Swap Homes and Stay for Free
We introduce you to this fabulously inexpensive, highly personal form of travel
It's called a "Vacation Exchange," and it's not the same as the "Hospitality Exchange" we've discussed elsewhere in this section on accommodations. On the latter, you stay as a guest in someone's home, while they remain in residence; you sleep in a spare room or on a cot; you meet your hosts, have breakfast with them, often socialize with them. And you are more or less expected (but not required) to provide hospitality in your own home or apartment at some later date, maybe (but not necessarily) to the actual person who hosted you.
By contrast, a "Vacation Exchange" involves a simultaneous swap or exchange of apartments or homes; you stay in their home or apartment while they stay in yours, all during the identical period of your respective vacations. You rarely meet the person whose home or apartment you're using, because you've passed them in mid-air, so to speak, when you began your vacation. On that carefully scheduled date, you flew to their home city, while they flew to yours.
The vacation exchange happens more frequently than the hospitality exchange, supporting a number of fairly large exchange organizations. Why? Because, when all is said and done, it's the single most logical, reasonable, sensible, indeed brilliant, method of vacationing in travel today. Instead of leaving your home or apartment empty and unused during the time of your vacation, you derive a benefit from it, you treat it as an asset. You "trade it" temporarily for an overseas home or apartment of equivalent quality, eliminating all costs of lodgings from your vacation budget.
You trade other assets, as well, like your friends. You give to your exchangee the names of friends who might be willing to have them over for a drink, or come to their aid in case of problems. They do the same for you in their city. Often you permit them to use your car while you're away, in exchange for them permitting you to use their car while you stay in their home or apartment. Through an exchange of correspondence, you make the necessary arrangements--sometimes you tell them that the key will be found under the flower pot at the front door, or you mail them an extra set of keys--and on the appointed day, you set off to claim your exchange.
As mentioned before, they fly to your home in the U.S., while you fly to theirs in Barcelona, the south of France, London, Bangkok, wherever. Neither of you has a penny of accommodations expenses. But more important, you live like a resident, not a tourist, in the city you've chosen. You enjoy an incomparable experience, utterly unavailable to the standard tourist. In fact, you're no longer a tourist at all, but a traveler.
I've been on two vacation exchanges myself, have spoken with dozens of people who have also done so, and frankly, I've never heard a critical word about the experience, nor enjoyed anything other than an excellent stay myself. And bear in mind: each house or apartment serves as a "hostage" for the proper maintenance and upkeep of the other; you take awfully good care of the apartment or home in which you're staying, because you're so very anxious that they're exhibiting a similar attitude towards yours.
Some smart travelers find vacation exchanges on their own; they arrange to have a friend overseas post a notice for them on various bulletin boards, or simply ask them to spread the word. Most do it through a vacation exchange service or club, of which at least a half-dozen are active at any one time.
The vacation exchange clubs charge you a fee for including a notice--a one-paragraph description of your home or apartment, perhaps a photo of it, an indication of when you'd like to take your vacation and thus engage in an exchange--in a directory containing many hundreds of such notices, which is then sent to members around the world. All through the cold winter months, you sit at home turning the pages of the directory and dreaming about where you'd like to stay in spring, summer or fall, and when you've spotted a likely candidate, you write to them and propose a vacation exchange. The arrangements are then made through an exchange of correspondence.
Four major exchange clubs
Here are several of the major vacation exchange clubs, along with a brief overview of their conditions, prices and policies.
Homelink (2937 NW 9th Terrace, Wilton Manors, FL 33311, tel. 800/638-3841, Email: email@example.com; Web: swapnow.com or homelink.org) is the direct successor to the original vacation exchange club, and the largest organization of its kind in the world. There are two membership options: full members, who receive three directories each year and also have access to online listings, pay $115 a year; online-only members pay $75 a year. Specialty: Europe (about two-thirds of its members). Average length of each exchange: one month. If you'd like a free "information pack" before committing, simply call the above number and leave your name and address on the firm's answering machine. Homelink is a big one, and seems the picture of efficiency in dealing with its members.
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