By Rick Steves
Many families enjoy this great budget option. They trade houses (sometimes cars, too — but most draw the line at pets) with someone at the destination of their choice. People who've tried house swapping rave about the range of places they've enjoyed for free, and about the graciousness and generosity of their swap-mates. Good places to start are HomeExchange, HomeLink, and Intervac Home Exchange.
Swapping works best for people who have an appealing place to offer and who can live with the idea of having strangers in their home. Unsurprisingly, those living in swanky Manhattan apartments and beachside villas have the best pick of options in Europe, but you don't need to live in an obvious vacation spot or a mansion to find a workable exchange. Your guests may appreciate the pace of a smaller town (especially if you offer your car) and may be less interested in luxury or location than in finding a suitable place that's available when they are.
Be open to serendipitous opportunities: If you get an inquiry from someone in an unfamiliar spot, you might end up discovering a great new place. Note that your swaps don't have to be simultaneous — for example, you could stay at their place while they're off on a cruise, while they visit your place months later when you're away visiting family for the holidays.
Many swappers who could easily afford pricey trip lodgings still prefer to take the deep culture dive that a home exchange provides. As one experienced swapper told me, "When exchanging, you feel as though you are entering a neighborhood in a way a hotel cannot match. In addition to a car, you often have use of bikes, boats, toys, books, and even sometimes the exchanger's local relatives — all the comforts of home. Being stuck 'at home' on a rainy day doesn't feel like a vacation tragedy!"
Once you've found a potential host, expect to be in close contact as you finalize the swap. Be very clear about your expectations, agree on how you'll handle worst-case scenarios, and get the details pinned down before you leave. Know where to find the key and how to open the door, find out beforehand how to get to the nearest grocery store, make sure your host family leaves instructions for operating the appliances, be sure you have needed passwords (for Wi-Fi, smart TVs, etc.), and ask about any peculiarities with the car you'll be driving. Veteran house swappers report that by the time these logistics are all worked out, it usually feels less like you'll be swapping with strangers, and more like you've made a new, conveniently located friend.
If you're not up for offering up your own place, look into house sitting, which offers many of the same upsides (and downsides). MindMyHouse and TrustedHousesitters have plenty of listings in Europe but may require pet sitting as well.