The most romantic day of the year is looming on the horizon, but not all of us have the bankroll to whisk our valentine off to a a five-star luxury resort in Tahiti (sadly). But before you book that sorrowful Sweetheart Package at a local motel, why not consider a classier, cheaper and trendier alternative?
Imagine your dream vacation, without the cost of a hotel or car rental. Plus, the opportunity to sidestep the cliched tourist experience offered by a hotel or resort and, instead, live like a true local. If that sounds alluring, you may want to consider a home exchange (also known as "home swapping") this Valentine's Day.
Home exchanges via websites like HomeExchange.com and Love Home Swap have become increasingly popular in the past couple of years due to a growing acceptance of online, peer-to-peer marketplaces, a burgeoning "sharing economy" and possibly the hit Nancy Meyers movie, "The Holiday."
HomeExchange.com, for example, grew to 42,000 members in 2011, up from 20,000 in 2008, while Love Home Swap, which launched just last October, already boasts 4,500 members across 70 countries. Love Home Swap CEO Debbie Woskow also adds that over 3.2 million people are planning home swap vacations in 2012 alone -- double the amount of home swap vacations registered last year.
And it's no wonder. To begin with, there are the obvious financial benefits. A three-day Valentine's Day getaway to Fiji, for example, could set you back nearly $2,000 for a single hotel room with an oceanfront view at a five-star luxury resort. In a home exchange, the cost drops to zero, less membership fees. Additionally, other vacation-related expenses such as car rentals are eliminated if both parties are willing to loan each other their vehicles (which, according to HomeExchange.com President Ed Kushins, happens with one of every five home exchanges).
Plus, their are other social and cultural benefits. For example, home swapping opens the doors for vacationers to explore new locations that they'd never previously thought to visit, thanks to what Woskow calls the "serendipity factor." Woskow explains that "swappers" will often find themselves agreeing to exchange for a vacation at an unconventional destination, due to an attractive swap invite from a homeowner in that destination. Naturally, what is everyday and mundane to one person will always be exciting and exotic to another -- and because of this, beach condos in Bali, Indonesia, are just as popular as urban pads in, say, Austin, Texas.
In some cases, home exchanges have gone so well, that they've led to home sales in the new exchange location. Debbie describes the case of one Australian family who "swapped" with a retired couple in London for three months -- and shortly after, decided to move to London permanently, purchasing a family house just down the road.
"Home swapping is a great 'try before you buy' option because it really does enable you to experience the location as a local, over an extended period of time," Woskow told AOL Real Estate.
"The travel experience is very authentic and the locations of these swap homes are unique."
Of course, the flip side is that you'll have to offer your home up, too. But there are ways to ensure that you end up with a legitimate, reliable swap partner. Love Home Swap, for example, offers a "trust center" powered by an identity authentication tool that allows people to check that people are whom they say they are. To further protect home swappers, Woskow has teamed up with insurance market Lloyd's to develop custom home and travel insurance for site users, aiming to create a product that covers the full costs of a host's home, as well as a traveler's flight.
"Especially for first-time swappers, trust is an issue that crops up," Woskow said.
"To ensure a happy and safe home swap, you must talk to your swap partner over email and over Skype. Also, to put your mind at ease while you're away, ask a neighbor or a cleaner to check on your home. And remember that because the swap goes two ways, most people will treat your home as they would expect you to treat theirs!"
HomeExchange also offers similar reassurance to their users on their website: "In 19 years and tens of thousands of exchanges, we've never had a report of a theft, malicious vandalism, or a case of someone getting to their exchange home and finding a vacant lot."
Before diving headfirst into the social travel trend, however -- a disclaimer. While the exchange of homes does not incur an extra cost, the service which facilitates the exchange requires a fee. Membership at Love Home Swap.com begins at $159 a year, while membership at HomeExchange.com begins at $119.40 a year. Though both sites offer wallet-friendly trial subscriptions (Love Home Swap is currently offering a four-week trial membership for only $1) and short-term memberships (HomeExchange.com offers a three-month trial at $47.85), but it's important to note that the notion of "free" accommodation is not entirely accurate.
Still, it's a small price to pay for frequent travelers, and even one successful home exchange can be worth the one-time yearly membership fee (keep in mind that hotel rooms in most major cities will run you upward of $100 per night). In the rare case that you cannot find a suitable home exchange partner within a year of listing your property on HomeExchange.com, the company promises to extend your property listing, free of charge, for another year.
Plus, as a homeowner, you have the advantage of using your No. 1 asset to its fullest potential, saving you money in the long term.