NEW YORK — A passion to see the world and experience it on its own terms is what drives Shelley Seale to travel. A freelance writer, her work has appeared in many media outlets, like US Today, National Geographic and CNN.com. She is also the author of the moving book about orphans and homeless children in India entitled The Weight of Silence.
We catch up with her as her latest book, co-authored with Keith Hajovsky, How To Travel For Free (or Pretty Damn Near It!) makes it debut. A breezy read, the book offers practical advice on saving money, much of it culled from Seale and Hajovsky’s own travel experiences, in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
In the book, the authors write extensively about home exchanges (whereby you swap your own home for someone else’s in another spot in the world, thereby eliminating the need for hotels, inns and hostels).
Since home exchanges are one of the best ways to stay for free and one that Seale not only advocates but prefers, we sat down and asked her all about it.
First, how’d you get started with home exchanges?
In July 2007 I attended a month-long writing workshop in Prague, Czech Republic. When planning that trip I decided it would be a lot nicer to have an apartment for the month, rather than stay in a hotel. I had come across information about home exchanges before, and did some searching and contacting potential exchangers for that visit. While I didn’t end up making an exchange in Prague (I rented an apartment for the month, much nicer and less expensive than a hotel for a week!), I did end up finding several other exchanges around Europe that summer. I added another month to the Prague portion of my trip, and did home exchanges in Paris, Berlin and Venice. This enabled me to visit, and stay, in those cities completely for free – all it cost me was the 30-50 Euros for trains or airfare on one of Europe’s low-cost airlines to get there!
Have you ever met the people you have done exchanges with?
Yes, a few times. Since that summer of 2007, I have done at least a dozen more home exchanges. Most of the time I don’t meet the people; you arrange ahead of time for keys, picked up from neighbors usually, and all the pertinent household/neighborhood information. However, I have met a few times. Once I did a simultaneous exchange with a family from Los Angeles – they arrived at my home in Austin, and I met them there before I boarded my flight later that day to stay at their home in LA. I have also met my exchange partners in Portland, Oregon when we did a non-simultaneous exchange. I stayed in the first-floor apartment of their historic home while they were also at home, in their second-floor apartment, in September 2009. Then in February 2010 they came to Austin and stayed in my house, while I visited family for the weekend.
Have you done multiple exchanges with the same family yet?
Not yet, although I have stayed in contact with several people where we are both interested in doing another future exchange. Those are really nice for more nearby, drivable destinations – for me, down at the Gulf Coast or in the Hill Country. In other places of the country, nearby destinations such as Seattle/Portland or Manhattan/Upstate New York make great weekend getaways for multiple exchanges.
How do you prepare your home prior to an exchange moving in? What kind of instructions, if any, do you leave?
I leave the home clean, of course, with clean sheets on the bed and towels in the bathroom. Just the way you would for any guest visiting your home. I have a two-page Word document that I leave at the house and also email to my exchange partners. This has all the pertinent information such as my wireless Internet network, how to work the thermostat and television, when trash days are, etc. Other people have left me information about their alarm system, watering plants and things like that. Basically anything about your house that needs to be explained. Sometimes exchangers agree to look after one another’s pets, and then of course that information is left. I also leave information about Austin, including maps, visitor information and restaurant menus; most of my exchange partners leave local information like that as well. That’s one of the great benefits of home exchange – local insider tips. I have had some great meals at places that were very much OFF the tourist path, frequented only by locals and at local, not tourist, prices – based on my exchange partners’ recommendations of their favorite spots.
Have you experienced any outlandish asks on either end, like “take care of my sister’s cobra”?
I think a cobra might be a deal-breaker for me! I haven’t had anything outlandish like that, but this past summer we did an exchange where the cat climbed a tree in the backyard and couldn’t get down. An impromptu kitty rescue was added to our list of adventures on that trip!
Have you ever come home from a trip to find your house less than what it was —cleanliness wise — than when you left?
Nope! Nearly 20 exchanges and I have never had a bad experience. We generally strip the beds and put the used linens and towels in the laundry room for each other upon leaving, and of course leave the place clean like we found it. I have never had any problems whatsoever, and in fact have had some of the best travel experiences of my life through home exchange – and met some very interesting people including film producers, art collectors and wine buyers. Only one time have I ever had something broken – one exchange partner accidentally broke the showerhead, and she told me about it and paid for a new one.
Are there any valuables you take with you or lock up prior to leaving your house?
One of the first questions people usually ask me about home exchanging is if I’m afraid of the security, or of people stealing from me. Well, if someone is going to rob your house there are a lot easier ways than going through a home exchange to do it! You are really at much greater risk of having your home robbed while going off on vacation and leaving it unoccupied actually; in fact, you’re much more likely to be robbed staying in a hotel while you are on vacation than from the person exchanging homes with you. I have never heard of such a thing happening. Most people have a filing cabinet or something that is locked, where they have any important or sensitive personal files and information. I have stayed in homes where they have a locked closet, where I imagine they have stored anything they want to protect such as jewelry or furs or artwork. That is really very easy to do.
Do you leave any tokens of thanks to the people you do the exchange with?
Many times I have left a small box of chocolates or a bottle of wine. I always leave a note thanking them. Usually I will leave a bottle of wine or something in my house, to welcome my exchange partners when they arrive.
Is there a country or type of travel experience you wouldn’t recommend doing a home exchange in?
I’m not sure – I think personally, I would just go on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you have a home with lots of breakables or that is otherwise not conducive to children, you might not want to do exchanges with larger families. The bottom line is, at the beginning you exchange emails and phone calls with your potential exchange partner, to determine if it’s a good fit and you feel comfortable about everything. If there’s anything questionable to you or that doesn’t feel right, that is when I would back out.
Do any of the home exchange website do any screening? Or charge any fees to users?
I have used HomeExchange.com for most of my exchanges, with Diggsville.com for a couple of them. These sites do not do screenings themselves, but offer a number of resources for members. And of course, your information about your home and yourself is completely confidential until you reveal it to an exchange partner. HomeExchange.com offers a section with Exchange Agreements at https://www.homeexchange.com/gb_appendix.php, and a Six Chapter primer on the ABCs of exchanging at https://www.homeexchange.com/gb_1.php. Membership is $10/month.
Can you talk a little about the home exchange experience in general, what you’ve gotten out of that maybe you wouldn’t have if you’d stayed instead, say, in a hotel. What would you have missed?
There are three huge advantages to home exchange. First is the one that draws most people initially – the cost. Exchanging homes provides completely free accommodations, anywhere from a few nights to even several weeks or months. What other form of travel would enable you to stay in a two-bedroom high rise condominium in Manhattan for two weeks, or a three-bedroom home in San Francisco for a week, completely for free?
But the other benefits soon prove just as attractive. You are living in a real neighborhood, with the full taste and experience of a resident – not in the tourist area crammed full of hotels. For me, this greatly improves the travel experience.
I spent two weeks in Paris in an adorable flat in Le Marais, buying bread each morning at the corner patisserie and strolling through my favorite park on the way home.
Also, by staying in a real home (whether that is a studio apartment or a four-bedroom house) you have access to a kitchen, giving you the ability to cook meals or at least just keep things such as breakfast, lunch or snack items on hand. This is not only much more convenient, but also a huge money-saver, especially for families.
And as mentioned, you have the opportunity for meeting some very interesting people in your exchange partners (even if it’s only virtually), and getting insider information on your destination, such as favorite neighborhood restaurants and local attractions that aren’t in any guidebook.
An inveterate traveler, Andrea Poe writes frequently about travel for national and international publications. The title of her column, Raven’s Eye, is a nod to her spirited and quirky relation Edgar Allan Poe, who knew a thing or two about discovering the unusual. You can email Andrea at andcpoe at gmail dot com or follow her travel notes as andpoe on Twitter.
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