Do you like saving money on vacation? Me too! On average, lodging costs represent around a quarter of the cost of a trip, so saving on that expense can make a huge difference in your travel budget. We’ve tried a few different options for saving on vacation accommodations over the years, but our new favorite is HomeExchange.com. HomeExchange runs the world’s largest home exchange community. We’ve partnered up as we go on our round-the-world adventure, so you’ll periodically see member homes popping up here on the blog and on social media. Read more to check it out and maybe you’ll become a home swapper!
What is home exchange? How does HomeExchange work?
Thanks so the 2017 merger with GuesttoGuest, HomeExchange.com is not your parents’ home exchange company! As I mentioned in our family gap year announcement, most of us think of home exchange as it’s depicted in The Holiday: two people swap their homes directly for the same week and stay for free! That can be a great option if you live in a desirable area or are flexible with your travel plans, and HomeExchange.com can help you facilitate that type of reciprocal home exchange.
Unfortunately, coordinating with another family to arrange a home exchange can be a huge challenge. Both participants need to be interested in each other’s locations and the schedules have to work out. You also need to consider the suitability of each home, especially if you’re traveling with children. HomeExchange has developed a great solution to these challenges, the non-reciprocal exchange. In a non-reciprocal exchange, John goes to Mary’s house but then Mary can go to Steve’s house if the location and schedule are better for her.
So how do you set up a non-reciprocal home exchange? The GuestPoints system makes non-reciprocal home exchanges a breeze, acting as a “currency” within the website. Once your home is listed, you can determine the number of GuestPoints per night to charge for it; ranges are set based on a home’s location, size and amenities. For instance, letting someone borrow our two bedroom apartment in the heart of West Los Angeles (close to the beach, shopping, museums and more) would earn just as many points as a larger home in the suburbs. After you arrange an exchange for points, you can use that balance to borrow any other house in the network! Whether you prefer a villa in Tuscany, a lake house in Argentina or a beachside condo in Hawaii you can probably find it on HomeExchange.com.
In the interest of transparency, booking a non-reciprocal exchange through HomeExchange.com is not without its challenges. You sometimes need to plan well in advance; after all, in many cases, you’re trying to coordinate vacation schedules with another family (my favorite properties are those labeled as secondary homes – we’re much more likely get a positive response from them!). HomeExchange advises that participants send an average of 15 inquiries to finalize an exchange, and I think that’s about right or perhaps a little high (presumably it will continue to decrease as the network gets deeper around the world). In that regard, it’s certainly different than hopping on a website and paying to book a home instantaneously. It can take time and effort to arrange an exchange, but when it does the system works beautifully and offers a personal touch that you won’t find in a typical vacation rental. After all, you’re someone’s guest in their home!
Update: After using the network for over a year, we’ve managed to find home exchanges on six continents! Thanks to the joining of the GuesttoGuest and HomeExchange networks, there are tons of homes available in both Europe and the United States. With the marketing forces of the two companies now working together, the offerings are getting deeper in other parts of the world like South America, Australia and New Zealand. Keep your eyes open!
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How to get started as a home swapper on HomeExchange.com
In order to sign up for HomeExchange.com, you’ll fill out some basic information about yourself and your home. Every user starts off with 450 points. If you sign up through my referral link, you’ll pad your account with an extra 100 GuestPoints. Completing your profile will earn you 350 points and completing your home listing gets you another 350. That’s a total of 1250 points to get you started – for reference, our awesome HomeExchange house in Chicago was just 174 points per night! You’ll even get more points for sending messages to prospective hosts when you first join. Referring friends will earn you another 125 points once they complete their profile and send a message to set up an exchange. You can easily get a few nights in a great place to try out the program before you even host guests at your own home.
A complete profile including photos of your home and an enticing description will encourage more visitors to contact you for exchange. HomeExchange also offers a “verification” option, which requires that you send in proof of identity and residency – just another way that HomeExchange.com makes its members feel even more comfortable exchanging homes with each other. When searching for homes to exchange, you can limit your search results to only verified members. Bonus: completing verification for your account adds another 100 points to your balance. (If you’re following along at home, you just snagged at least 1350 points through the sign up process, which could get you two weeks in some destinations!)
Of course, the fastest way to earn GuestPoints is by hosting another member in your home. If you’ve already completed your profile and home listing in the signup process, you can just sit back and watch the requests come in (at least if you’re in a popular area). Because of our travel plans, we have written into our apartment’s description that it WILL NOT be available for the first half of the year; however, we still receive on average one request per week. Though we have to decline these requests, we take the opportunity to wish our fellow travelers well and offer any suggestions they need for a visit to Los Angeles. We’ve had some great conversations through the HomeExchange messaging system!
How to use HomeExchange to save money on vacation
The basic structure of the HomeExchange website is similar to other vacation rental websites: type in a city, select your dates, then start applying filters and moving the map around. The booking process is a little different because it brings in the personal touch of a conversation with your prospective hosts. If we’re visiting a place where HomeExchange offers abundant choices (like Europe), we’ll apply our ideal set of filters and narrow the map to specific neighborhoods we prefer; on the other hand, if we’re trying to arrange an exchange for a place where the choices are more limited we may take off all filters and just look for anything in the region that can accommodate 4 people!
Check out our most epic HomeExchange: 5 weeks in Hawaii
You can see on the screen below what our most restrictive filters are: availability for specific dates, verified homes only, must include pictures, response rate >80%, two bedrooms, WiFi, washing machine and Children Welcome. If we can’t find anything we like with all of those filters in place, we slowly take off one at a time – for instance, verified homes are nice but they aren’t strictly necessary. We’ve even booked one place in New Zealand without WiFi (though that shouldn’t be a problem with t-mobile’s unlimited international data plan). We find the full website much easier to navigate than the mobile version. We love using the map view to find places in our target neighborhoods, and sometimes zooming in to a particular area reveals even more choices.
Once we find a place (or ten) that are worth contacting, we send a personalized message using the big red “CONTACT” button. HomeExchange differs from so many other vacation rental sites in that it’s really about a personal connection – all of the booking relies on communication between the host and the guest, not just a simple booking form. We’ve really gotten to know some of the other members through messaging; even when we aren’t able to host someone (at our currently non-existent home) we always take the time to wish them a great trip to Los Angeles and let them know that we’re available if they need any recommendations. Some of them have taken us up on the offer at length! Likewise, we’ve formed helpful local connections even with prospective hosts who can’t accommodate us. So take a few minutes to write that personalized message and send it to several different hosts – a well-written message is much more likely to get you a bed in a beautiful place than just sending the default message. If you’re communicating with someone who has a different language preference, the website takes care of all of your translation needs.
After you’ve sent a message, the ball is in the court of prospective hosts. If you’ve focused on hosts who have a response rate over 80%, you should hear back from most of them within a few days. It’s ok to take a little time to keep your options open. If the home is available for the dates and number of guests requested, the host can approve the exchange on his end, and then it’s just up to you to finalize.
In summer 2018, HomeExchange introduced their new Service Plus program to further streamline the business end of home exchange. If you want to borrow someone’s home, you’ll pay a fee of $15 per night, which covers damage insurance, emergency assistance and even pay for a place for you to stay in the event of a last minute cancellation. We’re excited about this new program and the confidence it gives home swappers that things will go smoothly – and if they don’t, a solid company will be there to resolve any challenges.
If you plan to do a lot of exchanges, it’s worth looking in to the Optimal program as well. For an annual fee of $150, you’re covered for unlimited exchanges in that year! That’s less than the cost of one night in a mid-range hotel, but it secures your family’s vacation plan for the whole year. As a bonus, you’ll receive 500 extra GuestPoints. If Optimal works well for you in the first year, you’ll be able to renew for subsequent years at a discounted price (going as low as $105). HomeExchange is so confident that Optimal will be valuable to its customers that it provides a guarantee: find an exchange your first year, or you’ll get the second year free! We think Optimal is a great option for families who love to travel often. Learn more about the new plan here.
What did we think of our first home exchange?
We were fortunate to be guests at Yehuda’s home in Chicago during our cross-country road trip. To be brief, we loved it! The house itself was wonderful – Jacob asked if we could permanently swap it for our apartment in Los Angeles. Nice try, kid! The spacious house had a beautifully remodeled kitchen and spacious dining room, perfect for our breakfasts at home and even a take-out deep dish pizza night. The upper floor had three bedrooms each with a double bed, plus a small office with a pack n play, but that could also have been moved to the sitting room attached to the master bedroom – it was a great setup for a family. We were also thrilled to find upstairs laundry right next to our room; I know that laundry facilities should excite me so much, but I’m sure other traveling parents and long-term travelers can share my excitement.
The booking process with Yehuda was extremely smooth. He approved the exchange the same day we requested it; we knew it was a great spot for our family, so we jumped on the opportunity and finalized the exchange that evening. In fairness, some other exchanges have been more complicated to book, but we couldn’t have asked for a smoother process our first time out. A few days before our arrival, we received a message with all of the instructions for check in and the location of a nearby grocery store. Pro tip: If you use grocery delivery at home, use it on the go too! Our Amazon Fresh bags were waiting on the porch when we arrived.
What do hosts think of HomeExchange?
Unfortunately we aren’t in a position to host guests right now, as we don’t have a home to speak of (and there’s no room to sleep in our overstuffed storage pod or the grandparents’ garage). But our wonderful Chicago host, Yehuda, was kind enough to share his perspective on HomeExchange.com. Here are some excerpts from our interview with him:
-How easy or difficult have you found the hosting process through HomeExchange?
Very easy. We had a family from Spain who spoke very little English, but the program translates well and we got everything done easily.
-What do you like about the HomeExchange program? Is there anything you dislike? Is there anything you would change from the host’s perspective?
It’s nice to host people from all over the world and we look forward to traveling to other people’s homes as well. No, there is nothing I dislike. Maybe allow a feature with a brief video upload where the people talk about themselves. [Good idea!]
-If you’ve worked with any other vacation rental or home exchange websites before, in what ways do you think HomeExchange is different?
We host and guest through VRBO and Airbnb. HomeExchange is a more sharing experience which is very nice.
Where we’ve done home exchanges
As of March 2019, we’ve passed thirty exchanges! Check out all the places we’ve visited with HomeExchange and GuesttoGuest:
United States: Chicago; Denver; Boulder, Utah; Oahu; Eastern Shore, Maryland; New York; Tucson; Albuquerque; Austin
New Zealand: Auckland; Coromandel; Wellington; Christchurch
HomeExchange has revolutionized the way we think about travel as a family – high accommodation costs no longer prevent us from visiting some of the world’s most amazing destinations, and when we arrive we have comfortable digs that allow our family to settle in and feel just a little more like locals. We hope you’ll try it out and see just how difference the experience can be! Let us know if you have any more questions about HomeExchange and its services!
HomeExchange is a long-term partner of The Family Voyage.