When San Francisco resident Patrick Morris and his family go on vacation, their lodging expenses are usually zero.
Morris, his wife Tree and two teen sons are avid home exchangers. They trade their Victorian home near Golden Gate Park for a home somewhere in Hawaii or France or wherever else the family feels like going. The family has negotiated home exchanges every year for almost 20 years.
Morris says he likes home exchanges because the family can really relax. "These houses are not in a touristy area," he says. "When you go out, it’s quiet. There’s a real park nearby. You’ve got your space and the kids have their own room."
Because these homes are occupied by the owners when not used for an exchange, they are stocked full with pots and pans and other kitchen supplies and the usual comforts of home, including books, DVDs, games and more. They may even have a pool. It’s also possible to swap cars, boats and even pets.
While many Americans feel uncomfortable about the idea of exchanging their homes, that’s not the case in Europe, Morris says. "Culturally, it’s nothing unusual for Europeans," he says. Many of his American friends have questioned how he can trust strangers staying in his home, but he has rarely heard such questions from Europeans.
Experienced home swappers say the concern about strangers is overblown. They say you get to know the people with whom you’ll swap through the numerous Skype chats and emails necessary to set up an exchange.
There are several ways to get started. You can join a membership site like homeexchange.com, lovehomeswap.com or homeforexchange.com. By paying an annual fee of $150-400 a year, you get access to listings of homes around the world available for exchange. You can also list your own home with photos and detailed descriptions. Another route is to post a free ad on Craigslist where you live and where you want to go. If you have friends or family in the area you want to visit, you can ask around through those personal connections.
Alexandra Origet du Cluzeau, a spokesperson for HomeExchange.com and GuesttoGuest.com, says the benefit of becoming a member of an exchange website is that there is staff available to help if something goes wrong. If, for instance, a partner in the exchange cancels at the last minute, staff will help find another available home somewhere else.
Membership websites also allow flexibility in making exchanges. There can be a simultaneous exchange in which two parties swap their homes on the same dates. Another option is the non-simultaneous exchange done in two parts: for example, you visit a house in France in December while your hosts are in Italy and the French family visits your house in June while you’re visiting your in-laws in Oregon. Finally, many sites have a point system in which you can earn points when someone stays at your house that you can later use to book an exchange with someone else.
Origet du Cluzeau says families make up nearly half of the members of homeexchange.com around the world. "No one benefits more from home exchanges than families traveling with kids," she says.
She estimates that a typical family could save 35 percent on their vacation budget by eliminating lodging expenses and reducing restaurant meals.
While Origet du Cluzeau understands that first-time home exchangers can be nervous about the experience, she points out that there are built-in checks and balances to ensure the swap goes smoothly. Every guest is also a homeowner, and both review each other after the exchange is over. If someone doesn’t act properly, he or she won’t be able to get a home exchange again.
Ellena Morgan, a spokesperson for Love Home Swap, says the San Francisco area is a popular destination for those looking for a home exchange. She advises that those listing their houses should include a lot of photos with good lighting and be personal in describing the home. "Don’t try to copy some form of hotel description," she says. Instead, talk about the best cafes in your neighborhood, the coffee in the cupboard, the spices you stock and your video game system.
When looking for an exchange, be open to options. Instead of staying right in London, could you be an hour away and take public transit? Maybe you could visit some area you never considered.
San Jose resident Michelle Muetschard says she, her husband and their two boys, ages 4 and 7, were able to do more activities when they visited Switzerland last summer with the money they saved by exchanging homes.
"Switzerland is very expensive," she says, "If we had to pay for our lodging, we would have watched our costs more." Instead, the family rented a big car, went to a chocolate factory and made their own chocolate, which were pricey things to do. "We knew we had this free place to stay so we could do something," she says.
To help make the family visiting her house comfortable, she left detailed instructions about how to use all the appliances, work the blinds and use the thermostat. She also offered a number of a house cleaner the family could call if they didn’t want to do the work of cleaning themselves. When she returned, her house looked great.
Muetschard had such a great experience, that she’s trying to arrange another home exchange this summer – this time in Calgary, Canada. She enthusiastically recommends home exchanges to her friends.
"I would say it’s a great experience," she says. "If you want your children to experience other cultures or other cities in America or have a wider world view and you don’t have a ton of money, this is a great opportunity."
Lisa Renner is a Bay Area Parent calendar editor and frequent contributor.
House swapping isn’t for you? Consider some of these other budget-friendly lodging ideas:
• Camping – If you don’t mind sleeping in a tent, this is one of the cheapest ways to go on vacation. Campsites are generally $25-35 a night and are all over the state. Check state and county parks, national forest lands and more for ideas. recreation.gov.
• Short-term rentals – Find a house through airbnb.com or vrbo.com. They can often be cheaper than a hotel, plus you get more space, a kitchen and maybe some toys for your children. Better prices are usually available outside major metropolitan areas.
• Hostels – This is a great option for families open to a communal experience and meeting new people. Hostels offer rooms far cheaper than hotels, with a community kitchen shared by other guests and often a lounge with games or a pool. While hostels typically offer dorm accommodations, it’s possible to book a private family room that could sleep six. hostelbookers.com. hostels.com.
• Religious Housing – Check with your church, temple or other faith-based organization to see what accommodations may be available. Many groups offer low-cost rooms that could work for families. You don’t have to be a member of any religious group to book accommodations through monasterystays.com and no participation in religious activities is required.
• Volunteer on a Farm or Ranch – Help someone out in exchange for food and accommodations. One of the most popular sites to find jobs is World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farms (wwoof.net). Just make sure you have figured out a way to manage your work responsibilities on the farm with childcare. Another site that offers opportunities is helpx.net.