Home exchange holidays may not be for everyone, but there’s really no reason why that should be when you consider how wonderful they are
Dreaming of a holiday in France this year? What would you say to a roomy flat with a swimming pool in the centre of Cannes? How about spending a relaxing couple of weeks in a farmhouse in the rolling countryside in Normandy, waking up to the distant lowing of contented French cattle? Or a 3-bedroom apartment in Paris in the Latin Quarter, with tall ceilings in a grand 19th-century building?
And the best part is that you can have them all at a cost of nothing at all, except for little more than your transportation there and back. Sounds too good to be true?
With the costs of a family holiday proving challenging in these straightened times, many are turning to an alternative way of enjoying a holiday abroad without going through the standard routes and without it costing anything like the normal costs of a holiday abroad. The only catch is that you allow a stranger to come and stay in your house while they open their doors to you.
This basic principle of home exchange is already enough to put some people off the whole idea, but the truth is that you will have been corresponding so much over the course of the months leading up to the day of exchange that you will have accumulated a huge amount of information about your home exchange people and will have spoken with them, maybe by Skype. When you do meet your fellow exchanger, you don’t so much feel like you’re meeting a stranger as meeting an old friend.
You can, of course, go almost anywhere in the world, but France is one of the best countries to choose, as it turns out. First of all, it’s relatively cheap to get there and won’t take you too long. Secondly, you have the wide range of climate and scenery that’s in France – from the splendour of Paris to the wild west Breton coast, the Atlantic sandy beaches of Vendée, the Alpine Lakes, the Loire Valley and the different parts of the Mediterranean Coast. Thirdly, France has one of the widest ranges of properties on the books of home exchange companies and Intervac alone has about 1,700 available listings of French home-exchangers.
We caught the home exchange bug when our children were still small and we’ve done it five times. We’ve really enjoyed each one of them, but in the beginning, we tackled this unique approach with some trepidation. After brief research, we signed up to Intervac. They’re the original of the species in this field, having been founded over 60 years ago by a group of Swiss and Dutch teachers, seemingly looking to solve that conundrum particular to teachers of what to do with all the free time in the summer.
Frank Kelly of Intervac Ireland, has been exchanging for over 30 years. Back in those pre-internet days, most correspondence was done by letter and when you got an offer, you tended to act on it immediately, even if it wasn’t your first choice. Which is why the Kelly’s themselves ended up going to Sweden on their first year, instead of their intended destination of France. They enjoyed their 5 weeks in Gothenburg so much, however, that they actually returned there the following year.
“Since the internet came along, there’s been an explosion in the number of home exchange companies,” says Frank. When he first got involved in this non-profit business back in the early 1970s, it was all done through a thick catalogue that could only be updated once or twice a year. Now, it’s all instantaneous and it has become easier to set up a database for home exchange. (Be warned, however, that some of the newer home exchange companies make mention of the number of members they have, without making it clear that only a percentage of that number are actually active at any given time.)
Frank has found that, not only has the personal contact forged long-lasting friendships over the years, but it has also done so for his children and even his neighbours : On one occasion, his neighbours got on so well with a Danish family who had come to stay in Frank’s house, that they themselves became friendly and exchanged homes.
Similarly, we have stayed in touch with our “Intervac friends” over the years, exchanging Christmas cards or even hooking up for dinner if we happen to be returning to the country on another occasion.
There is also a lot of flexibility with the system of home exchange and you can set your own conditions of how you want to work it. You might want to swap cars, for example, or the use of a boat or a caravan might be part of the deal. On one occasion, for example, we targeted larger houses so that we could operate a joint holiday with my wife’s brother’s family as well. We exchanged with a family in Brittany, who, in return, also brought their parents along with their own children to our house.
Experience teaches you to improve your own welcome pack, which should include details for the locality such as where to shop, where to eat, where to find the pre-warned neighbours for any query they might have. We would normally leave out a bottle of wine and some food so as not to have the visitors go hungry or thirsty on the first night.
You also arrive from your journeying at a house which is somebody’s home – a home which is fully furnished, warm and welcoming in a way that a hotel or a rental apartment can’t be and one which will invariably have refreshments on the table and a fridge containing food and beer.
Pet care is something that you may also want to organise on your house exchange. Many members are willing to do this but if you don’t want the hassle of feeding a cat or walking a dog while on holiday, you can specify this from the outset.
In my experience, I’ve had no more than the responsibility of looking after hens and rabbits (which the children particularly enjoyed), but Frank Kelly once famously agreed to look after a cat, a dog and a horse for one man in a village in France. While care of the smaller animals proved only a minor challenge, he managed to temporarily “lose” the horse, who decided to take advantage of the absence of his owner and go for a wander in the locality (the horse, that is, not Frank!). The animal was found soon afterwards, munching green grass in a nearby campsite and was persuaded to return home.
Apart from such rare incidents, however, the course of home exchange runs in a smooth and satisfactory manner. We have now exchanged homes a total of five times and there has never been a problem of any significance. On the contrary, we’ve had some great family holidays, we’ve got to see some countries that we wouldn’t have normally considered (such as Holland in the Spring – superb!) and we’ve made friends all over the continent. We’ve also met some of their friends, shared barbecues and some slowly-explained jokes with them and been shown around the locality by people on the ground.
When you go on a house-exchange holiday, you don’t just go and see the main highlights, you also immerse yourself fully in the place that you visit and come away with a truly enriching experience. Once you try, you’ll find it hard to ever go back to package holidays again.
Click here for information INTERVAC’s website, with listings that you can browse through to get an idea of the number of homes on offer. You can sign up on a trial basis at no cost to see just how fantastic the range of properties there are out there.
Beter still, why not enter our great free-to-enter competition? Click here to win a free membership of Intervac for 15 months worth €100
(Main picture: me and my family with the Breton family from Vannes meeting at Lorient Airport)
Below: Intervac Video