How to cut the cost of your next vacation in half

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

This past summer I was able to travel a lot more for less money. In fact, my family and I spent several weeks abroad in Paris without paying a single euro for our accommodations. How?

Through member-only home-exchange sites we were able to find a French family who wanted to swap apartments with us during their visit to New York. Because there’s no money exchanged, we were able to stay in their three-bedroom apartment for free, saving thousands on what we could have spent on a tiny hotel room.

For less than the price of a one-night hotel stay, a $100 to $200 membership to a home-sharing platform like HomeExchange, HomeLink or Intervac could save you over 50% on travel expenses and accommodations. HomeExchange.com boasts 1 million property swaps since it was founded in 1992, with over 65,000 members in 150 countries. Another sharing platform, HomeLink.org was founded in 1953, long before the world wide web, when David Ostroff, a teacher looking for economical ways to travel, established a “Vacation Exchange Club” by mail. That same year, across the Atlantic, Intervac was established by a group of teachers in Europe, and currently has over 30,000 members who offer reduced rentals in addition to home swaps.

While handing over my keys to a stranger is completely outside of my comfort zone, I was intrigued by the experiences of a friend who had traded her home several times to travel the world. Skeptical, I prodded her for any negative accounts, but she didn’t have a single one to share. Instead, she was proud to have been part of a respectful community of swappers and said it restored her faith in humanity. So when I found out these exchange sites offered generous free trial memberships (some up to 4 weeks), I decided to give it a try. At the very least, it would be fun checking out different people’s homes around the world.

Here’s how it worked: Six months before the trip, I frantically cleaned my apartment and posted a profile with photos of our home on a few different sites where we reached out to families whose homes we wanted to stay in. We were pleasantly surprised to receive daily emails from swappers all over the world who were interested in our home. Despite being distracted by a few tempting offers from Spain and Italy, we decided to hold out on our dream to stay in Paris.

It took some time and work to find the perfect fit because many homes offered to us weren’t child-friendly or in the location we wanted. On the flip side, we were also turned down by potential swappers who felt our home wasn’t right for them, or had already booked their exchange a year in advance.

After about 3 weeks, a family with a child-friendly home in the heart of Paris came through. They were equally excited about our home as we were theirs, and available to swap during the month we wanted to travel.

After video-chatting with them, and giving each other virtual tours of our homes, we felt comfortable enough to send each other the site’s exchange contract where we laid out certain ground rules like non-smoking, plant care, and housekeeping. Once the contract was signed, we planned to meet in-person to swap keys, and booked our flights accordingly.

Leading up to the exchange, we did quite a bit of purging and cleaning to prepare our home for our new guests. For personal items like underwear and sensitive files, we learned that some families lock up entire rooms that are off-limits, but we were able to stuff our personal items into one closet and installed a lock on that door. To make sure they knew how to use our appliances like our TV or washer, we took some videos and uploaded them to view.

Excited to welcome our new friends to NYC, we left them a bottle of wine along with a map, our unlimited metrocards, and a personal guide for some of our favorite places to eat and hang out.

For those of you who are interested but hesitant to do a full swap, there are other options like hosting, where you can host a family first and visit their country at a later date to be their guests.

When we arrived in Paris, our new friends welcomed us into their beautiful home with homemade pastries. Their apartment was sunny, clean,  cozy, and filled with toys — much to the delight of our children. After an hour or so of getting acquainted, they took our keys and flew off to NYC. There was absolutely no money exchanged — just our keys.

All of this took some coordination, but my friend was right: not only did it restore my faith in humanity, but it also gave my family the rare opportunity to experience Paris leisurely like locals. We didn’t have to rush our kids around to all the tourist attractions. Instead we took our time enjoying long strolls in different neighborhoods, discovering new playgrounds and restaurants, and spending hours with our neighbors over meals together.

When it was time to return home, we cleaned up their place, replenished whatever we used up, and flew back to NYC where we’d swap our keys and return to reality. Thankfully, they were respectful of all our belongings, kept it spick and span, and before they flew back to Paris, we had about an hour to exchange stories of our adventures.

Of course it would’ve been easier to book a hotel, but after an experience like this, we’ve decided to swap as often as we can. In fact, we’re already planning our next trip!

Jeanie is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Reach out by email jeaniea@yahoo-inc.com; follow her on Twitter @jeanie531.

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