The reality show approach to free accommodations

Trading spaces isn't just a show on basic cable anymore. It's a way to live life like a local in Europe absolutely for free—so long as you let the local borrow your life (and home) in return. It's called home swapping—and with the 2006 movie "The Holiday," it's gone Hollywood.

You want to see London; a Londoner wants to stay in your hometown...why not just trade homes for a week or two? That's the simple idea behind home swapping. You get to stay for free in a genuine home or apartment abroad, and all you have to do to get it is be willing to let someone else shack up in your house while you're gone. It's just like Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz in "The Holiday" (note: there's no guanrantee you'll find Jude Law just waiting to kiss you when you get there).

Sleeping for Free
Overnight trains
Sleeping in Airports
Crewing a Boat
Home Swapping
Hospitality Exchanges

The only catches are:

  1. First, you have to find someone in the place you want to visit who wants to stay in your neck of the woods. That means folks who live in New York, Florida, and California have a serious advantage in finding swappers, as these are our most popular destinations for visiting Europeans. (On the other hand, I've heard of folks swapping their Winnebago in Oregon for a villa in Tuscany, just because the Italian wanted to have the RV experience in America.)
  2. You have to agree to take this vacation at the same time.
  3. You're opening your home to a stranger, and you won't even be around to keep an eye on the family silver.

Folks who take advantage of this vacation method regularly just get used to browsing for places that interest them—not setting their hearts on just one spot, then hoping to find a fellow swapper in it inclined to trade—and being flexible with their vacation time.

As for the trust issue, well, the other swappers are letting you use their home, so you just have to have faith in human nature—and the fact that most home swapping is done through an agency, so any bad eggs are going to be rooted out pretty darn quickly.

Besides, this is actually an added bonus: you essentially get a free house-sitter who will water the plants, take in the mail, and feed the cat while you are gone.

How to swap your house

Home swapping resources are listed below—both the major agencies as well as a few places where you can shop around for one-to-one swaps. However, there's a big Buyer-Beware caveat to using the direct-swap method. You may avoid the agency fees, but you also forgo the built-in safety net that all the other swappers have been vetted by that agency and can be considered trustworthy.

Also note that you don't have to travel abroad for this to work. Looking to escape the Windy City for the beaches of Florida? You may be able to find some family in Ft. Lauderdale that's keen to hit the Art Insititute and climb the Sears Tower. You never know

Home Exchange (800-877-8723, - The outfit the characters in "The Holiday" used is one of the biggest, with more than 28,000 listings worldwide (1,703 in France/659 in Paris, 497 in England/173 in London, 467 in Italy/46 in Florence)—though I have noticed that includes some regular rentals, not swaps. Membership: $59.95 ($99.95 for 2 years); unlimited photos.

Home for Exchange ( - Dutch outfit with more than 12,500 listing worldwide (2624 in France, 728 in England, 370 in Italy, 628 in Spain, 693 in the Netherlands, 39 in Turkey). Membership: €59 per year (currently with a free six-month extention and discounts for multi-year memberships). Unlimited photos and video.

Homelink (800-638-3841, 13,500 listings worldwide (1508 in France/523 in Paris, 923 in England/302 in London, 545 in Italy/56 in Florence). Membership: $80; an extra $50 for a printed directory.

Intervac (800-756-4663, - 10,000+ members worldwide, with a focus on Europe (between 1,000 and 2,500 each in France and Britain, 400 to 999 in Italy). Membership: $78.88 for Web only (your listing appears both online and in the print catalog—one photo only in each—but you only get access to the Web site no free catalog; ), $126 for book & web (same as above, plus you get a copy of the print catalog).

The Invented City (415-846-7588, - Web-only; 1,707 listings, of which 1,008 are in Europe (137 in France/45 in Paris, 449 in England/167 in London, 45 in Italy/3 in Florence). Membership: $50 ($25/year thereafter).

Exchange Homes / Vacation Homes Unlimited (800-848-7927, - Rather small (138 in France/39 in Paris, 222 in England/48 in London, 23 in Italy/2 in Florence). Membership: $39 (includes 6 photos).

International Home Exchange Network (386-238-3633, - Small agency—about 3,000 listings (27 in France/16 in Paris, 31 in England/8 in London, 37 in Italy/5 in Florence)—but with a big bonus. Even non-members can send an email to any property, so you can just contact a member privately and set something up. The membership fee is required only to list your own home: $39.95. ( House exchange proposals are often listed in the classifieds section of newspapers (though this usually applies only to big cities). Or, you can always use the post-modern version, the virtual classifieds of Craig's List, which also lists home swaps in its "housing" section. Recently, there were people desperate to stay in Chicago and willing to swap: a studio in L.A., an apartment in Denver, and a flat in London—with use of their car.

Also be sure to check out the Craigslist not only for your hometown, but also for the places you'd like to visit, because lots of folks post exchange offers for, say, their Paris apartment on the Paris Craigslist.


This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time. | | |
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