For over ten years now, my family has swapped homes with a family from Europe each summer, allowing us to spend a lot more time there that we’d be able to otherwise afford. Here’s how we do it.
We use a service called Intervac (for “international vacation”), which my wife read about 11 or 12 years ago. Immediately intrigued by the notion of “home swapping,” she start doing some research, convinced that she would quickly come across a story about a house used for a massive blow-out party. But that never happened: What she discovered is that there are thriving communities of home swappers all around the world. And that, by and large, people tend to have very positive experiences.
Her initial reaction to home swapping is very common: Virtually everyone I’ve told about this is likewise quite interested. But that’s where opinions diverge: Confronted with the thought of other people living in their homes, about half just can’t bear it, and that’s the end of that. For the other half, however, a light bulb goes off. This could work, they think.
I’m here to tell you that it does work.
We’ve now exchanged homes for over 10 years in a row, and while there have been minor mishaps along the way, our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve made friends, we’ve lived like locals in foreign countries, and we’ve given our kids what I hope is a foundation in accepting things that are different than their day-to-day norm.
Everyone’s needs and schedules are unique, of course. We’ve settled into a pretty standard schedule of three weeks in a place, with a side trip somewhere roughly in the middle. That side trip is perhaps more like a traditional vacation in that we have to stay in a hotel for a few days, but it helps split up the time away, and it’s become a tradition of sorts.
For our first home swap, in summer 2006, we stayed at a home in L’Haÿ-les-Roses, a suburb to the south of Paris. Like many embarking on a new adventure like this, we were pretty nervous, but something interesting happened over the winter before our trip: Air France offered special low pricing on trips from Boston to Paris, and we were able to secure airline fares of just $300 each for two long weekend trips, one in November 2005, and one in March 2006. So we were able to actually meet the family we were going to home swap with in advance, and see the home: They had us over for a nice dinner, and it really made us feel better about swapping.
Most people won’t get that luxury, of course. But inspired by this experience, we’ve gone out of our way to help families who are new to home swaps when they swap with us. We’ll leave a day late, pick them up at the airport, show them where everything (gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants, and so on) is located nearby, cook them a meal at the house, and then head off to a hotel for the night before going to the airport the next day.
Many of the families we’ve swapped with are expert swappers and don’t need that kind of hand-holding, of course. In fact, some of them have done many, many more home swaps than we have. In some cases, we’ll meet at an airport. In others, we never meet them in person. Last year, however, we Skyped with the family from Lyon, which was really nice: We gave each other a virtual tour of our homes, and it feels like we met even though we never did, in person.
We learned from the first home swap to make a “book” that explains everything they need to know about the house and our area. Some people do this with a ring binder and paper, but ours is a Word document we send in advance and leave printed out for the other family at our home. This “book” includes logistical information for the house (what to do if the water explodes out of the sink), our neighborhood (who they can call on if they need something), our town, and the Boston area. We leave a collection of Boston tourist books for them, and in their years we bought tourist guides for other cities, we’d leave them behind for future guests. (We’re all digital now, of course.)
We’ve learned to mail house (and, if there is a car to swap, car) keys well before the swap, the hard way: One year, our friends from Amsterdam were flying to Boston and we planned to pick them up at the airport. But after a few hours of flying, their plane developed a cracked window and hard to turn around. After getting that sorted out, they ended up arriving in Boston many hours later than expected, and we barely had enough time to meet them and swap keys before we had to go through security for our own flight. So we were able to swap the keys. But lesson learned: Now we do that in advance.
So. A few experiences.
As noted, our first swap was in L’Haÿ-les-Roses, in summer 2006. We arrived bleary-eyed in Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), found the mini-van they had left for us in a parking lot, and got out onto the highway. And then promptly found ourself stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Périphérique, the loop highway that surrounds Paris: The entire city, it seems, is heading south for their vacations. (CDG is on the exact opposite side of Paris from L’Haÿ-les-Roses, and it’s a huge city.) Naturally, the van is a stick shift, and naturally, I’m exhausted from the overnight flight, and let’s just say it was a rough time.
When we finally arrive at the home in L’Haÿ-les-Roses, hours later than expected, something else unexpected is happening: Someone is prying open the security shutter on one of the home’s windows so they can rob the place, and then the home alarm goes off, and off into the bushes he goes. So we’re standing there, with two sleeping kids—Mark was 8 and Kelly was 4—as the local police show up. No one speaks English, and at that time our French was absolutely not up to snuff. It would have been comical if it weren’t so terrible, but fortunately a neighbor came over, confirmed our story about the home swap, and took care of communicating with the police.
Tough first swap, right? But from there, things went great: We spent three incredible weeks in Paris, and when some friends arrived in Paris, we took a side trip up to Amsterdam, visiting some other friends. Whom we’ve since swapped with twice.
In subsequent years, we fine-tuned our approach. Emboldened by the success of the first swap, we arranged for a four-week swap in 2007, also in Paris, though this time we stayed near other friends in the eastern Paris suburb of Fontenay sous Bois. As it turns out, four weeks was too much, at least for my daughter: After visiting one church too many during a side-trip to Toulouse, my daughter had a melt-down. So we switched back to three weeks for subsequent trips and made sure we broke things up better with a more meaningful (at least to the kids) side-trip.
In 2008, we visited Dublin, Ireland, and having already spent a lot time around the island, we decided to try something different: A side-trip to Northern Island, which was absolutely amazing. Say what you will about Dingle or the Ring of Kerry, but I think the coast of Northern Island as them beat.
The following year, we swapped homes with our friends in Amsterdam for the first time. And then we visited Paris for a lengthy side-trip. Plus a few day trips to Netherlands locations like Hoorn, Alkmaar, and Haarlem.
For 2010, we stayed in Weingarten, in a rural area outside of Frankfurt, Germany. This was the first of a few times where we were a bit worried that we were too far from a big city to keep the kids interested, but it worked out great: They went to the beach, we visited interesting local towns, and we went into Frankfurt, Baden-Baden and other local places. The side trip that year was a drive: South to Bern, Switzerland and then north through France’s “wine road,” ending in Strasbourg.
2011 saw our first and, to date, major problem: We had agreed to swap homes with first-timers from London, and they bailed on us at the last minute. Fortunately, we hadn’t bought our plane tickets yet, but it left us in a bind, and we weren’t able to find a European swap that there. So we headed to California instead, with a one week swap near San Francisco followed by a week or so where we drove down the coast and then stayed, in a hotel, in Los Angeles. We did some typical vacation stuff—like go to Disneyland and the beach—and we took the kids, then 13 and 9—to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game and were surprised when all the kids in the stadium were invited to run around the bases after the game ended.
That adaptability is probably a necessary skill, but we got lucky. Technically, the family from London would have been liable for the price of our tickets, but I’m not sure how or if such a thing can be enforced by Intervac. Fortunately, that’s the only time something like that ever happened.
We visited Rouen, France in 2012. And here, again, we were worried that the kids would be bored, given the rural location of the swap. But it was great, and we found some adventure parks that let the kids zipline their afternoons away high up in the tree tops, and they couldn’t have been happier. Plus, Rouen is a beautiful and manageable small city. And our side-trip, to Normandy, was amazing. We took two day trips to Paris on the train, too.
In 2013, it was back to Amsterdam—we swapped with our same friends for a second time—with a few local day trips and a side-trip to Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp. This trip was notable because it was the first time I had only used a smartphone—the Lumia 1020—for our vacation photos.
2014 was Barcelona, with a side-trip to Morocco, both amazing.
And then last year we were in Lyon, and we went to Venice on the side-trip. Both were amazing, and Venice is so pretty you almost become numb to it.
So. How does this work?
On Intervac—there are of course other services, but this is the one we’ve used—you pay an annual fee of $99, which lets you interact with the other members, create your own listing and attempt to establish swaps. That listing includes the time periods you’d like to travel, the preferred length, and your wish list for places to visit. For the home itself, you can and should be very specific: How many rooms, and of which type, how many people can sleep there, whether you will swap cars, whether you allow smoking, and so on. For example, we have two cats, and all of the families who have swapped with us, save one, have elected to take care of them. (We dropped them off at my mother’s the one time that didn’t pan out.) We always swap our car, because anyone coming to our home will need it to get around. (We temporarily put them on our car insurance; it doesn’t cost anything basically, but as long as they’re licensed drivers you can technically lend them your car legally without doing this.)
Generally speaking, we start getting requests for summer swaps the previous fall. Because we live in Boston, a lot of those requests come from Ireland. But over the past few months alone, we’ve received requests from England, Switzerland, Amsterdam, Paris, Provence, Spain, and Florence as well. We like to set things up early, but you don’t have to: We just received a swap request for this August for Ireland, for example.
If you can’t or don’t want to do a swap, you just say no and move on. We had an intriguing swap from Russia a few years back, but it was in an isolated area, and that just seemed too strange. This year, because of our constrained schedule, many of the requests we received just wouldn’t work, schedule-wise.
Once you start communicating with the other family, there’s an exchange of emails where you get a feel for each other, discuss details that are important to you—we’re weird about the Internet speed, for example—-and try to sell your location a bit: Some people blanket contact a group of families in your area at the same time, so nothing is certain until you start tying things down.
Once you do agree to swap, and for what time frame, there is a form on Intervac that both parties fill out: This form formalizes the agreement so that there is no misunderstanding about what’s happening. It not law, of course, and for our Germany swap 6 years ago, we had specified that some friends would be staying at the home for a few days, a fact that was lost on the swappers, who complained after the fact when a nosy neighbor ratted us out. We presented the agreement, where this was specified, and that was the end of that.
One thing people are very curious about is how we handle the security of our private information. We have tax documents, credit card statements, and other financial records, like everyone else, a small amount of jewelry, my tons of electronics, and some other things that might be of value to thieves. Aren’t we worried about this stuff?
Yes, of course. We have a lock box/safe in our cellar for records, and we have family nearby too, so we can drop off things we don’t want others to see. But we have a theory that no one is going to spend thousands to spend three weeks in Boston and then steal an iPad or whatever, all while I’m staying in their home. And to be clear: It’s much better to have someone in your home than to leave it unoccupied, especially for the lengthier trips you would take when swapping.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that a home swap is an ideal time to ensure you’re doing a deep clean of your house at least once a year, and each summer we spaz clean the house like we’re moving so that whoever is staying there will think we always live like that. The families we swap with do the same, and we each leave the others’ home as we found them: Clean and ready for the original family to come home.
We tend to swap in Europe and Europeans are a bit more open about some things. They don’t tend to hide their clothing, whereas my family will pack away our clothes so that there are empty dressers for the other family to use. But in Europe, we often find drawers full of underwear and other clothing, and I think they just don’t care about that kind of thing generally.
But then that’s the amazing thing about swapping homes: It’s really about opening yourself up to different ways of doing things. This year, in Paris, we’re living in the middle of one of the biggest cities on earth, and it’s been exhilarating to experience this kind of living for the first time. But for the couple staying in our home, the yard is an expansive green space they just can’t experience in the city, and they enjoy sitting outside each morning, eating breakfast in the silence of our little town. Which, by the way, is something we never do.
And that’s an important point: Many of the people who I talk to about home swapping are worried that no one would ever want to come their towns. As I noted above, we’ve stayed in very rural areas in Germany and northern France, away from any major sights, and those were among the best swaps we’ve ever done. What someone from Europe wants, ultimately, is what you want: Something different. And if you live in a rural or out of the way area, don’t fret: For someone living in a city like Paris, London, or Barcelona, that may be just the vacation they’re looking for.
Writing this now with the hum and noise of Paris around me, I’m already thinking about next year. Italy? London? Spain again? We’ll see. But it will be somewhere. Somewhere in Europe, I hope.