Tuesday, July 5, 2022
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How to Travel for Free with Home Exchange


FIRECracker
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World’s best sunset from the shores of Zadar, Croatia where we experienced our first home exchange

TV show guest: “Back in my day, we didn’t have video games. The only toys we had were chalk that we used to draw on a sidewalk”

Eric (*incredulous*): “You had chalk?”

Me (*even more incredulous*): “You had a SIDEWALK?”

I never expected to find my country bumpkin doppelganger in Miami, but that’s exactly what happened when I met my Airbnb host several years ago.

A flight attendant who grew up in southern Kentucky, Eric had a surprisingly similar childhood to mine, despite being born on the opposite side of the world. We spent many nights, laughing, drinking, and chatting until 3 am in the morning. We even met his family and made plans to travel together.  

Those were the good old days of Airbnb. Back when it was someone’s home, and hosts treated you like family.  Since then, it’s gotten super commercialized, and Airbnbs are ghost hotels rather than homes because no one actually lives there.

I never thought I’d have that kind of personalized experience again, until recently.

Enter HomeExchange.

Started by teachers, with the predicament of having long-ass vacations that stretch out over the summer, they wanted a way to travel without blowing all their hard-earned money on hotels.

The concept is simple. You stay in someone else’s home, they stay in yours. No money changes hands, and you become part of a thriving community of open-minded travellers who want to make friends instead of money. The only cost to you is the $175 USD yearly membership fee, used to pay for insurance, server resources, and staff to maintain the platform.

What I love about the HomeExchange platform is their GuestPoints system. Even if you can’t find a one-to-one exchange, GuestPoints let you do multi-directional swaps.

For example: Say you live in L.A and want to travel to Switzerland (the only place more expensive), but your Switzerland host wants to go to Paris (where foie gras will still cost less than a burger back home). Simply give them GuestPoints instead. Your Switzerland host can spend the points to stay in a Parisian home and you can you earn GuestGoints by letting someone from New York stay in your L.A home.

To find out who wants to travel to your area, simply use the “Reverse Search” feature.

So, how do you decide how many GuestPoints per night your place is worth? Generally, it scales according to its size, rather than location. So, for a 1 bedroom, you’d most likely list for 80-120 points per night, and a 2 bedroom 150-200 points per night. From what I’ve seen, guests don’t generally jack up the points just because they live in a desirable city. They might add some more points for extra amenities like a pool or gym, but generally it’s reasonable and not driven by greed.

The points can’t be redeemed for cash. They are simply used as a mechanism for multi-way exchanges.

HomeExchange has also adopted the best parts of Airbnb, which are its rating systems and the insurance policy, so you can see how well a guest is rated before letting them stay in your home. The platform is also very easy and fun to use.

In addition, there’s also added peace of mind in the form of a damage deposit. Once you finalize an exchange, you automatically authorize a $500 USD deposit on your credit card, and after you check-out, the host releases the authorization.

And if that’s not enough, just like Airbnb, HomeExchange has insurance to cover up to $1,000,000 of damages beyond the $500 USD.

So far, the customer service at HomeExchange has impressed me more than Airbnb’s. Over the years, Airbnb service has gone downhill because they’re way too big now and everything feels outsourced.  Because HomeExchange is a smaller platform (450,000 homes in 159 countries versus Airbnb’s 5.6 million homes in 220 countries), they can provide a more engaged experience and service.

I’ve also found that guests on HomeExchange aren’t as entitled since their stay is free, so they tend to take good care of the place and clean up after themselves as a thank you.

Plus, since you are staying in their home or using points to stay in someone else’s, there’s this reciprocity factor where both parties are incentivized to take care of each other’s places. It’s pretty common to hear stories of AirBnb guests trashing a host’s place, but extremely rare for that to happen on HomeExchange.

The best part, in my opinion, of HomeExchange is the personal touch.

When we met our host, Boris, in Croatia to get the keys, he took us out for coffee and we had a nice hour-long chat, bonding over our shared engineering backgrounds.

When we arrive in his apartment in Zadar, he left us 3 bottles of home-made liqueur with a heart-warming note describing what each is made of and to help ourselves.

He then introduced me to his neighbour remotely via WhatsApp. When I mentioned I was looking for a rental car, but they were all so expensive, his neighbour offered to loan us a rental car (since his friend works there) and to drive us to and from the airport to pick it up! Wow.

And then when we went back to Zagreb to give the keys back to my host, we took his family out for lunch and had another wonderful chat about travel.

Our next home exchange was in Zagreb. The host was already on vacation and wasn’t there to meet us, but left handy instructions about their home and helpful restaurants and entertainment recommendations. They even left us a full fridge of craft beer and told us to help ourselves! I’ve never had that happen on AirBnb.

One of the many cans of delicious local craft beer provided by our host

Plus, I saved a whopping $2200 for 22 nights in two HomeExchanges! Given the $175 USD yearly membership, my cost averaged out to only $7.95 USD per night! And any additional HomeExchanges I do for the rest of the year will be completely free.

Living room of our bright and airy HomeExchange in Zagreb, Croatia
Well-stocked kitchen with all the spices and condiments you need

HomeExchange feels like what Airbnb used to be 10 years ago, and I’m so happy I discovered it. Plus, you can even swap cars too, which is super useful, given how hard it is to find rental cars.

Now, as with everything in life, nothing is perfect, so here are a few cons to HomeExchange

Cleaning

Since no money is being exchanged, you’ll have to clean the place before you leave. Now, I know some readers will think “yeah, but I don’t want to clean on my vacation”. Which is fine, but considering that you’re paying nothing to stay here, a little bit of cleaning isn’t a bit deal. Plus, if you’re doing long term slow travel, it isn’t a vacation and you generally clean your own home on a regular basis anyway, it’s not that different. However, if you’d rather just pay the money and not worry about cleaning, stick with AirBnb and hotels.

When I left my Zadar home exchange, I washed the bedding and towels before I left. For the Zagreb home exchange, my host told me to remove the bedding and just leave it on a pile on the bed. So, be sure to ask your host what they would like you to do when you check-out.

Effort

The biggest disadvantage is the effort required to secure a home exchange. To find an exchange where your hosts’ travel dates align with yours, you’re going to have to send a lot of messages. In our case, it took around 10-15 requests to secure one exchange. With AirBnb, you simply just send one request, pay, and you’re done.  

That being said, you can increase your chances of securing an exchange by filtering the search criteria to find secondary/vacation homes, so that you don’t have to worry about the host needing their primary place to live in during your travel dates.

The way I see it, it’s a bit like travel hacking where you can get points to fly for free but it does require some effort to sign up for the right credit cards, keep track of the points, and spend time calling banks when they don’t credit your points correctly.  It requires effort but is worth it in the end.

(As I write this, Wanderer is glaring at me, saying “that’s not what you said last time when HSBC lost your points.” Stupid hubby. Why does he always have to call me out on my bullshit?)

Less Choice

Since HomeExchange is a smaller platform than Airbnb, you’ll have less homes to choose from, but there’s still a big pool of 450,000 homes in 159 countries.

Because of the limitations of HomeExchange, you’ll still need to use AirBnb from time to time. Despite its flaws, AirBnb is still the best platform when it comes to flexibility and convenience.

If you have a specific location in mind, a fixed schedule, and you don’t want the hassle of messaging people in the community and trying to make friends, AirBnb is the better choice.

But for those with more flexible travel dates and locations, HomeExchange is a better option.

You’ll get a much more personal experience. Plus, your stay will be in someone’s actual home and you’ll have a full kitchen with all the utensils and condiments.

It’s best to use HomeExchange for expensive big cities because the guest points don’t increase to reflect the desirability of the location. It mostly just scales according to size and amenities.

Use Airbnb for less expensive places, like Thailand or Mexico, because Airbnb nightly costs are cheap there anyways. Kind of like how you want to save your frequent flyer points for expensive long haul flights and pay with cash for cheap, domestic flights.

If you want to travel for free using HomeExchange, you can use my referral link to get 250 guest points just for signing up. You’ll get an additional 100 guest points for completing and publishing your home profile. And finally, you’ll get 150 Guest Points after you activate your membership and pay the yearly fee. This adds up to 500 guest points, which is approximately 5 nights of free accommodation! The best thing is, you don’t have to pay for the membership until you successfully find a match and finalize it. After that, all subsequent exchanges are free for the rest of the year.

What do you think? Have you ever used HomeExchange? Would you use it?



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