What I Use: Home Swap 2015

What I Use: Home Swap 2015
Vieux Lyon

As I write this, we’re two-thirds of the way through this year’s home swap in Lyon, France. Thanks to the ill-timed Windows 10 launch, I brought along a bit more technology than usual, and this impacted our schedule here as well. But after a hectic couple of weeks, things are starting to settle down.

Home swap?

We’ve been swapping homes with family—almost always in Europe—every August for about ten years now. The one exception was when a swap in London fell apart late in the schedule, forcing us to change our plans (we went to California that year). We use the service Intervac to arrange these swaps, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: two families agreed to swap homes for some period of time (for us, usually three weeks). We’ve always swapped cars as well, though depending on the location (Paris, for example), we will only rarely need the car except to get to and from the airport.

Lyon panorama

The point of a home swap is to “be” in a place and really experience it as a local, rather than take a shorter vacation as a tourist. In fact, for me, a home swap is not a vacation at all, and I work every day as I do normally at home. The schedule, of course, is different: much of Europe is about 6 hours ahead of Boston time, so I try to work a few hours in the morning (catch up with email, etc.) before heading out to do whatever with the family. But then I’m home by 3pm, which is 9 am in Boston, and my normal start time. I work through dinner.

Lyon at night

Additionally, we usually take a side-trip during our home swap. Last year, when we were in Barcelona, we visited Tangier, Morocco, for example. This year, we swapped homes with a family in Lyon, France, and our side-trip was to Venice, Italy. The side-trips are short, usually 3-4 days, and are more like a real vacation. In the past few years I had in fact taken that time off, but this year for a variety of reasons—mostly Windows 10-related, thanks again Microsoft—I did a bit of work each day as well. This side-trip was also shorter than most side-trips, really just two and a half days.

Venice. Amazing.

The home and (more important) the Internet connection

In all the years we’ve been doing home swaps, the Internet connection has always been the sore spot. I’m not sure why Europe doesn’t get this, but more than once we’ve stayed in a home with a pathetically slow Internet connection that could easily and cheaply be upgraded to something faster. This year, we made sure to stress the importance of this connection, and the family here—super nice—looked into it and reported back that they have a 25 Mbps connection. Perfect.

Except this is Europe. At home, my connection is 50 Mbps … in both directions, via FIOS. Here, the upload speed is always a tiny percentage of the download speed. So that 25 Mbps connection is indeed 25 Mbps … going down. The upload speed? 1 Mbps. Yes, really.

Cheese. Hey, we’re in France.

So this happens. I’ve had worse connections. Years ago, we suffered through a 256 Kbps DSL connection, and in Rouen a few years back, the upload speed was something like 100 Kbps. Fortunately, for most of what we do, the connection here has been fine. The issue is the podcasts, which have mostly been OK too, thanks to Ethernet. (In the latest Windows Weekly episode, they needed to turn off my video for a bit.) I’d really like to see Europe figure this out. I never worry about Wi-Fi in the US. It’s always a struggle here.


As you may recall, I like to travel light, but the Europe home swaps are a special case because my family is coming along and we need to check bags. That said, the wonderful Rick Steves Rolling Carry-On has the magic ability to expand to accommodate what appears to be an almost infinite amount of clothes. So in what I believe was a first, my luggage was smaller than that of anyone in my family, and the bag is actually small enough to accommodate the carry-on rules for smaller European airlines like EasyJet so I was able to bring it to Venice as well. Sweet.


For the trip here, I carried on my usual carry-on, the Rick Steves Veloce Shoulder Bag. This bag is good, not great, and the new version I got earlier this year has been significantly downgraded quality-wise, which is disappointing. But it’s the right size, and I like the layout.

(As you’ll see, I actually brought three portable PCs to Europe this year. I had my son carry one of them in his backpack since he wasn’t bringing a computer.)


Thinking about this trip ahead of time, I had intended to bring two laptop-type devices: the HP Spectre x360, which has become my go-to portable this year, and Microsoft’s excellent Surface Pro 3. But the week before the trip, Dell contacted me about testing an XPS 13 preloaded with Windows 10. How could I say no? Instead of dropping one of the other PCs, I decided to bring all three, and while I’ve probably used the HP most frequently, I have switched back and forth between all three. (I brought the HP to Venice.)

In Venice, when the cruise ships leave, the crowds lighten up nicely.


I brought two tablets this time, which is unusual but also based on my need to keep up with Windows 10: my usual iPad mini for reading, and a recently-purchased WinBook 810 which I’ve upgraded to Windows 10.

View from St Mark’s Campanile in Venice.

Phones as cameras

For the past few years, I have stopped using digital cameras and have switched to smart phones with excellent cameras. That was the Lumia 1020 in Amsterdam in 2013, the Lumia 1520 in Barcelona last year, and now the Lumia 930 and iPhone 6 Plus this year.

Lyon at night.

Both phones have excellent cameras. But both phones are also unlocked, which means I can purchase a local data SIM and be online cheaply. Because the Lumia 930 is my primary phone, I left that one with my AT&T SIM and added a $100 data package to it. But on one of the first days here, we found an Orange wireless carrier store and bought a SIM. The deal was slightly different than what we experienced in Barcelona last year, but it boils down to this: 20 euros for 1 GB of data (about $20), or 30 euros for 2 GB (about $30). I went with the latter and just leave the data on all the time. Works great.

As a result, most of my Lyon photos are taken with the iPhone. But when we went to Venice, the France-based SIM wouldn’t work, so I took all of the photos with the 930. (Well, except for some iPhone-based panoramas, which I find to be particularly easy on that device.) In both cases, the results have been fantastic.

Vieux Lyon

Other phones

In addition to these phones, I brought an embarrassing number of other phones, mostly Windows phones, with the idea that I could test some new build of Windows 10 Mobile should that ever happen. It hasn’t, yet. And I brought an Android phone—the Samsung Galaxy S5—in case Microsoft released an important mobile app I’d want to test. Also, no. This collection of phones in my bag raised an eyebrow at security, but I guess they’ve seen everything.

Gadget bag

I have a gadget bag I bring on all trips, and what goes in or out of it depends on the trip. For this three-week European tour, it was pretty packed with a variety of USB flash drives (Windows 10 Setup media and so on), various portable chargers, a Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter (Miracast) and HDMI cable for those times we just want to zone out and watch TV on a TV (which hasn’t happened yet), an Ethernet cable and USB-based Ethernet adapter for the podcasts, and so on. The usual, I guess. Just more of it than usual.

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