All you ever wanted to know about Holiday Home Swaps ….
People are often surprised when they hear we trust complete strangers to stay in our house, while we stay in theirs. Some friends say they could not contemplate having anyone in the house whilst they were not there to keep control of things. They imagine people rifling through drawers or checking how clean the bins and bathrooms are.
This never was an issue with us, and we have not had one negative experience with regards to trusting the people we have met through our holiday home swaps. Perhaps it’s because Mike and I have been used to opening our house to both our large families and friends since the 1970’s. We’ve always had people to stay, and have stayed regularly with others in different places.
Swapping homes with strangers is more than just entertaining people and getting cheaper holidays, rather it’s about being open and positive, and having a belief in the intrinsic honesty and decency that most people have. You will also find that most of the people you swap with invariably have the same attitude to life as you do. Don’t forget, they are opening their homes to you, and they are trusting you with some of the intimate details of their lives.
We would never dream of intruding into areas of a home we are not invited into, whether the owners are there or not. With regards to rifling in drawers … I have little interest in my own boring filing cabinet or friends’ kitchen drawers and cannot imagine the sort of person, who would want to poke their noses into other peoples’ life insurance policies or toiletries! Certainly not the lovely people who we have met through our home exchange.
I first read a feature about people who swapped homes over ten years ago, and I was immediately hooked on the idea. Whilst chatting about it in school the following day, a teaching colleague told me that she had recently swapped homes with a family from America. She said it had been recommended to her by a friend who had exchanged homes on numerous occasions, and said that although she had only tried it once, it had worked very well for her and her family.
Up until then, our family holidays had been to hotels or apartments abroad or visiting friends in the UK or different parts of Ireland, but the conversation had definitely got me thinking. Around the same time, I went to the cinema to see The Holiday (with Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz and Jude Law) which centres around two women who swap homes. As you would expect, the houses featured in the film are a lavish Hollywood mansion and a charming, character-filled English cottage, in a postcard pretty village. But, watching the film gave me the general idea of how the system works, and made me decide to investigate things further.
Shortly afterwards, I went online and quickly discovered that there are a variety of Home Swap agencies. The particular company my friend had used was called Intervac, so I opted for that. I spent an evening reading about the concept of house swaps and then browsing all the homes available in different countries. Usually they give you a selection of house photographs, the location of the house and some details about the owners and their lifestyle in the area they live in.
I was amazed at the standard of the houses, and one of the first things I learned is that the homes swapped do not need to be of similar size or value. Many people have a specific city or area in mind, and they then look at the houses or apartments that are available on the home swap website. They soon understand that a place in the city is probably not going to be of the same generous size as a house in the country. They will also find that places like New York, Paris, London and other big cities are very popular, and therefore more in demand. We were happy to compromise on size when we stayed in an old, beautiful but tiny apartment in central Paris, since we wanted to be in the heart of the city.
Some members offer vacation homes and there are other people who are willing to exchange more than one property. In both agencies, we found people who were happy to do non-simultaneous swaps, if another time suited better for them to come to us.
To join most of the swap groups, there is an annual membership fee (for Intervac, currently around 100 Euro) which then gives you access to other members’ contact details, so you can get in touch to request a swap with them. Some people are looking for regular holidays of two or three weeks in the summer, some prefer longer periods if they are travelling to Europe from US or places like Australia. Some people are happy to travel for weekend breaks abroad or to explore new places in their own country.
There are also members who are happy to offer their home for swaps and then take pot luck with the responses they get from the various countries. This means that they get to see lots of different places and cultures that they might not have otherwise considered, and find it widens their horizons. Members come from a wide range of backgrounds and include those who travel alone, couples, families with young children and retirees. The ones we have met easily make new friends, while they are busy seeing the world and enjoying the benefits of home from home comforts.
Our second home exchange agency - Lovehomewap — widened our range of options. The membership fee for Lovehomeswap is more expensive, with a yearly membership ranging from around £200 for the basic package with higher rates for standard and gold membership. It offers a flexible membership, in that you can make the traditional swaps or use their Points system for a one-way swap which we have done. Houses are worth between 100–300 points per night depending on size and location. You charge Points when members use your house, without you exchanging to theirs. Similarly, you can use Points to pay for a swap if the person is not in the position to travel to your country. You also can buy extra Points from the company, when you don’t have enough points to cover either a more expensive house or for a longer period, which we also have done.
We found that the standard of properties we stayed in with both Intervac and Lovehomeswap were well worth membership and any fees involved. The standard of most of the houses has to be borne in mind, as often they are much higher than most of the expensive hotels in certain areas.
In the last few years we have made hugely successful house exchanges through both Intervac and Lovehomeswap to Brooklyn in New York, Nashville, Memphis, San Diego, Paris, Prague, Malta, London and New Orleans. Looking at the list brings back wonderful memories of each trip!
In some of the exchanges the houses have been similar to our own, but we have been thrilled when the place we swap with has a swimming pool (San Diego & our next trip to New Orleans!) or has a fantastic art collection or unusual decor (Nashville)or is in any way more quirky or luxurious than our own.
Not one place has disappointed us, and we found all of the home-owners to be amazingly friendly. In fact, we have had several visits from our new friends in San Diego and Memphis who came back to stay as guests for a few nights when visiting different parts of Ireland. We even met up with our San Diego ‘swappers’ in New York when Mike and I were there on a holiday and they were visiting their daughter. We all got on tremendously, and the time disappeared as we were all talking about the travels and home swaps we had been on since we last saw each other.
If you have decided to dip your toe into the world of home swapping, here are some tips which will help everything to go plain sailing!
- Discuss with your home swap how many people are involved so you can both prepare. Some people travel alone, in couples whilst some might ask if they can bring children and grandchildren. We brought our son and partner to Brooklyn, and another couple to San Diego. We’ve had single people, couples and friends, and we had a lovely couple from Malta in our home with their two children. All worked out great!
- Some house swaps involve exchanging cars, looking after pets or plants, taking out bins on certain days etc. Check about laundry & towels etc., even though most people do provide these things. Also whether you are offering a cleaner or if one will be offered to you. These are all small but important details, which are best to know in advance. Be clear about whether you are happy to swap your car or look after pets. We looked after two beauties in San Diego and they happily looked after our little Shih Tzu, Bella which was brilliant!
- Exchange phone numbers or Whatsapp details etc., so you can check up on anything that might have been forgotten during the organisation. It’s also good to have a local contact person — a friend, neighbour, member of the family, who can help with any initial queries.
- An information folder is very useful with WiFi passwords, codes to any household alarm, details of heating systems, cooker etc., and maps of the area, tourist pamphlets of interesting places, phone numbers of train or bus stations, taxi cabs, directions to nearest shops, hospital or Dr numbers in case of emergency. Phone numbers of local takeaway restaurants are also very useful for guests!
- It’s also a nice touch to leave a ‘welcome’ basket with basics such as bread, bottle of wine, tea, coffee butter, milk etc., especially for people arriving in the evening after a long day travelling.
- If your house swap friends are looking after your pets, remember to leave plenty of food for them, and the number of a local boarding kennel in case of emergencies.
- Leave the house nice and clean with fresh bed linen and towels and basic toiletries such as hand soap, toilet tissue & shower gel — but you don’t need to do a whole house renovation! People understand you live there and that there will be the occasional scuff on floors or chip in paintwork. You don’t need to pack away everything for your guests and leave totally empty cupboards, as is often the case in vacation home swaps. In a house that is lived in, clearing some space in the wardrobe, drawers and kitchen cupboards will usually suffice!
- Anything you don’t want to be touched should be should be securely put or locked away in a cupboard or filing cabinet. It is also fine explain that a particular room is ‘out of bounds’, such as an office or family member’s bedroom. As with everything in life — clarification is definitely the keyword!
After all of that, you can happily go ahead with your exchange. Like most people in the home swap world, I’m sure you will have a fantastic time, and before long will be booking your next exchange trip away!