ago my family enjoyed a two-week vacation in Paris and spent less than $200 on lodging. No, we didn’t camp out in the Luxembourg Gardens; we did a home swap. A family of four lived in our New York City apartment while we lived in their apartment in the 15th arondissement.
A home exchange can be an enormous money saver, especially in pricey cities like Los Angeles, London, Paris and so on. But it’s also a leap of faith. You’re letting someone you might or might not know spend extensive time in your home without your being there. And you are trusting that their space will be everything they say it is when you arrive at your destination.
If you live in a place where tourists want to visit and you want to try a home swap, here are 5 tips to make sure it goes smoothly:
The most challenging part of doing a home exchange is finding a comparable traveler or set of travelers who want to visit your location when you want to visit theirs. I usually start my search six to nine months out and I tell everyone I know that I’m looking for a swap. I also post on Facebook, tagging everyone I know who lives in the location, is from there or who might have friends or relatives there.
There are also plenty of websites that list home swaps. Knok.com lets you search for people in locations you’re interested in and who are interested in your location, which helps to narrow things down considerably. Some charge an annual fee and some offer additional support and protections in arranging and executing your swap.
Once you have found someone who wants to trade homes with you there are details to work out. I like a combination of email and Skype for this. Skype gives you an opportunity to see and talk to your host/guest and settle things quickly.
Some things you might want to agree on: Will you have use of one another’s bicycles or car? Will you live out of suitcases or clear closet and drawer space for each other? What can you use out of one another’s kitchens? Are any parts of the home off-limits? Can you offer any local memberships (from a community pool to area museums or gardens)? Will you water each other’s plants? Do either of you have pets or pet allergies and how will you deal with that?
Most important, how will you exchange keys? I recommend you leave plenty of time for the keys to reach the other person and use a trackable method of shipping.
Getting your place ready takes a bit of effort. I think it’s best to hire a service to do a deep cleaning in any situation, but especially if you have pets that guests might be allergic to (even if the pets are gone for the duration).
We have about six pages of written instructions for our apartment. They explain how to handle trash and recycling, how to access the Wi-Fi and use our Netflix streaming, how the remotes work, where to find extra sheets and towels and how to use appliances like the stove, coffee maker and washer/dryer (especially important if your swappers are from a different country, as dials and settings can be labeled differently). Explain ahead how to use the alarm system if you have one.
We also include details about nearby grocery stores and pharmacies, subway stations, parks, farmers markets and favorite local restaurants. These kinds of details are nice, while the other details are necessary.
Some hosts like to leave a bottle of wine or conveniences like milk and breakfast items for the first morning. This is also not necessary but definitely appreciated.
Let someone local know about the swap and ask them to be available in case your guests have trouble getting in or if something goes really wrong during their stay, say a plumbing problem or appliance breakdown. Leave their contact information.
Agree to be in touch by email or some other mode during the switch, in case either party has questions or concerns.
When we leave a home swap we make sure the place is swept and vacuumed, dishes are put away, towels and sheets are laundered, and we replace pantry items we used. If there is anything we should wash and can’t launder ourselves we drop it with the local laundry service, pay the fee and leave the receipt for our hosts to collect the item.
It’s important to be both a good host and a good guest so that you have a good reference for your next swap. Once you take that leap of faith the first time, you’ll want to do it again and again.
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Eileen is a journalist whose work has appeared in the HuffPost, U.S. News, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Parents.com and many other publications. She has traveled on five continents, three of them with her daughter. She calls New York City home. You can read Eileen's blog at Familiesgotravel.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
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