Home exchange allows me to pay less than £3 a night for holiday accommodation. Here’s how to start

What if I promised to reduce the cost of accommodation for your next vacation at nearly £0. No, I don’t want to sell you a tent. The accommodation will have better facilities and more room than your last hotel, and you can stay as long as you want (within reason). No, I don’t want to tell you about an exciting timeshare opportunity either.

Welcome to Vacation Home Exchange. What’s the catch? I promise there isn’t. Truly. I know because this year I took the leap and stayed in an Irish seaside apartment, a Norwegian townhouse and an Australian mansion, while guests stayed at my house. The total bill? £150, or around £2.50 per night.

Considering that accommodation typically accounts for 60-70% of the total cost of vacationing abroad, home swapping is the biggest travel savings – and I seek those savings to make a living. This £150 was not even for exchanges – these are free – but for membership in a home exchange booking platform. But while successful economies initially attract swappers like me, that’s only part of the joy. The properties you stay in are also better.

Unless you can afford the best, hotels are usually a disappointment. The places I can afford have all the gloomy warmth of a Soviet-era hospital ward. The only thing colder than the welcome is the hot water and the expired eggs at the buffet.

In the 2006 movie Holidays Kate Winslet’s character trades her quaint cottage for a luxury Tuscan-style mansion in Los Angeles (Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures)

Compare that with my stay at Perth, Australia. The place is a mansion. Each bedroom is ensuite, there are two living rooms and a listening studio filled with box-sized speakers. The island kitchen is so chic that I expect Gino D’Acampo to appear. On arrival Anna, the owner’s daughter, greets us with a bottle of wine, a teddy bear for my three year old son and a fridge of Aussie food.

Or take Stavanger; our Norwegian townhouse is so Scandinavian, with its designer chairs and dim lighting, that I’m momentarily tempted to drop everything to become a melancholy police detective with a knack for solving complex murder cases. I do not know; instead, I burn the meatballs the owners made for tea.

Safer low budget travel

Not all properties are flash. In Enniscrone, a popular Irish seaside resort in Sligo, we stay in a two bed flat which could do with some love and a lick of paint, but there is always a washing machine, a dining table eat and everything else to spend a week. stay calm. There is also a full fridge and a shed of buckets and shovels.

This warm welcome is what all swaps have in common. Through the messages you exchange before and during the exchange, you become, however briefly, a part of each other’s lives. We swapped pets, cars, and watered plants along the way. For a week, we were passionately involved in helping our Basque guests choose a summer school for their children.

Even in adversity, we found camaraderie; and problems arise. When our shower leaked, I had to arrange a repair with the Spanish guests and the Albanian plumber via video call, while trying to take advantage of a day in the Polish countryside to introduce my son to his grandparents. It’s a lot of tongues when the water cascades over your dining table. But we laughed and both parties left each other five-star reviews.

This is what makes the home exchange special. I couldn’t afford Australia without swapping houses. It made an impossible vacation possible.

But most significant was the personal connection we made with the people of the destination and the happiness brought by welcoming guests into our home. We are still in contact with these pensioners in Perth; exchanging stories and photos of our dog they cared for. The exchange gave us the kind of lifelong connection that is so hard to find in travel these days.

Stavanger in Norway was another easy home swap for Rory's family (Photo: Brundle Photography/Getty Images)
Stavanger in Norway was another easy home swap for Rory’s family (Photo: Brundle Photography/Getty)

Home exchange: how to start

How do I do a home exchange? You will need to pay an annual fee (between £100 and £200) to join a home exchange website. I use Home Exchange because it verifies member identities and provides some assurance. It is also a B-Corp, a referenced organization in terms of societal and environmental impact.

How it works? Classic swaps are simultaneous. You swap houses. But there are also point redemptions, where you earn credits for accommodation. For example, we recently had guests from Montreal, but we didn’t want to vacation in Canada. Instead they “paid” in points which we “spent” to stay in Norway at the same time. Each property is assigned a point value per night, which is based on your location, facilities and number of bedrooms. There is no money involved, so scams are rare, but still full exchanges through the platform.

Each of the tens of thousands of homes listed has availability calendars and destination owners are interested. The functionality of the website is similar to Airbnb, VRBO, and other rental websites you will be used to. But it’s not instantaneous; it takes time to find the right trade, especially simultaneous trades. We usually send more than 20 messages before accepting one.

Do I need a luxury house? No. Most houses, like our own three-bed terrace, are ordinary. You need to be realistic about who you can swap with, although we’ve said we frequently swap with nicer properties than ours as demand for UK city and country breaks is high .

Can I exchange my house if I am a tenant? There are tenants who swap homes, but you need permission from pleasant landlords – rare in Britain.

Captures? You must keep your house in good condition. Scrub that oven and fix that leaky faucet.
There’s also preparation, like making beds and clearing space in a closet. You may want to leave valuables with friends. We usually spend an entire day before an exchange sorting out our house, although the upside is that it’s never been cleaner or more organized. You should also spend the last day of your vacation cleaning the property you stayed at.

Like most swappers, we leave out milk, bread, butter and other basics and let customers use whatever food is in the cupboard. It is also common for hosts and guests to exchange gifts. Our guests were introduced to the wonder of Cadbury, British bitters and shortbread. In return, we received Iberian ham from Seville, chocolate from Barcelona and many other delicacies.

What about insurance? You must inform your insurer of the buildings and contents of the swaps, otherwise you risk invalidating your policy. Your insurer may temporarily limit coverage, particularly for accidental damage. Some home exchange platforms offer cover for this, alternatively use specialist insurers like Guardhog or HomeProtect.

Rory Boland is editor of Which? Trip

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