What’s home exchange? The name should tip you off: you stay in someone else’s house while they stay at yours. But maybe it could be useful to point out what home exchange (and home exchange organisations) are not.
Home exchange organisations are not travel agencies: you pay a yearly subscription, which gives you access to the organisation database. The arrangements between members to actually exchange their homes are generally executed through a contract, but the whole things is really based on mutual trust, decency and fairness, without any exchange of money. At the same time, there is a system of referrals and the association acts as a guarantor; its role obviously varies, depending also on the availability and capacity of the national coordinator.
Home exchange is not a way to travel saving on accommodation: if you are considering it just because the idea to travel for free makes your mouth watering, just forget it. Home exchange is culture, an opportunity to meet interesting people, to know a place up close and really “live” it . It’s most certainly NOT a way to take advantage of dumb people who, God knows why, are willing to let you stay at their house for free: because those same dumb people, meanwhile, are staying at yours. And yes, they sleep in your bed, use your bathroom, touch your things. If those ideas get you goosebumps, but you think you could “adapt” in order to travel for free, you are guaranteed a lot of bad surprises: your holidays will be ruined, and you will also ruin the holidays of the above dumb people. Just forget it.
Home exchange organisations are not agencies for swapping luxury homes: if I live in a Sardinian villa it doesn’t mean I have a “right” to a penthouse in Manhattan (or to a house of the same perceived status). Of course, nothing prevents you from selecting your exchange partners based on the prestige of their house… but that’s not the spirit. Incidentally, we always have been very lucky: every house we stayed in had its own particular personality, and each has given us unforgettable memories. The kitchen window from which I watched “my” Canadian neighbourhood while washing the dishes. The tiny balcony of the Brussels apartment. The sauna in Finland. The ultra-steep stairs in Paris. No hotel room could have given me those things. And that’s why, if I manage, I will never set foot in a hotel again 🙂
Things that could help enjoying home exchange : speak one or more foreign languages; be adaptable and flexible, but also determined; be willing to leave one’s comfort zone. Of the reasons why I love this concept is the fact that every exchange is, inevitably, a small leap in the dark. Which scares me, of course; but I think that, sometimes, leaving the space that we have built in our image and likeness, and deal with the world (that in our image and likeness is really not), is a much needed leap in the dark.
Another thing I love: the priceless opportunity to see places where you otherwise would never have gone; or maybe yes, you visit a classic touristic destination, but in a district or area different than the one you would as a tourist (it happened to us in Paris, for example).
Most of the exchanges are organised months in advance, during which time you end up knowing each other, if not becoming friends; and this answers the classic objection “there are strangers coming into my house.” The other classic objection: “what happens if they break/ruin something.” And my answer is: a) nothing in our house has more monetary value than three years of travels around the world; and b) it’s never happened anyway (fingers crossed!).
A few final words: my goal it not to convince you to try. And I do not want to imply those who prefer hotels or rented apartments are poor idiots. I simply would like to be able to convey how beautiful is to travel this way. But it’s almost impossible: the only way to figure it out is to try.