Daniel Higgins spent six weeks vacationing in Australia several years ago. He stayed in a four-bedroom house with an ocean view and had a car at his disposal. His cost: $50.
Higgins isn't a travel agent who found an incredible deal. He participated in a home exchange, swapping the keys to his house and car in Sedona, Ariz., with those of an Australian family. No money changed hands. The $50 was the price of his annual subscription to a home exchange network that posts thousands of houses available worldwide for swapping.
"You can really go any place in the world," says Higgins, who has since exchanged his three-bedroom house for places in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the United States.
For budget-conscious travelers, home exchanges are increasingly becoming a way to trim thousands of dollars off vacation bills at a time hotel prices are steep and rising. The average price of a hotel room is about $194 a night in London and $230 in Paris, according to Smith Travel Research. In the United States, it's $96.
Home exchanges began in the early 1950s in Europe, says Jessica Jaffe, the U.S. representative for the home-exchange network Intervac International.
Teachers in Sweden and the Netherlands with long summer vacations but not much money agreed to swap homes, and the idea expanded to other countries.
Today, many home exchanges operate on the Internet, which makes it easy to link thousands of homeowners and update listings. Online memberships generally cost $40 to $79 a year. Members post pictures and descriptions of their homes and community on a network's site. It's up to them to negotiate their own swaps.
More than money
For many, the cost savings is the initial attraction of an exchange. But network officials say it's not just about money. Experienced travelers prefer to live like locals and avoid tourist traps. Families with small children like the space, and the access to a kitchen, washer and dryer. Swappers are sometimes near retirement and want to see what it's like to live in an area before they move there, says Anne Pottinger, owner of ExchangeHomes.com.
House traders often develop long-term friendships with each other, sometimes even vacationing together, Pottinger says.
Some anticipate an even greater awareness and acceptance of home exchanges after the December release of The Holiday, in which characters played by Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet exchange homes in California and England.
"I think this movie will do for home exchanges what You've Got Mail did for Internet dating," says Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com.
Granted, some locales - London, New York, Hawaii - are more desirable than others. But even if your home is in Paris, Ill., not France, exchanges can happen.
An Indiana family, for instance, exchanged its farmhouse for a place in Tuscany, Jaffe says. And a Scranton, Pa., member swapped residences with a family from Kuala Lumpur. In both cases, the foreign visitors had relatives in small towns in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
"So anything is possible," Jaffe says.
Generally, people swap their primary residence. But increasingly, swappers are trading second homes so they don't necessarily have to take vacations at the same time. Some home exchangers also swap cars or take care of each other's pets.
Trust is necessary, but not to any greater degree than usual, home exchanges say. "You have to remember that they are in your house while you are in theirs," says Helen Bergstein, founder of Digsville Home Exchange Club.
House swapping tips
If you think house swapping might be for you, here are some tips:
When listing your house, point out activities or sights that might interest vacationers, Pottinger says.
Be flexible on dates and destinations because popular spots might not be available when you want them. Swaps are planned months or even a year or so in advance.
Higgins, for instance, spent six months e-mailing and calling Australia to arrange his first exchange. "We both kind of interviewed and interrogated each other. The more we knew, the more we became very comfortable," he says.
Newbies wary of swapping should choose an experienced home exchanger, Kushins advises. That way, newcomers can request references from previous home exchanges and become more comfortable with the process.
If you're exchanging cars, let your auto insurer know, Bergstein says. Also, make sure the person using your car has a valid driver's license and insurance, she says.
Sometimes visitors damage property, but exchange networks say members are good at replacing broken items.
Scott Haas and his wife once exchanged their Cambridge, Mass., home for a house and car in France. Someone slammed into the borrowed car while it was parked, Haas recalls. "We called the people. We were filled with shame and remorse," he says.
But the owners weren't upset. Haas paid the insurance deductible and offered to pay any premium increase as a result of the accident.
Sometimes visitors leave homes in better shape than they found them.
That happened to Haas after swapping houses with a family from Iceland. The husband didn't want to sightsee and spent his vacation cleaning up Haas' yard and doing odd jobs around the house, Haas says.
Home exchange officials say members rarely are booted from the network. Kushins has had to do it twice in 14 years. One of them was a couple in England.
"They were just slobs and didn't realize it," he says.