SONY DSC
Guest Post by Hollee Thornton

Everyone knows that saving money on accommodation is one motivating factor of home exchange. However, there are many more free perks that have me convinced home exchanging is the most enjoyable way for our family to travel. Many of them, money cannot buy.

1. Bikes

Renting bikes is possible in most big cities, but it can be a costly addition to your holiday budget. I always ask my exchange partner about bicycles and scooters when arranging an exchange. In Amsterdam, we enjoyed exploring the countryside and charming little villages on bicycles provided by our exchange partners. Because we sought out a family with children of similar ages it made bicycle sizes comparable, too. Exploring an area on foot and by bicycle is the best way to slow down and see the details.

Hollee-plate-of-food-1024x680

2. Cooking Classes

During our home exchange in Milan, we exchanged emails with our host family and when I mentioned admiring the huge, beautiful artichokes at the local market and wanting to learn to cook them. My exchange partner offered me a free Italian cooking class, including a house specialty that had been passed down through the family for generations. The night before we left, we enjoyed a really wonderful evening of cooking together, dinner, and conversation.

3. Pet Testing

Testing, you ask? Testing is our code for pet sitting. This perk may have saved us a lot more money and frustration than I can begin to imagine. For several years my children have begged me for a pet, but moving halfway around the world and traveling regularly does not make pet ownership something that I would jump into lightly. A small and simple pet like a guinea pig has been worthy of consideration, so when we were offered an exchange in Paris that included pet sitting 2 guinea pigs, we were excited. The children loved playing with the animals but realized that caring for them was a lot more work than they imagined. Having a pet on vacation provided the invaluable experience of learning what it is like to have one everyday.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

4. Info in a language we understand

Everywhere we have exchanged, our partners have given us lots of valuable local information that we had never run across in our brief research about the respective cities, like how to buy the transit tickets at the tobacco shops in Milan, baby-animal-visiting day at a neighboring farm in Amsterdam, and the multitude of free street performances that are always entertaining at Pompidou in Paris. Even if we had, struggling with translation often limits what kinds of activities we participate in while on vacation. Lucky for us, our partners have always made it so easy for us to ask questions and learn more about the specialties of their countries.

5. Kids’ toys for downtime

When searching for an exchange partner, we try to find families that match our children’s ages and interests. Anytime we have exchanged with families it is always a bonus to have toys and books waiting at the new home. Our kids love trying out new and different toys and books and have learned how to respect and take care of other people’s belongings.

6. Generous tokens of hospitality 

Another bonus of exchanges are the sweet welcome and thank you surprises we find waiting for us on both ends. Often there are homemade house specialties, fresh flowers, or small regional treasures waiting at our vacation home as a personal token of welcome and gratitude. My children love finding these when we arrive in a new home and when we get back to our home. These are perks that don’t come from typical travel accommodations.

Hollee-choc-bannana-cake-1024x680

7. Food

Home exchange saves us both time and frustration when it comes to mealtime. For our family, having a kitchen to prepare breakfast in as soon as our young children wake up is a huge convenience . It also comes in very handy when dealing with the dietary restrictions and challenges that come with “eating out” for every meal.

8. The Sharing Economy

Sharing in the collaborative consumption movement is an easy way I can feel better about conserving resources. We love to entertain and introduce people to the exciting and beautiful country in which we live, whether hosting friends or hosting exchange partners.  These experiences help us to feel more connected to people from all around the world – learning to love and understand other cultures helps us be better global citizens.

9. Authenticity 

My home exchanges have always led to a more authentic travel experience; one in which I feel like I am experiencing what it is like to live in a new place, rather than the “canned” tourist experience that comes with more typical accommodations like hotels.

10. Trust

My attitude regarding mankind is that most people are good. In a day and age where we experience crime and fear as a regular part of life, home exchanging has provided opportunities for my trust in strangers to evolve. The mutual risk provides some level of assurance, but at the end of the day it really is all about trust. And with every positive exchange, my faith in the goodness of humanity increases. I echo the comments of Emily Kasriel: “Trust usually develops over time with repeated encounters, but when you enter into the house-swapping game it is immediate and quite intense – though brief and not usually repeated. What is interesting is the ease with which we felt able to trust this digitally mediated encounter.”

Want to exchange with Hollee? Check out her listing here!

What extra benefits have you found on a home exchange? Tell us in the comments!

VIKey blog header

Win the #VIKey Dream Vacation

We all have a daily escape, a little moment we take for ourselves. For some it’s morning coffee, for others it’s an afternoon hike or watching the sun go down. HomeExchange.com and Lufthansa want to turn your daily escape into the trip of a lifetime with our #VIKey contest! Prizes include two round-trip Lufthansa Business Class tickets and luxury accommodations at the destination of your choice courtesy of HomeExchange.com. All it takes is one photo.

How To Participate

Snap a photo of your daily escape (check out some recent entries below for inspiration), then visit www.VeryImportantKey.com to enter. Then be sure to share your entry with your friends and ask them to vote for your photo! Easy, right?

Prizes

The grand prize, the #VIKey Dream Vacation, includes two round-trip Lufthansa Business Class tickets, luxury accommodations at the destination of your choice, and some perks, surprises, and local experiences along the way! We can’t wait to see your photos.

vikey collage

Guest Post by Cailin O’Neil


When creating your HomeExchange.com listing, you really need to sell the great things about your home to get as many offers as possible. Great descriptions and photos of your property can go a long way, but including a listing video is even better. Making a video of your home isn’t quite as easy as just taking a few photos, but it can really help your home stand out. Here are a few key tips to remember when making a video of your home.

1. Clean up. 

Before making a listing video, make sure your house is clean. Having a messy house is not appealing to people that might want to stay at your home. Get rid of clutter and tidy up the place. If your home is full of really personal items and lots of family photos, you might want to hide them for the video and for when the guests arrive, just to make the property feel more like home for the people visiting.

2. Make sure it’s well lit.

One of the most important tips that I can suggest is filming with good lighting. If you can film during the daytime when there is a lot of natural light, open all of the curtains and let it flow in. If you do film at night, make sure you turn on all of the lights to show off the house. You might even consider bringing lights in from other rooms to make the room you are filming brighter, and move them around the house with you as you film.

3. Film the entire house.

When filming, make sure you capture your entire home. Film the outside, and the front and back yard if you have one. Even if you live in an apartment or condo building, film a little bit of the outside and entryway so people know what to expect. Don’t forget to include things like the bathrooms and the laundry room in your listing video; the details can really count and make a difference.

4. Keep the camera steady.

If possible, film your home using a tripod to try and keep the image as still as possible. Not only will this make your video look more professional but it will also be easier to watch. If you don’t have a tripod, try to borrow one from a friend, see if your local camera store rents them, or try using a table or chair to place your camera on to help keep it steady. Try to avoid using pans as moving the camera too much can make people dizzy. Instead of pans, try using wide shots and multiple angles to make sure you get all of the room you are filming covered.

5. Add a welcoming touch.

Think about what you would want to see in another Member’s listing video. Add a personal and welcoming touch and make your home inviting, like fresh flowers on the table or a jar of cookies in the kitchen. Dress up your home to make it look as comfortable and inviting for potential exchange partners.

Follow these five simple tips for making a video of your home and the exchange offers will be pouring in before you know it!

About the Author

cailin in indonesiaCailin O’Neil is a solo travel, video, and food blogger that spends as much time traveling around the world volunteering on game reserves in South Africa as tasting odd fruits in Malaysia and eating the finest cheeses in Italy. To find out more about her and her travels, visit www.TravelYourself.ca.

DSC_0115-2

HomeExchange.com member Francesca has stayed in exchange homes for some of the world’s biggest festivals. We asked her to share some of what she’s learned along the way!

How many exchanges have you done?

Ten: Valencia for Fallas, Guadalupe, Lima, Buenos Aires twice, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador De Bahia for Carnival, Bail, and twice to Paris.

 

What’s something that surprised you about the Carnival in Brazil?

I traveled to Carnival in February of this year and learned that the celebration is different from town to town! Salvador is divided in three: In Pelourinho, the old town, there are more African sound live performances. In La Barra and Campo Grande, it’s more pop music and people dancing and drinking. The number of people in La Barra surprised me… maybe too many if you’re not drunk! Once in La Barra was ok, but I prefer to atmosphere of Pelourinho.


DSC_0015


Tell us about the Fallas de Valencia.

I was there in 2010, and I really appreciated the satirical aspect of the figures, but I was so surprised that they spend a whole year building them and then they burn them in one night!

 

Do you have any tips on how to plan a home exchange to a major event?

If it’s a very important event, start planning more than 3 months in advance! Look for the best location (I try to stay as central as I can) but keep an eye on the security aspect; for example, in Salvador de Bahia it’s not a good idea stay too close to the carnival. It’s too loud with too many people!



What are the advantages of doing a home exchange for a major event?

Obviously there is a savings aspect. During big events, even low quality lodging is very expensive. Doing home exchange can save you a lot of money that you can use for something more fun. You’ll also have a safe, nice, and cozy base to relax after parties.

 

Why do you think people in Rio, Salvador Bahia, Valencia, etc accept exchange offers during major events?

During that time, their location is very appealing… they have even more opportunity to exchange their flat with another that they really want to visit!

 

Want to exchange with Francesca? Check out her listing!

Finland Unlocked

Finland is a country that’s equal parts beautiful and unique. We asked Perttu, our Finnish representative, to give us some local tips and inside info about his home country. This is Finland: Unlocked!

How to say hello

Hei or Terve

How to say goodbye

Näkemiin or hei-hei

How to say thank you

Kiitos

Currency used

Euro (EUR)
 

Favorite national foods

Traditional foods include game food like deer, moose, and bear, and small game such as hare, duck, and grouse, served with forest berries and mushrooms. You’ll also find cold smoked salmon or salmon served raw with lemon juice on Ruisleipä, a dark and fiber-rich bread. As a dessert, you may get Leipäjuusto (“bread cheese”), a fresh cow’s milk cheese.

On the wild side you may want to try Salmiakki, a salty black liquorice, our unofficial national candy.

 

Best month(s) to visit

Summertime from June to mid-August. Late June is the best for midnight sun.

December and January in Lapland are best for polar nights and March for sunny skiing. Remember to look for the aurora borealis (the northern lights).

 

Best way to get around

Trains or car between cities, which can be very far apart.

A bicycle is handy in many cities, and there are a lot of bicycle roads everywhere.

 

Local customs

Finnish are known for small talk … or rather a complete lack of it. Don’t take it personally if your neighbors don’t contact you during your home exchange in Finland; they’re just trying to give you the best kind of hospitality they know of by not disturbing you during your vacation.

We respect equal rules for everyone, no matter how “important” you are. If there is a rule you will obey it. If there is a queue, you stay in queue. Finland is the most equal country in the world. There aren’t even separate words in the Finnish language for “he” and “she.”

And saunas … most everything you’ve heard is probably true!

Yes, every house and apartment has a sauna. Yes, for centuries Finnish women gave birth in saunas. Yes, it’s common to beat yourself with birch branches in saunas. Yes, one-year-old children go to the sauna. Yes, you drink (a lot of) beer in saunas. Yes, many students  go to the co-ed sauna together, completely naked. Yes, most workplaces have saunas. Yes, many important business agreements used to be made  in saunas. Yes, the first thing Finnish UN peacekeepers build even in hot countries is a sauna … you get the picture!

And as a last free tip, always take your shoes off when you go to someone’s house.

 

A novel/film/song to learn more about Finland

Film director Aki Kaurismäki is a known interpreter of Finnish mentality. Watch “The Man Without a Past” (2002) to get preview of Finnish melancholic humor.

 

Local websites or inside info for discounts in restaurants, theatre, cinema, etc.

Use Groupon.fi to find deals.

 

Lesser-known towns or villages which are worth a visit

The Savonlinna region is a great area in the middle of the thousands lakes of Finland. It is also known for its opera festivals. Kalajoki is a small marine town at the west coast with a great beach.

 

The best kept secrets about Finland

187,888 lakes and 475,051 cabins most next to a lake. Find your own secret lake!

 

The most unique thing about Finland

There are a lot of unique world championships in Finland:

  1. Air guitar world championships at Oulu
  2. Wife carrying world championships at Sonkajärvi
  3. Swamp football world championships at Hyrynsalmi
  4. Winter swimming world champion
  5. Summer ice fishing world championships (without any ice) at Pudasjärvi
  6. Iron bar walking world championships (don’t ask) at Tammela
  7. Rubber boot throwing world championships at Savonlinna
  8. Toilet paper throwing world championships at Kokemäki
  9. Mosquito killing world championship
  10. Sauna world championships at Heinola

 

Common misconceptions about Finland

People think that the water in the sea and lakes is cold in the summer, but it’s actually warm enough for a swim.

 

Finland’s best free activities

  • Spend a day at the Suomenlinna sea fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site located on a group of islands off the coast of Helsinki.
  • For children, there are a lot of free playgrounds and nice beaches with clean water to swim. Visit one of the nice parks and have a picnic.
  • Many museums and galleries have special times for free visits.
  • If you like hiking, you can camp freely anywhere and collect forest berries freely. Just make sure you are at least 200 meters from nearest houses.
  • There are still some free public saunas in some cities.

 

Odds and ends

Somehow, this small country has ended up being one of the best in many areas of quality of life. It is the world’s safest, one of the cleanest, least corrupt, and best educated with free healthcare, free education, etc. It is a country where everything just works smoothly, and a nice country for a carefree vacation.

Finland has always had a special role between east and west. It has its own language, mixture of culture, and people there have a really special way of seeing life.

 

Thanks, Perttu!

 

Original photo: Flickr / visitfinland
10 Free Rio EN

In celebration of the World Cup, we asked travel blogger (and frequent Rio visitor) Elsa Bastos about her favorite free things to do in Rio de Janeiro. Here’s what she recommends in Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa!


1. Swim at Arpoador Beach

This gorgeous beach located between Copacabana and Ipanema has fewer waves than most of the city’s beaches, making it easier to swim. This is also a famous scenic spot to watch the sunset; people even clap their hands when the sun goes down.

2. Watch a samba rehearsal

Most schools have samba rehearsals on weekends, but there are a few that rehearse during the week such as the Salgueiro School. This is a unique experience that allows you to understand all the work behind Carnival, and the thousands of people that participate in the biggest event in town.

3. Walk around Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon

This beautiful lagoon is surrounded by gardens and luxurious buildings. The locals come here to jog, cycle, practice water sports, have a drink in one of the clubs, and rent pedal boats. During the holiday season, visitors gather around the lagoon to admire a gigantic floating Christmas tree.

4. Explore the Atlantic Forest

It may seem strange, but it’s true: in the middle of the Atlantic Forest that coexists with the concrete buildings and urban scenery, there are trails that lead to waterfalls. If you’re lucky, you might see monkeys, parrots, and toucans while you are crossing the forest.

5. Visit Rio’s scenic points

Being surrounded by mountains, it’s no wonder that Rio has so many scenic points. You have probably heard about Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor, but there are many others such as Vista Chinesa (Chinese View) at Tijuca forest. This scenic point, which is named for its architecture, is a must!

6. Climb Selaron’s Steps

Selaron’s Steps are the creation of Jorge Selaron at the Lapa quarter. The artist began transforming the steps into works of art in 1990. He used ceramics, paint, glass, and other materials to create a unique and colorful visual effect.

7. Visit the Royal Portuguese Reading Room

The Real Gabinete Português de Leitura is a majestic library from the 19th century with more than 350,000 volumes. Its amazing architecture was inspired by the Jeronimos Monastery which is one of Lisbon, Portugal’s most famous monuments.

8. Admire the sand sculptures

If you follow the boardwalks by the sea at Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, you will find amazing sand sculptures done by street artists. They do expect you to tip them if you take a pictures of their work, but most of the sculptures definitely deserve it!

9. Visit the hippie market

On Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm, head to Ipanema’s General Osório square for Brazilian handicrafts and local foods. Even if you don’t buy anything, this is an interesting place to visit and a great spot for people watching.

10. Watch the hang gliders

São Conrado’s Pedra da Gávea is where you can literally learn how to fly. At the hang gliding school, you can hire a professional to take you on a flight over the city – probably the most exciting thing to do in Rio. If you don’t have the guts to jump, just watch the others doing it and admire the stunning view, free of charge.

 

Previously: 10 Free Things London

Original Photo: Flickr / alcindo-filho
top 10

Imagine HomeExchange.com’s most popular listing. What do see? A castle in France? A Tuscan villa? The reality might surprise you. HomeExchange.com’s top ten most viewed listings actually come in every shape and size, and from all corners of the world. The one thing they all have in common? Each has received around 44,000 views. Let’s go!


grace bay

1. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands

Dreaming of a tropical escape? Look no further than this 3-bedroom home located in the exclusive Grace Bay Club. Step outside and you’ll find yourself on the world-famous Grace Bay Beach, named the second best beach in the world by TripAdvisor. As a resort property, this stunning home also includes the optional use of two tennis courts, kayaks, wind surfers, bikes, room service, pool-side dining, cleaning service, and a full spa (just to name a few).


Helsinki

2. Helsinki, Finland

Located in the buzzing destination of Helsinki, this charming family home is close to it all while still providing some much-needed peace and quiet. Cozy up to the fireplace or melt away your stress in the newly-built sauna. This house is perfect for a small family, and even comes complete with air mattresses should you find yourself with extra guests.


Kea

3. Kea, Greece

The owners of this peaceful, renovated farmhouse describe it best. “We feel like we are visiting grandma at her old farm…but with wifi, a swimming pool, and a jacuzzi.” The home is centrally located to Kea’s two villages, which are filled with restaurants, shops, and nightlife, as well as beaches ideal for swimming, fishing, or simply sunbathing the day away.


Kenya 1

4. Lamu, Kenya

Located just 100 meters from the ocean, this spectacular Swahili house is steeped in cultural history. In fact, the town of Lamu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also happens to sleep 10 (its five suites each have their own king-sized bed) with plenty of corners for lounging and a roof-top view of the water.


NYC

5. New York, New York

Space is a rare commodity in the Big Apple, but there’s certainly no shortage of it in this 3,400 square foot, two-story loft. Inside, you’ll find three bedrooms (with an additional semi-private sleeping area) and three full bathrooms, one of which comes complete with a Japanese-style soaking tub and steam shower. Step outside, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of the bustling Broadway theater district. If you need a break from the crowds, you can gaze out one of the loft’s 18 windows overlooking the Hudson River.


Australia

6. Whale Beach, New South Wales, Australia

Whale Beach is to Sydney what The Hamptons are to Manhattan; you can easily access the city, but it feels like a world away. Each room of this lovely home has a beautiful view of the beach, which you can walk to in just five minutes. When you’ve had enough sand and surf, you can lounge in one of the house’s two seating areas or relax in the tropical private garden. You might even find yourself hand-feeding a resident bird or lizard!


Como

7. Carate Urio, Italy

Vista Lago, originally a hotel, might just be the most romantic exchange home on this list. With spectacular views from every balcony of this 3-bedroom condominium, there’s a chance you won’t want to venture far from Lake Como. But if you do, you’ll find Milan, Venice, Florence, and the Swiss border an easy drive away.


Tokyo

8. Tokyo, Japan

This ultra-modern Tokyo home also happens to be incredibly kid friendly. Included with the home are two bikes equipped with child seats, two children’s bicycles, kids’ rooms furnished with bunk beds, and an entire toy room downstairs. There’s plenty for the adults as well; fantastic shopping, entertainment, and restaurants are just a quick bike or train ride away.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

9. Bangalore, India

Bangalore is a city of contrast. While it is widely referred to as India’s Silicon Valley due to its many tech companies, it is also known as the garden city because of its beautiful flowers and trees. This large home was built using local and traditional materials like granite from a local quarry, Indian teak, and Mangalore tiles. It also sits on a former orchard, where you can still find organically grown bananas, papaya, mango, jackfruit, vanilla beans, jasmine, and bougainvillea, along with a vineyard about 5 km down the road.


Patagonia

10. Bariloche, Argentina

This modest cabin might not have a television, but why would you want to stare a screen with stunning views of Patagonia right out your window? The three-bedroom home is located on the sunny side of Lake Gutierrez and has private access to the shore. And if you’re looking for seclusion, you’ve come to the right place; this home is surrounded on all sides by nothing but nature.

Post

You already know how to create an great, eye-catching listing on HomeExchange.com. But how about writing a friendly inquiry and sending responses? Communication is key to a successful home exchange, but like asking someone out on a first date, it can be tricky to know what to say. We’re here to help!

When writing an inquiry:

DO make it personal whenever possible, using your potential exchange partner’s first name if you can.

DO include details about the home that you love. Flattery will get you everywhere!

DO mention possible dates for the exchange, even if they’re general.

DO talk about some unique things about your home. Is it near a great coffee house? Just a quick walk to the beach?

DON’T rely on one-liners. “Hey there, wanna swap?” is not a good way to start a conversation.

DON’T write a novel. Just as a one-line message is too short, it’s not necessary to try to plan your entire trip in one message.

DON’T be discouraged by language barriers! Type your message into Google Translate before sending it.

When responding to an inquiry:

DO make alternate suggestions. If you like the home but not the dates offered, see if you can work something else out.

DO decline politely if you’re not interested in an offer.

DO be honest. Air tickets more expensive than you thought? Make sure to let your exchange partner know ASAP instead of letting communications lag.

DON’T ignore requests. Even if it’s coming from Siberia and you had your heart set on Miami, always reply, even if it’s a quick “no thank you.”

DON’T insult another member’s home. Instead of saying “your home is too small,” try “your home isn’t quite large enough to accommodate our travel party.”

DON’T get discouraged! Your perfect exchange is out there. Do you have any keys to success when sending an inquiry? Tell us in the comments!

Photo: Flickr / debarshiray