When you’re planning a family sabbatical, one of your biggest considerations will, of course, be lodging. If you’re new to the idea of taking a family sabbatical, trying to figure out where to stay might be just the thing that makes you too nervous to keep entertaining the idea at all. After all, you might think, I don’t want to stay in a yucky place with my kids, but I can’t afford to spend tons of money on a really nice place.
I’d like to introduce one of the greatest hacks of family travel. Here’s a way to stay in extremely comfortable accommodations–all over the world–without paying a dime…
As you’re scouring the Internet for where to stay, why not consider swapping what you already have—your HOME—for a free place to stay while you’re traveling? The idea of the home exchange (or home swap) is not new, but it isn’t as widely used as you would think. Even though it has been around for awhile, home exchanging seems to remain under the category of “best kept secret” for most people I talk to.
Our family has done three home exchanges so far (our first in Quebec City, our second in the Loire Valley in France, and the third in Paris) and absolutely, without reservation, fell in love with the experience. Why, you ask? Well, read on…Below I’ll share the top ten reasons we really and truly love home swapping and are now constantly planning our next adventures.
The best benefit of home exchanging for budget-conscious travelers is you get your accommodations for free. You’ll allow the other party to stay in your house while you stay in theirs, but no money changes hands during this transaction. Fancy a week in Paris? Guess how much that would cost at hotels or even airbnb listings? If you home swap, you get to stay there for no money at all, apart from the yearly sign-up fee to a website like HomeExchange.com.
2—You have PERSONAL CONNECTIONS with people from other cultures.
When you start talking to someone about a possible home exchange, you get to know them. This has the power to become a personal connection that you might otherwise not have had. We still email back and forth with the woman we swapped with in Paris. Who knows? We might even visit each other again someday. What is the purpose of travel if it’s not to get to know the actual people who live in other places?
3—Welcome to a COMFORTABLE FAMILY HOME.
The lodging you borrow in a home swap is not a hotel room or a hostel or even an impersonal vacation rental. Instead, it’s a home. This means that it will feel more comfortable than a typical hotel room and also have more amenities than a hotel usually offers.
For instance, in our home exchanges, we had the use of the family’s bicycles and toys. One had a ping pong table, which gave us hours of fun when we were tired of sightseeing!
Another big benefit is a stocked kitchen. How often have you gotten to a vacation rental, only to realize you have to go spend a pretty penny on groceries? Although we tried to replace what we used from the pantry, our home exchange partners encouraged us to use the olive oil or spices and other grocery items we wouldn’t make a dent in for the week or two we were there. This saved us a lot at the grocery store and allowed us to cook creatively at “home,” which was another great way to save money.
Our exchange partners even left us gifts in the kitchen: locally-produced cheese and maple syrup at one and traditional cookies in another. This was another very cool way to experience the culture first-hand.
Each family we swapped with was able to give us specific recommendations for what to do while we stayed in their house. Our family in Quebec City gave us names of their favorite restaurants that were family-friendly, complete with best times to go. Yes, you can read some of this information on Trip Advisor, but this was a more personal spin on things.
The family we swapped with in the Loire Valley of France gave us great ideas on which castles to visit, best routes to take (using their car, of course!), and which grocery stores to use for which items. Most travel guides simply will not be that detailed. That family left piles of brochures on the dining room table for places they had already visited and loved.
5—You might even be able to SWAP YOUR CAR!
Speaking of cars, did I mention we were able to swap ours for theirs? Swapping vehicles allowed us to save even one more expense while we were in France. And it was easy as pie. We left our big ole’ American pick-up truck in the valet area at the airport, while they left theirs in the same area of Charles de Gaulle in Paris. When we stepped off the plane, we went outside, found a valet, told them the name of our exchange partner, and the guy brought the car around! If you have young children, and they do, too, you might even get lucky enough to have the use of their carseats. I don’t know how it gets any more convenient than this.
On a side note: using their car was its own aspect of our journey. It was a diesel-powered, stick shift, economically-sized Renault, not uncommon in France. While the six of us were squished into their car, and my husband was trying to remember how to drive a standard while navigating foreign roads (haha), our swap family was tooling around with the crazy Florida drivers in our big, honking pickem-up truck. They told us, with humor, that “it was part of the whole American experience.”
6—You’ll be taking their place in A LOCAL NEIGHBORHOOD.
Even if your hotel isn’t in a touristy neighborhood, staying in a home swap home gets even more local. Remember you sort of “know” the owners of the house you’re living in, so that makes you sort of “friends” with their neighbors, who will be curious about you. They might even have their parents stop in to check on you. I think this is a pretty good first step in getting to know a new place—ready-made people connections.
7—NEW PLACES TO VISIT pop up on your radar.
As a member on HomeExchange.com with a home in Florida to swap, I receive emails almost every day from people all over the world who want to exchange with us. The requests come from France, England, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Poland, Canada, the United States, and many other places I’m not even thinking of right now.
I’ve heard that HomeExchange.com tends to be frequented by northern Europeans, while the many other sites target other niches of people, or situations. As a member on this site, we are tempted by new places to visit all the time, places we might not even have otherwise thought of.
The worst part of it? There’s no way we can accept all of these wonderful requests, at least not at the moment. Maybe someday, we’ll travel for a year on home exchanging alone. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Another tip: if you’re a worldschooling family and have employment that allows you to be location independent, the Worldschooler Exchange is a great place to check out. Created by a friend of mine after she experienced a need for a holiday home to rent in Canada, this awesome website (and accompanying Facebook group) offers a platform for finding house swaps, housesits, or places to rent. Because of the flexible schedule worldschoolers have and their commitment to teaching their children about the world first-hand, these exchangers often want to swap for longer periods of time than the typical 1-2 week vacation.
8—You get to go OFF THE BEATEN PATH.
Often when you’re planning a trip, you look at the glossy travel mags and choose the route everyone else has taken. But home swapping is a way to take the path less traveled and stay in places that are not usual vacation destinations. Because requests come from all over the place, you might end up in a small town in Canada instead of Toronto or Montreal. You might plan a swap with a little-known ski destination and skip the crowds at Jackson Hole or Chamonix. Or find a small, local beach town (like ours!) in Florida instead of heading to Miami Beach or Daytona.
Home exchanging is a way to go where the real people live instead of where the tourists flock.
9—SOMEBODY WILL KEEP YOUR LIGHTS ON while you’re away.
Maybe leaving your home empty while you are away is a real concern, especially if it’s for a period longer than your typical week’s vacation. But when you have an exchange partner, you will most likely be simultaneously swapping your home—you’ll go to theirs, while they come to yours. So your home will not be empty at all. If they’re agreeable, you might even get help watering the plants or feeding the rabbit!
10—Inexpensive way to VISIT BIG CITIES.
City lovers might be dismayed to learn how much a stay in a large urban center will run them. But if you can find a home swap in Paris, London, Rome, or NYC, you’ll pay a whole lot less—like, oh yeah, NOTHING! This is a great hack for cutting the budget to areas that are known to be expensive. And, because you can cook at home with your hosts’ pots and pans and spices, you’ll save even more. Eiffel Tower, anyone?
If you have any experiences with home exchanging, I’d love to hear about them! Also, if you fancy a swap with our home in SW Florida, give me a shout.