If you’re a fan of home improvement shows like “Trading Spaces,” you’ve seen families swap houses on TV. Away from the spotlight, thousands of people are also trading spaces — as an alternate kind of vacation, and without the daunting task of interior decorating.

House swaps, as they’re called, have become increasingly popular in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. Any time of year, travelers can log onto numerous house exchange Web sites and find someone to swap homes with, for as little as a weekend or as long as a few months.

“Our Spain home exchange was one of those life-altering, soul-satisfying experiences most ‘regular’ travelers can only dream about,” wrote David Hochman on HomeExchange.com, who traded his place in Los Angeles with one in Barcelona. “What set the trip apart was having a base outside the tourist bubble.”

The allure of exchanging homes is that lodging is free, food costs are reduced because meals can be cooked at home and car use is often complimentary since the owners frequently swap vehicles too. The only expense, other than airfare, is the annual fees the sites charge to use their databases, which range from about $30 to more than $100.

“You have all the comforts of home in someone else’s house,” said Sean O’Neill, a travel writer at Kiplinger’s. “You can save a bundle of money. … It’s being able to pad around the kitchen in your bedclothes while you’re having breakfast instead of having to dress up for the hotel dining room. It’s a little more laid-back.”

Frequent exchangers say having more space, laundry facilities, privacy and a true home-base makes vacationing in someone else's home superior to hotels and resorts.

"Basically any home exchange you have is going to be way nicer than a hotel room unless you stay at the Four Seasons for like, $5,000 a night," said Nicole Feist who has swapped her 800 square foot apartment in Manhattan for places in Amsterdam, New Orleans, Paris, Hawaii and California.

Travelers also have the experience of living like a local rather than trekking around like a tourist.

“It’s about being able to live in the home, cook in the home, see it like the other family would and capture the culture,” said Kansas City travel agent Kathy Sudeikis, the president-elect of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

The top three house swap companies are HomeLink InternationalHomeExchange.com and Intervac International Home Exchange Network.

“It’s really opened up dramatically in the last couple of years,” Sudeikis said. “The Internet makes it so much easier to put your house on the database.”

O'Neill said the popularity of digital cameras has also made trading spaces a more common way to vacation.

HomeExchange.com President Ed Kushins said that weekend exchanges have been the largest growth area he’s seen in the house swap industry in recent years.

“It almost becomes like a second home for them,” he said. “It’s a great getaway.”

And though many people who switch houses only meet online or over the phone, some wind up becoming friends with each other — or with each other’s relatives, friends and neighbors.

"We made really good friends doing house exchanges," said Feist. "These people in New Orleans, we’ve done six exchanges with them." But the house-swapping buddies didn't meet until five years after their first exchange.

Home swapper wannabes would be wise to ask a lot of questions about the property they’ll be calling home, post and survey a lot of photographs, have an emergency contact at both houses and take the usual common-sense safety and security precautions.

Feist said she puts her valuables in the bedroom closet and locks it when she's away.

"Anything I don't want them to touch I put in the bedroom closet," she said. "The other thing is, you are in their house and they want their house taken care of."

The biggest glitches Feist has encountered are homes that aren't up to her standards of cleanliness and differences in decor taste.

"We’ve never had a problem," she said. "The worst situation we had was we didn’t like the way this guy’s place in Paris was decorated."

The Paris pad looked like "a '70s college bachelor pad," she said.

Sudeikis also advises going through a Web site or other third party to ensure legitimacy and to beware of homes that seem like fantasies.

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.

And of course, there are pitfalls. Some people wind up surprised or even disappointed because the house they arrive at isn’t what they pictured. And of course, there are the usual household mishaps.

“Wine glasses will break and plumbing will back up,” O’Neill said. “You’ll have to be a little bit flexible, a little bit forgiving about things like that.”