2011 MUST DO: Home Exchange

The World Is Your Address.

When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is invariably heading to a travel web site to troll the endless hotel listings. Usually the most expensive element of any one- or two-week trip, lodging doesn’t have to mean shelling out thousands to a sub-par hotel chain or choosing a vacation that requires you to suck up to your prickly aunt with the nice lake house.

Clinton, Montana - IVHE

Home exchange sites have been a mainstay for travel web sites for years, but they have come a long way from being bulletin boards for desperate suburbanites looking to trade out of tract housing hell. These days a number of different services offer great deals for travelers interested in going to great locations and using their own home as a way to do it.

Amsterdam - Home Around the World

Seasoned home exchangers scoff at the usual fears brought up by would-be travelers: will my valuables be safe from strangers? What will I find on the other end once I get there? A great place to start is KnowYourTrade.com, a home exchange directory that tracks the usability of a number of home exchange sites, walks first-timers through what they can expect and ranks sites based on everything from cost to the number of listings.

The market is dominated by some big players, such as HomeExchange.com, which has been around since 1992 and currently boasts 25,000 listings, and the granddaddy of them all, Intervac, which has been in existence since the Eisenhower Administration but has been a major force on the Web for over a decade with more than 10,000 listings. While the larger sites offer a wide variety of apartments, condos and homes, going with a more specific home exchange site may allow travelers to focus on what they want or need from a vacation swap.

Here are just a few found that cater to all different kinds of travelers.

SabbaticalHomes.com: Created in 2000 by the spouse of an academic, SabbaticalHomes started as a site where college professors looking to travel during their sabbaticals could list their homes during their year or several months away, but has developed into a service that also includes short-term swaps and rentals. Leafy college town listings abound along with homes near major universities, which makes for good urban travel opportunities. Posting a property for 14 months costs $35 for academics and $50 for anyone else. It’s free for academics to post a home wanted listing and $15 for non-academics. The service does expect a contribution of at least $50 for every successful arrangement however, even if it is not mandatory.

Spain - Home Around the World

HomeAroundtheWorld.com: A relatively new site, the UK-based HomeAroundtheWorld was designed as a predominantly gay and lesbian home exchange, although it features plenty of straight but gay friendly listings. This site just may prove true the “Will & Grace” stereotype that gay men are likely to have charming apartments close to the more fabulous neighborhoods in town. The site also promotes room exchanges and prides itself (pun intended) on its hospitality exchanges, where members host guests and the favor is repaid later at a mutually convenient time. The site is currently offering a five-year membership for about $65.

Switchhome.org: Unlike most other sites, Switchome is a not-for-profit site that does not charge an annual fee and provides all services for free. With 3,500 listings, the primarily French-language site is a great service for travelers interested in visiting France and Quebec. Other free services include exchangezones.com and Itamos.

Exclusive Exchanges: Long the purview of mid-market travelers, one of the hottest areas of growth in the home exchange market is luxury listings. Exclusive Exchanges features larger, more expensive homes that have been pre-approved by the site, which does not allow listings for rental-only properties to keep things in the home exchange spirit. Annual membership runs $159, while membership with one hour of concierge service (which can book flights, rental cars, tours and other reservations) goes for $195.

Algave Guia - IVHE

VHE.com: International Vacation Home Exchange is another high-end service, but IVHE works on a credit system for exchanges.

Properties are valued at $100 per credit per weekly stay, so a weekly rental property valued at $1,000 is worth ten credits. Depending on the level of service, members can purchase anywhere from 6 to 50 credits for $40 each. IVHE takes a 7 percent fee, so a $1,000 stay would result in a $70 fee.

This is in addition to a $125 one-time setup fee and annual dues that run from about $74 to $375. This is if your property is approved by IVHE (be prepared, you’ll need references attesting to the fact that your home is truly luxury).