During the last couple of weeks my husband Thom and I visited San Miguel de Allende, MX. This location captured our interest several years ago, especially after learning that this small beautiful city boasts a nearly perfect year-round temperature, warmly welcomes American visitors, and offers flights at very low costs. As with most trips, we prefer to stay in apartments or homes in order to more fully experience any location. This year we tried something completely new—a home exchange. In other words, we offered our home here in southern California in exchange to stay in another owner’s home in San Miguel de Allende. Two weeks later, we are back to share what we learned from it and why we believe home exchanging is a SMART way to travel.
Of course I realize I am hardly an expert with only one exchange in my repertoire. But what was it that led me to giving it a try? I think I first read about home exchanging over five years ago and immediately suspected that it would be an excellent way to save money while traveling and visit interesting locations. Thom wasn’t as convinced. Two things helped to change his mind.
#1 We rented our home out over two different weekends on Airbnb. (You can read about that experiment from my blog post: SMART Lessons From Renting Our Home On Airbnb )
#2 Two good friends of ours did their first home exchange last year and everything went perfectly.
Here’s Why Home Exchanging Is SMART
- It’s a great way to experience low-cost travel. Accommodations are typically the largest
expense when traveling. For those of us who prefer to stay in homes or apartments, it makes sense that if you can stay in a person’s home without cost, you can save a tremendous amount of money. Plus, when staying in a home you can save additional money by fixing many of your own meals.
- It’s a perfect way to experience a location. If you enjoy the feeling of being in a new town or city, living in a home in a local neighborhood for a time offers you the chance to really experience what it is like to live in that place. This type of travel elevates the trip beyond being just a tourist who is in a location just to check it off their bucket list.
- It can slow down and enrich your travel experience. As a person who loves to travel and go new places, I often find myself rushing from attraction to attraction without even realizing it. One big reason for that is if you are staying in a small hotel room with nothing but a bed, bathroom and tv, chances are you are eager to get outside and stay moving. With a home exchange, you tend to have more space with many of the comforts of home. Want fresh brewed coffee in the morning? There’s a Mr. Coffee. Want to wash some clothes? There’s a washer. Like to sit and read outside? There is usually a balcony or patio. At my age, I’ve learned the many advantages of slow-travel and abhor the idea of the ten-cities-in-two-weeks method of many vacations.
- Your host exchanger can offer honest and important advice. While I personally love to research locations when I travel, a good exchange host can offer firsthand experience with the best local restaurants, where to buy good wine at a good price, what local attractions are a must see, and more.
- Unlike renting your home through Airbnb, you can make requests of your home-stayer. Need your houseplants watered? Make that part of the exchange. Want them to take care of your pet? Want to borrow their car? You can always ask. Can you bring friends along with you to stay? The answer is yes, as long as the host says yes. When you take the money equation out of the experience, any number of requests can be made and negotiated. Home exchanging, just like with any exchange, requires a win-win agreement for both parties involved.
A Few Downsides to Home Exchanging
As with any experience, there are always things to consider. Here are a few things I believe need to be addressed in order to make the most of any home exchange.
- It’s not completely free. The vast majority of people doing home exchanging these days need
to join one of the dozens of online companies that offers lists of other people wanting to exchange. Those fees are range from free to $200 per year for each site. On top of that, there are always going to be normal operating costs to pay to maintain your home even while you are gone. For example, while we were in San Miguel the weather here in La Quinta was hotter than usual and Donna, the woman staying in our house, needed the air-conditioner during her stay. While we trust that she did not take advantage of the situation, we haven’t gotten our electric bill yet either. Plus, there is always the chance that something is broken or missing and that cost must be considered as well.
- Someone has to want to visit your area and/or is attracted to your home for some reason before you’ll even get an offer. Fortunately, we live in a vacation area so that drives some requests to our house. Donna requested that we exchange our home for her home in San Miguel because she wanted to attend the BNP Parabis Tennis Tournament that happens annually here in our community. Because we had wanted to visit San Miguel for several years, it seemed like a perfect fit. Once you decide whether locations work for you, then you can begin working through the other details.
- Needing a simultaneous exchange makes the process more challenging. In other words, if you need to find someone who not only wants to visit your location, but also one where you both need to visit at the same time (or at least have another place to stay). Fortunately, the weather in San Miguel de Allende was lovely and temperate in March—so allowing Donna to visit while we were in her city was ideal. As you might imagine, anyone who owning a 2nd home would have a much easier time securing an acceptable exchange because it would free up the need to be simultaneous—or finding weather acceptable to both parties.
- Flexibility is always good when traveling—whether you home exchange or not. Regular travel reminds me that staying flexible, open minded and prepared for the
unexpected help to make any trip more enjoyable. While we had seen a dozen or so photos of the property in San Miguel prior to our visit, and we read that our exchange home had three stories and a rooftop deck, the reality of that could have been extremely difficult for anyone with mobility issues. Not only was the master bedroom on the third floor, but accessing it was only available by a very narrow circular metal staircase that was completely outdoors—and yes it rained several times during our visit. Meanwhile, the rooftop
patio with unparalleled views was an even longer climb up the narrow, metal circular staircase. Fortunately, we are both in good physical health but my legs were sore the entire 12 days we were there from walking the quaint cobblestone streets of San Miguel and navigating the climb to our hillside location—not to
mention the alleyway we had to climb and then the stairs once we arrived at the house. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, there is no way to “review” a location prior to arriving so it is up to each person to clarify the details of the property before arrival—or to stay flexible no matter what.
- The more open your schedule and the more adventurous your travel dreams the better it will work for you. Anyone who is retired with an open schedule has the best chance for an exchange. We have received nearly a dozen requests to exchange from such places as Vancouver, BC, Barcelona, Spain, Vau, Portugal, and a couple of places in Colorado. But because Thom and I both still work, we haven’t been motivated to accept the invites at the times requested. Each exchange company allows you to post what locations you are most interested in visiting as well as the desired timing, but again, you must find a “match” to make it work. Obviously, the more open your schedule and your willingness to try new locations, the better results you will have.
Is it safe? Just about every time we travel we get asked the same question. There appears to be an overly cautious focus on travel these days, and while we admit that sometimes bad things do happen around the world—they can happen in our own backyard as unexpectedly as they do in other locations. Although we never had the slightest hint of danger in Mexico, our exchange host seem to go overboard with her safety issues—she had two to three locks on every door on every floor of her four level home. We saw no evidence that such security was necessary, but did our best to accommodate her lock-up requests. Again, flexibility is always good.
Another question about safety is having a stranger stay in your home while you are gone. After renting our home on Airbnb we got over the idea that others are really that interested in our personal items anyway. However, just to give ourselves some piece of mind I did lock up my computer, my current journal, a couple of choice pieces of jewelry and our private business papers. Of course, trusting that you are being careful and respectful of their home, as much as they will likely respect yours, is a beneficial way to think of it.
When we returned after two weeks our house looked as good as when we left it. Nothing whatsoever was out of place or damaged. I know that we left Donna’s house in exactly the same condition. Will we do another exchange? Absolutely—especially when our schedule is more open. In the meantime, home exchange offers everyone a SMART way to travel economically, intentionally and experience the world all at the same time.
What about you? Have you ever done a home exchange? Any thoughts you’d like to share?