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The Well-Mannered Traveler says house swapping and renting vacation homes instead of hotels can save you money, but she suggests you know exactly what you're getting into.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/6/2008 4:07:46 PM ET 2008-11-06T21:07:46

Airfare costs and the unsteady economy is forcing would-be travelers to get more creative. And chummier.

Some are befriending — or suddenly reconnecting with — folks who own second homes in hopes of securing a weekend invitation. Others are trying to stretch their travel dollars by renting a condo or apartment instead of a hotel room. And then there are the increasing numbers of travel tightwads who spend no money on lodging and instead swap their homes with other travelers.

Does renting, borrowing, or swapping work?
It often depends on your comfort zone and your luck, but this is an area where an open mind, research skills and a good set of travel manners really matter.

My family’s recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal, for example, was only affordable once we abandoned the hotel search and rented a small apartment.

The cash deposit was hefty. The directions for finding the place were somewhat mysterious. The house rules we agreed to were extremely explicit. I fretted about what we’d find when we showed up, but the bright, spotless rooms, as-promised view, goodie-filled welcome basket, and owner’s tour of the neighborhood reassured me that we lucked out.

Others haven’t been so fortunate. Although Suzanne Robitaille of New York scrubbed and scoured her apartment before swapping homes with an e-mail buddy from London, she arrived to find a sink filled with dirty dishes, no hot water and a swarm of flies, which, incidentally, management conceded might have something to do with a dead body across the hall.

Folks who rent or loan out their homes have their own horror stories. Carol Irvine owns Pacific Idyll, a large ocean-view home in the upscale beach village of Seabrook, Wash. Despite a rental agreement that clearly states parties are not allowed, one man hosted a huge bash, trashed the house, and wore just his underwear to greet the manager who showed up to confront him the next morning. Another guest was burning candles in the shower stall and set the custom-made fabric shower curtain on fire.

When Patricia Lorenz rented out her family’s Florida condo, she discovered that while her guests did wash the sheets and towels before leaving, they’d hurriedly squished sixteen still-wet towels back into the linen closet.  “Had I not checked we'd have had very messy, smelly, black [mildewed] towels for sure! Next time I'll check before they leave!”

Make yourself at home — just not too much
Renting, loaning or swapping a home works best if house rules are spelled out long before any keys or cash is exchanged.

Anna Post, an author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, offered a few tips. For example, make sure your expectations are clear. “You might say: ‘Before you arrive, I’ll be doing this and this. Will you be doing the same?’ Anyone short of a complete blockhead will understand that they need to reciprocate the same preparations.”

Post also urges everyone to be respectful of their host’s private space. Looking through hospital bills and diaries is a no-no, she says, even if the host has left them out. “It’s something you pretend you didn’t see in the first place and don’t dig into. It all comes down to appreciation and being respectful.”

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It’s also a good idea to think twice or ask for more details when someone urges you to “just make yourself at home.” Post warns that while it may be OK to adopt a relaxed, flip-flop-wearing beach attitude when renting a beach house, it’s not OK to “try on your host’s clothing or use their beauty products. That would be too much!”

And don’t think you won’t get caught. “You’re borrowing a home, not a lifestyle,” says Tony Abrams of Four Hundred, an invitation-only, lifestyle management/concierge service. “Leave their car, clothes and any valued possessions in their rightful and undisturbed location.” Otherwise, he cautions, you may end up like the guest who took his host’s boat out for a joyride only to discover that he couldn’t figure out how to get the boat back into the slip. “He ended up sleeping on the boat for the night until he could call someone to dock the boat.”

Get down to the nitty-gritty
If you’re the one renting a home or swapping with another person, don’t be shy about requesting and checking references, researching the neighborhood and making sure you understand exactly what items in the home are available for use. Are you welcome to use the pool, the pool table or the computer? Will those items be tantalizingly off-limits? Can you live with that, or will you just be too tempted?

And if you’re the one renting, loaning or swapping your home, keep some tips from Kelli Grant in mind. The senior consumer reporter for Smart Money Magazine reminds us that while it’s great to be generous with your home, you must also be savvy:

  • Lock the filing cabinet. Grant discovered that “a family member, friend or coworker is the perpetrator in about 16 percent of identity theft cases.” So she suggests locking up medical records, credit card statements, birth certificates and any other personal or financial documents.
  • Check your coverage.  While homeowners’ insurance usually covers guests when you’re not at home, Grant says the lines can blur when you’ve received cash and are renting your space.
  • Write up a contract. Everyone I spoke with agrees with Grant on this one. A contract needn’t be too formal or require a notarized signature, but it should outline the financial responsibility of the guests and mention the quirks of your home.
  • Who can you call? It’s also important to leave a list of emergency contact numbers so guests can find a plumber or other service provider in an emergency.

When in doubt, spell it out — again
The number of a good locksmith might have been useful to the group of men Deb Kleber at VisitingPortugal.com once rented to. Although she and her husband do a pretty thorough check of their renters and turn down anyone they don't feel comfortable with, some ill-mannered travelers get through. This was discovered one morning at 2 a.m. when one of the “executives” who had rented an apartment called asking for someone to come open the door. “[My husband] let the guest in and explained to him — and his prostitute friend — that she couldn't stay because non-guests are prohibited in the rental agreement. The next day we gave them a good but slightly awkward talking-to about appropriate neighborhood behavior — and another copy of the rental agreement.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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