When you’re weighing your options for accommodations in Canada, don’t overlook the possibility of a house swap.
A growing number of international visitors to Canada have discovered the joys of home exchange—the pennywise way to indulge a voracious travel bug.
There’s no place like home–especially when you’re on the road. With a house swap, you get access to a kitchen and often a car, and the money you save on a place to sleep can be used to stretch your travel experiences.
It doesn’t cost a cent to check out the listings, and it makes for a fun evening to “window shop” online.
Just key in your dream destination, your approximate travel dates and the number of beds you’re looking for; when you find something that appeals, you’ll register to begin a correspondence with the owner of that property.
In the past few years, I’ve successfully swapped homes with families in Paris and Berlin. Except for the cost of airline tickets to my destination, I spent hardly more on my vacation than if I’d stayed home.
It takes a bit of time and a lot of trust—but the rewards go way beyond the bottom line: when you’re king of someone else’s castle, you’re guaranteed a close-up view of Canadian culture.
Here are my top tips for arranging a successful home exchange:
- Adjust your trust: The first thing you’re going to have come to terms with is the idea of welcoming strangers into your home–when you’re not there. But think about it: is someone going to spend $150 to register with an exchange agency–not to mention the cost of airline tickets–just so they can rip you off? Unlikely. The people who go through the minor hassle of signing up with an exchange agency want exactly what you want: an affordable vacation in an interesting part of the world. They’re not after your jewellery. Mutual trust is the bedrock of successful home exchange, so if you’re someone who doubts the essential goodness of humanity, you might want to book into a hotel instead.
- Start early: Home exchange can be done last minute–experienced exchangers do it all the time. But when you’re just learning the ropes, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to get sorted. Many exchangers like to wrap up their summer travel plans by the end of the January. The earlier you start looking, the better your chance of finding a good match.
- Focus your search…I keep saying it: Canada is a huge country. You won’t be able to see it all in one three-week pass. Pick a region that appeals–French-Canada, for example, or the Maritimes–and then consult a map to find communities within those regions. Ideally you’ll choose a destination that can serve as a hub for your regional explorations.
- …but cultivate a spirit of serendipity: The French family that accepted our exchange offer a few years ago had never even heard of our tiny island community when we approached them. It was never on their radar–but they were intrigued once we put it there. While it’s perfectly acceptable to zero in on a certain location for your exchange, it’s good to leave your destination open when possible and let the world surprise you.
- Be proactive: Finding a house exchange is a bit like dating: you have to get out there and meet as many new people as possible on the off chance that you will meet “the one.” If you just sit home in your pyjamas, your chances of finding a match are significantly reduced. So commit to the process and reach out to every listing that appeals to you…and even one or two that don’t. You never know what will develop!
- Sell, but don’t oversell: Craft the description of your home and community with care: you need to sell (but never over-sell) what your town has to offer. And don’t despair if you live in a little-known backwater: it could be someone’s idea of holiday heaven.
- Remember your manners: Once you sign up with a home exchange agency, you are obliged to observe a few basic rules of etiquette, the first and most important being: RSVP. It is rude to ignore an exchange request. I don’t know about the other agencies, but Homelink sends an alert advising that you have new mail, and also makes it easy to say no with a one-click “Thanks, but no thanks” button. And once you’ve committed to an exchange, it’s unacceptable to change your mind for a better offer. Sure, things can happen that necessitate a change of plans, but refer to point 1 and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone left you on the hook with $5,000 worth of airline tickets and nowhere to stay once you arrived. And just like your mom taught you, leave a note of thanks and even a small gesture like a bottle of wine or box of chocolates at the beginning and end of your exchange.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate: Talking helps build trust. Once you’ve started to dance with a potential home exchange partner, you will likely enjoy a steady stream of back-and-forth correspondence while you figure out whether your plans mesh. It’s during this uncommitted period that you really get a sense of the personalities involved. (We had one very strange correspondence with a person who we quickly determined we didn’t want to let anywhere near our lives, let alone our home.) Once you’ve committed to an exchange, you will likely share all sorts of contact info, including your personal e-dresses and cell phone numbers. Expect a flurry of communication–all those last-minute details–in the week or two leading up to the exchange.
- Sign a contract: I don’t know about the other agencies, but Homelink offers a handy on-line template for documenting your expectations and agreements about your home exchange. For example, since we have an excellent and inexpensive international long-distance plan, we agreed to let our French guests make long-distance calls on our home line to a maximum of $10, after which they would be required to reimburse us. Who knows if it would stand up in court, but it does help to clarify those messy details.
- Write a book: This is time-consuming, but you only have to do it once: write the book about your home and community. Don’t take it for granted that your guests will know how to clean the lint trap on your dryer or when to take the recycling to the curb-side. We told our French guests where to find the trailhead to a favourite secret beach, where to buy organic vegetables, and who to call on for local advice; they told us how to save on transit costs by forgoing the tourist passes and buying a weekly Metro pass used by Parisian commuters. We both included local guidebooks, maps and tourism brochures in our “house books”. Keep the book on your computer so you can update it quickly for every exchange.
- Buff it up: Even if you’re not a natural neat-nik, you should become one for the few weeks before and during your home exchange. You don’t have to repaint your house or buy new furniture, but you do have to clean to a higher standard: dust shelves and tables, wash floors, vacuum carpets, scrub sinks, toilets and tubs. (It’s also helpful to empty a drawer or two and make a little space in your bedroom closet for your guest’s clothes.) Make your house sparkle–and then make it clear to your guests that you’d like to find it exactly as you left it. Be specific about your expectations: we were asked to strip and remake the beds with fresh sheets before we left the Paris flat. We also swapped housekeeping services with our French family. If you have a housekeeper, consider asking them to continue during your time away; that way you’ll guarantee you’ll come home to a spic-and-span house.
- If it’s broke, fix it: You know that funny burnt-rubber smell coming from the dryer these days? Or those rotten boards on the deck that threaten to collapse every time you use the barbecue? Now would be a good time to fix that stuff. You know you need to do it, and there’s nothing like a deadline–or the spectre of liability–to focus the mind.
- Review your insurance: Talk to your insurance broker about your exchange plans. It shouldn’t be an issue given that most companies are happy to know your house won’t be standing empty while you’re on vacation. If you’ve agreed to swap cars, your existing insurance should cover the guest driver, but check with your insurer. In our contract with our French family, we agreed that they would compensate us for the deductible and for any increase in our premiums if they had an accident. (They didn’t.) We also opted to pay a few extra dollars to Homelink for insurance that would cover us for expenses if our exchange fell through at the last minute and we had to pay for hotels and car rentals.
- Leave your expectations at home: Travel essayist Pico Iyer says he likes to read everything he can about his destination before he gets on the plane–and then forget it all the minute he steps off. In my experience, the less you expect of your holiday the more satisfying it will be. Home exchange is particularly suited to the come-what-may traveller. Live like a local much as you’re able, and you’re sure to stumble across surprises unknown to any guidebook.
>>When you’ve booked your home exchange, save even more money by booking a budget flight to Canada!
>>Have you enjoyed a successful home exchange in Canada? Please share your experience and/or advice below…or feel free to ask any questions you may have.