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Swap Your Home for a Villa in France?
If you want to travel the world, live in comfort and save money, home exchanges are the way to go
Shelley Lynch had been dreaming about a family vacation to Europe for a long time. But as each spring rolled around, the Stittsville, Ont., teacher and her husband, David, would tally up the steep costs, then reluctantly put away the travel brochures for another year. Shelley began to wonder if they could ever save up enough for such a vacation while their teenaged daughters were still at home.
One day, though, Shelley stumbled across a small newspaper item about a vacation concept that goes by what some veteran travelers call two magic words: "Home exchange."
The idea is elegantly simple, says Shelley. "You stay at our house while we stay at your house. We even use each other's cars. Total cost: Zero dollars." Now that sounded like something the Lynches could swing.
The key, of course, was finding the appropriately located European family who just happens to want to vacation in Stittsville, near Ottawa. And that turned out to be a surmountable problem, thanks to the recent profusion of online home-exchange services.
The idea of swapping houses for vacation purposes is believed to have begun in Europe in the early post-war years. Teachers and professors, in particular, began compiling contacts with colleagues in other countries. In those days a few letters were traded, references were supplied and then train tickets were booked. In what has become something of a home-exchange tradition, the two parties would often meet en route to trade house keys and to wish a personal bon voyage. After that, you lived like a local in your colleague's home, treating it as you would your own.
By the 1960s, the idea had spread to budget-minded travel addicts of all kinds. International clubs were formed, producing annual catalogues with photos, house descriptions, and the parameters of where and when might be suitable. By the 1990s, savvy operators that they are, home exchangers were among the first to grasp Internet technology. Now there are dozens of sites worldwide where the proverbial dream villa in Provence is only a few clicks away.
The Lynches' first foray, last summer, proved delightful. On one of several sites she had joined, Shelley found a match with a family from Aylsham, a town in eastern England. After a flurry of e-mails and phone calls extolling the virtues of their respective homes (and building a friendship, as it almost inevitably does), both parties took the plunge and went on to have outstanding vacations in the home of the other.
"It was absolutely beautiful over there," recalls Shelley. "Not touristy in the least, and it was perfect for trips to places like London and Cambridge. Our kids loved it, too."
Meanwhile, back in Stittsville, the English family was having a ball touring the Ottawa region, as well as getting the royal treatment from the Lynches' neighbours.
"For our first time, it couldn't have gone better," says Shelley. "They were actually veterans of 20 home exchanges, so they led us through all the steps, like making the basic contract and getting insurance-company approval to use each other's car."
As for finding the right match in the first place, Shelley notes that it requires some organization and tenacity. "I scanned a lot of listings and sent out a ton of e-mails to entice people with undeclared destination preferences, but I didn't always receive a ton of replies." Getting the family computer hooked up to Sympatico High Speed service also helped the process by enabling much faster searches, she says.
These days, scanning home-exchange sites is a regular habit, and the central feature of the Lynch family vacation plans. This summer, they're headed for that mythical place in the south of France, just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean. "It's the French family's first exchange, so now we're leading the way," says Shelley, who just got through reading A Year in Provence and can't wait for July.
Still, Shelley is not about to rest on her laurels. "I've already posted our listing for 2003. We're thinking New York City."
Here's a list of home-exchange sites and some of their features:
Global Home Exchange
Although most sites are international in scope, this Nanaimo, B.C.-based matchmaker is a great place to start for Canadians. Unlike most commercial operators, you can view the listings for free complete with e-mail contact information. You pay only to post your own advertisements, as little as $12 for two months. There's also a level of personalized attention from the owners that Shelley Lynch found appealing.
This is one of the big players, with more than 5,000 listings. It costs $30 (US) a year, but if you don't get an exchange in the first 12 months, your second year is gratis. It's free to browse the descriptions and photos. You can also get a better idea of the permutations of possible exchanges: It's searchable for unusual categories such as yachts, RVs and cottages.
Seniors Home Exchange
Pet-owners and plant-lovers tend to seek out one another in home-exchange circles, so that they may tend to one another's precious ones while on vacation. Similarly, seniors may feel better knowing that one of their own is looking after the home front. A bargain at $60 (US) for three years.
Latitudes Home Exchange
This site pioneered the custom-matching process, in which, rather than browsing a limitless list of would-be exchangers, you're paired with possible partners based on specific criteria. You don't pay unless you get a match and agree upon the exchange, but the $250 (US) fee seems high.
This Stockholm-based, but highly international, service is designed for disabled people and their families. Since vehicle swapping is the norm in home exchanges, it is especially helpful that both parties may have vans with disabled-adaptive controls.
Intervac Home Exchange
Founded by teachers in the 1950s, this European-based service operates on the Internet as well as with a thrice-yearly print catalogue--all the better to service parts of the world that still haven't got the Internet. There are organizers, many with mirror sites like this one, located in 30 countries.
Rotary International Home Exchange Fellowship
This well-known service club is famous for sending youth on exchanges to foreign countries, but it has also has been helping to arrange home exchanges between Rotarians for 25 years.
The Seattle-based service has recently been advertising free annual membership. In addition to home swaps, it also has an online service for people who wish to find travel companions.
Holi-swaps is a U.K.-based service that encourages you to include your hobbies and interests, because people often swap with those they have something in common with. You can use the search engine to find keyword matches, such as golf or ski.
At $49.95 (US) for two years, it's one of the most reasonably priced services. It has state-of-the-art digital mail tools that let you easily post and keep track of your contact queries. Its Lounge is a 24-hour chat room where you can discuss home-exchange issues. The site rates exchangers for honesty and quality, much like they do at auction services such as eBay. The searchable listings are also divided into many subcategories, including "hospitality exchange," in which friendly types invite people to stay with them for an agreed-upon period, and then reciprocate.
The site claims 11,000 members worldwide, with most major countries having their own regional Web sites. A $145 membership that gets you into both the Web site and the print catalogue, issued five times yearly. For Web only, it's $100. For a small additional fee, you can also purchase exchange-cancellation insurance to cover commercial accommodation in case your prospective partner backs out at the last minute.
Kevin Brooker is the Sympatico NetLife Prairies and Canada North editor. If he had a home he would exchange it