All you ever wanted to know about organising and International home swap with kids in tow. We are avid home exchangers and in the last few years have visited several countries, as a family, with this efficient and enriching system. Here all the practical information you need to set up you first home exchange as a family, common concerns and tips for as successful experience.
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?
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 swapping 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 join my page on Facebook and let’s get connected. I will be happy to answer all I can!
This guide is unsolicited and unbiased: we did not receive preferential treatments or discounts and we pay in full for our yearly membership to our providers of choice.
What is a home swap exactly?
A home exchange or home swap 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!
You give their house to them and they give theirs to you, for free.
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 instead.
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, in no particular order.
Home exchanging is cheap
House swapping is free or almost free. You may have to 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 max (this is the ballpark of what we pay with one of 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 details 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 toys and stair-gates, families often have similar needs and this means you can travel with less, knowing everything will be in place already.
In Florence, we were able to use the car seats of your hosts for instance, which meant we could fly without our bulky ones. Simple things like this can make a huge difference in how easy or hard travel is
A house exchange is culturally interesting
As well as practical considerations, the beauty of the home exchange is 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 about Dublin.
Especially for families with kids, this insight can be invaluable in making you settle in a new city.
Being a host is fun and rewarding
Home swapping is great as a guest but also great when you are the host.
I love getting my house ready for my guests, thinking of how they will react to it, coming up with ideas to share with them so they can have a good time while here.
It is immensely rewarding and a great way to never take for granted what you have.
The relationship with your home guests is a strong one and even if you may never see them again after the swap, it is a great bonding exercise to open your house reciprocally to each other.
We have very fond memories of the people we swapped with and already excited about the guests we will have this summer.
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. The home swapping community is very open and everyone can join.
Do I need a special kind of house to do a home 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.
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, in Berkeley we got a house with a garden, in LA we even had a pool and in all cases, both parts were fully satisfied (we live in a small three 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!
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: you cannot completely eliminate the risk.
The system is largely based on trust and on the fact that both parties are like minded, respectful and have ‘skin in the game’.
What you can do nonetheless is minimise it communication with potential exchangers and finding swaps through a reliable website is at the core of this.
Read very carefully the profile and description of the people you are considering an exchange with. Read reviews or guestbook entries from previous exchanges, if available, and check photos and details.
Exchange messages and ask questions before agreeing to the exchange and if you have special rules in the house, let them know straight away. Clear, clean and honest communication is key
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.
How to get started with home exchange holidays as a family?
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.
How do you find people to house swap with?
There are many website and providers offering home swapping programmes.
The exact functioning of each website varies but they more or less all follow the same structure and operate as a search engine bringing up participating properties
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.
My favourite home exchange providers
I spent a lot of time searching for a provider that made me feel secure for my first home swap with kids and I ended up choosing 2 providers (please note I have no commercial connections with them. Links are for your convenience only and we pay our memberships in full)
Home Link. Home Link was founded in 1953 and has a long history as a reliable, serious home swapping site. They have a simple and clear interface, a nice number of listings and great support. When you agree to a swap via their site, you are invited to create an agreement with the details of the swap that helps making sure you and your guests/ hosts have a clear understanding of the swap system. This agreement is very useful and also means you get the support of the Homelink staff should you need it. The site is fee paying but offers a 2 week free trial period.
People Like Us World. People Like Us World is a new website that is growing fast thanks to an enthusiastic creator and dynamic and loyal members. The site was born in 2018 and compared with Homelink has fewer listings: however, this is changing fast! The site is much loved by a large number of experienced home exchanges who are contributing to its development with ideas and suggestions and has an incredibly friendly and welcoming community who cherishes the values of hospitality, honesty and open mindedness. We are proud members of PLU and invite everyone to check them out: the site is currently free and has a simple and clean interface that makes looking for a swap a breeze.
Intervac: Intervac is a well established provider of home swap services since 1953 and offers a variety of home swap options including simultaneous exchanged, B&b hospitality and some rental properties. It is a site with a loyal community and many listings especially in Europe that you can browse in many languages thanks to good search options. The site is fee paying but offers a 1 week free trial period.
HomeBase Holidays: another well established site in operation for over 30 years, HomeBase Holidays offers home swapping services between properties around the world. They have a good database of properties and easy to use search filters: they are a fee paying site but offer a 2 week free trial period for you to test out the system.
Home Exchange: Until a few months ago you would have found home exchange at the top of this list as out number one home swapping site of choice. So, what happened? Well, basically, home exchange was recently acquired by a new company and this has meant that the site and system that I knew and loved is now unrecognizable. Now home exchange is a large commercial site with many listings ranging from home exchange to rental properties and offers the chance not just to host people but also to be hosted in exchange for guest points. The site has been recently redeveloped and has many bugs: the development team is working on it but at present this is not a site I find usable or effective to arrange home swaps and I am including it in this list for completeness only. Once fixed, I will come back with an updated and informed opinion.
How do you choose a good home exchange provider?
My opinions and preference aside, this is what I recommend you look for when choosing a home swap site:
- Overall look and feel of the website. Do they give clear information about the programme, terms of payments if any etc?
- Is the site easy to use?
- Can you easily contact the support team?
- Do they have good reviews on trustworthy publications? Or a raving group of fans who can guarantee for them?
- 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.
Especially for a home swap with children in tow, I feel house facilities, locations and rules must be laid out clearly.
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 and add captions to describe what they are
- 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 most websites 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 / swap 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.
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 if this is a function available or anyway make sure you have the deal in writing – even just an email with ‘great, this is a deal’ will do in most cases.
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 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 may be expected to help the exchanges make alternative arrangements and you may have to financially compensate them for the loss. Check each providers for what is expected of you or your exchangers in case of cancelled plans.
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 specialty), the making of a first meal, 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.
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.
Remember that you are going to a home, not a hotel so things can go a little wrong as you don’t have maintenance 24/7: be kind with your hosts if you find something need attention and remember chances are your hose is not totally perfect either. Do address with them and the site you used majour discrepancies between house and listing.
It is good practice to contact your home insurance company to tell them about the exchange: some of their cover may be void if you are not in the house so this is important. Some providers also offer additional insurance: check with them what it covers and what is available in your area.
I hope I answered most of your questions and I made you curious about the home swapping experience!
Please note: this post originally appeared in 2016 and has now been fully updated.