If you’re open to traveling anywhere, anytime, you can save a lot of money by arranging to swap your home through a home-exchange website. Membership fees for home-exchange websites typically run about $100 per year. Two of the oldest and most reputable sites are HomeLink and Intervac; HomeExchange.com is one of the largest and most diverse. You could start with a free site, or free trial, to get comfortable with the idea, although Dawn Royski, who blogs about home exchanges for www.sharetraveler.com, notes that free sites tend to end up with a lot of inactive members. Before joining a site, see how many listings it has in locations that interest you. Try a short swap in the U.S. before venturing abroad.
Be flexible about your destination, especially if you live in a rural or suburban area that might not be so appealing to the owner of that Tuscan villa you’ve been eyeing. You may also have to plan well in advance. Lauren Kahn, who has been swapping homes since 1990 and blogs about her experiences at Alte Cocker Travels recommends negotiating between October and January for summer swaps in Europe, and a couple of years out for swaps in Australia or New Zealand. Exchanges across shorter distances can be arranged with less notice.
Some home-exchange sites offer cancellation insurance, but if you’ve done your homework on your exchange partners, the risk of cancellation is fairly low. Think about the worst-case scenario before you opt for insurance: a change fee for your plane ticket? A few nights in a hotel? Or, if you buy comprehensive travel insurance, see which cancellation scenarios it would cover.
If you live in a condo or co-op, clear the swap with the board, and if you are a renter, tell your landlord. Your homeowners insurer may be lenient in swapping situations, says Spencer Houldin, of Ericson Insurance Advisors, in Washington Depot, Conn., but check to be sure. Generally, as long as you give your guests permission to drive your car, your auto insurance will cover them—but call your insurer to confirm.
Prepare a binder for your guests with information on everything from how to operate your coffeemaker to the person to call in a plumbing emergency. Clarify whether you expect them to water plants, look after pets or chip in for utility bills. Substitute cheap dishes so your guests don’t break fine china, and lock up valuables and private documents.