National Edition

Free hotels: Swapping houses means great savings for vacations

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

Tetreault's family gave it a try, taking their young kids with them to Paris (the University of Bergamo study found that 49 percent of exchangers travel with children). Since 2004 they have swapped homes with people in Vienna, Austria; Alicante, Spain; Gouda, Netherlands; Victoria, British Columbia; Greece; San Francisco; and other places.

How to do this

Shelley Miller is a home exchange expert, which you can tell by the name of her website, HomeExchangeExpert.com. Miller says there are three types of exchanges people do.

One way is a simultaneous exchange, where the families live in each other's homes at the same time.

Another way is non-simultaneous. Miller did this when a family in Hong Kong went to Thailand and offered their empty home to her in exchange for the opportunity to visit San Diego later. When the people came to San Diego, Miller's family went to visit relatives.

The third way is hospitality exchanges where the host family is still there. Miller's husband, for example, traveled solo to Istanbul, Turkey, where he stayed with a family.

Miller says that larger exchanges, such as Home Exchange, based in California that has 44,000 members, Love Home Swap based in London that has 35,000 and Intervac based in Sweden that has 30,000, will give people more options just because of the sheer numbers of people. She says, however, that if a person wanted to exchange with somebody in France, it might be wise to find an exchange that has a lot more French members.

People can request an exchange, or like Tetreault (who used Intervac), they may have someone contact them.

Miller says she starts six months to a year before she wants to go somewhere, contacting possible exchangers. Travelers exchange emails and talk to each other over Skype. They discuss the best times and things to see. They may even, if they want, exchange signed agreements about the exchange.

"People are usually worried about having a stranger in the home," Miller says. "What happens is people don't exchange with strangers. If you don't feel a connection with somebody, you don't exchange. But if you do, by the time you exchange you've already become friends."

This doesn't mean, however, that things can't go wrong.

Exchange glitches

Tetreault says on one exchange she accidently broke not one, but two fancy wine glasses. When she called the couple staying in her home, they confessed that they had broken a toilet seat.

She says it is a good idea to check homeowners insurance and, if your exchange also involves cars, automobile insurance to make sure everything is covered.

Miller says her family went on an extended vacation in 2000, exchanging with five different families from April to August.

"The only changes, when we came home, were the cups and dishes were in different cupboards."

There are a few rare horror stories that have made the news — but most of those have been when people have rented out their homes or second homes using vacation rental websites like Airbnb or Home Away From Home.

The Tetreaults' "horror story" took place during their exchange with a couple from Gouda in The Netherlands. The couple neglected to let the family know they had chickens, so the Tetreaults had to feed the birds and gather eggs.

As it turned out, the horror turned to fun and the family liked it so much (and the fresh eggs) that they now have their own chickens in their Portland backyard.

Paris versus home

For some people, the problem might not be that they are afraid of strange Hawaiians sleeping in their bedroom, but that no self-respecting Hawaiian would ever agree to exchange to stay in their dull home in Vernon Hills, Ill.