Stay for Free: Home-Exchange Secrets to Transform the Way You Travel

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on January 17, 2020 in Save Money

For years, my wife, Gretchen, and I listened to a couple we’re friends with talk about their frequent, exotic vacations. Every few months, it was somewhere else: Ireland, Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Australia… Like my wife and me, they’re a couple consisting of a college professor and a stay-at-home parent who works part-time. And like us, they have two young daughters. So how do they do all this traveling?

By not paying for it—or at least not paying for lodging. They were the first people we knew who were members of a house-swap website. When they went on a trip, they would stay in a private home, and the owners of that home would stay at our friends’ house here in Southern California.

My wife wanted us to try it, but I was skeptical. A complete stranger staying in your house, sleeping in your bed, and not paying you for it? It seemed…unnatural. But eventually I gave in, and we signed up for HomeExchange, the same site our friends use. For $150 a year, our home in Ventura, California, is listed on the site, and we can exchange with any of the 400,000 other members around the world.

We’ve had 11 exchanges over the past three-and-a-half years, and while we haven’t made it to Costa Rica or Iceland yet, the exchange program has let us travel far more than we otherwise would have. And it lets us travel better; we want to experience the cities we visit as a local would, and what better way to do that than to live in a local’s house?

Our 11 exchanges have ranged from two days to weeks. They’ve been as close as the Hollywood Hills, an hour from our home, and as far as Montreal, 3,000 miles away. Staying in hotels on those 11 trips would have cost us thousands of dollars.

When my wife and I want to travel, HomeExchange is our first stop. Occasionally, I get messages from people who are interested in a swap, but most of the time, I take the initiative and send out inquiries. If we decide we’d like to spend a week of the summer in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have a lot of friends and family, I’ll search the site for listings in that area. The listings have photos and descriptions of the homes, and maps that show their approximate location.

Once we agree to an exchange, we work out the logistics with our exchange partner: when the visit will start and end, where to leave the key to the house, whether we’ll also be trading cars.

Cleaning is a common issue. We usually have our house professionally cleaned before a home exchange, and sometimes after. We just ask our guests to pick up after themselves and leave things basically as they found them.

I know what you’re probably thinking: What about my stuff? What if the people staying in my home put my dishes away all wrong, or steal my television, or my identity?

Most home-exchange sites have protections for theft, accidental damage, and other losses. It’s also a good idea to make sure your homeowner’s insurance covers any damage incurred by guests. HomeExchange can charge users’ credit cards up to $500 to cover any damage caused. Anything beyond that, up to $1 million, is covered by the company. It also offers protection for cancellations. If your host cancels the exchange, you are reimbursed for any nonrefundable travel costs and for up to €100 ($111) a night in a hotel.

These incidents are extremely rare. Emmanuel Arnaud, CEO of HomeExchange, says that for the first 10-and-a-half months of 2019, a host submitted a claim for losses in 0.1% of the company’s exchanges. Two-thirds of those claims were for accidental damage, and the average cost was $310. The biggest case in that period was below $6,000, he says. Most damages are much smaller than $310, and they’re handled amicably between the exchangers.

The basic answer to “What about my stuff?” is trust. There’s a bond created in an exchange, partly because there’s no money changing hands, and because you’re often staying in the home of the people who are staying in your home.

Sometimes, an exchange partner becomes a friend. In 2018, my family spent most of July on two separate exchanges in Canada: 10 days in Montreal, followed by two weeks in Toronto. It was a wonderful vacation, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without those 24 nights of free lodging. When we arrived at the house in Toronto—a charming Victorian in West Queen West, one of the city’s best neighborhoods—I did my usual low-level snooping, looking at the books and CDs on their shelves. “Hey, look,” I told my wife. “They own a lot of the same books we do.”

“I use this textbook in my classes,” replied my wife, who’s a college professor. We checked our host’s profile on HomeExchange, and sure enough, the wife in the couple was a professor at a university in Toronto, in the same subject my wife teaches.

We started texting more frequently with our hosts after that, checking in on their adventures in Southern California. A year after the exchange, my wife returned to Toronto for an academic conference, this time staying in a downtown hotel. Our old exchange partner attended the same conference and had dinner and drinks with my wife after one of the sessions. You won’t get that from a stay at a Residence Inn.

Written by Tony Biasotti