One night, as I was blindly scrolling through Facebook, I clicked on an inquiry that someone posted on a family travel Facebook group. The poster wanted to know how people could afford to travel frequently with their families. Most of the responses were as you’d expect. Jobs provided the opportunity or miles/points from work travel and/or credit cards.
One response stood out from the rest and suggested a site for home exchanges. I had heard of the concept and could guess what it was, but I had never really given it much thought. The person responding cited a Facebook page for a group called “People Like Us” (PLU) and for the next two hours, I read everything that I could on the group’s Facebook page.
The Problem with Most Travel Accommodations
I’m gonna date myself, but I’ve done long-term travel before it was feasible to bring or rely on a telephone for directions or Google (gasp!). Part of me misses that vulnerability. It forced me out of my comfort zone to talk to a local and navigate languages as much as new territory. Now when I travel, I can easily find my own way, which is both a blessing and a curse.
I also mourn that I am probably beyond hostels. Even if I decided to stay in one, I doubt that it would hold the same magic as it did when I was in my 20s. Hostels are great for 18 to twentysomethings traveling. They are where lifelong friends are made and a great place to find out where to travel next.
Then there are hotels. When it comes to big brands, a hotel is a hotel is a hotel as far as I’m concerned. Hotels are very functional, but often devoid of personality. And aside from a casual conversation at the pool or bar, I’ve never made any friends there. [To be clear, I do not look for friends at hotels, that’s creepy.]
Boutique hotels can hold charm, but again, you are likely just to hang out with your own traveling party.
When you are long-term traveling, you rely on locals or other travelers for recommendations, directions, etc. By contrast, it’s hard to make a good connection with locals on a short trip. And while you can observe the culture, you often don’t have the opportunity to ask questions and have deeper conversations. Perhaps this is why my curiosity took the best of me and I continued to read on about home exchanges.
A New Way to Travel and Connect with Locals
Do you remember when Airbnb came out, it sounded kind of scary? Stay at people’s houses? What? Why would anyone let someone stay at their house that they didn’t know? And why would I want to stay at someone’s house?
[Sidebar: I had similar concerns about Uber or Lyft – why in the world would I ever get into a stranger’s car? I’ll just stick to the disgruntled U.S. taxi drivers that listen to too much news radio, thank you.]
Times have changed. Among most of my friends, Airbnb is now the go-to accommodation choice. I, too, have stayed at some amazing houses in the U.S. and abroad courtesy of Airbnb.
I love the variety and the ability to peek into someone's daily life. But still, it feels very transactional. I let myself into someone else’s house and then leave by myself at the end of the stay. The person may be very helpful in suggesting recommendations, but they aren’t really interested in knowing me. I am both revenue and a transient, just passing through.
A home exchange, however, is quite different - you arrange to stay at another person’s house, often for free (depending on the provider that you exchange through). The exchange can be reciprocal (at each other’s houses, at the same time), asynchronous (I stay at your house now and you stay at my house at a future date) or by exchanging dollars, points or a token that provides the user with the ability to stay at your house and then you have the ability to use the points or token for a future stay somewhere else. About 85% of all exchanges on PLU are reciprocal.
The Benefits of Home Exchanges
I’ll admit, I was intrigued but skeptical. Initially, my concerns outweighed any obvious benefit. But as I read on, I realized that there are so many benefits:
You get the opportunity to meet a local and see where they live. In many cases, exchangers state that they consider other exchangers to be friends
You save on the cost of accommodations (thanks, Captain Obvious)
In some cases, the exchangers will let you use their vehicle or transportation pass
Some members allow you to bring your pet(s) and in some cases, exchangers offer to take care of each other's pets and plants
The opportunity sounded exciting, but I also had a lot of questions. I reached out to Drew Seitam, co-founder of People Like Us, and requested an interview. He graciously agreed and we hit it off immediately. Drew, who lives in Sydney, Australia, currently has a day job but spends a good portion of his week making improvements to the PLU site and experience. In just a short time, I’ve noticed that he has quite a following from PLU members.
He and his wife, while on vacation in Tuscany at a friend of a friend’s house, discussed the concept of creating a website where people could arrange their own networks of friends with which to swap houses. They quickly realized two things: (1) formalized home exchange sites already existed and (2) people didn’t really want to arrange their own network but instead wanted to plug into an existing network with a large pool of houses.
Although the site is smaller than the two largest home exchange sites, Home Exchange and Love Home Swap, it has a very loyal following. In many cases, the members on PLU’s site also belong to one or more other home exchange sites but pledge deeper loyalty to PLU because of the warm and active Facebook page.
PLU’s smaller size is both its challenge and its strength. They are working hard to grow significantly over the next several years. But while more houses mean more opportunities for exchanges in more places, it also risks losing the warm culture that the group has developed. So far, fast growth has not adversely affected the group and folks seem committed to keeping the close-knit feel.
I've been swapping homes for quite a few years now and it has become for me the only way to travel (I've done over 40 to date). The financial advantages are obvious but there are so many other reasons why it really is the best way to experience another country, another city, another culture. Staying in someone's home, in their community, is a very enriching experience...
- People Like Us Member
Am I a good candidate for home exchanges?
Some of the questions that I had often come up on these sites' Facebook group pages. First, familiarize yourself with the concept and how different sites operate. It’s normal to be initially nervous, but you must weigh the possible benefits and see if you think that it’s worth the potential risk.
My house is often a mess.
Several homeowners on the PLU Facebook site confess to not always having a tidy house. In fact, many suggest cleaning one room at a time and then taking pictures of that room for the site posting. Most exchanges give enough notice to get your house ready. For added comfort, most people recognize that it’s not a hotel, it’s a house, so just make it ready like you would for any company.
Some houses on the site look bigger and fancier than my house.
There are a lot of nice places, but you know what they say: location, location, location. Your house is desirable if it's located wherever someone wants to go and can accommodate the full party. This brings me to the next concern…
I don’t live in a big tourist destination - is my house be desirable?
People have overwhelmingly affirmed this. Your house may be near their family or friend, for example. Also, many people travel just to get away and either enjoy the place or the solitude.
I have things that I do not want to share with people or that I am concerned about getting broken or stolen.
This one is a give and take. You can put things in a closet or room and ask people not to go in, or better yet, lock it. But no matter what you do, there is still a chance that things will get broken. Oftentimes, the person will either replace it or offer to replace it. As for stealing things, I haven’t read anything about that happening although I’m sure that it does on occasion. In general, you are exchanging houses so that person is likely to treat your house with the respect that they expect at their house.
So…What To Do?
So after all of this research and lurking on the People Like Us Facebook group, what did I do?
I decided that I was a person like them and signed on to a 3-year commitment:)
We’re in the middle of painting the interior of our house, so I haven’t put anything up but the front of our house. Once I finish our pictures, I will start to work on some exchanges. Stay tuned – I look forward to sharing our experience(s) with you!
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Interview with Drew Seitam, Founder of People Like Us