After recipe requests, this is the subject I get asked about the most. We happened upon houseswapping a few years ago when I was trying to figure out how to visit Europe cheaply. I stumbled upon a website that described the concept, and it seemed like a good idea to me, so I researched it, we tried it, and now we are definitely converts. I prefer this way of traveling, now, especially when visiting another country. It's gotten some publicity now from the movie The Holiday, but that's about the only mainstream media place I've seen it.
The basic idea is you go stay in their house while they stay in yours. Often you also swap cars. That way you have free accommodation and transport, and because you have a kitchen, you can also cook your own food. This means that you are generally not paying any more that if you were at home (some places the cost of living is just higher, but it still keeps it cheaper). You have to pay for plane tickets and the cost of attractions, but that's it. It also allows you to experience the people and culture of the place much better, because you are living where the natives live, shopping in the grocery store with them, etc. Below are some FAQs with more detail.
What are the pros and cons of swapping? The biggest pro is obviously the cost. It saves a lot of money. We started doing it just to save money, but we love it for other reasons now. You really get to know the family you are swapping with and will also have a lot more interactions with the locals of a country when you're living in someone's house and doing your own shopping/cooking than if you were staying in a hotel and eating at touristy places. You get a much better feel for a country and it's culture. You also often are able to stay longer and really feel like you have a home to go to at the end of a tiring day of sightseeing instead of a tiny hotel room.
The biggest con is you have to depend on someone else for it to work, so it's not for control freaks. However, it is for planners. If you don't like working out a lot of logistics, it's also not probably for you. If you like staying in Hiltons and only eating at chain restaurants you've heard of, again, not for you.
This originally seemed like a con to me, but I have since decided it is definitely a pro. Sometimes you can't find someone willing to swap exactly where you want. This, however, can be a blessing in disguise. The first time we swapped, we were looking for back to back swaps in Rome, Barcelona, and Paris. We ended up in Albano-Laziale, Cartaya, and Vetheuil. Albano was about a 45 minute train ride from Rome, and Vetheuil was an hour bus/train trip into Paris. Cartaya was on the southwest coast of Spain, near Portugal, nowhere near Barcelona. We did love Rome, but we found Albano equally delightful, and much quieter at night than Rome, where people party into the night, but we wanted to go to bed. Vetheuil was so charming! We stayed in a cottage actually featured in two of Monet's paintings with the Seine River the view from the back, and a cathedral dating back to 1220 in our front yard. Again, it was quiet, and we were tired of the bustle of Paris after a long day. Finally, we never made it to Barcelona, and we still hope to, but Cartaya (a town so small, people from Spain don't know where it is) was one of the most beautiful and relaxing places I've even been. It was absolute heaven on earth. I now have no qualms at staying in slightly out of the way places, and in fact, look forward to what little treasures we will find that most tourists never see.
How do you know it's safe/they won't trash your house? First of all before I give you assurances, let me just say that if you are really worried about your stuff, houseswapping is probably not the thing for you. Not that you possessions will likely come to any harm, but it's a laid back go with the flow kind of thing, and if you like control and predictability and value privacy over making cross cultural relationships, you're just going to be stressed out. Having said that, there's a couple reasons why this is not something to worry about.
One, we have two cats who still have their claws, so we resigned ourselves a while ago that we will never have nice things because of them. When your house is full of IKEA furniture, you don't tend to worry as much. Secondly, there's built in insurance because you could trash their house just as easily. There's incentive to treat their stuff well and vice versa. That said, we usually put sensitive and hard to replace documents (birth certificate, SS Card, teaching license, etc.) in a small box along with the one piece of nice jewelry I own, and give it to a trusted friend for safe keeping while we are gone). Not that I've ever suspected the people we would swap with would ever do anything with that, but it gives you piece of mind that those things are secure while you are gone. Finally, and probably the most important, in order to get all the logistics set for a swap, you have to do a lot of emailing. For example, I have been emailing our Australian swapping partners for almost a year now, usually at least once a week. By the time you actually swap, they no longer feel like strangers, but friends. We still exchange Christmas cards with the family from Spain we swapped with two years ago.
Accidents and small things do happen, though. For example, we broke a beach chair and a small lamp while in Spain. We found the same lamp and replaced it (again, benefit of shopping where the locals shop), but we never found the same beach chair, so we left them 20 euros to replace it. Likewise, they let all our houseplants die (I think watering got lost in translation somewhere). The houseswapping community of people are great, though, so if that happens, people try to make it right. Occassionally a houseswap can fall through, though. The one we had in Paris, the girl just sort of flaked out and stopped communicating with us. However, that was a rushed one while we were still learning how this worked. Also, we had a swap in New Zealand fall through because the retired gentlemen we were going to swap with was diagnosed with cancer. Is it fullproof? No, but it works most of the time, and you save enough money when it does work that you have money to pay for the few times it doesn't.
Where do you find people to swap with? Swapping is done entirely through websites. There might be other ways, but I'm not aware of them. There are many sites to choose from and some charge a fee and others don't. If you do a google search, a bunch will pop up like Homeexchange.com (the agency featured in The Holiday), homelink, homeforexchange, exchangeaway--the list goes on. Most of the ones that pop up are those that charge (as much as $200) to list your home and contact other members. Some people like this, because it means that those on the site are serious enough about this to front some money. If you're willing to shell out $120, homeexchange.com is undeniably the biggest with over 40,000 listings. We're cheap, though, so we try to avoid paying for anything we don't have to, so we've used either free or low cost sites.
One of the keys to finding a swap, though, is listing on the right site. One of the reasons you'll always get homeexchange.com and some of the bigger sites to pop up in searches is that they are US based sites. You might think that's great, and if you live in New York City where it seems like every person in the world wants to visit, then it is. However, if you live in a less touristy place like Kansas, you don't want all the competition from all the other US listings. You want to be the one that can be choosy. To do that, you have to register yourself on the less known websites that are harder to find based in the country you want to go. For example, the site homeforhome.com is based in Spain. They have an English version of their page, and they have a built in translator for the messages, but you still have to a bit more work, and I had to use google translate quite a bit. However, there are over 7,000 listings for Spain and only 589 listings for all of the United States. Those are great odds. Not only did we swap for a beach front luxury condo that was absolutely breathtaking, but still get several unsolicited offers a year from equally lovely Spanish properties. The good news is that in the US we are kind of coming late to the party. There's lots of interest and it's more common in other countries, and there are lots of robust sites based in other countries to choose from. Here are some of the best sights for some common places people want to go. I am listing the ones that are either free or cost less than a hundred dollars to join. Ones that cost more than that you can usually find on your own, as they pay for a good bit of advertising.
Homeforhome.com: As I mentioned, this is THE site for Spain, but they have a lot of listings for France and Italy, as well. It used to be free, but I think it's like 4.50 euros a month now. If you want to go to Spain, it might only take you a month to find someone and then you could quit.
Homebase Holidays: This one is based in the UK, so is heavy on listings in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, etc. It also has one of the best resource sections I've seen on learning more. This is the website that explained things for me. They recently teamed up with the newspaper The Guardian, and have expanded quite a bit because of that. Guardianhomeexchange is the same website/database, so don't get excited thinking you've found a new website, as it's the same listings, just looks slightly different. It's 30 pounds a year, so usually around $60.
Pack Your Bags, Ltd: The couple that owns this company actually owns at least three websites I've discovered, and you can list on just one of them and you're house will be seen on all of them. Likewise, when you do a search on one, it searches all of them, and you wouldn't even know it, but I read all the fine print. We originally joined up with Christian Home Swap, but their most popular is probably http://yourhomeformine.com/ as it is trying to not appear particular to one country or faith. Having said that, there are several Christians on this site, and a ton of Australians/New Zealanders, as that is where all the sites are based. All of theirs are free, and have the nicest people of any site I've dealt with. I've gotten multiple offers from people who are happy for you to just come and stay with them even if they can't swap. They have a decent smattering of European listings, too, but Auz/NZ is definitely their strength.
Aussie House Swap: This is the granddaddy of Australian/NZ listings, but is pricey to join, about $70. However, it can be worth it to get a NZ swap. It's a small country and they get a ton of requests, so kiwis tend to get to be the choosiest of all.
Switchome: This one is based in France, and again, the listings are way lopsided in the US's favor. They have an English version, but the translation is not always the best. Still, France and especially Paris, can be a hard place to get a swap, so it's worth the effort. Also, it's another free one. FYI, Paris is not all it's cracked up to be. It was nice, but we enjoyed the countryside of France much more, and the people are MUCH nicer.
Geenee: This is my new favorite site. I tried it about 3 years ago and wasn't impressed, but looked again when we were having trouble finding a NZ swap, and it has the best laid out site of all of the ones I've seen now. It's really good at keeping track of all of your communication. One of the down sides to swapping is that sometimes you have to email a lot of people to get a swap in the country you want, and it starts to get hard to keep track of everyone you've asked, but geenee makes this easy. It's still currently free to join because they are trying to build up the largest database in the world. Well, it's free if you want to handle everything yourself. If you want to use their exchange agreements, deposit structure, etc. then it costs. For those who don't like the loosy-goosy feeling of home exchange, this site can provide a lot of structure. We've done it enough now, I don't worry about a lot of the "extras" geenee provides, but for a first time swapper, I can understand how geenee's process can be reassuring. I think they are based in England, so of course are UK heavy, but they have pretty robust listings for all of Europe, even Greece, which is hard to find sometimes. They are good on Australia and NZ, too. Asia, Africa, and South America aren't too shabby, either, which makes this about the best "world" site I've discovered for English speakers aside from homeexchange.
Exchange Zones: This has a lot of Canadian listings, and a good amount of other English speaking countries (UK, Australia, NZ and other places with a lot of English speakers--Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, etc.). It's also free, and has the added benefit of listing rentals, homestays, B&Bs, and hostels if you can't find an exchange, but you still have your heart set on visiting and want other low cost options.
There are lots and lots of other sites, and if you want to go to a particular country not featured here, let me know in the comments section, and I'll let you know if I can help. Most people I know want to go to Europe or Australia/NZ, plus that's what we have experience with. I hope to one day get to parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. As we learn more about those areas, perhaps I'll make some additions to the list. One other site I'd like to mention is Book a Bach. I cannot stress enough how difficult it can be to get a NZ swap. I've tried multiple times over 3 years and have easily emailed over 200 people. When you already live in paradise, apparently there is little desire to leave. We finally decided we were going to have to just pay accommodation to visit there. Book a Bach is a great low cost way of staying in NZ. You rent a bach (we'd likely call them cottages, as they are small studio to 3 bedroom vacation houses) directly from the owners. There's thousands of listings. The only downside is the don't take credit cards, and most haven't gotten on the paypal wagon yet. It's mostly cash, check, or money transfer.
What kinds of exchanges are there? The most common is a simultaneous swap. This is where you are in their house while they are in yours. You can also do a non simultaneous swap. This works well if you own more than one home, but can work even if you don't. For example, you stay in their house while they are on a non-swapping vacation somewhere else and then they stay in your house while you're on a non-swapping vacation at another time. However, in the case where you both only own one home, often it is easier to do an exchange of hospitality. They come stay as your guest and then you're a guest in their home. This has it's advantages as then you also have someone there to help you navigate another country. We did this in Italy and are doing it in Australia and NZ as well at certain times.
What sorts of logistics/questions do I need to ask when organizing a swap? Again, I'm going to refer you to Homebased Holidays Resource page, found here: http://www.homebase-hols.com/index.cfm?aliasPath=resources/ They cover a lot of ground, but I'll mention a few things we've found helpful to cover. Also, Home Exchange has good sample agreements and letters here: http://www.homeexchange.com/gb_appendix.php
There's the basic questions you need to ask any time you travel to another country: passports/visas, insurance, vaccinations, etc., but it's different in every country and best covered by guidebooks (Lonely Planet is good at covering that sort of thing).
Specifically for houseswapping, you need to figure out who's going to pay for what. The simplest thing is to pay your own utilities, cable, internet, car and home insurance. You know how much things usually cost, and you know how to budget it. You can leave guidelines for what temperature to set the thermostat at if you're really worried about it. You just contact your insurance to let them know someone else will be driving your car and staying in your home (leaving them documents that attest this as well so they can prove it if need be) and you're done. Generally it's best to have them pay their own phone charges, or show them how to set up a prepaid cell phone while they are here (Virgin Mobile is a good choice and you can buy the phones at Target). A lot of countries have limits on internet usage, so they might ask you to stick to a preapproved limit of downloads. It's also simpler to leave your own electrical products (hairdryer is one that often comes up) and use theirs as you probably both have it, and then you don't have to worry about things being the right current/transformers.
You also need to work out caring for houseplants/yard/garden and any pets. Some people don't mind caring for all of the above, but it's easier if you can get a friend to look after all that or hire someone. Part of the reason is that most people want to see more of the US then just your city/state while they are in the country. Likewise, you'll want to do some traveling away from the house. In both cases, then you're like, "What do I do with their dog/tomato plants?" Sometimes they are fine with caring with those things the bulk of the time, but would like someone the can call if they do travel further afield.
Exchanging of keys is another sticky one. You can mail them a set of house/car keys before you leave, or leave them with a friend who wants to play host. We actually have a real estate like lock box and a key pad to our garage, so we just let them know the code to both, and everyone is set.
Getting to/from the airport: This is by far the most stressful part of the trip for us, and has lead to some of our biggest unplanned costs. You don't know where you are, you don't know the public transportation system, and you're dog tired by the time you arrive. The kindest thing to do is to just agree to arrange airport pickup via a friend on both sides. If that can't be arranged, try to leave the car in long term parking, so they can just drive it home (usually have to mail keys in this case). If neither of those work, ask the best way to get there, and have a back up, too. We've used buses, rental cars, taxis, trains, etc. but some are definitely easier than others and some are way more expensive. In France, our plane came in very late, so taking the train to where we were staying wasn't an option, so we had to pay a 200 euro cab fare we hadn't budgeted. Often a rental car for a day is the cheapest and easiest way to go if you have to travel an hour or more from the airport.
Food: if you're going to be gone several months, just agree that any food left in the fridge or pantry is fair game. If it's a month or two, you might agree that they can use something from the pantry if they replace it before they leave. Generally liquor is always off limits unless they state otherwise. It's considered good manners to leave at least enough food for them for a couple of days so they don't have to immediately find a grocery store.
What is a house manual, and what should be included? A house manual explains the ins and outs of your house and neighborhood. This is another invaluable tool that should not be overlooked. Instead of getting all this information over several emails that you then have to go back and find, you should have a copy of it in your house they can refer to. If they don't speak English, get it translated into their native language. In addition to including copies of your swapping agreements, it should also include instructions on how to use every appliance in your house. You may think it's intuitive, but then you try to use their washing machine or a French stick shift, and you realize it's not as intuitive as you think. This means, fridge, freezer, oven, microwave, TV, VCR, DVD, cable, internet (including any security keys for wireless), phone, toaster oven, coffee grinder--you get the picture. This is especially important if they have any quirks. For example, our washing machine makes a horrible screeching noise at the end of the spin cycle, but there's nothing wrong with it. A guest might panic that they've broken it, though. I can also remember an 20 minute struggle with a unfamiliar coffee grinder once when I really needed my caffeine fix. Also it's nice to include phone numbers and addresses for a someone they can all for general questions and a mechanic (something we had to use in Portugal), plumber, HVAC, doctor, dentist, eye doctor, hospital, urgent care, pharmacy, cable/internet/phone customer service (think how much you have to call Time Warner) and a baby-sitter. It's also good to include addresses for grocery stores, favorite restaurants, local attractions, coffee places, ice cream, post office, churches, etc. Write down every place you go for a week, and that will give you a good idea of the sorts of places they'll want to know about. This can be time consuming and get pretty thick, but once you've done it once, you just have to update it a bit every time you swap.
That's the basics, but if you have more questions, I'm happy to address them. Just send me a comment, and I'll try to answer it.