An Interview: One woman’s experience exchanging houses for vacation
A couple summers ago I joined my sister for vacation in Barcelona, Spain on a home exchange vacation. It was the fourth time she had done such a vacation, but the first time I’d been with her.
Accommodations can be one of the more costly travel expenses. A home exchange is one way to eliminate that expense. You stay in a home at your vacation destination while the family it belongs to stays in your home and vacations in your area. Being able to do this hinges on finding a family in one of your desired destinations who wishes to vacation in your hometown at a mutually agreeable time. There are companies who facilitate finding each other. There is an annual membership fee, but no other accommodation cost.
I interviewed my sister about her experience.
Q: How did you get started doing house exchange vacations?
A: I worked with someone who had done exchanges in France and Switzerland. I thought it sounded like a neat idea.
Q: How did you select a company?
A: I used the company my friend used – Intervac. Intervac appears to be big in Europe. If you want to go other places, you may need to research other companies.
Q: What was your first exchange like?
A: My first exchange was in London, England in 2002. It was the only affordable way to go to England with three children. I signed up and waited for someone to contact me. He emailed me and we had some phone calls. A friend in London drove by the place and said it didn’t look too bad.
The people we exchanged with also had three children. My children stayed in their bedrooms. My daughter read the books in their daughter’s bedroom. The owner of the room my older son stayed in was a music lover like my son. My younger son had a room full of stuffed animals. The kids played soccer in the back yard.
My stepson, who was in his early twenties at the time, was travelling through Europe and planned to meet us in England. On our first day there, while the kids staked out their bedrooms and my husband was in the garage filling bicycle tires with air, my stepson walked up the driveway and casually said, “Hello Dad”.
Q: Tell me about your other exchanges.
A: The second exchange was a couple of years later. I wanted to go to France. I posted a request. I wanted to go to Paris, but that didn’t work out. With three children, we needed a house. I found an exchange in a village outside Strasbourg, near the German border. That family also had three children. They picked us up when we landed in Frankfurt. That evening, we had a big dinner with the neighbours. The next day they headed to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to stay in our house. This was their first exchange and they were a little apprehensive.
We exchanged vehicles as well as houses. From that base, we drove to Paris and to Italy, where we visited friends. The family we exchanged with drove to Tofino and Seattle.
The third time was in 2012. My twenty-five-year-old daughter and I went to Stockholm. And now Barcelona in 2013.
Q: What do you do to check out potential exchanges?
A: I do a Google search to see if anything comes up on the owners. The Barcelona couple I exchanged with provided references from people they’d exchanged with in the past. This is becoming more common. Ultimately, it is a huge leap of faith. It is a big thing to trust someone to look after your house.
You can meet and talk to people now through Skype and Facetime, a huge difference from when I first exchanged.
Q: What have been the biggest issues you encountered?
A: You have to learn how to run appliances in Europe. Sometimes stuff is old and it’s certainly different. Sometimes things break. In England it was hard to turn on the gas stove and the pilot light went out. The owner’s brother came over and fixed it. One of the toilets broke. Fortunately, the house had three toilets.
Language barriers can be tricky when you run into problems. I always feel a bit of anxiety taking care of another person’s house. There is also a lot of work in preparing your house.
(Note: We also had a toilet issue in Barcelona when the tank on one of the two toilets cracked. We could not find the shut-off valve to stop the streaming water. A friend of the owner came over to help. He was a high-energy man who flew around the apartment, eager to help, but he had limited plumbing skills. He did find the shut-off valve, but in the process damaged another valve which left us without hot water. On the other hand, he was an interesting fellow with great restaurant and bar recommendations. Thank goodness Barcelona in August is hot and cold showers are sometimes welcome.)
Q: How do you prepare your home?
A: I clean, put stuff away, make space in drawers and closets, leave brochures and maps of the area, information on where to shop for groceries, how to run things (washing machine, dishwasher, stove), what to do in case of emergency, how to watch a movie on TV. I’ve left my library card.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise and most pleasant experience?
A: Meeting the people. I’ve met everyone I’ve exchanged with. The neighbours in France took us places. In Sweden, we spent a day with the parents of the couple I exchanged with.
On my first exchange, I cleaned my house, emptied my fridge and left the place like a hotel. When I got to the house in London, things were not as emptied as I had left my house. There was stuff in the fridge. And a big bouquet of flowers welcoming us to their house. I realized the experience is more than replacing a hotel. It is about sharing life.
Q: What advice do you have for others thinking about doing a house exchange?
A: In order to have a successful home exchange, you need to be prepared to deal with differences and be comfortable with someone staying in your home. Don’t expect all the same things in your exchange house that you have at yours. Customs are different.
Get your house ready. Clean. Leave closet and drawer space. Create an operating guide to your house. Have an emergency contact in place should issues arise. Leave passwords for wireless.
I have never had anything broken or damaged in my house. In the last exchange, the couple left the place cleaner than I had. But if you have something that really matters to you, pack it away to avoid any risk of damage.
House exchanges make sense if you plan on staying in one place. There is no point if you are travelling around.
Q: In summary, what would you say are the pluses and minuses of a home exchange vacation?
A: There is a lot of work in a house exchange – work to arrange, prepare your house, determine how to exchange keys. You have to market your place so people will want to come without misrepresenting it. It’s a bit like Internet dating. I sent 15 emails to people in Stockholm and Copenhagen before finding someone interested.
On the plus side, you see more of the non-tourist side of a place – grocery stores, day-to-day life. Meeting the people has been a highlight.
Brenda Janke, an almost-retired civil servant, lives on Canada’s Vancouver Island. From that scenic base, she loves to explore the world. Her recent trips have seen her walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and discovering the delights of Vietnam and Cambodia. Next on her itinerary is a week in Paris. The wine, the cheese, the art and, of course, the scarves – make it one of her favourite cities in the world.