Some pointers and anecdotes on the thrifty family travel practice of house-swapping or home exchange, from a UK-based expert in the field.
Would you like a vacation base for your family with all the comforts of home — rent-free? Swap homes with a family abroad or in your own country who want to visit your area, and enjoy all the benefits of a home exchange vacation. Families with children form a large part of the growing number of regular home swappers worldwide.
You will enjoy having the space and the convenience of staying in a real home. Exchange with a family with children of a similar age to your own, and your children will have a whole new set of toys, books and videos to occupy them — while you relax! Other young families will have homes suitable for the needs of young children (along with baby and toddler gear,) which enables you to pack much more lightly than is usually the case when traveling with little ones.
Staying in a hotel can also be very costly for a family. Home exchange enables you to cut down on expensive meals out, as well as, at least occasionally, to choose free ‘home entertainment.’ Exchanging with a family often has extra perks like local babysitters and playmates for your children.
Successful Swaps Need Planning
Not everyone exchanges with families similar to their own and, provided you make certain that the home will be suitable for children before you agree to an exchange, there are no restrictions on who you can exchange with.
Experienced home swapper Jo Piercey (an American who lives in a small village in rural England with her husband and three children) writes:
”We chose Cape Cod for our second retreat with our son, then 2½ and our daughter, a mere 9 weeks. We were a little hesitant as our exchange partner was a bachelor (would he tolerate children?) and he was exchanging his second home with our primary one. We did the usual swapping of photographs and chats on the phone and decided he was the chap for us. We asked him where we could get certain items to save us from lugging them on a long-haul flight. ‘No problem,’ he replied. He is a rabbi and asked his congregation for any unused baby paraphernalia. Overnight we had a cot, a car-seat, a pushchair, a playpen and a bag of toys – magic!”
Jo continues: “By the time we exchanged in Florida we were pretty experienced at cleaning houses and turning over stones [note: Jo’s suggestion for new exchangers — ask as many questions as you can; do not leave any stone unturned.] It was a fabulous exchange with a couple who had two sons. Their home was beautiful and it included a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and the use of a small motorboat. They also owned a much larger boat and, although we couldn’t take it out, they had arranged for a friend to come to us and take us fishing. He came three times and, on each occasion, we caught our own dinner and grilled it as the sun set over the back garden. I say this because the back garden happened to be the Intracoastal Waterway and the sun is particularly beautiful when it sets over water. My son, all these years later, still occasionally asks me when we are going back to The Pink House as it is affectionately known! I do hope they had as good a time in our humble cottage as we did in their splendid Florida paradise.”
Older Children May Benefit Most
Those of you with older children and teenagers will know that family relationships are less fraught when your children ‘have their own space’ and that this is often difficult to achieve on vacation. A home exchange, on the other hand, enables each family member to have time off to relax between joint activities and outings. Older children can also take an active part in the exchange arrangements and the preparations beforehand can be an important part of the whole exchange experience.
Tom McGonigle from Belfast, Northern Ireland, remembers his family’s first exchange to Texas in summer 2000: “Ultimately we had three possibilities, with Austin, Texas proving to be most compatible in terms of child-friendliness and dates. Having set up the exchange in December 1999, we really enjoyed the long lead-in. Communication by e-mail and phone reassured us that we were dealing with responsible people who shared our priorities and interests. The children enjoyed getting to know each other via e-mail, planning theme park visits, comparing toys and games, favourite things to do locally and preferred restaurants. The sense of anticipation was enhanced by exchange of photos and books about local activities, and organizing flight arrangements.
“Our family had a marvelous time in Texas. The different way of life engendered a sense of fun, education and adventure. Besides driving a large van with automatic gears on ‘the wrong side of the road,’ we swam in creeks with turtles and catfish (while buzzards hovered overhead!), ate BBQ, rode all the nearby roller coasters, shopped at Outlet Stores, listened to Tex-Mex music and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, won the prize for ‘Most Patriotically Dressed’ at our local July 4th Street Party (definitely a rigged vote by hospitable neighbours!), and of course, visited the Alamo.
“The home in which we stayed was large, well equipped, and very suitable for our four children, especially as we were enrolled at the nearby swimming pool. It was pleasant to chill out indoors with the air-conditioning and fans (no central heating radiators here!). The children enjoyed the range of different toys, videos and books, and found it novel to watch a sprinkler system operating, and the squads of Mexican workmen from Perfect Lawns of Austin tending the grass. The local daily newspaper – the Austin-American Statesman – provided a good flavor of local issues and concerns. Prices were quite similar to those in Ireland — apart from petrol, which was only a quarter of the price that we normally paid! We ate out frequently, sampling a range of Mexican food, though resorted to burgers and fries on a few occasions to placate young palates!”
Flexibility & Compromise Are Key
“Flexibility and readiness to compromise are required for a successful home exchange,” McGonigle continues. “We had to adapt dates and shorten our ideal length of stay (though compensated by making a four day stopover in Boston on the way home); it was difficult to obtain insurance coverage for Americans to drive vehicles in Ireland, whereas it proved very straightforward for us to be insured to drive in Texas. However there is no doubt that the advantages significantly outweigh any inconvenience, and detailed planning reaps its reward. It was very interesting and enjoyable to meet people in their own community, staying in a home where children and adults could be comfortable; we affected major savings in accommodation and transport costs.”
Home Swaps Make New Friendships
“In addition, a wider circle of our family and friends shared this holiday experience,” says Ms. McMonigle, who had not seen the charming film “The Holiday” which stars two beautiful single women who exchange their homes. In this film, Kate Winslet swaps her isolated British cottage for the splashy Beverly Hills mansion owned by Cameron Diaz. Of course, they made plenty of friends in addition to Jude Law and Jack Black. Ms. McGonigle adds, “Those who organized day trips or evening meals all gained from the experience by making their contribution, and are consequently more interested in seeing the photos and video to learn how the other half of the exchange worked out.”
Sample Exchange Offers Available Online
Both the Pierceys and McGonigles are members of Home Base Holidays (London). Home Base Holidays has provided a home exchange service since 1985. This U.K. based company has members with homes all over the world, and families will find a wide variety of house swaps in many of Europe’s top resort areas and cities. Here are a few examples we liked, quoted from their roster of available swaps at time of publication.
Wimbledon Home: Located in Wimbledon in S. West London, approx. 10 kms. from the centre of London. Large detached modern house with large garden situated in a very quiet location near Wimbledon village. Close to all local amenities, B. Rail & London Underground 15 mins walk (then 15 mins journey to central London). Wimbledon Common, shops/restaurants 5 mins walk. Choice of tennis courts & 5 golf clubs, public & private, Richmond Park within 3 kms. About 45 mins drive to both Heathrow & Gatwick airports; conveniently placed on a radial main road (A3).
Lausanne, Switzerland: Our semi-detached house is located in a small village in the countryside. Three floors, garden with terrasse. Built in 1996. Quiet area near Lausanne (15 km), Olympic city, old town, museums, concerts, etc. Ideally situated between the lake of Geneva (1/4 hour by car) and mountains (1/2 hour by car). Geneva airport (3/4 hour by car). Skiing possibilities within 3/4 hour by car from December to the end of April. Right in the center of Europe, we can reach many countries in a few hours (Italy, France, Germany, Austria). Good railway connections from Lausanne to Paris or to Milan (3 or 4 hours).
Historic Conversion Tuscany: Converted (in 1995) stables and hayloft in 13th Century fortified hamlet in Tuscan hills. Ground floor – large open-plan kitchen/dining room/bathroom/sitting room with brick vaulted ceilings and log fire. First floor – 2 bedrooms/bathroom/study. Second floor – large open-plan bedroom/study/laundry. Located in beautiful surroundings, with own garden/patio. Married couple (Dad Irish/Mum Italian) and two daughters, Jessica(9) & Erica(6), 2 dogs and a rabbit. 14 kms Florence. Ideal for touring Florence and Tuscany and then relaxing away from the hustle and bustle.
Le Touquet-Paris-Plage: Located in the Paris-London-Brussels catchment area, Le Touquet is the jewel of the North French coast. Around 38 miles South of Calais, Le Touquet became as fashionable as the Riviera in the 1930’s, when Noel Coward, P G Wodehouse and others entertained in villas amongst the pinewoods, and luxury hotels were built for the weekending English aristocracy. Today Le Touquet is still the ‘Cannes of the Cote d’Opale’ and is also known as ‘Paris-Plage’ for its role as the favourite beach resort for well off Parisians. Its casino, chic designer shops, art galleries, golf course, flower-trimmed lawns and wealth of cafÃ©s and restaurants makes Le Touquet an excellent and attractive choice for a civilised short break and an ideal base for exploring Northern France. Le Touquet is situated in the heart of a large pine forest and was once known as “Le Jardin de la Manche” (in “English the garden of the channel”). Attractions in the area include extensive water sports, 9 and 18 hole golf courses, equestrian clubs and vast sandy beaches. Our house: La Crete Des Dunes – 200 meters to the beach – panoramic view on the dunes and the sea – independent house with garden (2000 m2) – direct to the beach across the dunes – private parking – sitting room with fireplace and TV – veranda overhanging the dunes – family house with 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms.
Belfast Family House: We are experienced home exchangers. Our large, child-friendly 6 year old home is situated in a quiet cul de sac of south Belfast. The area is exclusively residential, and well provided with shops, leisure facilities and local amenities. It backs on to green fields and is 3 miles from the city centre where there is a wide range of entertainment, dining and cultural activity. This is an ideal base for exploring Northern Ireland and further afield. It has easy access to motorways, mountains and beaches. We offer the use of a 1999 Volkswagen Sharan 7 seater MPV or Toyota Corolla saloon. We are a family of 6: 2 adults; 3 boys aged 15,14 & 5; 1 girl aged 9. The house has a fully fitted kitchen, cloakroom, enclosed gardens front & back (including a small vegetable patch), utility room, oil heating. We have a range of age appropriate toys and games for visitors usage, including a basketball net, Playstation, swings and piano. Nine British and Irish TV channels are available.
Of course, you’ll have to check with Home Base Holidays (London) to browse all current, up-to-date exchange offers
For More Information on Home Swaps
Visitors may view all current exchange offers (often with photos) and join Home Base Holidays (+44 (0) 20 8886 8752) online for instant access to member contact information: http://www.homebase-hols.com. Membership is £29 for one year or £39 for two (Note that prices are in British pounds). Home Base Holidays also publishes a free bi-monthly newsletter, Home Swappers.
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