Free accommodation: try a home exchange

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CalifornaiAccommodation is the big culprit when it comes to the single supplement. It’s not easy to find an option that doesn’t offer couples better deals than it offers solo travelers. Home exchanges are the exception. So when I met Nola at a conference in September, (she has exchanged homes 25 times) I invited her to write a post on home exchanges for Solo Traveler. You can read more by Nola on New Take Travel and follow her on Twitter @newtaketravel.

An Exceptional Arrival

The neighbor walked us up the stairs, unlocked the door and handed us the key. He took his leave saying, “Don’t hesitate if you need anything, ok? Enjoy your stay!”

Thanking him, we picked up our luggage and turned the knob. We stepped into a grand foyer: towering ceilings, a staircase rising to who-knows-where, and dramatic alabaster light fixtures above gleaming wood floors. To the right, through 12-foot French doors, was a sitting room.

home exchange

A five-star foyer, San Francisco, California

A little wide-eyed and, if I recall correctly, speechless, we turned left with the unspoken intent of finding the master bedroom to drop our bags. Inside the first door was a welcoming bedroom with a queen-size four-poster bed and bright windows. There, on our right, was a pristine en suite bathroom with custom tile tub. Wow. Fabulous! Suitcases forgotten, we turned back to the hall.

This wasn’t a vacation rental, it was a home exchange.

While we were spending the week in this 5000 square foot home in the middle of San Francisco, California, the owners were staying in our condo in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

This was our tenth home exchange, and we’ve done another fifteen since.

home exchange five-star quality

Spa-like en suite bath.

Why Home Exchange?

Home exchanging (also known as home swapping) is trading your home with another traveler. You stay in their home and they stay in yours. Why would you want…?

Because you stay free! It’s the best travel deal going. A decent, centrally located hotel in San Francisco would be hard to find for $120/night. So, conservatively, that seven night exchange saved us $840. At that rate our 25 home exchanges, and 166 free nights to date, mean $20,000 saved.

With each swap you can enjoy the comforts of home. Or, consider it a hotel room: never touch the kitchen or laundry. Instead, dine in restaurants and visit a spa.

Then there’s the solo traveler bonus: no single supplement is ever charged! And it’s always nice to not just have a local connection, but someone handing you the names and numbers of locals should you need them.

home exchange great kitchen

The [sometimes deluxe] comforts of a home kitchen.

How Does it Work?

Home Exchangers usually use members-only exchange websites (typically $120-150/year). They list their home, search for homes in destinations they want to visit, and send and receive offers. It’s not pioneering anymore; one site has 40,000 members worldwide.

Swaps can be any length –a weekend, a week or a year– and nearby or on the other side of the globe.

Who Can Home Exchange?

Most people with a home can exchange. Generally, swappers consider exchange partners to be house-sitters or house guests, but condo and co-op owners, and renters, should check for restrictions.

Beyond that it’s pretty basic: a home must be clean and in good repair. Modest to deluxe, rural and urban, all kinds of homes are swapped. A city dweller might want a farmhouse retreat, and empty-nesters with a family home may welcome a small urban studio.

The Drawbacks

Two drawbacks come to mind: First is that sometimes you don’t find an exchange where and when you’d like to (so take advantage of opportunities as they appear). Second is adding a ‘home exchange deep clean’ to your pre-trip to-do list. But a cleaning service can help with that and returning to a super-clean home turns a negative into a very welcoming positive.

No hardship staying in this home exchange.

Six Tips for the Curious

You might be curious but firsts can be daunting.  So, check out more home exchange basics including the story of my first exchange. If your interest is piqued, here are six tips to get you started:

  1. Tempted but unsure? List and see. – Listing your home doesn’t obligate you to swap. List, assess opportunities as they arise, and then decide.
  2. Choose a Home Exchange Website – Browse at least a couple. Try the features, check what homes are offered in destinations you want to visit, and check what’s included with membership.
  3. Post a Helpful Listing – Read other listings. What questions do you still have about their home? In your own, answer those questions!
  4. Post [lots of] Pictures – Include at least one current photo of each room, clean and tidy.
  5. Search and Send – Don’t wait for offers! Search and then send offers, too. Not everyone responds so don’t be disappointed.
  6. Make the Rules – Your home, your exchange, your rules. Decide what you’re comfortable with (children? pets? smoking?). Only accept an exchange that works for you. Exchanging should reduce vacation stress, not create it!
home exchange great view

Beyond the French doors: A drop-dead view, especially at night.

The Rest of the Story

We left the master bedroom and continued down the hall. The door at the end was ajar and we walked into…the Master Suite: larger still, tall ceilings, a bay window, refined furnishings, fine art, an enormous walk-in closet, and a luxurious bath with double sinks and deep-jetted tub.  We started to laugh and then quickly retraced our steps to the guest room and our luggage.  We’ll take the real Master Suite, please!

On return trips to San Francisco we’ve shared lovely evenings with these exchangers, catching up over dinner and (inevitably) talking travel. [Special thanks to them for providing these photos.] They have a standing invitation in our home, too. It seems that by nature exchangers are welcoming, curious about the world and willing to step out of the box. Home swapping is a pretty spectacular way to meet like-minded people.

My Take

Home exchanging is what you choose to make of it. Dabble or dive deep, it’s up to you.  Either way I’m fully convinced you’d come out ahead with more travel savings, more travel options and maybe even some new friends.

Your Take

How could home exchanging fit into your travel life? Or does it already?

Nola Beard is a passionate travel speaker, trainer and writer, and founder of New Take Travel, the source for ‘How to Travel Often & Richly Within Your Budget’. She is obsessed with travel, a lover of beautiful hotels and a home exchange aficionado, having completed more than 25 exchanges to date.

This home exchange delivered: the sophisticated master suite.

  • Politia

    Oh, yes! In a Vancouver co-op.

  • Chris

    It would be helpful if you listed websites of the best sites (in your opinion) with a little about each, pros and cons. Any update to this article planned?

  • Terence Francis

    The strata council in my White Rock, BC condo are the Stasi: Banning rentals, boarders, and all relatives that are not immediate family. Need I continue? I loathe them for it. I am going to try to allow ‘House-sitting’ I am going to fight them on this – with legal help if necessary. Has anyone here been faced with tyrannical condo police?

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  • ashreew

    I remember this from the movie The Holidays, I guess. I just thought that was a fiction and not happening, but indeed it’s cool! Should try this one.


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  • Nola~New Take Travel

    Yes, I can see how on a commercial level it could be difficult.

    It’s not a big deal for each home exchanger to consider the exchange offers they receive — in fact, it’s fun.

  • Rig

    Thank you Nola: We experimented these techniques in our project that you mentioned but the two factors made such techniques impossible, firstly they increase the cost and bring it equal to a hotel room rent and second was the delay in timing as well as mismatch in timing/schedule of two travellers.

  • Nola~New Take Travel

    I love pairing a home exchange with a points flight for a super budget-friendly vacation. Even better? Tack a free points stay at a hotel on the end as a treat before returning home.

  • Nola~New Take Travel

    Thanks for mentioning security. There are lots of ways to assess and validate an exchange before you agree to it.

    You can use a quality members-only home exchange site, check reviews by members who have already exchanged with the person and collect documentation to confirm home location and ownership. One site even offers substantial home insurance for exchanges arranged via their site.

    There are several other techniques you can use, too. Ultimately, you decide how many of these steps you want to take before deciding whether to accept or decline a home swap offer.

  • Rig
  • Rig

    During my MBA I along with my team worked on a project to start a business of Place Book were whole idea was to offer a platform where travellers throughout world can exchange their homes. However the main hurdle was the security checks that made our plan failed

  • Pointsandtravel

    very interesting, something I might consider!

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  • Nola~New Take Travel

    Of course it depends on how specific you wanted to be with your exchange requirements but there are lots of exchanges that will still be planned for 2013!

    Some people arrange way home exchanges long in advance (especially European families planning for their month-long August holiday) but many home swaps are planned with much less notice. While the stars had to align for this and I was very lucky, I even planned three swaps over a five week period in less than a month one time. The more flexible you can be (type of home, location and dates), the better.

    Great plan for your circumstances. Good luck!

  • Flashpacker Family

    Excellent! I’m just making my first foray in the world of home exchange. We want to be permanent travellers and have tried to sell our house the the past 18 months but it won’t budge. We’ve been travelling about 50% of the year but can’t afford to keep that up. Home exchange seems like a brilliant solution. I’m finding though that most people organisze their exchanges WAY in advance and that I’m too late for anything in 2013.

  • Nola~New Take Travel

    Indeed, a retiree’s schedule is ideal for home swapping! It’s definitely part of my retirement plan.

    Yesterday I had a call with a potential exchanger and it was clear within 5 minutes that we had so much in common. It was a lot of fun to chat with them. You’re right that a phone call is a great way to connect with a person beyond the logistics of a home swap (and equally decide that you’re not comfortable…though admittedly that’s never happened to me) and sometimes it’s forgotten in our email world!

    Thanks for checking in, Brian.

  • Brian Luckhurst

    A really good post Nola that captures the essence of home swapping.

    Home exchange is such a great concept I am really surprised that more travellers don’t use it as a way to vacation although it is becoming more and more popular.

    We launched our website three years ago to cater for the older home exchanger (50plus) and we see it as a way of keeping us busy in our retirement as well as providing us with an opportunity to travel.

    Quite a few of our members are single and I am sure they see this as a great way to avoid the single supplements and I also think Hospitality Exchange works particularly well for this group.

    We advise our members when arranging a swap to fully communicate with the other party via email, skype etc to get to know each other but if they are not comfortable with the potential swap for whatever reason decide against it.

    To Rachel, best of success with your first exchange, I am sure you will love the experience.
    To Nola, keep up the good work by publicising Home Exchange.
    To Janice, love to see you join our website.
    Regards to all

  • Nola~New Take Travel

    Hi Rachel – Glad you enjoyed it. Congrats on your first homeswap! We were planning our second as we flew home from our first.

    Having a second property like a holiday rental gives you a lot of exchanging flexibility and points systems can work well.

    As for the other site you’re on, perhaps you’ve already done this but lots of good photos of your home really helps. If you’re willing to consider an exchange in any location, check to see if there’s a spot to indicate that on your listing –if you’ve missed it you could well be missing out on offers.

  • Rachel Webb

    Great post, we´re doing our first exchange this Xmas, not a simultaneous one. We use a holiday home exchange site in the UK and offer our hoilday rental, staying in the rental of any other member on a points system, whereever and whenever suits. The idea is brilliant but we haven´t managed to pull off a straight swap exchange with another site we´re on.

    Thanks for all the great tips – it really is the way to travel more for less.