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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: homelinkus@earthlink.net; 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.

Intervac U.S. (30 Corte San Fernando, Tiburon, CA, 94920, tel. 800/756-HOME or 415/435-3497, Web: intervacus.com), of which Paul Jaffe is founder and co-owner. Members have a myriad of options for joining, starting at $68 for Web members who can access Web-only text and photos, or $128 for book directories and full Web access. Seniors receive $6 off if receiving the book directory of listings. Two catalogue directories are sent out each year, in April and December. Each year, Intervac has about 10,000 offers listed, in over 50 countries. And Mrs. Horne is not just a matchmaker for house traders. She is also an avid home exchanger, having swapped homes more than a dozen times in Europe alone.

Home Exchange (P.O. Box 787, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254, 800/877-8723; Web: homeexchange.com; Email: Ed@homeexchange.com), merged with Trading Homes International, upping its total number of listings to well over 7,000 each year, all over the globe (about 50 percent are in the US). Membership prices for this Web-only operation are $49.95 for one year, or $99.95 for three years. Ed Kushins, President of Trading Homes International who is still active in the new company, says the Home Exchange site is one of the easiest Internet portals available for home exchanges, and prides itself on its customer service.

The Invented City (41 Sutter Street, Suite 1090, San Francisco, CA 94104, tel. 800/788-CITY or 415/846-7588, Web: invented-city.com) is a well established firm started in 1991 by Glenn London, who holds an M.A. in library science. "I felt I could create a more enjoyable, creative service, one which makes the identification of compatible homes easy and fun." His charge: $50 a year (Annual renewal fee is $25 thereafter), for which you appear in its web directory (which includes photos of members homes and is updated daily). Currently, the site has over 2,000 listings, most strongly represented in Canada and the United States, then Britain, Australia, and France.

But is it safe? Reliable?

How can you know that the home or apartment you''l be receiving will be the equivalent of yours? How can you protect yourself against the urge to exaggerate the accommodation by the foreign residents who wilI be describing their homes or apartments in the directories of the vacation exchange organizations? Some of these questions are answered by Judy Saavedra of Home Exchange:

"The people who do receive a mis-described home of poor quality are those who haven't done their homework. It's important to engage in more than one exchange of correspondence, even phone up the person overseas to confirm the exact nature of their home or apartment, and their own personal background, their occupation and the like. You request photos; you may even request a video of the home in question, and present them with a video of yours. About half the people who engage in vacation exchanges have done so before; therefore, ask them for the names, addresses and numbers of other Americans who have stayed in their homes, so that you can seek an endorsement from them. Ask them, perhaps, to supply you with other references. By putting the proper questions, by learning more about the exchangee than you would discover from their short listing in the directory, you can almost always assure yourself that you are exchanging with a reliable person."

Ms. Saavedra states that she rarely receives complaints from her club members; that the overwhelming majority of vacation exchanges are conducted to the entire satisfaction of both parties. And meantime, this mode of travel remains, in my firm opinion, the most sensible, logical, and effective means of enjoying a rewarding (and nearly-cost-free) vacation.

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