These days, vacations don't come cheap. It can cost a family of four close to $1,000 just for seven nights of lodging. And that doesn't include meals and amenities such as Wi-Fi.
To combat that, travelers are increasingly engaging in home exchanges or house swaps instead of staying in hotels. The cost of doing it: zero dollars.
"It's a great way to save money," says Valerie Rains, features editor for New York-based Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine. "Aside from the obvious of not paying for a hotel room, you end up saving a lot of money on food if you ... cook some meals."
The tight economy and drop in discretionary spending has served to drive the popularity of house swapping as an appealing alternative to staying at a hotel. According to Keghan Hurst, spokeswoman for HomeExchange.com, a home exchange website in Hermosa Beach, Calif., listings have grown from 10,000 in 2006 to 42,000 today.
"In Europe places like London, you spend $200 to $300 a night on a very ordinary hotel," says Mark Kahler, a writer on budget travel for New York-based About.com. "For those of us that don't have unlimited funds to spend on travel, it can make the difference between going and not going."
Internet makes house swaps easy
While swapping homes has been around for years, the Internet has made it a much easier process to facilitate the exchanges. House swaps are usually an even exchange between two home or apartment owners who agree to stay in each other's house for a specified amount of time or on specified dates. Since there is no money being exchanged, your homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance usually will cover any damages, Rains says.
Typically, the websites work like this: You pay an annual fee for access to all the home listings and the opportunity to profile your home or apartment. For instance, HomeExchange.com charges a yearly membership fee of $119.40. Once you are a member, you can search homes in the area you want to visit and correspond with the homeowner or the apartment owner directly to set up the swap dates and rules of the house.
Go with the brand names
The more established websites have user reviews, pictures and testimonials, so you can get a sense of what type of house you'll be staying in and the nature of the person you are dealing with. Word of advice: Rains says to go with the websites that charge an annual fee as opposed to free ones.
"By going to the established paid sites, you weed out the scammers or the crazies because you do have to put money upfront," Rains says. She says membership fees are typically between $50 and $150 per year.
It's natural to be wary of house swaps with someone you've never met. But Hurst says there should be more than one communication before agreeing to a home exchange. According to Hurst, it's common for people to swap multiple emails, have numerous phone calls and even engage in some video conferences via Skype before agreeing to the house swap.
While its' easier to do a home swap if you live in a high demand area, such as New York or Orlando, Fla., homeowners in less popular destinations, such as Nebraska, also are successful in house swapping for a vacation.
"Even people who live in a place that sounds exciting still want to get away and go hang out in the country," Rains says. "The key part is making your listing appealing by emphasizing the attractions within an hour's drive."
Lodging isn't the only place you save
In addition to saving on lodging and meals, Rains says you can save on checking fewer bags when flying to a destination if there is a washing machine and dryer and Internet access on the premises, nearby movie rentals, and little things such as toiletries in the house. What's more, a family with small children may swap with a family with similar needs and agree to borrow each other's stroller, car seat and other baby gear that would cost money to ship or bring onboard a plane.
"The little things can add up to savings," says Rains.
Home swapping isn't for everyone
Even though the cost savings can be substantial, home swapping isn't for everyone. First, you'll have to be flexible on when you travel, and you'll need to plan in advance. Hurst at HomeExchange.com says you may be able to find last minute getaways, but mostly, you need to start looking ahead of time.
"If you have to travel one week in March because it's spring break, you put that in your profile," Hurst says. "A lot of families traveling for spring break started reaching out to people last summer."
According to Kahler, if you aren't the type to follow the rules or feel uncomfortable staying in someone else's house, house swapping may not be for you. For instance, the home may be a smoke-free environment and you smoke, or not allow pets but you travel with your dog.
"You shouldn't do this if you are extremely particular," Kahler says.
When arranging a house swap, it's important to be upfront about what people staying in your home can and cannot do. For instance, if you have a room filled with family heirlooms, stipulate in advance that the room is off-limits. You can even leave a welcome book with the rules and other pertinent information for guests.
"People are extremely polite and want to make a good impression and don't want to say anything that could be considered negative, but it's not the time to be polite," Kahler says. "You have to be very candid about what you expect."
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