By Rick Steves
House swapping may seem like a far-out option — perhaps too much hassle or too risky to even be worth serious consideration — but many families who've tried it go on to enjoy this great budget option year after year. 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.
Swapping works best for people with an appealing place to offer, and who can live with the idea of having strangers in their home, touching their stuff. 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.
Good places to start are HomeExchange, HomeLink, and Intervac Home Exchange. Once you've found a potential host, expect to be in fairly close contact with them 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. Be triple-sure about 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, make arrangements in advance for phone and Internet charges, 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.