updated 10/12/2009 9:22:34 AM ET 2009-10-12T13:22:34

For many travelers, a home exchange — or house swap — is an economical, comfortable and fascinating way to vacation far from home. You arrange to occupy someone's home at your destination while he or she occupies yours. The possibilities for home exchanges are just about endless.

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There are several types of home exchanges. In a traditional exchange, you and your exchange partner travel at the same time and stay in each other's primary residences. However, another type of exchange has emerged for people who own more than one home. In "non-simultaneous exchanges," home swapping partners don't need to worry about coordinating dates and traveling at the same time.

Instead, exchange partners come to stay in a vacation home or secondary residence while the owner continues to live in his or her own primary home. Then the owner can travel to another home exchange property whenever it's convenient. (The International Vacation Home Exchangeis a good resource for travelers looking for non-simultaneous exchanges.) A third type of exchange, known as a hospitality exchange, involves you and your trading partner taking turns staying as guests in each other's primary homes.

Traditionally, the most popular house swapping services for Americans are two widespread networks, Intervac and HomeLink International (formerly the Vacation Exchange Club). However, a number of other home exchange companies have sprung up around the Web, including HomeExchange.comand Digsville.

If you're set on a specific destination, you might find more success with a smaller agency that's located where you'd like to stay. You'll often find better availability and more options than with a global network. For example, try Home Base Holidaysfor exchanges to the U.K., Aussie House Swap for exchanges to Australia and New Zealand, or Only in America Home Exchangefor swaps within the U.S., Canada, Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Is home exchanging for you?
Home exchanging isn't for everyone. Some folks love to swap and do it several times a year because it allows them to experience new places without paying for hotels, restaurants or, in many cases, transportation (the use of the family car is included in many home exchanges). Home exchanges are also a great way to get integrated into the life of a local community, since the exchange partner will often leave insider information about the area and introduce the newcomers to neighbors or friends.

However, some travelers are turned off by having to cook and clean on their vacation, while others feel uneasy about having strangers living in their own homes. (In the latter case, a vacation rental might be a better choice.) And keep in mind that home exchanges may be easy or difficult to arrange based on where your own home is located. Someone with a popular apartment near the Arc de Triomphe isn't likely to want to swap for a home on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri, unless by odd chance the Parisian is teaching at the University of Missouri for the summer. On the other hand, if you live in a popular destination like Orlando or Manhattan, you'll have a much wider variety of offers. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try a home exchange if you live in an out-of-the-way area, but be prepared to work a little harder to find a successful exchange.

Obviously, home exchanging isn't for the itinerant this-is-Tuesday-so-it-must-be-Belgium traveler, but rather for so-called slow travelerswho will stay put for a while. (Most exchanges are for one to four weeks.) Home exchanges make an ideal base for one-day or weekend excursions. Perhaps best of all, house swapping immediately makes you part of a new community. Chances are, you and your swap partner will leave each other introductions to friends and neighbors, which not only provides security but also puts you quickly at home in unfamiliar surroundings and can help you get the most out of an intercultural experience.

How to set up a home exchange
Most home exchange organizations charge a membership fee of $90 - $120 per year. Many allow you to search their databases on the Internet or view sample listings for free before joining. There are also a number of organizations that do not charge a membership fee, but you may find that you'll get more serious offers as part of a network in which members have paid money for their listing.

Best vacation deals of 2009Some organizations will provide you with detailed guidance on how to arrange a swap or even arrange one for you. The larger companies also publish print directories of all available swaps which will be mailed to you throughout the year.

Once you have chosen a company to work with, the best strategy is to plan as far in advance as possible and to be flexible about dates. Write a standard letter of invitation to prospective exchangers, describing your home and family, your neighborhood, transportation, community facilities and attractions — anything you can think of to make a swap desirable. Ask to be kept in mind next year, if this year won't do.

E-mail the letter whenever you can, but also keep some photocopies of the letter on hand — some to be sent in response to listings that interest you but don't have e-mail addresses, and some for inquiries to you. For domestic mailings, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope to facilitate a reply. If there are multiple directory listings for localities that interest you, write to all that offer a house or apartment you think you could use.

The more letters you send, the better your chances of avoiding disappointment. But be realistic in your expectations, based on a factual analysis of what you have to offer. Be precise about what you are offering and what you expect: use of the family car, household help, availability of baby sitters, approval to bring a dog, swimming pool privileges, shopping within a short walk, whatever.

Will your home be in good hands?
The odds are favorable, particularly if you're doing a direct swap, because you will be expected to care properly for the home of your trading partner while he or she is staying in yours. Frequent correspondence and/or phone chats between partners before the swap occurs will enhance friendship and trust. If possible, meet in one home or the other to begin the exchange. And be sure that both of you are adequately insured (this includes car insurance if your vehicle will be involved in the swap).

Affordable family vacationsProblems with home exchanges are actually quite rare. The most common issues arise from varying standards of cleanliness. If you have more serious problems with your exchange, you should report them to your home exchange organization, but keep in mind that most of these organizations do not accept responsibility for damages associated with any exchange. At most, your trading partner's membership may be revoked.

To prevent problems or misunderstandings, you may wish to ask for references before agreeing to an exchange. It's also a good idea to sign an informal written agreement that outlines the terms of your exchange. Will your exchange partner be allowed to use your computer or your phone? Have you agreed to water their plants? Will the family car be part of the deal? Many home exchange organizations have sample agreements that you can print out and use each time you swap houses.

Be sure to leave your trading partner with important contact numbers, insurance information, instructions on how to use your appliances, clean linens, plenty of toilet paper and other household items, and a small amount of fresh food and drink to tide your guests over until they can get to the nearest grocery store. Make sure the house is clean and that you've left plenty of drawer and closet space so that your guests can unpack and settle in. If you have valuable items that you don't wish to be accessible to your trading partner, you may wish to store them away in a safe or close off a room of your house while you're gone.

At the other end of the exchange, be sure to leave your trading partner's home exactly as you found it — clean out the refrigerator, vacuum the floors, straighten out the main living spaces and be sure there are fresh linens on the beds. If you enjoyed your stay, consider leaving your trading partner a bottle of wine, a fruit basket or another small gift as a token of your appreciation.

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