Tricks of the Trades
By Emily Hedrick
Writer Emily Hedrick is a seasoned house swapper. Read about her experiences in the May/June issue — then find out how to plan your own adventure below....
Oh wad some power the giftie gi’e us
To see oursel’s as others see us!
From “To a Louse,” Robert Burns (1759-1796)
House exchanging is not for everybody. If you like your travel accommodations predictable and your environment controlled, book yourself into a nice American-style hotel or better still, join a packaged tour group where all arrangements are made for you.
Other travelers, however, enjoy the experience of setting up house while on vacation. There are many advantages, not the least of which is you have more space — an entire house or apartment — and have to unpack only once. Moreover, it’s a terrific approach to save money, get to know one area very well, and immerse yourself in a different culture.
If security is an issue, you also have the peace of mind that your own home is occupied while you’re away.
Most house swaps also include the use of a car, enabling you to go on day trips from your home base on your own schedule. At the end of the day’s excursion it’s a luxury to drive “home,” put on the tea kettle, curl up in front of the telly, and plan the next day’s adventures — or decide to sleep in.
Any two parties may mutually agree to exchange their properties for a specific period of time. Most people choose to subscribe to a third-party service to begin the search. Screening your prospective exchangers and negotiating details is then up to you.
HomeLink International USA was founded in 1953 (www.homelink.org/usa or www.swapnow.com). Subscriptions are $115 per year. New members are guaranteed to find an exchange during the first year or their second year is free.
Another large, reputable service is Home Exchange (www.homeexchange.com). Dues are $9.95 per month.
You may view all properties on both sites online, but only dues-paying members may access contact information.
Before joining one of the online subscription services, ask yourself this basic question: How do I really feel about strangers staying in my house while I’m away? If you’re squeamish about having strangers sleeping in your bed, cooking in your kitchen, and making themselves at home with your stuff, then house exchanging is not for you. On the other hand, if you’re a flexible traveler who enjoys the journey as much as the destination, then you may be a good candidate for house swapping.
When creating your membership entry online, by all means, post pictures of your house, interior and exterior, and be as complete as possible in your description of what you’re offering. This first impression is important in selling yourself to prospective exchangers.
The search process: Decide first where you want to visit, when you want to go, and how long you want to stay. Then start matching yourself with other members based on their own destination preferences, the party size, the size of your respective homes, and other factors you each require. Retirees tend to be more flexible in the length of their vacations and when they can travel. Families with children are obviously more tied to school holidays. Europeans generally take longer holidays — on average, three to four weeks — than Americans. It would be rare to find a European couple willing to fly all the way across the Atlantic for a single week’s holiday, so be prepared to adapt accordingly.
Set limits. For example, you may want to specify no kids under age 5. But if your family has toddlers, try to find a family of a similar makeup. Reciprocal pet care can also be arranged.
Be assertive. Don’t wait passively for prospective exchange partners to contact you. Seek them out. Compose a brief invitation letter that proposes a range of dates for a swap. In my invitation I always include the website for both the Charlotte and North Carolina tourist information bureaus (www.visitnc.com). Be upbeat and personable! Fortunately, the HomeLink site makes it easy to send this letter to multiple members with whom you would like to initiate an exchange. The more invitations you send, the greater the chances you’ll find a swap.
Ask for references if you’re uncertain about your prospective exchangers. Often after a few emails and phone calls, a gut-check is sufficient.
If possible, make travel arrangements so you can meet your exchangers at one end of the journey or the other. It’s not necessary — you can leave a neighbor or family member to serve as a “concierge” to get both parties settled in — but it’s much nicer if everyone meets.
Plan early. Most exchangers begin at least six months in advance. Retired exchangers are often an exception because they have greater flexibility than families with school-aged children.
Accept the premise that you’re probably not going to find American-standard accommodations abroad. That’s part of the rich tapestry of travel. By the same token, foreigners will likely find your appliances quirky, too!
After you’ve agreed to a swap, now what? If the swap of automobiles is involved, make sure that liability insurance is in place for both vehicles. Notify your own insurance broker you are authorizing someone to drive your car for a specified period of time. Often in Europe, a special rider must be purchased for a visiting driver. Will your exchange partner absorb this cost, or will it be your responsibility? Get the answer before you leave so there are no surprises later.
Identify someone you trust to be your “concierge” while you’re away — to step in if there are problems at your home in your absence. This person should also have a spare key and a general knowledge of your house and its quirks.
Assemble a detailed notebook with information about everything you would like to know if you were the stranger coming to your home and neighborhood for the first time. Anticipate every question you can imagine! Include instructions for appliances and the TV remote, when recycles are collected, how often to water the plants, how to jiggle that toilet handle — be comprehensive. Assume nothing and anticipate everything! I have never visited a household whose owners left me too much information.
Gather as many maps and tourist brochures as possible. Even if your guests have done their homework about your area, they will appreciate having these resources, especially about day trips.
On a map of your city or neighborhood, highlight the quickest route to your grocery store and other routine destinations, as well as how to get from your house to the main artery out of town.
List names and phone numbers of your concierge and other friends, as well as other resources, such as a handyman, plumber, dentist, etc.
Encourage your friends to seek out your guests. Meeting local people is invariably a highlight of any memorable trip. European visitors might be reticent to seek out the company of strangers, but are uniformly delighted when we seek them out.
Make some space in your closet and chest of drawers so your visitors can unpack their things. De-clutter surfaces, especially on your desk and in your bedrooms and bathrooms.
THE GOLDEN RULE
In my experience, exchangers almost always abide by this standard: We leave our homes clean, and expect them to be in the same condition when we return. We respect one another’s stuff and treat it as our own. The sole exception involved the daughter of one of my exchangers, whom I suspect simply ignored her parents’ instructions to clean the house before my arrival. In contrast to that unfortunate encounter, there have been dozens of examples of kindness and generosity shown to me by my exchangers over the years. I have made some lifelong friends as a result
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