If you could go back in time and tell my husband and me that one day we’d routinely sleep in strangers’ beds to make traveling cheaper, we probably would have just laughed in your face. What a ridiculous notion! Sleeping in strangers’ beds, staying in strangers’ homes, and craziest of all, strangers sleeping in OUR bed, staying in OUR home. Madness, I tell you. Madness. Oh, the humanity!
But it’s not mad at all, and humanity is exactly the right word for the topic at hand. Without humanity, a bit of compassion and a lot of mutual trust, home exchange wouldn’t be possible, and sleeping in strangers’ beds wouldn’t be a regular part of our lives. We recently returned from a 23-night road trip around the northeast. Through a combination of friends’ guest rooms, Airbnbs, some free hotel points, and four types of home exchanges, we only had to pay actual dollars for 4 of the 23 nights, a feat that would have been impossible without a healthy dose of humanity, and the fantastic community of HomeExchange.com.
There are four primary types of exchanges that you can coordinate through the HomeExchange.com site: simultaneous, non-simultaneous, hospitality, and non-reciprocal (Balloon). In a simultaneous exchange, you swap homes at the same time for the same amount of time. In a non-simultaneous exchange, you and your swap partners may stay at each other’s homes at different times for different lengths of time. A hospitality exchange is akin to visiting friends you’ve never met. And a one-way non-reciprocal exchange can occur through the Balloon Passport program, where you may earn a Balloon for hosting someone or spend a Balloon to be hosted.
As I was researching this dream road trip, we realized how expensive it would be to do Airbnbs in every single city, so home exchange HAD to be part of it or the trip wouldn’t work. We’d have to cut down the time we were away, or change the route. And I wasn’t willing to cut back; if we were going to visit a friend in Vermont, we couldn’t skip going up to Maine, and if we were going all the way to Maine, we might as well hit up Canada too, and if we’re going to Canada, we’re not skipping Niagara Falls.
So I made a long spreadsheet of possible swap partners and started sending messages.
Prior to this trip, we had done one of each kind of exchange, except for hospitality. The idea of staying with strangers intimidated us, especially me; I need my privacy and have pretty bad anxiety. But if we could open ourselves up to the idea, it would certainly expand our options, and we could meet some cool people. People, after all, tell a place’s story. Hosting other people as part of a hospitality exchange doesn’t worry us as we have the extra space and love welcoming people to our city. So once we got over the idea of staying with strangers, the possibilities expanded.
I started sending messages in late 2017. Even though this trip wasn’t happening until May/June 2018, home exchange often requires advanced planning. You have to be flexible with timing. It’s not like booking a hotel room or selecting dates on an Airbnb calendar. You have to interact with another human, pitch the idea, negotiate terms and dates and timing, figure out the details. Again, we’re back to the humanity of it all. Home exchange is not for everyone, but if you value meeting people around the world, desire a local experience, can be flexible with your dates, generally trust other human beings, and are willing to try something new, then you will be rewarded.
It took several months of sending messages and pitches before we got our first YES. Dozens of messages got rejected. Many didn’t even respond. I got a few maybes. It wasn’t until R & M from Washington DC messaged us that things really started heating up. The timing was perfect as they were next on my list to message when their message showed up in my Inbox. They were looking for a weekend exchange sometime over the summer. We wanted DC to be our first stop, so I pitched them Memorial Day weekend, and even offered that they could stay in our house longer since we’d be gone for so long. We worked things out for a simultaneous swap, filled out the official exchange agreement, and now we had a hard start date to our trip and one set of accommodations taken care of!
Some of the maybes didn’t work out due to timing and dates. I wasn’t able to find any other simultaneous exchanges, but we had earned a Balloon last summer for hosting a Texan family in our home while we were visiting family for three weeks. So we used that Balloon to get a centrally-located apartment in Portland. The couple we exchanged with was the first on my list for Portland, so I was thrilled when they said yes. They were apartment/cat-sitting for friends in the same building and could move out of their place whenever we needed it. So we picked dates that fit our road trip schedule, filled out the form for a non-reciprocal Balloon exchange, and the planning of the trip continued to move forward! Easy peasy.
Another maybe, in Toronto, came through as a hospitality exchange with S and her cat Max. As we arranged things, she let me know we may end up with the house to ourselves since she travels a lot, which is exactly what happened. We never actually met our host (though we did meet her hilarious housekeeper). Whenever she decides to come to Nashville, she may run into the same thing if we’re out of town, but hopefully, we’ll get to meet and host her in person one day.
The day we began our trip, and spent the night with friends in East Tennessee, we received a last-minute exchange request from a couple in Florida. An exchange that they had arranged for CMA Fest in Nashville fell through, and they were desperate to find a place. Luckily, we were able to say YES and accommodate them, as we were going to be out of town and the DC couple would already be out of the house. The Florida couple has a second condo that they rent out and use for exchanges that they said we could come stay in whenever wanted, so we set up an official non-simultaneous exchange with them and plan to go down to Cape Canaveral in early 2018. We’re always looking for easy getaways for the winter or workcations that we can slip into our schedule. So this worked out nicely!
We’ve been back from our trip for a couple weeks now, recovering from eating out for 23 days and glad to snuggle our cats in our own bed. But the trip went SO well. We couldn’t have asked for a smoother trip.
The DC couple left super clear instructions and communicated with us throughout the exchange. They had no issues while staying at our place, and when my mom went by afterward to check on the house and tidy up, she said the house was spotless, and that they even left us flowers. 🙂 We had the opportunity to meet our lovely hosts in Portland, and exchange some travel stories. They were so thoughtful, leaving sunscreen and wine and t-shirts from local establishments for us. And even though we didn’t get to meet our Toronto host, we loved snuggling and caring for her cat, took advantage of her amazing shower, and enjoyed the privacy and coziness of her home and backyard. So now, we just need to host S from Toronto to complete our hospitality swap, and to go down to Cape Canaveral to complete our half of the non-simul exchange.
In between the two couples staying in our house, my mom went over to tidy up and refresh the linens. Since exchangers tend to take really good care of your home, she didn’t have to do much. And the second couple who need our house for CMA fest travel with their own linens due to sensitive skin issues, so they told us not to even worry about putting out fresh ones. When we came home, our house was just as clean (maybe cleaner?) than we had left it.
When we travel, we love talking to people everywhere we go, whether it’s sitting in the back of a Lyft asking how the driver came to live in there, or picking the brains of bartenders for the best meals in the area. The idea of home exchange definitely requires overcoming an initial hurdle of changing your mindset. But once you cross that bridge, opening your mind and heart to other people, you suddenly have a world of new opportunities in front of you.
If living like a local is important to you, and if you already like staying in Airbnbs, then HomeExchange is the next logical step. You get the experience of living in a residential area and not in the middle of a hotel district. You get the privacy and coziness of a home. If you need a forgotten toiletry or would like a cup of tea, more likely than not, you’ll find what you need in your hosts’ cabinets. (In fact, it’s a not-so-secret pleasure of mine to try out the toiletries in our home exchanges and Airbnbs.) Usually, there are family photos to enjoy, magazines to peruse, art to ponder — and always so many decorating ideas. Often there are plants and stacks of books, things that make a house a home. Sometimes there’s even a cat! Oh, and, in case it wasn’t clear, home exchange is free (except for the yearly membership fee to the website), making the cost of a trip more affordable.
But the best part, for us at least, is that home exchange adds a very intimate, personal, human touch to travel that easily gets lost or overlooked. We get overwhelmed during the unglamorous act of travel, the itineraries and schedules, trying to cram everything we need into carry-ons and TSA-approved bottles. We get so wrapped up in the checklists, the must-sees and must-eats and must-dos, taking photos of the street art murals and well-plated meals for our Instagrams. It’s easy to forget the humanity of it all. It’s easy to forget that people make up this world, and that travel isn’t about checking things off a list or getting likes on a photo.
Travel, at its most enjoyable, is more often about experiencing the details of a place, tasting a culture, stumbling down side streets, getting to know the people who live there, and learning about lives unlike the ones we inhabit. Travel, at its simplest and maybe purest, teaches us empathy, expands our worldview, opens our heart, and allows us to engage our fellow humans. For us, HomeExchange provides another avenue through which to do all of these things, allowing us to visit more places for less, and restoring our faith in our fellow humans.
Ashley is a musical-loving, yoga-practicing, remote-working Gryffindor who is unapologetically obsessed with her cats and started home exchanging in 2015. Having grown up in a family that values travel, she’s visited 20+ countries and over 40 states, including a year-long study abroad in Paris and a month-long home exchange in the Netherlands. Inspired by her grandmother’s type-written three-ring bound travel memoirs, she started her own travel blog in 2015, NoPlaceLikeAnywhere.com. By day, she serves as COO and Creative Director for the Security Awareness Company. Ashley lives in Nashville with her husband and their three cats, where she enjoys trying new restaurants, studying language, and balancing her Netflix habit by reading too many books at one time. You can find her on Instagram @aschwartau and on Twitter @ashleyschwartau. You can find her on HomeExchange here.