Travel is one of the things I talk about the most, both on and offline, but it is not always where we go that sits at the centre of these conversations. Rather, it is how we go, because instead of using ‘traditional’ forms of accommodation, we home swap.
The idea of an international home swap with kids elicits curiosity in many and a bit of apprehension and I can understand why. For many years I also was cautious about exchanging homes for holidays with a family we knew nothing about.
While I liked the concept, I didn’t know anyone who actually did it and I was full of questions:
How common is a family home swap: do people actually do it?
What kind of people do home swaps, do I need a special type of house? Can I do an apartment exchange? And finally: is home exchange safe for a family with young kids?
Can I do an apartment exchange? And finally: is home exchange holiday safe for a family with young kids?
Tired of all these doubts and insecurities, I decided to give the system a shot and soon found the answers I was looking for: home exchange is now my favourite kind of travel and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in trying.
Building on our personal experience, I have now put together a guide to international home exchange with kids that I hope will answer most if not all of your questions and persuade you to join us in this amazing type of travel. If you have any more, please do ask me in the comments and I will answer as best as I can. I hope you enjoy it!
In this post you will find:
- What is exactly a home exchange?
- What are the advantages of a family home swap?
- What kind of people go on home exchange vacations?
- Are there any risks connected with swapping homes?
- How do you find your first home swap?
- how do you select a good home exchange provider?
- How do you create a good profile that attracts requests?
- How do you select and contact people to swap homes?
- How do you prepare your house for a home exchange?
- How do you prepare the kids?
- What if anything goes wrong? Closing considerations
Please note. This guide is based on my personal experience and it is geared towards families who want to home swap with kids but most of the advice is applicable to solo travellers and couples. The practical part of this guide is specifically about Home Exchange.com the provider I have been using for over 3 years, and it contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase through them I will make a small commission at no extra cost to you. The guide is unsolicited and unbiased: we did not receive preferential treatments or discounts and we pay in full for our yearly membership.
1. What is exactly a home swap?
A home exchange is a peculiar way of organising holiday accommodation based on the idea of two families swapping houses for an agreed period of time. Families tend to go on holidays at specific times of the year, usually during school breaks: this means what when you are away, chances are that a family local to your destination is away too – so instead of spending money on hotel rooms, it makes sense to exchange houses!
If you don’t have a house to swap, but would like to live in a local home, here is advice on to get started with house sitting
2. What are the advantages of home exchange vs rental apartment?
I believe there are many advantages to home swapping, especially for families with kids. Here are some:
Home exchanging is cheap
House swapping is almost free. You pay a fee to join a home exchange programme, but your actual stay in the house is free. This means that for about 100 dollars yearly fee (this is the ballpark of what we pay with our provider) you have access to free accommodation for the whole family anywhere in the world, for the whole year.
There is no limit to how many exchanges you can do and how long a stay is: all is agreed on a case by case basis between you and your potential home exchanger and no swap happens until both of you agree on time, duration and any additional detail you might decide (car exchange, pet care if any etc).
For a family of four, like ours, this system means savings of thousands of Euro on hotel costs and it means that a 3-day -holiday costs as much as a 3 week or a 3 month one.
House swapping is comfortable
As well equipped as a hotel room or rental home can be, I believe nothing beats the convenience and feel of a real family home. As well as being more ‘homely’, if you can forgive the choice of words, if you house swap with a family with similar aged kids you are likely to find extra elements that will make the house work for you: from plastic cutlery and plates for small children, to new toys and stairgates, families often have similar needs and this means you can travel with less, knowing everything will be in place already.
A house exchange is culturally interesting
As well as practical considerations, the beauty of the home exchange is in its ability to make you experience life abroad like a local, truly seeing how a local family lives. Houses can be similar to what you are used to or very different, so can be the neighbourhood, the shops, the frames at the playground: living in a real home with real neighbours will give you a taste of local life.
We always try and show our kids how differently people live around the world and staying in someone’s house, walking their way to the bus gives reality to an otherwise sometimes academic exercise.
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”― Benjamin Franklin
You get local insights
As well as information on the house and the neighbourhood, it is not unusual for home exchangers to also help each other make the most of their time away with suggestions and recommendations of things to see. In Berkeley, our exchangers told us about transport card that made moving around convenient and quick, in Florence we were recommended some non-touristy, beautiful attractions and we always make a point of giving as much practical advice as we can.
Especially for families with kids, this insight can be invaluable in making you settle in a new city.
3. What kind of people do home swaps?
With tens of thousands of users, it is not possible to define a home exchange ‘type’, but I do believe the community of home exchangers as a whole has some traits in common. In general, a homeswapper loves to travel in a slow, meaningful way, they are culturally open, friendly and genuinely interested in experiencing a place like a local and help you do the same in their area.
In terms of compositions of families, the community has a great mix of people: people living alone, couples, families with one or more children (sometimes little, sometimes grown up).
3.1 Do I need a special kind of house? Can I arrange an apartment exchange?
If you are curious about the home exchange idea because of the movie ‘The Holiday’, you might wonder if ‘normal’ houses ever get chosen for a home exchange. Sure, a mansion in California and a charming cottage with a side of Jude Law are very appealing, but what about real life? What about small houses or apartment owners: is it possible to exchange apartments?
The good news is that you don’t need an award winning interior design or a house as big as a castle to get good home swapping enquiries. As you will easily see on home exchange websites, some people have inner city apartments, others have independent homes and some put up for exchange luxurious villas with swimming pools and butler service: no house is too big or too small and it all comes down to finding the perfect exchanger who will enjoy your home as much as you do.
Our experience, for instance, has been a mix of accommodation arrangements. In Montreal and Florence, we stayed in apartments, while in Berkely we got a house with a garden and in all cases, both parts were fully satisfied (we live in a small, two storey house, very typical for this part of the world). Villa exchange, apartment exchange or treehouse exchange: if it is your home, you can list it!
4. Home swapping with kids: are there any risks?
Opening your house to strangers inevitable brings fears of disasters going to happen and to be perfectly honest with you: I don’t think you can completely eliminate the risk.
What you can do nonetheless is minimise it and Home Exchange puts a lot of emphasis into making the swap as safe as possible.
Read very carefully the profile and description of the people you are considering an exchange with, check that they are verified by a phone number of social media profile, read reviews of previous exchanges about their home and, also, the reviews they left about others. Exchange messages and ask questions before agreeing to the exchange and if you have special rules in the house, let them know straight away.
If you have anything precious in the house (money wise or emotionally charged) consider removing it and put it somewhere safe: kids could accidentally break things, no matter how attentive their parents are. Do tell your neighbours about the exchange and do give friends the address and contact details of where you are going.
Take these precautions but at the same time, trust your exchangers: as much as you are worried about your house, they are worried about theirs, so both people are making themselves equally ‘vulnerable’ so to speak the exchange is equal.
5. How to get started with home exchange holidays: a family guide
If you already know a home exchange is for you and are just looking at the best way to getting started, here are some practical info for you.
As mentioned above, this part is specific about my experience with homeexhcange.com but the gist of how to plan a home swap is the same for all providers. Please note: this post is based on my personal experience and does not replace in any form the official information about the programmes. If you are thinking of signing up, do go tho their official website and do read carefully their FAQ and information section.
How do you find people to house swap with?
There are many website and providers offering home swapping programmes. The one we use and recommend is home exchange com and it operates as a specialised platform that allows you to browse potential exchangers and make contact with them, all through an on-platform messaging system
People interested in swapping list their home (it is not dissimilar to creating a profile on social media) and preferred destinations and visitors to the website can browse through profiles: if they see one they like, they can make contact through the platform so that all conversations and agreements, if reached, are on record.
Home exchange offers a nifty option for replying: if you receive an offer but it does not interest you, you can send back a polite ‘No thank you’ note with one simple click. This is a great option because it takes away the potential awkwardness of composing a refusal message and it is a great time saver.
How do you choose a good home exchange provider? Why did you choose homeexchange.com?
I spent a lot of time searching for a provider that made me feel secure and my choice fell on homeexchange.com: I found their website clear and easy to navigate, they had excellent reviews from publications I trust and they had a wide network of home exchangers in many of the countries I want to visit.
Also, they had a pricing and a payment system that suited me and an online support system that made me feel safe. All of this gave me trust in the system and this trust was rewarded by, so far, three amazing exchanges.
The main aspects I looked for, when choosing my house swap provider are:
- Overall look and feel of the website. Do they give clear information about the programme, terms of payments and support?
- Can you easily contact the support team?
- Do they have good reviews on trustworthy publications?
- Do they have verification systems for their participants (Phone number verification, social media profiles etc)
- Do they have a good selection of houses in areas of your interest?
I believe if the answer to these questions is yes, you have found your platform.
How to write a home exchange profile that gets you offers
A good exchange profile is, to me, one that gives not just clear information about the house and the area, but also an idea of who the exchanges are.
You don’t need to go into details about your personal life, but it if you can help the reader to create a mental picture of who you are, they are more likely to get in touch. My best advice to create a perfect home exchange profile is:
- Include as many updated photos as you can to give a clear, relevant description of your house. Try pick a time with good natural light so the shots are as sharp as possible
- Include a picture of yourself and of your family: when I am looking at possible home exchange partners, I am always drawn first to people who have a photo of all their family members or at least of the person who will be answering my questions. While I understand why many people don’t want their kids online, a photo of the whole family (it doesn’t need to be a full on portrait) makes it easier for other parents to identify a suitable home and makes your chances of an exchange higher, especially in a very sought after area.
- Be precise about what your house has and doesn’t have: statements about appliances, steps, and number of bathrooms may seem boring but they do help the potential home exchange to get an idea of your home.
- Unlike hotels, houses can be located in parts of town with names a foreigner doesn’t recognise. When describing your area, answer the questions that the person in front of you is likely to have: is is safe? What kind of people live there (young families, students, other)? How near/far is it from tourist attractions, what are the connections like? Do you need a car?
- On homeexchange.com you can specify preferred destinations but also leave the door open to unsolicited offers ticking the ‘open to any destinations’ option. This is a good one to tick, but I highly recommend giving some idea of your ideal holiday to avoid wasting people’s time: unless you are really open to going anywhere in the world, even just specifying a continent or a type of holidays can act as a filter and ensure you only get offers you might be interested in.
How to choose the perfect home exchange partner
Choosing a home exchange partner is the most time consuming but also an enjoyable part of the whole home exchange process. At the most basic level, the search is not dissimilar to any other you do on the web: on the home exchange website, you select your destination, additional filters if applicable (I always specify I want a house suitable for children and non-smoking, for instance) and you are given a list of potential partners.
Depending where you live, you might receive a list of exact matches (people want to go to Paris), wider area matches (people wanting to go to France) and a wider circle of people (people who are open to ‘any destination’ and might, therefore, be interested in your are if approached).
One you have this shortlist, you can dig into in and select even more precisely who you’d like to exchange with: we usually start first with people who have kids a similar age as ours and who seem to have a home somehow similar to the one we offer.
If you do not find anyone interested in your area specifically, don’t despair and do initiate contacts with people open to any destination: you might be able to sway them your way!
How do I make contact and finalise a home exchange
Once on the platform you can either initiate an exchange or wait for offers to come in. All contact happens on the platform so that there is a record of what has been discussed and it is, effectively, an email conversation: the first email is usually a generic one aimed at checking potential interest and the following ones are for detailed information and finalising dates. Once the dates agree, it is important that you record them on the home exchange website to make them official.
It is extremely important to only finalise and agree on the exchange once you are sure about your plans. Once the exchange is agreed, plane tickets and anyway travel arrangements are made so pulling out makes the other person incur not just in disappointment but also financial loss. If you pull out, you are expected to help the exchanges make alternative arrangements and you may have to financially compensate them for the loss. You will also be blacklisted from the home exchange platform with no refund.
The home exchange is agreed, now what?
How do I prepare my house for a home swap
It is essential, for the success of a home exchange, that you leave your house is as good a condition as possible. I usually start preparing for the home exchange very much in advance and look at the house with the eyes of a person who sees it for the first time: it goes without saying that you should leave the house clean and tidy, with clean linen, towels, furnishings and surfaces, but we also check the state of paint, appliances, and cupboards and ask myself:
- Is there any repair (minor or major) I should take care of? You might be used to your washing machine to only work after a good few kicks but your home exchanges shouldn’t have to deal with that: make it as easy for them as possible
- Is there any clutter I should remove, stuff I have collected to give away but still sitting in my hall or garage? This is a good time to do that trip to the charity shop or the dump
- Is there anything I can do to help my exchanges settling in? We usually leave for them fresh flowers, a bottle of wine, artisan chocolate (it’s a local speciality), leaflets about local attractions and a booklet with instructions about our home and info about our area. In our exchanges we had people leaving us fresh fruit and produce, local maps and supermarket discount cards and coupons and they all went a long way to making us feel at home!
How do I prepare my kids for a home exchange?
Our kids are experienced home swappers themselves and do not find odd to have another child sleeping in their bed or playing with their toys. However, especially if it is your first experience I believe that explaining to them what is about to happen and that indeed someone else will be playing with their stuff is important.
Usually, we take a bit of time we devote specifically to getting the toys ready and ask the kids to separate what they are happy to share and what they want to keep private. One the choice is made, we respect it and put the more ‘precious’ toys away, usually giving them a temporary home in the grandparent’s house. We never had issues of broken or stolen toys in the house but if this is a worry for your kids, I usually go as far as promising a replacement: this goes a long way to reassuring them
What is something gets broken during a home exchange holiday?
I am going to close this guide addressing this concern because it allows me to summarise what I believe is the core of the home swapping experience: home swapping is an exchange between people, so the best way to go about it is to talk, talk, talk.
You cannot entirely eliminate the risk of something going wrong, the kids breaking stuff or something coming loose in the house while it is in your care. Whatever happens: communicate with your hosts/guests and be a nice, reasonable person. If you break something, tell them and offer to replace/refund them (and if they say yes: do it!); discuss any issue with them and try to find a solution together so the experience ends on a positive note for everyone.
I hope I answered most of your questions and I made you curious about the home swapping experience. If you want to sign up wit homeexchange.com, just click here and you can get started browsing (no credit card required). Happy home swapping!