The house-swapping expert shares her secrets
We've received a lot of interest in our recent article The Secrets to Happy House Swapping. So author Joanna Goddard, who swapped to L.A. (twice), San Francisco, Berlin, Connecticut, Paris (twice) and more, fielded reader questions in a live online chat earlier this week. Here are some highlights:
Saint Augustine, Fla.: In this day of identity theft, how do you insure that there is not some stray piece of paper with an account number, etc., inadvertently left around?
Joanna Goddard:First, if you're nervous about having complete strangers come to your house, you can go through an official apartment swapping website (see our list, Where to shop for a swap) and then you can read reviews of the swappers. That way, you'll know that other people have been happy swapping with them, and you can feel more confident about your own swap.
Before your swappers arrive, make sure to put your bills and mail in a locker or tuck them in a bottom drawer, where people won't see them. For electronic documents, you can put password protected locks on them. For instance, Word documents can be locked simply by pressing "save as," then clicking on "options," then clicking on "security." Then you can make an easy password (maybe "swap"!) for all your documents. You'll be safe and all set.
That said, when you're arranging an apartment swap, you see photos of the people's house and exchange many emails (and, if you'd like, phone calls). So you get a real sense of who these people are and what they're like. After emailing with them about their favorite local restaurants and swapping keys through the mail with a nice little note, you come to feel as if you're friends with them. Trust me, once you get started, apartment swapping is a lot less scary than it sounds!
Many people are worried about their personal valuables, like computers and cameras. We've done about 10 swaps and have never hidden anything—and have never had a problem. I think when people swap apartments, there is an implicit trust, since you're in their house, too!
But, if you want to be extra safe, you can buy a small locker from IKEA, so you can lock things away. Or you can create an "owner's closet" by attaching a latch and padlock to a closet, and putting your valuables inside.
Ventura, Calif.: What do you deem the single most important issue when swapping homes?
Joanna Goddard: Good question! Hmmm, I think it's really important to be open about everything from the very beginning. Take accurate photos of your home, ask lots of questions, make sure you describe any surprises, such as a temperamental toilet or a noisy street. That way, there won't be any surprises, and you'll be starting off your swap with honesty and kindness.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: I'd love to try swapping, but I'm afraid our average, suburban cookie-cutter home would hardly have the cache of a NYC flat. What do you think my chances would be in getting an offer? I wouldn't mind the equivalent in France or England or Italy...but would my traders be disappointed?
Joanna Goddard: Thanks for your question. You never know what people are looking for. Some people want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and some people would love to hike, bike or ski in Colorado. That's the genius of housing swaps—you can stay where the grass is greener! :)
So, I think you could definitely take some pretty photos of your house and also the pretty areas around you—maybe a nearby view or lovely river. Then create a listing of your home that talks about the joys of your area. You might be surprised how many people think it sounds just lovely!
(P.S. Also keep in mind, when you live in a city, like me, you generally have a shoebox apartment. So a big home in the suburbs sounds like bliss! Ahh, to have a fireplace, a dishwasher and more than one bedroom....)
White Rock, B.C., Canada: Is there any danger in doing the swap, and is the house insurance valid, in case something happens?
Joanna Goddard: Good question. Of course, you will want to check with your own insurance company, but typically most insurance considers house swappers to be "invited guests" in your home or "permitted" drivers of your car, and so they will offer that same coverage.
La Jolla, Calif.: I am interested in trying house swapping but my husband is not comfortable with having people whom we have never met live in our home. He says I am reading only positive stories but there must be negative experiences, too. Have you ever heard of any cases where people returned to find serious problems caused during the swap? I certainly do not want to be naive about this, especially since my husband is uncomfortable with the idea. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
Joanna Goddard: Hmmm, the skeptical husband. I've heard of those before! :) Here's what I would do...
Your husband is worried, surely, that people will mess up your home, break valuables and even steal something. Those are valid concerns. But here is how you can convince him that those odds are very unlikely....
#1. Go onto one of these reputable home exchange websites and scroll through houses you like. You can find a beautiful place or two that you know your husband will love.
#2. Read the user reviews, which will tell you what past swappers thought of the house and the people themselves. That should help calm your husband's fears, since you will be able to "screen" the people before you even reach out to them.
#3. Once you find a place you might like to swap with, contact the people and email back and forth with them a few times, about their apartment and their neighborhood, etc. You can see if you click with them and feel comfortable, or if you sense any red flags. (And you can show your husband these friendly emails from them!)
#4. Consider the people you're swapping with. Are they professionals? Adults traveling without young kids? Does their house look neat and clean in the photos? You can choose the people you feel comfortable with.
#5. Finally, you can lock away your valuables and jewelry in an "owner's closet," by attaching a latch and padlock on a closet door. That way, your husband won't be worried about specific items.
#6. Try it out just for a weekend, instead of a week. You can take baby steps... :)
#7. You can even tell your husband that I've house-swapped 10 times and have NEVER had a problem. Even a little problem.
I hope this works! House swapping is a really great way to travel, but it is a bit of an adventure, I'll admit! If your husband still isn't into it, you can always check out Budget Travel's favorite hotels!
New York City, N.Y.: What about pets? Can I ask them to take care of my two cats? They are really sweet and easy to take care of.
Joanna Goddard: You can definitely ask swappers to take care of your cats, if you'd like. It's up to them. Just make sure to be upfront in your listing—tell them about the cats and exactly what they'd have to do to take care of them. And realize that people may be allergic or not want to take care of animals, so you may turn off some swappers.
But definitely give it a shot! My old roommate had a kitten. When we did a swap with a woman from Paris, she loved taking care of the kitten. So it can work out well!
Thank you again, and have a wonderful day!
Where to shop for a swap
Read Joanna's personal blog, A Cup of Jo
How green is your hotel?
It's good news, bad news this week for travelers concerned about whether hotels are harming the environment. While you can refer to hotel rating systems that let you compare hotels on a scale of one to four stars for their level of amenities, there is no rating system for judging how eco-friendly a hotel is. The good news: Next month, the American Hotel & Lodging Association will publish a list of eco-friendly steps that hotels can voluntarily take, such as towel reuse programs and the installation of energy-efficient lamps. The bad news: The association has decided not to create a star-based system for rating hotels or a hotel certification program for environmental issues, says an article in this week's Travel Weekly (registration required). The reason is that such a program would be expensive. Presumably not enough hotels have decided to get together and chip in to a kitty to fund such a program. This summer, the editor of Hotel Interactive pointed out one of the problems of not having a national eco-friendly hotels certification program. Here was one of his interesting examples: Gary Coward, SVP with Concept Amenities Inc., [recently] brought up the very real issue of what does a word really mean. Coward noted that people are bandying about “biodegradable” without ever truly understanding what it means. After all, a plastic bottle is biodegradable; it just takes something like 400 years. So if your hotel uses biodegradable products, what exactly does that mean? Is it two weeks, two years or two centuries? And is your definition in line with consumers and industry peers? Let's hope someone in the industry steps forward to create a campaign to create a rating system or certification program. Otherwise, travelers face "green-washing," which is when hotels pretend to be more eco-friendly than they are. Update: 5:37 p.m. In response to my blog post, I learned that today, Green Seal, an independent non-profit, put several Chicago hotels through a environmental certification process. The Chicago Department of Environment and the Mayor's Office apparently partnered with the hotels. Kimpton Hotels in Chicago were among those recognized. MORE ELSEWHERE Travelers may not always like it when a hotel is truly eco-friendly. [Go Green Travel Green]
This weekend: An art lover's paradise in Lancaster, Pa.
Art lovers will want to attend the Fall ArtWalk 2008 this weekend in Lancaster, Pa., (between Philadelphia and Harrisburg). The event will feature more than 50 arts venues. Artworks on display will include mixed media, photography, printmaking, and much more. There will also be special events happening at some galleries, such as pumpkin painting, wine tasting, art demonstrations, and meet-the-artist open houses. If the art isn't enough to sate your palate (or should we say palette?), there are performances, including a cabaret and a female barbershop chorus, and even "Art on a Plate," where local restaurants present special menus. Official ArtWalk hours are Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday noon–5 p.m. Gallery admission is free; some performing events are admission only. Lancaster's Gallery Row begins at Prince and Walnut Streets; there are lots of downtown parking areas.
Fresh camping gear makes the Great Outdoors a bit more modern
The leaves are changing, the air is getting crisp. It's a great time of the year for camping. We've rounded up some neat (and affordable) gadgets to help you weather the wild. And keep these in mind for any outdoorsy folks on your holiday gift list this year. It's a water bottle! No, it's a flashlight! Wait—it's both! The LightCap is a one-liter bottle that has a solar panel on the lid. Charge it in the sun all day and you'll have up to six hours of light to guide you at night. ($25) There's nothing like drinking wine around the campfire. But who wants to lug around fragile bottles that you have to drink in one sitting? The Bota Box holds four bottles' worth of California wine in a lightweight box with a handle. It stays fresh more than a month after opening (about $20). Souped-up tents are out, apparently. Hammocks are the new black. REI's travel hammock won't break the bank, and comes with a built-in mosquito net to protect you from the little beasts ($39). The Hennessy Hammock comes with netting, a detachable rain fly, and support ropes. "It's especially popular with teens who don’t want to sleep in the big tent with Mom and Dad," says the site (from $80). The lightweight, pocket-sized HYmini charger converts wind and solar energy into a power source for all your gadgets. In just 20 minutes, you can tack 40 minutes of life onto your MP3 player or take an additional 20 photos with your camera. Think of all the power you could harness on a long bike ride (from $50). Find these and more thought-provoking ideas for camping gear at TrustyPony.com, the travel goods blog. What products make your life easier on the road?
Philly's Please Touch Museum gets a new building and new exhibits
Dedicated to children 7 and younger, the expanded Please Touch Museum opens this Saturday (Oct. 18). Its new home in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park is Memorial Hall, a Beaux Arts gem opened in 1876 to host a World’s Fair. Compared with its former digs, the museum now has three times more exhibition space (plus expanded parking outside). A magical Alice in Wonderland exhibit takes visitors down the Rabbit Hole in a former in-ground swimming pool. No matter what the weather is like outside, kids can experiment with waterwheels and toy boats at an indoor water play area. My daughter Ella and I had loads of fun at the museum’s special press preview last week. When we wandered into the Roadside Attractions exhibit, it didn’t surprise me that Ella, already a backseat driver, went straight for the kid-size hot rod with flames streaking alongside the car side panels. She must've been a racecar driver in her previous life! A ride of a different sort capped off our visit. We took a spin on the museum’s newly restored 1924 Dentzel Carousel, with 52 hand-carved animals. It's housed in a beautiful glass-enclosed space. This Saturday’s opening festivities begin with a brief welcome from Mayor Michael Nutter and include a performance by Fandango—a rock band that entertains kids—and costumed characters that will interact with visitors all day long. Please Touch Museum, 215/963-0667, pleasetouchmuseum.org, open daily, $15, free for babies under the age of 1, carousel rides $3, parking $5. —Helen I. Hwang, author of All Grown Up: Please Touch Museum and its Move to Memorial Hall (available at the museum’s kids store beginning Nov. 1).