A vacation in the U.K. may seem out of reach during this recession, but if you’re yearning to visit the land of castles, pubs, roundabouts and ancient churches, here’s a way to do it cheaply: Exchange your home and car for a Brit’s. You’ll still be buying food and gasoline, but your lodging and travel within the country will be free.
Sound crazy? My husband and I have made four successful exchanges and are about to embark on our fifth, this time to Scotland. The Brits coming to stay in our house have exchanged more than 40 times — all over the world.
The cost isn’t the only appealing aspect of this type of travel. An exchange lets you relax in a cozy home and stay anchored in one location, so you can feel the rhythm of life, meet local people and discover unexpected sights and experiences. Instead of rushing out to a restaurant every night, you can shop at the grocery store and find out what the locals are eating. (Shrimp-flavored “crisps,”  anyone?) Eating simple meals in your temporary home while watching the BBC is a great way to rest after a day of sight-seeing.
We find these opportunities with the help of one of the many home-exchange organizations on the Internet. We list our home at homeexchange.com  and seniorshomeexchange.com  (for those over 50) by posting multiple photos and a long description of our house, neighborhood and area. For a small fee ($50 to $100), we get access to thousands of possible exchanges, all over the U.S. and the world. No references are required to list your home, but the organizations ask participants to file complaints as they arise, so they can remove problematic listings.
Thousands of people offer apartments, small houses, city condos, and even a few castles every year. Our home in Jericho is a funky farm-style house with two bedrooms. While not fancy, it’s comfortable with a beautiful dirt-road location. In the U.K., we look for comparable dwellings, since we like to be in small villages or rural areas. But we weren’t disappointed the time we swapped into a six-bedroom home with 14 Oriental rugs, a grand piano, and bone china for everyday meals!
I could never turn my house and car over to strangers, you say. We felt squeamish about that at first, too. But we discovered that by the time the actual exchange occurs, you no longer think of these people as “strangers.” Passing emails back and forth over several months, you come to see them as friends with whom you are plotting a wonderful experience.
We made our first exchange in 2005, with a couple in a rural village in northern England. Initially cautious and even anxious, we requested and called references. “They left our home cleaner than we make it!” was one reassuring response.
Though we discussed signing a written agreement, our exchangers said they had never done so in many exchanges, and we accepted that. We do always verbally clarify who will pay for what sorts of damages or auto breakdowns. Because no money is exchanged, our insurance covers the visitors in our car and house. For an extra sense of security, we lock financial records, valuable jewelry, small antiques and favorite mugs in a closet before we leave.
But our trust is really based on knowing the newcomers. We initiate an exchange at least six months in advance. We ask many questions, explore what the potential exchangers are looking for, and try to get a sense of who they are — asking about family members, professions, how long they’ve lived in their home, and so on. We try to warn our exchangers of negatives here — e.g., “four miles to the nearest store” — and we ask them for the same tips. In addition, on three of our trips, we arrived a day early and spent a night with our exchangers before they headed here.
Home-exchange organizations recommend not making a commitment until you feel completely OK with the people you’re inviting into your home. They also report very, very few complaints from exchangers, most of them involving people who backed out at the last minute or didn’t clearly explain their appliances or car. All of our exchanges have worked out happily.
When the exchangers arrive at our house, a bottle of wine, an easy first meal and food staples await them, along with information on our home and area, and telephone numbers of friends and repairmen. On the other side of the Atlantic, we will pick up their car at the airport — as they will ours — and drive to our new “home for a month.”
The key to an inexpensive home-exchange holiday is to avoid driving a lot more miles than you do at home or indulging more frequently in meals out. Gasoline costs more in the U.K. than it does here, but distances are shorter and cars more fuel-efficient. Moreover, the dollar buys more now against the British pound than it has for the past seven years, so it’s a deal. When it comes to the airline ticket, seek out bargains and take advantage of frequent-flyer miles.
Of course there is another cost — you’ll need to clean and organize your home before you leave. But a little spring cleaning is a small price to pay for watching primroses bloom on the Scottish highlands. Bon voyage!