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Free hotels: Swapping houses means great savings for vacations

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Shelley Miller, writer and home exchange expert, and her family have enjoyed 15 home swaps in 13 years. This photo is of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a home exchange villa she stayed in last year. They had a maid, a driver and a gardener.

Courtesy Shelley Miller

When Sara Tetreault in Portland, Ore., first heard about home exchanges in 2004, she thought it sounded awesome.

A friend told her about a friend who swapped homes for a week with somebody in San Francisco — for free.

"It sounded awesome," she says, "Then I thought, 'Wait a minute. How did they do this?'"

Tetreault found a home exchange company on the Internet and signed up. It wasn't exactly free, but the $100 annual membership was less than one night in a hotel.

It wasn't long before a couple in Paris contacted her and asked if she would be interested in an exchange.

"I said yes immediately," Tetreault says.

Then she told her husband.

"I just thought, 'No way!'" her husband Brad recalls. "Why would we do that? It was just so foreign, the whole idea. We just can't have people in our house. She definitely had to talk me into it."

For many home swappers, the economy talked them into trying it. A pre-summer 2013 study by American Express found that 31 percent of travelers planned to spend more than $1,000 per person summer vacations. The total expected summer travel expenses averaged $1,145 per person — or about $4,580 for a family of four.

In an era of rising lodging fees, one home exchange company, LoveHomeSwapp.com, says its members "save an average of $3,487 per vacation." That doesn't mean, however, that the vacationer would have spent that much if they hadn't swapped homes.

Who does this?

Ed Kushins, founder and CEO of HomeExchange.com, says in an email exchange with the Deseret News that more than any other period in time, people are making travel a part of their lives. "But because of the economy," he says, "they are looking for ways to do so inexpensively."

He also says the other reason people choose to do home exchanges is because of the growing sharing economy: "People are looking for more eco/green-friendly ways to do things, and by exchanging and sharing items, such as your home, bicycle, car, etc., you essentially reduce your carbon footprint."

A recent study of HomeExchange.com members by Italy's University of Bergamo found that 62 percent of home exchangers had a high level of education, 98 percent are interested in cultural heritage, 84 percent visit parks and museums and 73 percent say organic food is important to them.

Why do this?

Sara Tetreault is a frugal-living writer who blogs about "stylishly frugal living" at GoGingham.com, so cost was one of the big attractions for her back in 2004. Her husband, Brad, however, was still not convinced that letting strangers from Paris in their home was a good idea and was worried about all their valuables.

"If you could look around our house you could see there are no valuables," she says. "The most valuable thing in our house is the people who live there. But we were not going to be there. We were going to be in Paris having a fabulous vacation."

Kushins with HomeExchange.com says the fear about personal belongings being safe is one of the biggest challenges the company has. "If you think you'll be worried about your home the entire time you're on your vacation," he says, "it's likely not for you."

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