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Swap Your Way to a Dream Vacation

Fay Johnson

By Paula Derrow

As I mentioned in my last post, there are many benefits to exchange. I’m writing this from Rome, where I’m staying for free in a friend’s lovely, two-bedroom apartment in the impossibly atmospheric neighborhood of Trastevere. Out my window, colorful clothing dries from lines over narrow streets and the 14th and 15th century buildings glow yellow in the incomparable Italian light. How did I get here? Well, I invited this Roman friend to camp out at my place in New York City, for an equal length of time, when I went off on my honeymoon. (To underscore the beauty of this agreement, the average cost of a mid-level hotel room near Rome’s historic center hovers around $200 and hotels in New York City go for much more.

But you don’t need a friend with well-located digs to stay for free in an exotic locale. I love the site Homeforexchange.com. Over the past decade, I have used the site to swap for an apartment in Rio during Carnival and a beach house near Sao Paolo (yes, all for my relatively modest 650 square foot apartment in NYC) and a condo in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, complete with a roof deck and view of the ocean. And this year, my husband and I are looking forward to spending a few weeks in a restored 17th century farmhouse in the Loire Valley in May, and in a Greek villa on the island of Syros. (With an infinity pool!)

People often ask me if I’m nervous about doing these swaps; if I worry about someone damaging my things. I tend to be a trusting sort, but even if I wasn’t, the fact that both parties are sharing each other’s homes lends a certain guaranteed respectfulness to the deal. That, and I do my homework. I email extensively with my potential swappers, I Google them, and usually, we Skype and talk by phone, too. By the end of the process, we’ve often become friends.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few things in the process. First and foremost, I stick with older swappers, and by that, I mean people who are well out of their 20s and likely not inclined to be big partiers. I also lock away anything I’m worried about (important papers; jewelry; etc.). Other than that, I’ve typed up a list of instructions (“Don’t run the air conditioner and a blow dryer at the same time, or the fuse will blow!”); jotted down lists of my favorite neighborhood markets, restaurants and attractions; and collected some current guidebooks for my guests. In return, I get the benefit of their insider tips—and get a distinctly un-touristy view of wherever I happen to be.

There are home-swapping sites galore these days (you can read about a few of them here; I also list my place on sabbaticalhomes.com, a swap site for writers, artists and academics looking for free, longer-term stays. Our editor, Fay, often rents her home in Oakland via the site Airbnb.com – she's had great success too, and earned money to support the growth of this magazine.

Of course, there are many more opportunities to share or swap your way to an experience you couldn’t otherwise afford. From sites like openshed.com, which offers opportunities to rent or borrow everything from hedge clippers to kayaks, to sites like dogvacay.com, which lets pet lovers lodge Fido in a loving private home, the sharing economy is taking the country by storm.

Clearly, it’s time to start thinking beyond dollars and cents and getting what you want through traditional businesses. What have you got to offer?