The three main costs of a vacation — transportation, lodging and food — can be so high that affording a getaway can be difficult. Eliminating one of those costs with a home swap, however, can make it affordable — especially during the high season of summer vacation when more people take time off.
There are free ways to fly (credit card rewards points for free flights) and you can find cheap food anywhere. But you still have to come up with some cash to eat and to earn the rewards points.
Lodging can be trickier. There are cheap options such as renting a room in someone’s house or staying for free at a relative’s or friend’s home. But wouldn’t it be better to have a home to yourself for a relaxing vacation?
A month in Europe
This summer my family is going to Europe for free for almost an entire month. We’re visiting Paris and Brussels for a week and staying in hotels — at a discount with a travel package through an airline — and then staying in a home in the Netherlands for almost three weeks for free by exchanging our home in the Bay Area with a Dutch family.
We made the swap through HomeExchange.com, a service that has more than 65,000 homes in 150 countries. You just search for homes in areas you want to visit, then email the homeowners to see if they want to do a swap.
At about $200 a night for a hotel room, I’m estimating we’re saving about $4,000 by exchanging homes.
Stay longer for less with a home swap
The longer you stay, the more money you save with a home exchange. It sounds odd, but the reasons are simple.
The price of an airline ticket doesn’t change if your trip is two weeks or four weeks, so that price is static.
But the price of food and lodging during a summer vacation obviously increases with a longer stay. Eliminate the cost of a hotel by exchanging homes and that savings can more than pay for your meals.
So why not extend a summer vacation for a month if the price of a flight is the same no matter how long you’re away and you can get free lodging? The main cost that increases with a longer stay is food, and that can drop by cooking in the exchange home’s kitchen or dining out can be paid for with the savings from the home swap.
As a friend told my wife years ago about his home exchanges as a teacher, it’s like having an extra $100 or so in your pocket every day because you’re not paying for a hotel. In our case, I’m upping that to $200 per day in savings.
Home exchange fears
There are some common home exchange fears that we considered before doing this.
- What if my stuff is stolen or broken? (You have homeowners insurance.)
- Do I want a stranger poking around my house? (You can lock up items or move them to a relative’s house when you’re away.)
- No one wants to visit my city. (You’d be surprised.)
Like renting your home through Airbnb, the fears are basically overcome by trust, along with the fact that you’re also staying in their home.
To overcome these, we started with a few emails with the exchange family and then talked on Skype. Also, they were going to leave for the U.S. on the day we arrive at their home, but are allowing us to arrive a day early so we can meet them in person and learn all of the ins and outs about their home and town before they get on a plane.
We’re also working on a contract that sets ground rules, including:
- Departure and arrival dates.
- Limiting lodgers to family members only.
- Setting up how the house keys will be exchanged.
- If access to any area of the homes are restricted.
- Supplies that will be provided/replaced, such as linens and paper products.
- Emergency contact information.
- A tight cancellation policy.
- Determining who will pay for any damage.
Finding a good home swap
I had been considering a home swap for years, but one thing that held me back was the thought that no one would want to stay at our home in a suburb in the Bay Area. It’s a nice home, but the city we live in isn’t exactly a tourist destination.
San Francisco, however, is only second to Paris among cities people want to visit, according to the home exchange site we’re using. We live a few miles from a BART station, the subway service that gets around most of the Bay Area, so a trip to San Francisco is only 45 minutes away. That was our main selling point.
In October 2016 we finally decided to get serious about a home exchange. I had signed up years ago for emails from HomeExchange.com, and one arrived in my mailbox on a Sunday morning with a $75 sale for a one-year membership.
We signed up, started looking for homes for a summer vacation in Europe, and emailed homeowners. It didn’t go so easy for the first few months.
I was looking for homes in or very near the center of major metropolitan areas — Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Bern, London, etc. Since our home is 45 minutes outside of San Francisco, it was an unrealistic expectation to get an exchange in the center of a major city in Europe — unless we wanted a small apartment.
When I changed my thinking and started looking at nearby cities, then our home swapping luck changed. After about another month of looking, we found a wonderful family in the Netherlands who wanted to visit San Francisco. The site makes it easy to search for homes where the owners want to visit specific cities — such as a home near Amsterdam whose owners want to visit San Francisco.
They’re home is 35 minutes by train from Amsterdam, which is just about equal to a trip from our house to S.F.
What to do with an extra $4,000?
It’s not like the money saved from the home exchange will go directly into our pocket, though it may feel that way when we get there.
What it has done is make a four-week summer vacation to Europe affordable. The money that we would have spent on hotels or renting a vacation home will instead be spent on plane tickets, food, and even a few nights in hotels in Paris, Brussels and Bruges, along with extra expenses that will probably pop up.
The home exchange has also caused us to regularly contribute to our vacation fund, something we don’t always do, so that most of the trip is paid for before we pack our bags. Back in October when we started looking for home exchanges, we found that some people had already nailed down their summer vacation and had home exchanges set up.
Planning for a summer seven months ahead of time was a good encouragement to save earlier and pay for some things ahead of time. Our major rail trips between cities are already paid for, as is a waffle making class in Brussels, a trip up the Eiffel Tower, Anne Frank house tickets, and other things.
Living like a local for free in someone’s house in a small town in the Netherlands, however, I think will be the highlight of the trip.