Feature photo by Donnaphoto. Photo above by orphanjones.

Why Get a Hotel Room When You Can Have a Whole House? Here’s How.

Ever spent your holiday mornings blundering around a tiny hotel room, trying not to wake your sleeping family and feeling claustrophobic? It doesn’t have to be that way. On your next trip, you could have a whole apartment—or even a house—to yourselves. While some people snooze, others can be far away, watching the sunrise from the terrace or whipping up café au lait in the kitchen.

And here’s the best part: in many cases, you can get an apartment or house for less than the cost of a hotel room. If you’re willing to do a home exchange, you can even stay for free.

Photo by Wolfgang Staudt.

Rent a vacation home.

You can rent directly from a property owner, but for peace of mind—especially if this is your first rental—consider working with a rental agency that provides a local contact person who can help you if you lose your key or break the dishwasher.

Here are a few other tips:

  • Narrow down the type of property you want: urban or rural, apartment or house, luxurious or rustic.
  • Pinpoint your destination. In a city, focus on a couple of neighborhoods.
  • Find an agency that specializes in your destination or type of home. Ask friends for recommendations and ask companies for testimonials. In North America, check the firm’s record with the local Better Business Bureau.
  • Identify your deal breakers. The fewer you have, the easier it will be to find a place, but be realistic. If you treasure quiet and space, don’t book a studio apartment in Manhattan.
  • Ask lots of questions. Clarify what’s included—you may need to bring your own sheets or pay for local phone calls. Ask about nearby transit and stores.
  • Be careful about payment. Most vacation rental agencies are legit, but fraudsters do exist. If possible, negotiate a small deposit and pay the rest only after you’ve seen the property. Don’t use wire services such as Western Union, which are popular with scammers. Use a credit card with a low limit, send a check drawn on an account with a small balance, or pay your deposit via PayPal.

Now that I’ve given all the scary caveats, I’ll end on an upbeat note: I’ve rented apartments from agencies on three continents— Aloj Argentina in Buenos Aires, Metro-Home in New York City, and Paris Best Lodge in Paris — and never had a problem.

Photo by brighterworlds.

Arrange a house swap.

You can also swap your house for another elsewhere. You’ll have less flexibility than with a vacation rental, as your options hinge on who wants to travel to your location and when.

On the bright side, you may discover a place you never considered visiting before. Stories abound of swappers who had their hearts set on London, only to have a fabulous time in York instead.

How do you find someone to swap with? The simplest way is through a swapping website. If you’ve seen the Kate Winslet movie The Holiday, you’ll know how this works: pay a registration fee, register your home, browse the list of available properties and make a connection. (Kate used a site called Home Exchange.)

Isn’t it a bit creepy to let strangers into your house? If you’re shy and extremely house proud, the answer is probably yes. House swapping does take a certain insouciance.

The key is frequent communication between you and your host. By the time you put your key in the lock of your temporary home, you’ll have probably exchanged numerous e-mails and phone calls. So, in essence, you’re not really “strangers” anymore.

Here are a few other tips for a successful house swap.

  • As with a rental, be honest about your deal breakers and ensure you understand what’s included. (The range of inclusions and exclusions is even broader with a swap. Your host may give you the keys to his car, but may also want you to feed his cats.)
  • Set the dates of the swap early– and in writing.
  • Be honest about your home’s pros and cons, and check swappers’ claims. In particular, check the address. That apartment “in the heart of New York” may be halfway to Albany.
  • Give your guests a warm welcome. Make sure your home is spotless and well maintained. Clear out some space for your guests’ clothes. Leave lots of soap and clean linens. Write a guide to your neighborhood.
  • Lock away valuables and fragile items—off-site, if necessary.
  • Tell your neighbors someone will be staying in your home, so they don’t suspect you have burglars. Nothing says “Welcome” less clearly than a visit from the cops.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION:

Still not sure if a house swap is for you? Check out 6 Convincing Reasons to Try a Home Exchange.