A Frugal Twist on Travel: Try a House Swap This Summer

Gina and Roger Freize had never heard of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But when the owner of a San Miguel villa found them through a home exchange website, the couple vacated their San Diego condo and spent a blissful week in Mexico.

"What a gem," Gina Freize says of San Miguel, a Central Mexico town popular with American retirees, artists and writers. "The villa came with a housekeeper who shopped and cooked for us. It was incredible."

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As summer vacation season approaches (and the recession lingers), travelers like the Freizes look to home swaps for unique experiences and budget-friendly getaways.

The Southern California couple, who own a group of specialty cheese shops, got started in 2008 by posting their downtown San Diego condo at HomeLink.org. Since then, the Freizes also have exchanged homes with hosts in Denver, New York City, Quebec and Vancouver, British Columbia.

"We love to travel, but the hotel stays were always the most expensive part," Gina Freize says. "Even sniffing out small, neighborhood boutique hotels was costly. Then [we heard about a friend of a friend] who retired and spends most of the year traveling via exchange. Bingo! We knew this would fit our style."

Fringe Benefits

The best part of house swapping is "feeling more like a local, less like a tourist," she says. "The hosts always leave the best dining and sightseeing recommendations. Housekeeping doesn't knock on the door in the morning. We can unpack, unwind and make ourselves at home."

Staying in someone's house, as opposed to a hotel, makes a big difference in savoring a destination, says David Leventhal, who has exchanged his home in Playa Viva, Mexico several times for the New York apartment of some acquaintances.

"You go to the grocery store and pick up bagels to toast at home; you can go buy a bottle of wine and open it at home," Leventhal says. "This doesn't mean you don't go to restaurants or museums or enjoy all the city has to offer, but there is a difference. The doorman greets you; you bring in the mail, even if it isn't yours; you have a washing machine."

Home swaps also are a good option for people who own second homes. Encinitas, Calif., resident Rob LaBreche has exchanged his second home in Cabo San Lucas for home stays in Newport, R.I., Cape Cod, Belize, and Costa Rica.

"You are already paying for your second home, so it makes sense to maximize its value," LaBreche says. "I have also found that those who have utilized my second home are very respectful, as they understand the importance of treating the home as if it was their own, since they are also homeowners."

Getting Started

Through mutual friends, Leventhal and his wife, Sandra Kahn, met another couple who turned out to be a perfect home exchange match. While a private exchange may sound ideal, it can be difficult to find people who live in the city you want to visit and who want to visit your city. Most home exchangers find each other by registering their homes online at sites such as HomeExchange.com or HomeLink.org.

Several new sites offer innovative approaches to home swaps. For instance, SeniorsHomeExchange.com offers an online directory of exchange opportunities for people 50 and older. SecondPorch.com uses social media to help you find vacation homes through the people you're already connected to on Facebook, whether they own the homes or can offer recommendations.

LaBreche likes TradetoTravel.com, a site that allows users to bank points in order to book any home in the system. When another traveler uses your home, you earn points, which can be redeemed for another listed home -- not necessarily the home of the travelers who used your home. "It doesn't have to be a one-to-one correlation," LaBreche says. "That can be rather confining with regard to options."

For a slight variation on the traditional home exchange, Tripping.com "is about cultural exchange," says Jen O'Neal, CEO of Tripping International, which launched last year and has members in more than 100 countries.

Tripping.com offers travelers an online forum for meeting local people in their destinations to get travel tips, meet for coffee or stay in a local home. "There's no obligation for anyone to host travelers overnight, though many of our members open their homes and enjoy hosting travelers for days at a time [at no charge]," O'Neal says. "Conversely, Tripping members can also stay with local hosts. It's completely free and saves them the cost of a hotel room, and we only ask that they be respectful guests. Most members bring wine or goodies from their home country as house gifts, which is a nice treat for the host. Tripping is about cultural exchange. Getting a free place to stay is just a nice side perk."

How It Works

For most home swaps, the process begins online and ends when a vacation match is found. "Other than the cost of getting there, a vacation anywhere in the world does not have to cost you any more than staying at home," says Keghan Hurst, director of marketing at HomeExchange.com. "With no hotel bills, the benefit of free accommodation and the ability to exchange everything from cars to boats and bicycles, home exchange has become the best way to experience your destination like a local."

When you visit a site such as HomeExchange.com, you click on a country or state you'd like to visit, select a listing that interests you and send emails through the site to those listings and arrange the details of an exchange. When most members make a match, they exchange their homes at the same time, Hurst says, but some list only their second homes as exchange options, allowing for more flexibility.

To list your own home on an exchange website, include photos and a description of your home, as well as detailed information about your neighborhood and city, including "parks, landmarks, favorite cafes and restaurants," Hurst says. "This is the type of information members enjoy reading, and it helps them make a decision on where they would like to exchange." It's also a good idea to include availability dates so that other exchangers can quickly see if their desired travel dates match yours.

Making the Most of Your Exchange

Once you've begun the home swap process, do your best to make the experience stress-free and enjoyable for your family and the families who will exchange with you. "Be flexible," Freize advises. "Our best success has come from seeking out a destination, contacting possible exchangers and coming up together with dates."

And while you're staying in someone else's home, always treat the property like it's your own, even being willing to handle the responsibilities that come with it, Leventhal says. The family he exchanges with "knows that they can call us and ask us for a favor [while we are at their home], such as shipping an item to one of their kids or taking care of a repair," he says.

Finally, don't forget to ask for local travel tips and recommendations -- and leave a list of your own.

SecondAct contributor Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance journalist who writes regularly about career and workplace issues. She is based in Alabama.

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